FERGUS FINLAY: We need to fix our democratic deficit, but saving the Seanad saves nothing

WHEN you’re sitting on a bench overlooking Clew Bay, under the bluest sky and over the bluest water you’ve ever seen, it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything in the world that needs reform.

When you force yourself away from the view to do some research, you come to the conclusion pretty quickly that some things are just impossible to reform.

I’ve always had a soft spot for David Norris. So I was shocked when I saw his attack on Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty on the news, because it was utterly out of character for him. It was vulgar, crude, and sexist. I don’t know Regina Doherty at all, other than by seeing her on TV, and I had formed the view that she was one of a bright new generation of politicians. Norris accused her of engaging in a “regina monologue” and of talking through a part of her anatomy. There was a time he used to pride himself on (a) being a gentleman, and (b) having a sufficient vocabulary that he didn’t have to stoop to vulgar and offensive language in the course of argument.

Because I assumed that David Norris would immediately apologise for his cheap and unwarranted attack on a younger colleague, I didn’t bother trying to find out what she had said to cause such offence. But then I read Norris’s apology.

“I would like to explain what happened yesterday, put it in context and withdraw some of the words that gave offence. I was simply furious, having just possessed a copy of this mendacious document in which those of us who over the past 30 years have campaigned for Seanad reform were smeared in the nastiest way. This will be a very dirty campaign and it comes from the top. I was incandescent with rage. I accept that my language was intemperate. Had I been called for an explanation at the time I would have given one. I do not intend to go into a lengthy, linguistic explanation and try to defend what I said, which I could do if it was an academic discussion. I regret any offence but what I regret most is that this will be used in this dirty campaign as a diversion.”

Apology? This was no apology — instead Norris used the occasion to claim that his righteous anger was caused by some terribly dishonest and dirty attack on him and people like him.

And incidentally, Norris wasn’t the only senator “incandescent with rage” — nearly all of his colleagues were deeply distressed, horrified, outraged, appalled and shocked by the appalling document that had sent Norris over the top.

Well, you can read it yourself by going to the Fine Gael website and looking for a press release headed “Bruton announces FG team for Seanad Abolition Referendum”. Read it, that is, if you’re having difficulty sleeping. Although it’s no longer than about 600 words, it is, sadly, pretty boring. Among other things it claims that abolishing the Seanad would save €20m a year that could be spent on other essential things, like schools or hospitals.

Richard Bruton is quoted as claiming that he doesn’t buy the newfound appetite for reform being espoused by some people (This is the only bit of the statement that could possibly constitute being “smeared in the nastiest way”).

And then there’s the so-called “regina monologue”. The press release announces Regina’s appointment as deputy director of Fine Gael’s referendum campaign, and she says: “I am delighted to be involved in this campaign, which is offering the Irish people a chance to make a radical difference to our political system. At a time when families are making considerable sacrifices, I believe it is only right that the political system does the same. The Seanad is shockingly undemocratic; in fact just 1% of the population voted to elect the current Seanad, and it doesn’t do anything that isn’t already done in the Dáil.

“The first time I became aware of the Seanad was back in 2007, when I was asked whether I would like to run in the Seanad elections because I hadn’t gotten elected to the Dáil. I declined because I didn’t think the Seanad played a meaningful role in our democracy. And now, after spending two and a half years as a TD, I am convinced that we should bring ourselves into line with every other small country in Europe by abolishing the Seanad and saving €20m a year in the process.”

That’s it. Full stop. End of story. There’s the “regina monologue” in its entirety. On what possible basis can it have caused such offence? The entire Fine Gael campaign so far feels a bit like that famous remark by the British Labour politician Denis Healy that an attack by one of his opponents felt like being savaged by a dead sheep. And yet its mild claims have driven people like David Norris into dangerous levels of hyperbole and hysteria.

And not just Norris. This weekend the illustrious Michael McDowell, perhaps the greatest party leader the world has ever known (even if he was not always appreciated as he should have been), joined the fray. McDowell has publicly departed from politics and public life in reasonably ostentatious ways at least twice that I can remember. Now, it seems, he is being driven back in to public life in order to save the Seanad.

MOST people will have forgotten McDowell’s comparison of Bertie Ahern to Ceausescu back in the day (although the Romanians were deeply offended at the time). Now he’s using the pages of a Sunday newspaper to accuse the Government of an attempt to “grab total power for itself” by abolishing the Seanad. And in typical McDowell understatement, he describes the Government’s claim that €20m a year could be saved as a “black, black lie” and a “monstrous lie”.

Michael McDowell knows full well that the Seanad as an institution adds no value whatever to our democracy. He knows full well that all this old talk about reform is just that, complete hot air.

If the Government decides to give the people a chance to do away with an essentially useless and meaningless institution, and the people say no, that will be the end of the story. If the people vote to retain the Seanad (as the people are entitled to do) they are voting for the institution as it is right now. All the talk of reform will fade away, and the senators will go back to their rewarding and self-regarding lives.

It may well be that Fine Gael is exaggerating the cost of the Seanad. The fact that opponents of change have seized on that one figure, and launched entirely hysterical and disproportionate attacks on that basis, suggests that they don’t have much to go on.

Yes, we have a democratic deficit in Ireland. Yes, we need to fix that. Despite the posturings of people who increasingly look as if they belong in the past, saving the Senate saves nothing at all.


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