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The Irish people, recognising the Seanad’s balancing function in the legislative process, have wisely chosen to keep it. However, the referendum’s results show a substantial fraction of the population would have it abolished.
It seems, for them, it is irrelevant because it performs no useful function, or maybe because that performance has not been well communicated. Whatever happened in the past, it is possible for it to become a more modern and relevant institution that can easily be seen as vital to the perennity of Ireland.
Mankind has become a planetary force, able to unfavourably change its climate, acidify and impoverish its oceans, exterminate countless species, and deplete its best forest, fresh water, arable land, and mineral resources. This power has been acquired without a concomitant increase in wisdom. We have discovered how to live long and healthy lives and how to distribute our unsustainable industrial and financial system throughout the world, creating a host of social problems such as the outsourcing of environmental degradation and quasi-slavery to poor countries, permanent unemployment in the richer countries, a growing inability to take care of older people, and the dissolution of traditional social bonds.
Our political institutions are ill-suited to respond to such long-term problems. The system forces politicians to look no further than the next election, their thought constrained by party lines, their public communications reduced to sloganeering and talking points. Election promises are made to be broken. Powerful companies have their ear more than the common folk. No wonder cynicism is widespread.
An enhanced Seanad could help the government respond to the unprecedented situation without any modification of the constitution. It is simply a question of focus. The Seanad would lift its eyes from immediate considerations and look far into the future. It would take it upon itself to institute a number of permanent prospective committees to gather in an open process existing and newly generated studies and views on the very real problems facing Ireland over the next 25 to 50 years. It would produce a series of annual reports to inform society in general and serve as context for some of its proposed legislative amendments, or even as a source of new legislation. Simple and modern internet technologies such as wikis can be the infrastructure to openly gather and broadcast citizen and specialist inputs. By including citizens in the political process, the Seanad would be the source of renewed interest and trust from the public.
History provides two examples of institutions attentive to the long term: kings and tyrants. A renewed Seanad could be a third, democratic possibility.
Alain Miville de Chêne
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