Seanad, Scrutiny and the Future of the Oireachtas
No one seriously doubts that the Seanad in its current form is a problem rather than a solution. Yet a number of important points have been lost in the Seanad abolition debate. The failure to reform the Seanad is in the final analysis a failure on the part of successive Governments to take the issue of political reform seriously. The Seanad cannot reform itself in any meaningful sense. In a political system where the executive exerts a disproportionate amount of control over the Oireachtas, reform must be led by the Government itself. Paradoxically, if this reform is to be of substance it must transfer from the Government to the Upper House real powers in the areas of legislation and scrutiny.
The rhetoric on behalf of the two Government parties in relation to the Seanad is thus disingenuous. It is they themselves (and of course Fianna Fail) who are ultimately responsible for an outdated and poorly equipped Seanad. To make matters worse, any criticism that can be levelled at the Seanad applies equally to the functioning of the Dail – with the only exception being the election mechanisms of each. For the Dail also has failed in its legislative and watchdog duties over the past decade. And whereas in the Seanad there is always the likelihood that the prevailing consensus will be challenged by genuinely independent Independents, the same hasn’t been the case in the Dail.
The abolition of the Seanad would make it more difficult for legislation to be carefully scrutinised and it would act as roadblock to developing a watchdog mechanism with substance within Leinster House. Of course, as things stand the Seanad doesn’t function as a solution to these twin problems. But it is a false dichotomy for the Government to propose a referendum asking for the citizens to choose between a) keeping the Seanad as it is (who really wants that?) and b) abolishing the Seanad (for essentially the same crimes as those committed by the Dail).
If our Government believes in true political reform over reaching for the cookie jar of populist ideas, then it will want to offer Irish citizens a real political alternative on referendum day: either a) abolish the Seanad or b) reform the Seanad according to pre-drafted legislative framework. That would be a referendum worth holding. The only obstacle in its way that I can see is that it might require more critical thinking than the simplistic solution proposed by this Government.
Members of the public are rightly angry about abuses of taxpayers’ money by politicians who have claimed expenses wrongfully and in circumstances that may or may not be against the law.
The worst offence is against the taxpayer, and the fact that these revelations emerge against the background of rising unemployment and public spending cutbacks makes matters worse.
But also, politics itself, and many honest politicians, are being unfairly tarnished. This too will impact on our society, because we need public confidence in the political process for it to function effectively on our behalf. Otherwise the country will not get the leadership it needs.
Without prejudging any legal issues involved, two lessons are obvious from the Senator Ivor Callely affair. One is that the law must be clarified and tightened so that there is no question but that any future abuse of public money by politicians will be a criminal offence.
Secondly, the make-up and operation of the Seanad needs to change. There is now a question mark over the system of Seanad appointments by newly-elected Taoisigh, and to some extent over the election of senators by local and national politicians as currently happens. I have argued that the privilege of appointing senators could be removed from newly-elected Taoisigh and entrusted to Uachtarán na hÉireann. But it is just as arguable that every member of the Oireachtas should be answerable to a substantial electorate, whether under the current PR STV system or under some list system mechanism where, at the time of voting, it is apparent to the electorate which individuals exactly are on offer.
Any political party worth voting for should present its proposals for reform of the current system to the public before the next General Election.
Rónán on Morning Ireland (Wednesday 4th August) re: Senator Callely invoices – click here
Rónán on Morning Ireland (Thursday 15th July) re: Seanad Committee on Members’ Interests findings on Senator Callely travel claims – click here