Guest post by Vincent Byrne
There is an opportunity in this debate about our crisis of governance to re-construct the Seanad, to provide a ‘democratic dualism’, a return to the Athenian approach of both Assembly of the people and Tribune of the people. This Dual structure would fundamentally change the democratic architecture of our state. The purpose for a second chamber would be to enhance the deliberative capacity of policy-making, involving a wide spectrum of Irish civic life and increasing the democratic legitimacy of the policy-making and policy implementation process.
To explain this I need to refer to the work of Pierre Rosanvallon in “Counter-Democracy, Politics in an age of distrust”. Changes in the political environment have given rise to a gap between the legitimacy of the governors and the legitimacy of their actions hence there are many attempts to oversee those actions including increasing levels of protest and activism, use of the internet to hold government to account and a whole range of political and civic activity outside the traditional confines of electoral politics which he describes as counter democratic activity.
Rosanvallon identifies three different types of democratic legitimacy. The first is the legitimacy derived from the consent of a majority of the electorate. The second is the legitimacy of the impartial body, the court or independent authority. The third, ‘moral universalism’ he describes as the oldest and it relates to universal values and reason. It has manifested in natural rights theories and secular philosophies of justice, the rights of man and moral systems of various kinds.
There is a real danger that distrust in politics becomes something far more dangerous. There is a need and an opportunity for our democratic design to reflect the extended reality of democratic activity and perhaps lay claim to the other legitimacies. In Athenian democracy there was close supervision of magistrates by citizens. Art 147 of the Pennsylvanian State Constitution provided for a council of censors “Elected by people of the state’s cities and counties, the censors were to ensure that the executive and legislative branches properly performed their duties as ‘guardians of the people’.”
If electoral representation and ongoing scrutiny by the citizenry are two inherent parts of democracy could we strengthen the latter by institutionalising it? In this context the assertion that the Seanad, in its present form, has outlived its usefulness is most probably correct. There are few who would claim that it should continue in its current form.
A reconstructed second chamber would represent civic society in all its manifestations. It would go beyond the vocational to include ethnic minorities, demographic representation, and community representation perhaps elected from the special policy committees of local authorities or local citizen assemblies. It would seek to represent the cultural diversity of an emerging multi ethnic society as well emigrants abroad who have contributed so much to other societies and whose emigration has been strongly influenced by economic conditions prevailing at home.
The concept of a citizens assembly could be incorporated here as an integral part or representative layer of either a national or locally based citizen assemblies. In terms of public policy the assembly would deliberate on the broad strategies as well as scrutinise the effectiveness of policies. Its central duty would be to bring counter-democratic surveillance, scrutiny and censor to bear on public policy, both its formulation and its implementation. In doing so it would help provide political judgement by delivering critical sovereignty and representing the totality of the democratic experience.
Its public deliberations would first of all seek a common strategic economic and social direction. It would test public policy by these criteria. It could have power like the proposed Philadelphia Council of Censors to issue warnings, recommend the removal of officials, and recommend the repeal of laws. It would raise the process of policy-making in general from the administrative sphere to the political. The process of regulatory impact analysis, currently conducted exclusively in the administrative sphere could be expanded. There is no reason for it to necessitate expenditure beyond the meeting of legitimate expenses. In times of frugality and fiscal responsibility this might bestow an additional legitimacy on the chamber and its participants.
In performing these functions the reconfigured Seanad, brings the legitimacy of both ‘moral universalism’ as well as ‘impartiality’ to the democratic role of critical sovereignty. Its symbolism would help restore what Rosanvallon described as theatricality to the collective power. It would help provide political judgement on what constitutes the public interest and the public good. It does not subvert the electoral-representative sphere of parliament, institutionalised in the Dáil but provides a complementary balance while institutionalising the ‘constellation of counter democratic’ activity. It reflects the changes in the political environment and the modern cleavages of society. It enhances democratic governance through the dual system of representation and critical sovereignty.
In his election night address in Chicago, Barack Obama reminded us that “our stories are singular but our destiny is shared”. Democratic governance is about finding the means of telling our individual stories in collective society and crafting, shaping and re-shaping from those individual stories our shared destiny. The telling of the stories and the shaping of the destiny cannot be guided solely by the rule of numbers. There is strength and legitimacy in diversity, in moral universalism and in constant scrutiny and impartial judgement.
The act of telling our story is not confined to momentary inspiration in the ballot box at five-year intervals. It is constant, persistent and dynamic. It requires matching structures and institutions. What I propose, a second chamber with a new purpose and function, marries the checks and balances of modern liberal democratic design with older concepts of Athenian democracy to resolve very new cleavages in the activities that constitute democratic action in modern states. I am reminded in making that recommendation that “All things must change to something new, to something strange”. (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)
Vincent Byrne holds both a first class honours primary and masters degree in Public management, (IPA/NUI). He is a civil servant and previously served as the youngest member of Wexford Corporation and youngest Mayor of Wexford.