Posted by David Farrell (January 4, 2011)
The silly season’s came early this year: barely two days into the New Year and a senior government minister flies a kite on abolishing Seanad Éireann. Speculation was rife yesterday that the government might steal a pass on the main opposition parties by setting a referendum question to coincide with spring election. Whether the Greens will wear yet more delay on election day that would result is yet to be seen: tweets from Senator Dan Boyle yesterday suggested they wouldn’t. But it does bring into sharp relief the question of whether the Senate should be abolished: there is a growing consensus among the main parties favouring this; it would be a populist move giving voters an opportunity to kill off an entire class of politicians; it would end Ireland’s anomalous position as one of the few small (non-federal) democracies to have a second chamber; it would save the public purse some money. It seems a clever move.
But why the rush? Other than the fact that it might delay the election (because of the need for enabling legislation) and that a dramatic gesture like this might wrong-foot the opposition, is the Fianna Fáil led government being too clever by half? In what sense will the voters reward them for this move? What about the other more pressing issues that this will have leap-frogged over, most notably the long overdue children’s rights referendum?
More importantly other than giving us a chance to give politicians a good hiding and saving some money, what actually would Senate abolition deliver (for more on this, see also here)? What is the problem that its abolition would supposedly solve? Do the proponents seriously think that by doing this they can tick the box and say they have “delivered” on political reform?
Political reform is not something to be entered into lightly, and certainly not something to rush. It needs to be taken in stages: identification of the problem(s); discussion of options for reform that are designed to fix the problem(s); and only then, if required, a referendum.
We’re still working our way through stage one. Ideas are emerging (not least on this website) among them: how to make government more open and transparent; cleaning up party finance; strengthening local democracy; making the government more accountable.
A quick cut and rush on abolishing the Senate is not the answer to our problems!