Posted by Matt Wall
A letter to the Irish Times from six former Senators represents a faltering start to the campaign against the government’s plans to abolish the Seanad. The six argue, as many others have and will, for reform rather than abolition. Sadly, their case is not helped by the farcical nature of many of the ‘debates’ that unfold with such regularity and futility in the current Seanad. Such debates are all-too-often nothing more than set pieces. They tend to be treated as such by their participants – rhetorical grandstanding and political point scoring are par for the course, and considered, constructive inputs are far more rare (though by no means absent).
The letter does acknowledge that ‘the effects of party political dominance in the Seanad’, which are virtually guaranteed by its selection system, have undermined its legitimacy. Looking in from the outside, it seems that the government entertains little thought of accepting contentious or substantive amendments from non-aligned Senators, even though such proposed amendments are often very well-reasoned.
Of course, many proposals for reform of how we elect the Seanad lie in the epic series of reports on the topic that the Houses of the Oireachtas have generated over the years – so reformists need not look far for concrete suggestions. However, they should be honest in their discussions of Seanad reform – a directly elected upper house, especially if elected at a different date than the lower house and given more substantial legislative powers, could emerge as a powerful constitutional player, significantly reducing the government’s room for manœuvre.
It is hard to know how this debate will go, but it seems to me that the current crop of Senators must do more to take a leading part, if they wish to be heard at all. However, at the moment the opposite appears to be the case, as Jonathan Victory’s account of the Seanad’s work on the Constitutional Convention legislation makes clear. While I’m not in favour of abolishing the Seanad generally, I think that it would be better to abolish it than to let it continue as it is presently constituted. In short, unless a set of genuinely democratizing reforms can be agreed and implemented, the Seanad should go.