40 Dead Men Walking: Self-interest prods disinterested political elite into action on the Seanad debate.

John Drennan’s Sindo article points to growing backbench opposition to the government’s proposed referendum on abolishing the Seanad. This development is unsurprising, given the tightness of electoral margins in Ireland’s political system and the personal investment of Oireachtas members in retaining their positions (although, as we all know, the pension’s not too bad if you do get the boot). However, the naked self-interest on display in this debate is enough to sicken even a seasoned observer of the venality of the Irish political class.

Drennan focuses on the potential consequences for FG of Seanad abolition. For FG, a slide in popularity post-election, combined with boundary revisions and the abolition in the Seanad could mean that around 40 of the current crop of Oireachtas members would be ‘dead men walking’. A senior FG figure is quoted as comparing the Seanad to the ESM – i.e., a back up option for failed professional politicians who could not win a legitimate seat via election with universal suffrage.

The fact that such considerations, and not concerns about the malfunctioning of Irish democracy, are motivating this debate is a sad reflection on the state of Irish politics. In time we will see whether Enda Kenny presses forward with a referendum on Seanad abolition nonetheless. Kenny has, for some reason, staked political capital on a promised referendum, so not holding one would be a significant U-turn.

One thing is clear, nobody can justify the ongoing existence of the Seanad in its present abject, undemocratic state.

16 thoughts on “40 Dead Men Walking: Self-interest prods disinterested political elite into action on the Seanad debate.

  1. ““Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday but never jam today” is the only way to think of Government’s action on political and institutional reform.”
    First, freedom of information see

    Now, the Senate.
    The campaign to keepthe Senate is giving rise to some strange claims.
    For example, Dr. Carol Coulter gave a paper at the Burren Law School recently in which she said “Yet what is being proposed by this government is lessening the power of the Oireachtas by abolishing one of its houses, making Ireland one of the few unicameral parliaments in the world. “New Zealand, which abolished its second chamber in 1951, is now considering how to reinstate it.”

    These statements leave something to be desired, on two grounds
    1) the power of the Oireachtas;
    2) the international comparison of parliamentary houses.

    1) the power of the Oireachtas
    Article 23 of our Constitution explicitly empowers the Dáil to override the Senate. Thus, the Senate does not add anything of significance to the formal powers of the Oireachtas.

    Although related, this is not the thread to discuss the view that TDs do not regard the Dáil as having any power independent of the Government. Consider the following statement from the current Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (convention means this position is filled by an Opposition TD)

    “I believe that it is quite clear, given that Brendan Howlin is our line minister, we are responsible to him, that there is no need to change the rules in this regard. This is just a continuation of the normal work that Public Accounts Committee would do, week in and week out. We have a public reputation that was hard earned and I believe that this is an unnecessary distraction at this stage and that we should be dealing with the report and with the approval of the Government.”

    RTE Morning Ireland. Fri 6th Jul;y 2012 Interview started at about 21minutes into the podcast

    2)International Comparison
    According to the website of the Interparliamentary Union, about 60 percent of the worlds parliaments are unicameral
    Bicameral 78 ( 40.41 %)
    Unicameral 115 ( 59.59 %)

    In Europe (48 countries from the Atlantic to the Urals), nearly two thirds of the parliaments are unicameral
    Bicameral 17 ( 35.42 %)
    Unicameral 31 ( 64.58 %)

    Within the 27 members of the EU, the situation is more evenly balanced, as follows
    Bicameral 13 48.15%
    Unicameral 14 51.85%

    For the record, EU Member states are as follows
    Bicameral: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Nederlands, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, UK

    Unicameral: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Sweden.

    Croatia, which will join the EU in 2013, has a unicameral parliament.

    Other small western style democracies (eg. New Zealand, Norway) also have unicameral parliaments.

    It is clear that this government’s approach to political and institutional differs little from any other government ie delay is the deadliest form of denial

      • Matt’s name is at the bottom of the post, but disappears when one expands it to view comments.

        In any event, it looks like it’s ‘business-as-usual’ for the political classes. Public opinion is a sluggish beast. Generally, it takes a long time and the endurance of a lot of suffering – or, in this case, continuous contempt and the insulting of voters’ intelligence – before something prompts the sudden expression of widespread revulsion. And it takes a long time because so much resource is used for spinning, PR, propagation of BS and the managing of public opinion.

        Because this tends to go on for so long and, in many instances, some voters’ anger might be damped down, the event or incident that provokes an expression of widespread revulsion can often be, from any objective perspective, quite insignificant in the overall scheme of things. It might just simply be be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. But once a sufficient number of voters express their anger, disgust or revulsion you’ll see the members of the political classes scurrying to get on-side as quickly as possible.

        Even though many in the political classes might have been directly or indirectly involved – the usual sins of omission and commission – in the lead-up to the event that provoked voters’ fury, they will all be lining up to claim they were always opposed to or uneasy about whatever has provoked voters’ fury.

        There may or may not be such a sudden and unexpected expression of voter anger and disgust. Nobody can say when or how it might happen – if at all. But the political classes are playing with fire.

        I expect though taht a majority of voters will bide their time – as they did between Sep. 2008 and Feb. 2011 – and they will cast their judgement at the next time of asking. It might be even more devastating for the governing factions than the judgement voters cast in Feb 2011.

        All governing factions are pathologically incapable of doing anything that might moderate the severity of this judgement. They will simply stick grimly to the course they have set. It is to the great credit of Irish voters that they wait until they are asked to cast judgement. But, unfortunately, it is not really in their interests to do so – in particular during this period of economic crisis when the governing factions appear to be totally clueless about what needs to be done to promote recovery.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Paul. Having checked what I find is that Matt’s name only appears in the summary of the initial thread. When you go to Read More, his name disappears.

        I think it would be good for all those who initiate threads to post their names underneath the title of the thread – something which many do. It is a standard procedure in most printed media

  2. Thanks, Donal. We seem to be agreed on the etiquette and protocols, but I thought you might have some observations on the substance of Matt’s post. Or are you, like me, waiting for the disgust of a sufficient voters to erupt and force the politcial classes to pay attention – or waiting for the next general election when voters will cast their judgement?

    It seems to be futile attempting to communicate in reasonable terms with the political classes. They seem to be determinedly deaf and blind. So I very much look forward to voters, sometime in the next 2 to 3 years, addressing in a decisive fashion this wilful self-impairment of their faculties.

    Until then there seems to be very little of any use any of us can do.

  3. I think it’s fairly clear that I wrote the post, Donal.

    As you say, Paul, it will probably be something small that tips people off. The media seems to me to keep things simmering without boiling over very effectively. I’ve been on to several RTE radio programs asking them to cover the shambolic reform program of the government and have been either ignored or give a PFO by producers.

    Anyway, without an alternative, all that discontented voters can do is boot out one government and replace it with a different set of faces with identical policies. The policy vacuum of Irish political life plays against much of a meaningful linkage between public opinion and public policy.

    The placidity of the Irish population is still something that i find difficult to account for, though. Maybe it stems from some sort of national low self esteem – a feeling that shabby politics is, deep down, what we deserve.

    • Hi, Matt,

      I wouldn’t berate this apparent ‘placidity of the Irish population’ or attribute it to ‘some sort of low national self esteem’. Despite under the guidance of O’Connell learning about and applying the power of democratic politics to effect policy change much sooner than their counterparts in England, since the foundation of the state they have been deprived of this engagement. For much of the state’s history the Oireachtas has been the location to conduct ‘jaw-jaw rather than war-war’ between the disputants in the civil war.

      In a recent working paper on the Irish banking crisis:
      Blanaid Clarke and Niamh Hardiman hark back to Joe Lee’s ‘possessor principle’ (rather than a ‘performance principle’) in his 1989 “Ireland since 1912” to explain the fetish for house, property and land ownership – and the docility and placidity that it generates. I would go further and contend that it derives from a rent seeking mentality – which derives from the possession of a position, a property right or a privilege. This is not unique to Ireland. It infects all advanced economies and is a major factor in the difficulty the EU is encountering to recover from the current economic and financial crisis. Too many people and firms have secured returns that are in excess of those that would be generated by competitive markets and effective public policy and regulation – the excess, in economic terms, is rent.

      These rents are a deadweight cost, but it gets worse because resources are allocated to capture – and maintain the capture of – these rents; resources that should be used productively. This is a double loss and goes a long way to explain why the domestic economy is bouncing along the bottom.

      Politics then becomes a means of capturing or protecting the capture of rents. And so we are where we are. It is difficult to break the logjam because many people treat their capture of rent as something they are legally entitled to even if imposes excessive costs on others – and they will fight to the bitter end
      to protect this entitlement.

      There is a huge literature on rent seeking, but it is rarely applied in any meaningful or useful way. I’m doing some research on this, on my own bat, at the moment. I doubt there are any bodies which would commission, authorise or fund such research in Ireland – mainly because they have rent capture of their own to protect!

    • Matt,
      It is never only something small, but also an accumulation of small things, unless there is some obvious breakdown.

      How do you read the non-compliance of about one-third of the householders with the obligation to pay the initial Household Charge?

      Then add the actual Household Charge
      the water charge – proposed initially as a flat charge (because of the understandable process of installing meters)
      the septic tank registration fee
      possible consequential inspection + upgrading
      the Universal Social Charge
      increased VAT
      increased energy prices

  4. For those who might be interested, in the latest edition of The Economist, Philip Coggan, who writes under the moniker Buttonwood, kicked off an interesting debate on ‘debt and democracy’:

    Non-subscribers may not have access to the comment thread, so here is one of the more pertinent:
    “This looks like Philip Coggan, fresh back from holidays, dusting off one his old paternalistic blog articles to fill up space in the print edition.

    The holiday may have come and gone but the arguments stay the same and so do the rebuttals:

    ALMOST half the world’s population now lives in a democracy, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister organisation of this newspaper,


    for a long time, democracy was a dirty word among political philosophers.

    Almost half the world lives not in a Democracy but under “elective government” or “government-by-politician”. And paternalistic political philosophers overcame their objection to the “dirty word” only by changing the way they define it!

    It is always a puzzle about paternalists: if they are so convinced that Democracy is such an evil form of government, why do they insist on appropriating the name “democracy” to describe their preferred non-democratic forms of government? Why do they not come out loud-and-proud and say, “I’m opposed to Democracy!”

    But leaving aside this oddity, what might we expect of elective government? Nobel laureate James Buchanan described it thus:

    [S]uppose that a monopoly right is to be auctioned; whom will we predict to be the highest bidder? Surely we can presume that the person who intends to exploit the monopoly power most fully, the one for whom the expected profit is highest, will be among the highest bidders for the franchise. In the same way, positions of political power will tend to attract those persons who place higher values on the possession of such power. These persons will tend to be the highest bidders in the allocation of political offices. . . . Is there any presumption that political rent seeking will ultimately allocate offices to the ‘best’ persons? Is there not the overwhelming presumption that offices will be secured by those who value power most highly and who seek to use such power of discretion in the furtherance of their personal projects, be these moral or otherwise? Genuine public-interest motivations may exist and may even be widespread, but are these motivations sufficiently passionate to stimulate people to fight for political office, to compete with those whose passions include the desire to wield power over others?

    Under such conditions (and in the absence of Democracy) it is perfectly reasonable to expected that:

    a) the system will adversely select megalomaniac politicians who act in their own interests, with minimal regard for the subjects they rule;

    b) such politicians will deliberately misrepresents the state of affairs to the public in their desperate attempts to secure votes;

    c) such politicians will engage in obscene competitions to hand out bread and circuses – each side seeking to outdo the other to secure power – running up unsustainable public debts in the process; and

    d) such politicians will engage in grubby auctions, buying off special interest groups and powerful lobbies piecemeal with gifts from the public purse . . . and look to receive favours in return, either in the form of support in government or employment in later life.

    Thus, the defects which Buttonwood/Coggan attribute to “democracy” (a democracy which does not in fact exist) are more plausibly attributable to government-by-politician. Oddly, Buttonwood even acknowledges item (d) in the article but then goes on illogically to attribute it to Democracy rather than to the lack of Democracy!

    It is noteworthy that Buchanan himself concluded:

    In sum, the effects of direct democracy add-ons to existing decision rules surely work toward reducing the range and scope for politicization, a result supported by classical liberals.

    But never – it would seem – supported by paternalistic hacks at The Economist!

    Now, it might well be that people prefer to live under paternalistic government-by-politician, notwithstanding its defects. In most cases we simply don’t know, because in most cases people have never been given a choice in the matter.

    But where people have been given the choice – in an open process in which the options have not been pre-vetted by self-serving politicians – they have almost always voted for Democracy to the greatest extent made available to them. And where they have democratic rights they do not vote to abolish them, even though it is a straightforward process to call a referendum for that purpose.

    Isn’t that interesting.

    And it raises this further interesting question: by what principle do paternalists elsewhere deny people the freedom to choose the form of government they prefer for their country???

    Perhaps Mr Coggan could write an article about that instead.”

    Food for thought, perhaps?

    • Indeed, I recall one textbook saying that democracy used to be something that had a clear meaning and that most philosophers rejected. Then, over the 19th and 20th centuries, it became a word that had a distorted meaning and that philosophers embraced.

      • Precisely. Even if the composition of their ranks changes slowly over time, the wealthy, powerful and influential would never allow democracy to be restored to function in the manner that those who fought and struggled to ensure universal suffrage intended and envisaged. The ease with which a sufficient number of the German people were manipulated to consent to end democracy in Germany – remember Hitler was democratically elected – fightened the bejaysus out of the wealthy, powerful and influential in the other advanced economies at the time. (Also remember Orwell in the ‘Lion and the Unicorn’: “As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead trying to kill me.”) And they vowed that never, ever again would democracy be allowed to function effectively in their countries – or anywhere else where it might take hold.

        And they have been spectacularly successful.

    • “Hitler was democratically elected”????

      Just to set the record straight:

      1. The Nazi party came to power under a system of (so-called) “representative” government, not Democracy;

      2. At no time was either Nazi Germany or the Weimar Republic a Democracy in which the People were able to initiate their own legislation or constitutional amendments;

      3. At no time did the Nazi party ever win more than 40% of the vote in a free election. Its share of votes decreased in the last (November 1932) election before its seizure of power. Even after coming to power it achieved only 43.9% of the popular vote in the election of March 1933, and it failed to gain a majority of seats;

      4. The Nazis’ seizure of power arose from the machinations of establishment politicians (notably von Hindenburg, von Schleicher and von Papen) relying on executive powers, not from a popular vote;

      5. There were three significant plebiscites under Nazi rule, none of them constitutionally binding. The earliest of them was held more than a year after the Nazi regime had seized power, more than a year after the Nazi Party had been declared the only legal political party in Germany and opposition parties outlawed, and six weeks after the assassination of many of Hitler’s political opponents. In short, they were held under conditions of state terror. The plebiscites were a) ratification, after the event, of the combination of Chancellorship and Presidency in 1934, b) approval, after the event, of the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, and c) ratification, after the event, of the Anschluss in 1938;

      6. None of the plebiscites was free or fair. This is evident from the impossibly high approval rates: 90% (of those voting), 98.8% and 99.75% respectively; and

      7. Amongst the techniques of intimidation used in Nazi plebiscites were a) the arrest of opponents before the vote and abrogation of their voting rights, b) the presence of party officials at ballot boxes who received the marked ballots by hand, and c) in some cases the use of numbered ballots (numbered with invisible ink) to identify voters.

      Viewed in this light, the remarkable aspect of the Nazi plebiscites is that anyone at all was brave enough to vote No!

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