WHILE they have much bigger fish to fry with the chaos of Brexit dominating the political agenda this crucial month, many other issues have been put on the back burner and none more so than political reform, especially that of the Seanad, which the electorate reasonably expected would have been pursued by now in the wake of the defeat of then Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s referendum proposal to abolish the Upper House six years ago this weekend.
At the time, Kenny described the defeat as ‘a wallop’ from the electorate, but still did not do anything to reform the Seanad in advance of the 2016 general election, two and a half years later. Now, we are probably well within a year of another general election and it looks like nothing will have been done by then, demonstrating the lack of political will the Fine Gael-led government has in this regard and the lack of more tangible action by Fianna Fáil who were very vocal six years ago in calling for a No vote in the Seanad abolition referendum.
‘Seanad reform is in the Programme for Government, but it is there in name only,’ declared Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, prompted by a parliamentary question from his Labour Party counterpart, Brendan Howlin, before the Dáil summer recess, questioning Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s commitment to action on the matter.
Mr Howlin was critical of the government for more or less ignoring the recommendations of Dr Maurice Manning’s report in 2015 which led to the setting up of a Seanad reform implementation group. It reported back last December, but the government only ‘noted and discussed’ it on April 30th last.
Little or nothing has happened since, much to the frustration of the chairman of the implementation group, Senator Michael McDowell, who – Micheál Martin feels – has been ‘hung out to dry’ by the government’s, and Fine Gael’s, approach to this issue. Mr Martin said: ‘The Taoiseach should take the honest position and admit that he has no interest in pursuing Seanad reform within the context and parameters of the Manning report.’
Another notable proponent of reform, the late Fergal Quinn, who served as a senator for 23 years, in his last newspaper column before his recent death, appealed to the Taoiseach to respect the commitment to Seanad reform given in the Programme for Government. Surely, Fianna Fáil can force this issue more under the extended Confidence & Supply agreement they have with the government?
And, Mr Howlin asked another quite reasonable question: ‘Does the Taoiseach intend to simply talk these things out or will he have the recommendations, or something like them, implemented in the lifetime of the current Dáil and Seanad?’ The answer was more fudge.
The lack of progress in Seanad reform was also questioned by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who stated that, ‘While the Taoiseach has “noted” the report and said that it will be reflected on and discussed, he seems to have no appetite to act.’
She observed that ‘there is a general sense that Seanad reform is a bit like rural broadband, namely, something that is spoken of at length but which never happens,’ as she questioned the political will of the government to deliver reform. Ironically, both Sinn Féin and the Labour Party campaigned for the abolition of the Seanad in 2013, but jumped on the reform bandwagon after the majority of voters in the referendum went against the proposal.
The Taoiseach, in answer to their parliamentary questions, somewhat disingenuously, queried whether the referendum decision of the people to retain the Seanad was actually a vote for reform or not, opining that that was ‘a matter of debate.’ He feels that the reforms recommended in the Manning report do not go far enough, but does acknowledge that the current institutional panel structure of the Seanad ‘does not befit a modern democracy.’
Ergo, reform is required. So just get on with it!