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Opening up the Seanad

April 25th, 2015 10:28 AM

By Southern Star Team

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EditorialSOME radical proposals, including the expansion of the Seanad Éireann electorate beyond our borders, were made in the report by an expert working group, which probed how reform of the Upper House could be achieved within the current provisions of the constitution.

Having lost the 2013 referendum on his proposal to abolish the Seanad, Taoiseach Enda Kenny is probably wary of such plebiscites after the ‘wallop’ he got from the electorate, but reluctantly – it took him more than a year to do so – he set up the working group chaired by former senator Maurice Manning in response to the public appetite that emerged during the referendum campaign for reform rather than abolition of the institution.

With a notable membership of former senators and some academics, plus the Constitutional Convention chairman Tom Arnold, and with Michael McDowell as constitutional adviser, the working group came up with many of the same proposals mooted by Democracy Matters, which had been set up two years ago to oppose the referendum proposing the abolition of the Seanad. The group’s proposal to extend the franchise for the Seanad to the people of Northern Ireland and to all Irish passport holders living abroad is very welcome and should give the institution the wider voice that it lacked in the past, as it has been regarded as elitist given that its electorate currently comprises such a small section of the population.

Opening the Seanad up should make it better reflect the enlightened aspiration for its establishment back in 1937 as a useful forum for alternative thinking and ideas that would provide quasi-independent critical oversight of what Dáil members were doing. However, political parties cynically hijacked the Seanad for their own ends over the years to make it the poor relation of the Dáil and diminish its relevance.

Reforming the outmoded vocational panels system to give all of the electorate a vote in the Seanad election would make it more democratic. However, one big disappointment is the lack of a recommendation by the working group to hold Seanad elections on the same day as Dáil elections, thereby forcing candidates to choose which House they want to offer themselves for election to.

Unfortunately, the next Seanad election, under the existing discredited system, will again be after the Dáil election, so failed candidates may get a second bite at the cherry, which is ignoring the reform wished for by the public – something that Taoiseach Enda Kenny does not seem to be in any hurry to implement. When the working group report was published last week, the Taoiseach welcomed it without necessarily accepted its findings, opting for further debate and analysis meaning there won’t be time to enact any agreed reform legislation that might stem from the report during this final year of the current government’s term.

In the wake of the 2013 referendum defeat, the Taoiseach undertook to enact legislation to give effect to the 1979 constitutional amendment to extend votes for the university seats to graduates of colleges other than the National University of Ireland ones, which successive governments over the past 36 years have failed to implement. However, this has not happened either and, as there is so much more in the way of Seanad reform that also needs to be done, one has to wonder if anybody is going to do anything to bother enacting what the people want.

The working group recommended the establishment of an interim implementation body as a matter of urgency, however there are concerns that this could reside within the Department of the Taoiseach where it may not get the priority it merits, given Enda Kenny’s attitude to the Seanad – the proposed abolition of which was a personal populist crusade that subsequently (reluctantly) became Fine Gael and then government policy until it was stopped in it tracks by the referendum defeat. Like many previous reports about reform of the Seanad, judging by the attitude at the top, a lack of political will could frustrate it.

Not prioritising such political reform could bounce back to bite Mr Kenny and his government electorally, because when the people elected them in 2011, apart from the mandate to fix the economy, which Fine Gael and the Labour Party have done to the best of their ability – but is still a work in progress – they have failed to implement any such meaningful reform and, if anything, have damaged local democracy. And, with debacles such as Irish Water, they have shown either an inability or an unwillingness to listen to the will of the people.

Indeed, they ignore the wishes of the people at their peril.

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