TAOISEACH Enda Kenny is in the firing line once again as his commitment to introducing reform of Seanad Éireann is, quite justifiably, being questioned by opposition politicians for pushing the matter further down the government agenda, as the proposals made by a working group chaired by former senator Maurice Manning were not even discussed before the summer recess.
By the time it gets to be debated in the Dáil in September, it will be just a few weeks shy of two years since the public rejected Mr Kenny’s proposal by 51.7% to 48.3% in a referendum to abolish the Seanad. It was a personal crusade of his own that his Fine Gael party members had to be seen to support, as had the Labour Party, but which many of them were reluctant to canvass too vociferously for, and the Taoiseach had to admit afterwards that the defeat was a ‘wallop’ from the electorate.
While the government’s efforts on economic reform have been effective, if not always popular, they provided the leadership necessary to get us back on the road to recovery – which we are still only at the start of just in case anyone is getting carried away by the PR ‘spin’ surrounding it – but they have failed spectacularly in progressing the other major policy plank of the programme for government: ‘changing the way we do politics in this country.’
Having been defeated in three referendums seeking to introduce political reforms – from the proposal to give more power to Oireachtas committees conducting inquiries, through the one to abolish the Seanad and then the proposal to lower the age a person may be a candidate for the presidency from 35 to 21 – one has to wonder how they have managed to get it so wrong repeatedly. And, with periodic accusations of cronyism concerning various public appointments, they have not endeared themselves to the electorate or done much to restore people’s faith in politicians, thereby passing up a great opportunity for renewed credibility.
When the working committee on Seanad reform came up with its worthy set of proposals in April, including that the public would elect half the senators and that Irish passport holders abroad would be given the chance to vote in Seanad elections, they even published a draft Bill to make it easier and quicker to have their recommendations implemented once agreed.
However, like many other reports and recommendations about Seanad reform over the years, nothing has happened about it since, which would make one wonder how serious the Taoiseach and the government are about the Seanad reform that opponents of its abolition called for when they prevailed in the 2013 referendum. It looks as if they are not in any hurry to put the suggested reforms in place.
Already at this point, we have to accept that the reforms won’t be in force for the next Seanad election, due most likely in the first half of next year, which in itself is bad enough. But, there should be no excuse for not having the Bill debated and enacted during the remaining months of the current government’s term of office so as to ensure the reforms will be in place to coincide with the second-next general election; they have a moral responsibility to the electorate to do this.
It is farcical when one thinks that successive governments have failed to implement a decision taken in a referendum way back in 1979 that all third-level graduates – and not just those from NUI and Trinity – should be able to elect a certain number of senators. This, and the recently-proposed reforms by the working group, need to be agreed and enshrined in legislation forthwith in order to reflect the will of the people, which is the duty of the government.
There have been various theories put forward by pundits as to why the Taoiseach is prevaricating so much about implementing Seanad reform, including one that giving votes to Irish passport holders abroad could benefit Sinn Féin most. It is interesting to note that Sinn Féin is now pushing for the reforms to be brought in, having previously advocated the abolition of the Seanad during the 2013 referendum campaign.
Life is full of contradictions.