September 2013        

How we govern ourselves rather than how we are governed

Little good can be aid about the institution that is Seanad Éireann as it stands at the moment. Clearly drawing on the then prevailing corporatist models for inspiration, Éamon de Valera created an ineffective and undemocratic second chamber in 1937 that reflected the ethos of a man who believed he had only to consult his inner self in order to determine the needs of the Irish people.
     Nor did the Seanad improve significantly in the intervening years. Its sixty members are elected by a system that makes eighteenth-century British elections look rather progressive. Eleven senators are nominated by the Taoiseach of the day, six are elected by those deemed the intellectual elite, and the remaining forty-three by a restricted electorate of approximately a thousand persons, composed of sitting TDs, outgoing senators, and city and county councillors.
     Not surprisingly, the Seanad is a tame and toothless body with a remit that seems hardly to extend beyond offering a temporary transit station for politicians aspiring to higher office, or a care home for unemployed former Dáil deputies.
     In the light of such an assessment it would appear that only those entirely indifferent to the well-being of the country, or those hopelessly enmeshed in the culture of political back-scratching—or, worse, those bought off by the prospect of a tasty little sinecure—would object to the abolition of such an affront to the basic principles of representative and accountable democracy. Might we not, therefore, if only just this once, swallow our distaste for the Blueshirts and support Enda Kenny’s call for a Yes vote in the Seanad referendum, which will take place on Friday 4 October?
     Well, no, we should not endorse Kenny’s plan—and not because of an understandable desire to discomfort Fine Gael. We should instead refuse to do so, because this referendum is part of a wider drive designed to erode democratic accountability in the Republic while simultaneously strengthening the hand of its ruling elite.
     Bear in mind that the present government not only intends to abolish the Seanad but also hopes to reduce the number of TDs (from 166 to 158, with three fewer constituencies than now) and to do away with all sixty-seven existing town councils.
     All this, mind you, is happening at a time when the government is unable to perform many of the crucial tasks required of a sovereign state and its people. The government’s inadequacies are particularly disturbing in the important areas of fiscal policy, foreign relations, and levelling of taxation.
     Look first at how financial matters are handled. Before the contents of a draft budget are revealed in the Dáil, the coalition government timidly submits its proposals to Germany’s Bundestag and the Troika for neo-liberal approval. Think then of “extraordinary rendition” victims passing through Shannon Airport, or how super-rich transnational corporations are laundering vast sums of money through Dublin, and you get an idea of how far short the Oireachtas falls in making itself accountable to the Irish people.
     It would, of course, be a mistake to call for a No vote in October without making clear the reasons for doing so. The Seanad is unquestionably a “rotten borough,” undeserving of preservation as at present constructed; but that is not the same as saying that a second chamber (or bicameral system) is not necessary, or that it is impossible to create a functional alternative to what now exists.
     At a time when vital decisions about the population’s welfare are being taken out of its hands, Ireland’s people—especially working people—need more rather than fewer opportunities to make their voices heard.
     A progressively reformed second chamber operating within a few straightforward rules would offer the possibility of one such outlet. Opting for universal suffrage and a German-style list system* (with a realistic 5 per cent threshold for selecting members), for example, would allow for the election of a broader range of interests. This could also create a very different make-up in the chamber and potentially help alter the political landscape beyond its walls.
     Should the result go against them in October—and that’s looking like a real possibility—there will be no rush by the coalition to rerun the issue, as happened when previous referendum proposals were defeated. If the electorate returns a No vote in this referendum, this government will most probably attempt to blur the outcome and do its best to have the matter quietly dropped, hoping that the issue will fade conveniently from sight and memory.
     Kenny and Gilmore should not be allowed such grace. A referendum reversal would cause the partners real difficulty, especially if they were put under pressure to justify a refusal to act in any substantial way on the Seanad. The Taoiseach and his government, including the hapless Labour Party, have already undermined the institution by launching this initiative to have it abolished while publicly deeming the second chamber expensive, unnecessary, and surplus to requirements.
     Launching a call for increased democratic accountability in the aftermath of a failed attempt by the coalition to concentrate power in the hands of an ever-decreasing minority would surely gain traction, especially if a demand to retain town councils were included in a wider programme for change. Town councils are far from perfect, having limited influence and little power; they are, nevertheless, a vehicle giving small local communities an opportunity to air their grievances and to communicate needs and ideas to a wider audience. Being immediately accessible to the local electorate, town councillors often reflect a community’s needs more accurately than Dáil deputies, and are more likely to be critical of central government than tightly whipped TDs. They are, in short, a potential ground for cultivating opposition to the ruling elite and should be valued rather than discarded.
     Finally, we should not overlook the value of a properly conducted campaign demanding meaningful parliamentary reform. Raising the fundamental question of how we govern ourselves, rather than how we are governed (and there is a difference), would inevitably invite queries over the nature of the state itself, how it functions, and in whose interest. Without losing sight of the fundamental limitations inherent in the existing parliamentary system, there remains a need for working people “to win the battle of democracy” in order to progress towards a democracy free from human exploitation.
     As an important step along that road we should campaign for a No vote in the October referendum but should do so with a clearly enunciated rationale.

*The list system is a method of voting for several electoral candidates. It is used in electing the parliaments of many western European countries, including Switzerland, Italy, the Benelux countries, and Germany. Electors vote for one of several lists of candidates, usually prepared by the political parties. Each party is granted seats in proportion to the number of popular votes it receives.

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