What happened to the debate on the Seanad?

A lack of accountability in Dáil Éireann is evident. Is a reformed Seanad the solution?

Remember we voted on the Seanad and whether it should be abolished or not? The referendum was put to the people and we decided to keep it. Well, the people who actually went out and voted did. And just about too. The Seanad Referendum didn’t quite catch the zeitgeist like the election of a first black president in the States or the recent Marriage Referendum. These were iconic events that showed how much we moved on in recent years. Yet, the Seanad Referendum may have been more important than both of these.

The Seanad is part of the bicameral system of governance we have in this country. This similar to the system used in Britain, The House of Lords, and America, the Senate. These are what are known as the upper house. Like The House of Lords, the members of Seanad Éireann are unelected. So where do the members come from?

All the members are selected. Taken from Oireachtas.ie; “Seanad Éireann is composed of 60 Members as follows:

  • 43 elected by five panels representing vocational interests namely, Culture and Education, Agriculture, Labour, Industry and Commerce and Public Administration
  • 6 elected by the graduates of two universities: – three each by the National University of Ireland and the University of Dublin (Trinity College)

11 nominated by the Taoiseach.” Also, the upper house doesn’t in theory recognise party affiliations. The fact that the Taoiseach gets 11 of his own nominations seems to me a little undemocratic. Who were the leader’s chosen few?

To start with, it must be mentioned that these people come from varied backgrounds. The 11 were, and this has changed a bit since; Eamonn Coughlan, Jim D’arcy, Aideen Hayden, Lorraine Higgins, Fiach MacConghail, Martin McAleese, Mary Moran, Mary Anne O’ Brien, Marie Louise O’ Donnell, Jillian van Turnhout and Katharine Zappone. A diverse group. Eamonn Coughlan, a former athlete, Fiach MacConghail, the director of the Abbey Theatre and Mary Anne O’ Brien, the Director of Lily O’ Brien’s Chocolates are people who excelled in their own chosen fields. It would be hard to criticise Kenny for picking such personnel. With only one Senator a member of Fine Gael, it seems he was more than fair when picking these candidates. Then we scratch the surface.

There are three members of Labour, the coalition partner, included in this 11. Eamonn Coughlan is a long known Fine Gael supported and ran for the party in the Dublin West by-election. Anybody that seen his meltdown on Tonight on Vincent Browne understands why he was not elected. Jillian van Turnhout also has close ties to FG. Or to be more exact; her husband does. Michael van Turnhout is Fine Gael’s Dublin South Chairman. Then there is Marie Louise O’ Donnell. This woman went on Tonight with Vincent Browne night after night on the build up to the last general election and eulogised Enda Kenny. It was fawning 101. I try to be objective in articles I write, but given Marie Louise O’ Donnell doesn’t feel the need to be objective, I shall reciprocate. Take this excerpt from Mayo News when she talks about her appointment for example; “I couldn’t believe it and my eyes welled up with tears because I was so proud and I told him I would never let him down. It was a most profound moment in my life. I regard my appointment as affirmation and recognition of the work I do. And it’s great to get things later in life because you value them more and you have a much more balanced sense of what you got.” He handed her a simple brief. “‘Champion what needs to be championed’, he told me and that’s what I try to do.” If that’s not nauseating… To add some balance, to be fair, she does recognise the value of Seanad Éireann. From the same article; “Mind you I told him when he addressed The Senate that I would challenge him if he attempts to disband it because it serves a useful purpose.”

The stand out nomination was Martin McAleese. The husband of former President Mary McAleese has had a standout career and public life in his own right. His work appeasing the Loyalist side and getting them to engage in politics is well known. When chosen by Kenny, he said he would take the opportunity to build bridges between North and South and to conduct a report on the Magdalen Laundries. And he was true to his word. In fact, he stood down after the report. Had he stayed on a bit longer he would have received a large payout. That lack of self-interest is refreshing in Irish politics. McAleese’s example shows that there a still people out there willing to put their own vested interests aside and serve the nation.

Martin McAleese was replaced by Hildegarde Naughton. Up to this point, she was most known for refusing, in her member of Galway County Council capacity, Senator David Norris an opportunity to speak in Galway when he was running for President. Not one for the democratic process then. Well suited to an unelected position so.

Accountability in the Dáil

There is a sense that there is a lack of accountability in the Dáil. The anger over political expenses, water charges and the bank bailouts attest to this. None other than former Tánaiste Michael McDowell would agree with this train of thought. He wrote an insightful article on the subject for McGill. In it, he stated; “Echoing the remarks of Emily O’Reilly as she departs the Irish stage to become an Ombudsman at European Community level, I strongly believe that Ireland, as a sovereign independent democratic Republic has now reached a point of crisis not merely in terms of our economy but also in terms of the workings of our democratic institutions and in the democratic process itself.

“The greatest problem, as I see it, in the governance of the Irish State lies in the wholly supine and cowering traditional posture of the Dáil, as an institution; the problem does not lie in Seanad Éireann and would not be addressed in any manner by the abolition.” He went on further to point out a number of problems with how the Dáil is run; “No Dáil committee has, in my experience or memory, ever seriously challenged or even seriously embarrassed a Government minister in respect of any aspect of the discharge of the executive power of the Irish State. Even the long-established system of parliamentary questions is so stage-managed that it, too, no longer functions as a real means of exacting accountability from Government.”

McDowell clearly has a lot of respect for the Dáil. He pointed out that a number of Irish political giants have stood up in defense of the Seanad, Michael Collins, John A. Costello, Garrett Fitzgerald and Mary Robinson are just a few over the years. He went on to say; “Recently, Enda Kenny ludicrously suggested that Seanad Éireann had not prevented the financial crisis. A far stronger argument can be made that Dáil Éireann, because of its supine dereliction of its accountability function, must accept the blame for the failure of the Oireachtas to challenge the seeds of the present economic crisis.

“If we had elected people nationally on their individual record as trade unionists, business people, economists and, yes, intellectuals, educators, leading figures in voluntary social movements and the like, as would be achieved in the context of a reformed Seanad such as that which is now proposed, such people would hugely enhance the expertise and breadth of knowledge which Joint Oireachtas Committees would possess to discharge their constitutional parliamentary functions in relation to legislation and matters of public policy.”

Conclusion

Enda Kenny can appoint members to the Seanad safe in the knowledge they will not disagree with him too much. Even if they do, it will not be as public as say Lucinda Creighton going and setting up Renua Ireland. This needs to change. The upper house should be a safe check on what goes on across in the Dáil. For too long, the Irish people were apathetic to what went on in Leinster House. The brown envelopes, the cosy relationships with businessmen and general arseholery. Anyone would be fed up. This has come at a cost. Politicians acted with impunity on decisions that will now affect Irish life for generations. Now Irish people want to become more engaged in the political discourse. They realise that it is dangerous to stand back and do nothing.

One of the main reasons put forward for closing the Seanad was it would save the taxpayer a hefty bill. The running cost is less than €10 million a year. What would really save the taxpayer money is a write down on the debts. I may keep going on about this and the bailouts, but all roads lead to Frankfurt and the ECB headquarters. The Irish economy would be in a good position if it wasn’t for the Government turning bank debts in the national debt. A more powerful Seanad may have stopped this from happening perhaps.

The new political parties wanted to bring a system whereby the people can petition the Government of the day into bringing in, or not as the case may be, legislation. Whether Direct Democracy Ireland and United people ever get to bring this in remains to be seen. It is very difficult for new political parties to break the oligopoly of the three big parties. I honestly thought United People was a lobby group for the rights of Manchester United fans. Only a matter of time before one is set up. This system of governance is probably some way off in this country. However, the Seanad, this noble institution, is still willing to serve the people. All the people.

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