Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Seanad Referendum – There are no winners here

The Seanad debate is quite annoying. We are spending a huge amount of time and effort debating something that will not make one scintilla of difference to people’s lives no matter what the outcome of the referendum is. That said, the government has insisted that it’s necessary to have this debate here and now and so it is forced upon us.

I have made clear in the past that I would vote for abolition if the government could guarantee the €20 million savings would be ring fenced and spent on something worthwhile. That call of course fell on deaf ears because the savings figure is spurious. That brings me to the next problem with the debate.

I certainly don’t want to be out there defending a Seanad I never really liked but sometimes that’s where you end up. The reason the 20 million figure cannot and will not be guaranteed as a saving is because the government has already stated that it intends to follow on with more changes.

We are all well aware by now of the Labour revolt at Enda’s plan for a panel of appointed experts to act like a mini Seanad and review legislation. This revolt happened because labour was well aware that it would only end up being more cronyism. Whatever panels and new committees and reforms of Dail procedure that the government propose will cost money. But lets leave that aside and ask yourself a simple question, ‘Do you know what happens after the Seanad is gone?’

The answer is of course, No, we don’t know for sure because the government hasn’t told us that yet. You see, abolition of the Seanad might not be an altogether bad idea if you have a plan. If the government were truly serious, then the path was obvious. You instigate reform across the system, you propose the uni-cameral, or single chamber Oireachtas, as part of a totally new way of doing business. You lay out how the new single Chamber will work, what the changes to committees will be, what powers government will have, where oversight will occur, who will form the new committees and what roles will be filled along with outlining the total costs. Then you ask the people to endorse this new system and abolish the Seanad and let you get on with it.

Now if I was satisfied that there would be substantial savings and that the new system was actually going to work better than what we have, I would have no difficulty backing the referendum it might even be quite exciting.

That is not what has happened though. The government is asking to abolish the Seanad and then the mumble about further reforms once this is done. It is a typically Irish way of doing business. We know we might struggle to get agreement on a new system, we don’t really have it all figured out, but sure what the hell; we will tinker with some bits and see what happens after. Its like deciding you are going to start messing with the engine of the car because you know something is wrong, you know how to loosen some of the bolts so you get started, but you cant say for sure what’s going to happen mid way through the dismantling, but hopefully you will figure it out along the way.

We are being asked to vote in the dark. Abolition is not a matter of just getting rid of the Seanad and continuing on. The government has made clear that it intends to do further work to take over the work and oversight that it has found the Seanad ineffective on. It just doesn’t know what that will be yet.

Some on the Yes side point to the fact that FF/FG/Labour and others have failed to reform the Seanad so they can’t be trusted to reform it now and that therefore it should be abolished. This completely ignores the fact that by doing so you are blindly trusting the same people to reform other areas they have equally failed to do in the past and trusting that they won’t set up something even worse than the Seanad or more ineffective.

The debate has become impossible. It is impossible because we simply don’t know what we are debating. One side wants reform but they know this vote doesn’t offer that. The other want abolition but have no idea beyond whispers and rumours of what happens once the Seanad is gone or what the government will do as regards its own or Dail powers.

This is a ridiculous situation. It is yet another example of half baked and ill thought out policies. The government should be presenting abolition as a part of its reforms, instead its proposing it on its own with no indication of what is to come. Abolition could make sense but not in this context. This approach is to ask the people to put blind faith in the government to set up new committees and powers without any idea of what they are or how they will work.

For all we know what replaces the Seanad, could be more costly, even less effective and filled with committees and appointments of even greater elitism. The Single Chamber system can work well but it requires significant Dail reform. We should not be voting on the Seanad until we know what that Dail reform will look like and how it will work. The Government plan may yet be a good one, but so far it doesn’t look like they have one or know what to do. In that event voting Yes becomes very difficult, for it is a leap in the dark. The government should scrap the referendum and come back to it when they are ready and have a full proposal to make that can be properly assessed. Otherwise we are voting on something that neither side is sure of the outcome on. Usually when that happens the old adage of ‘If you don’t know, Vote No’ comes out to win, but that may not be the case this time. I’m starting to feel that its all a bit like the tagline from the Alien Vs Predator Film….Whoever wins, we lose.

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4 thoughts on “Seanad Referendum – There are no winners here

  1. I would like to know what FG/SF Senators will do if abolition is voted through by the people in October. Will any public representative sit and draw a good wage from a toothless upper house?

    I know the 24th Seanad has a 5 year mandate but how can a Senator that runs down the clock be able to sell his/herself to the electorate at the next General Election?

  2. I think the yes or no question is just too limiting. There should be a third option that centres on reform and details precisely how this will be achieved. There are simply no good options at the moment.

  3. Margaret on said:

    I think the €20 million savings figure is very suspect. Have they allowed for the fact that about half of the senators salaries come back to the state in income tax, PRSI and USC especially as most of them have other income in addition to the €65,000 salary? Have they allowed for the pay off (think it is called the VER payment) to senators’ s parliamentary staff who will be redundant?

    How much is this meaningless referendum costing?

    I support reform and have to vote No as the least bad option.

  4. Good article, Johnny. I think the cost is a red herring. To me it’s about how valuable the Seanad is to the people. Currently we are not getting value but then it isn’t the only branch of the Oireachtas that isn’t functioning efficiently.

    You make a good point about trusting the very people who chose not to reform the Seanad in the past to deliver on future reform. I think the proposal to abolish the Seanad is an immense decision for the government and I bet they will not have time to dine out on it for too long before people start asking, “where to now” in terms of further reform. That specifically being reform of the Dáil. The pressure is on them, in my opinion.

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