How To Reform the Seanad from Your Laptop

jamesHere is my latest piece regarding reforming Seanad Éireann. To make a submission to the working group on Seanad Reform, email your ideas to seanadreformwg@taoiseach.gov.ie.

With the Deadline for Public Submissions to the Working Group on Seanad Reform approaching fast, North Wicklow Fianna Fáil Activist James Doyle urges Wicklow residents to voice their ideas on reforming Seanad Éireann

Recently, in a press release entitled ‘There’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance coming to revolutionise Irish politics’ Independent TD for Wicklow Stephen Donnelly shared his thoughts on Subsidiarity and how it could help our country. His point was well made. Sensible words ultimately about empowering citizens to change things for the better. These words grabbed attention – sadly his own conduct, along with his Dail colleagues representing Wicklow, demonstrate a massive contradiction.

Here is why:

This week any Irish citizen can make a submission on how we might reform our Seanad. The Seanad is one of only two law-making bodies for the nation. In its current form it is severely overshadowed by Dáil Éireann, the other national law making chamber – which, as Deputy Donnelly correctly points out, is itself at the mercy of the cabinet. If one or both chambers were a little stronger they might be capable of acting as a ‘counter-veiling power to cabinet’. Better decisions – reflecting the views and expertise of a broader pool of people – could become a reality.

How would that be better? Take Irish Water. If we had a Dáil unshackled from our excessive whip system, and a Seanad elected from a national constituency comprised of Senators armed with equal voting rights as TDs possess, the two (together) would have had a stronger voice to question, and a stronger hand to vote against, the establishment of a water utility with wasteful excesses and inequitable charges. Our current system made this madness possible. TDs hide behind party lines; Senators are bypassed. That system urgently needs to change.

So, you see – and I’m sure our Independent minded TD can also see – the Seanad along with county councils, health services and education authorities all require change from the front-line. From you and me in Wicklow – from all perspectives nationwide. Root and branch reform from the ‘bottom’ to the ‘top’. A function of ‘Subsidiarity’ as Stephen Donnelly calls it.

However, What Deputy Donnelly doesn’t do, nor have any of Wicklow’s other TDs done, is inform the very people he represents that this week they (you and me) have a rare opportunity to have their say on how decision-making could change for the better. I’m referring to the public consultation on Seanad Reform carried out by the Government Working Group. Public submissions are invited up to Friday, 30th January. We, Irish men and women, can suggest ways to reform the Seanad, including its election process and the manner it carries out its business. Yes, you and me.

Admittedly, it’s only a working group. With it comes limitations. For instance, proposed changes must be confined to the existing constitutional framework. Sadly it falls short of a people’s convention. Not the type of serious and substantial ‘fit for purpose’ reform our state structure deeply needs. But it is an opportunity – to act rather than merely talk. And yet, our Independent TD for Wicklow hasn’t said a word about it.

In fairness to Deputy Donnelly,he is not alone. Our 3 Government TDs here in Wicklow have either ignored this opportunity or, more worryingly perhaps, deliberately shied away from it.

The manner in which this Government has treated citizens and attempted to hoodwink us on superficial attempts at reform was laid bare with the Seanad Abolition Referendum. The Government’s cheap and patronising attempt to somehow ‘reform’ Irish politics by pushing the nation to abolish the one chamber that could (potentially) stop them in their self-interested pursuit of power (e.g. Irish Water) backfired massively. We voted NO to their proposal one year ago. Wicklow’s ‘No Thanks’ vote was the third strongest across the country.

Prior to the vote, Fine Gael’s Simon Harris argued that the Seanad was essentially incapable of reform. Not being in the interests of Fine Gael to encourage debate on a proposal that hardly even stood up on its money argument Deputy Harris accused the NO campaign of having “given up on their claim that the Seanad should be reformed, because they (the ‘NO’ campaign) have realised that the argument has absolutely no credibility”. He was wrong, the dissenting ‘claims’ grew louder and stronger. People listened and engaged with the arguments on all sides of the debate. Whether the NO vote reflected a love for the existing Seanad or simply a vote of disapproval with the Government’s track record we will never truely know. What we do know today is that a prominent Government TD (now a Junior Minister) and his party dismissed, both in words and conduct, the prospect of reform of the people’s law making chambers by the people themselves.

Politics is a complicated business. Our TDs have many considerations to weigh up. That’s a debate for another day. What is mind-boggling, and crucially urgent, is that with only a few days left to this week’s deadline they couldn’t put these considerations (party, promotional or post election ‘independent’ status) aside and inform their constituents that an important chance presents itself right now to have our say on how or why the way the state make laws needs to change so better decisions can be made for individuals, communities and society. Despite all the promises of reform in the last general election, and the little that has been done in the four years since, is it too much to ask our public leaders to tell us when a glimmer of opportunity for reform presents itself. How complicated can their priorities be? Is the notion of ‘reform’ to be forever downgraded to a mere buzzword bandied about come election time?

It’s only a glimmer and it may come to nothing – but it is an opportunity. It’s your country, your state and your taxes make it work (or fail). Let’s try make it work. To make a submission to the working group on Seanad Reform, email your ideas toseanadreformwg@taoiseach.gov.ie.

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