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Irish Government Moves to Abolish Senate

• April 23, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Caught in a devastating economic crisis, Ireland considers killing off this political body, Seanad Éireann, which many see as a vestigial organ from the country’s bifurcated founding.

Paul Bradford was canvassing in his first election for the Irish senate, when he called at the home of a local councillor in County Clare, Sonny Scanlan, a farmer. “You’ll find him in the graveyard,” said his wife.

Of the 60 seats in the senate (known by its Irish-language title, the Seanad), 43 are elected by a constituency of sitting politicians, comprising the members of both houses of the Irish parliament, the Seanad and the Dáil, and city and county councillors across the country. (Six are elected by graduates of the two oldest universities; the remaining 11 are appointed by the prime minister, the Taoiseach.) That makes the canvass an unusually intimate one, and many candidates will spend the months leading up to an election driving across the country in order to canvass councillors in person.

There’s a trick to this: If an efficiency-minded candidate tries to schedule an appointment in advance, most councillors (out of politeness and tedium) will insist there’s no need for the candidate to visit in person. So Paul Bradford prefers to chance it: He’ll drive to a local town or village and only then phone the councillor, saying he “happened to be passing, and would you have a few minutes?” The risk, of course, is that the councillor won’t, and the drive will be wasted. Candidates learn to be politely persistent.

Bradford drove to the graveyard, where he found Councillor Scanlan deep inside an empty grave. In a rural Irish tradition, he was helping to dig it for a neighbor. They discussed the election there, with Bradford on the edge of the grave and Scanlan inside it. It was snowing; Scanlan felt sorry for Bradford and decided to give him “the number one” (the election is by proportional representation with a transferable vote, so voters rank candidates in preference).

That was in 1987. Bradford was elected and has since been alternately a senator and a member of the Dáil. Now, he is running for the Seanad again (the election, which is by postal vote, closes on April 26); earlier this month, he was back visiting Sonny Scanlan, though this time, they talked in more comfort, over a cup of tea. This was just one of more than 300 personal calls Bradford hopes to make in person during the campaign (that’s a lot of tea drinking in councillors’ kitchens), during which he will drive, alone, up to 7,000 miles.

Bradford knows his electorate well, and with his party, Fine Gael, now in government, he will almost certainly be elected. But this is likely to be his last term as a senator. At some point during this term, he will be expected to vote to abolish the chamber in which he sits.

The senate was established upon Irish independence as a concession to the (largely Protestant) minority of the population that aspired to continued union with Britain. Through the 1920s and 1930s, as a cadre of young and inexperienced politicians struggled to establish the workings of a successful new state, the Irish senate provided a valuable source of counsel and caution, as well as no little courage (37 senators’ homes were torched, and many had death threats issued against them, during the civil war of the early 1920s).

When Eamon de Valera wrote a new constitution for Ireland in 1937, he reluctantly included a second chamber but was wary of giving it the power to obstruct the business of the first. Influenced by the Catholic social teaching at the time, he set it up on “corporatist” grounds, with most senators to be elected from panels representing vocational interests (such as agriculture and labor). But the electorate for these panels was to be composed of sitting politicians, and the result was that the Seanad was quickly captured by the party political system.

It became, effectively, both a nursery and a nursing home for the Dáil — a place where aspiring politicians would start out, hoping for elevation and where retiring politicians could spend some agreeable time on their way out. With no power of veto over legislation, and dominated by the government of the day, it has languished in relative obscurity for most of its history. Twelve separate reports have been published proposing reforms to make it more vital and more representative; all have been subsequently ignored.

(The most recent, which was widely praised across the political spectrum, was in 2004.)

Where the Seanad has worked has been, ironically, in the persons of the oft-crusading university senators (such as Mary Robinson, who went on to become president of Ireland and now heads the Mary Robinson Foundation- Climate Justice); ironic, because, as many of them readily admit, the form of their election is unconscionably elitist. Dr. Elaine Byrne, a political scientist at Trinity College, wryly points out the anachronistic exclusivity of the university panels: “All my students will have a vote when they graduate, but I’ll never have a vote — because I did my degree at the University of Limerick.”

Thus, even before Ireland entered the prolonged economic crisis of the past few years, there was a simmering disillusionment with the institution. Then, in 2009, Enda Kenny, the leader of the then opposition party, Fine Gael, suddenly announced that he would abolish the Seanad if elected to government. It was a solo run, out of sync with party policy, but his party quickly fell in behind him. Kenny has since become Taoiseach (as Ireland’s head of government is called), and intends to put the abolition to a referendum later in this government’s term, with the support of their coalition partner, Labour, and qualified support from the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil.

(The Constitution can be changed by a simple majority vote in a referendum. Though, as the veteran ex-Taoiseach and commentator Garret FitzGerald points out, the Seanad is cited throughout the Constitution, with the result that a supposedly simple referendum to abolish it could be fiendishly complex.)

This leaves Paul Bradford and his fellow candidates in a peculiar position: Those who are toeing the party line (which is most of them) are campaigning for election to a parliament they say they want to abolish; meanwhile, the candidates on the university panels are campaigning for seats they say are undemocratic and elitist. Joe O’Toole, a former school principal and trade unionist, just retired after 25 years as a senator, originally sought a nomination to run as an independent on either the Labour or Education panels. But despite having run one of the country’s teaching unions, he realized he had “not the remotest possibility of getting even one vote” from the party-political electorate. So he ran for a university seat, while promising not to represent the interest of graduates.

Abolishing the Seanad will save €25 million, according to a report on potential public service savings by the economist Colm McCarthy. That’s barely a drop in the Atlantic Ocean compared to a national debt heading for €200 billion. But the public is angry. As Elaine Byrne puts it, politicians know the people “need to give them a kicking”; the Seanad could be their “sacrificial lamb.”

Both Byrne and O’Toole believe that a reformed Seanad (Byrne prefers the term “renewed”) can provide precisely what the Irish political system is critically lacking: improved scrutiny of public appointments, policy and legislation (especially that coming from the European Union, which rarely receives scrutiny in the Dáil), greater representation, particularly of minorities and marginalised groups, and policy formation that is driven less by partisan party-political interests and more by objective expertise.

As O’Toole says, “We’re not simply suffering an economic recession; we’re suffering a political and democratic recession also.”

One candidate in this election who would fulfil the ethos of minority representation — on two fronts — is Rosaleen McDonagh. McDonagh is an Irish Traveller —one of a community whose culture is rooted in a life traditionally spent on the road (like the gypsies and Roma of the European mainland), and who have sought recognition as an ethnic minority. McDonagh is also wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy. And she is a playwright.

As an artist, a campaigner and someone who lives in a city-center apartment, McDonagh is the model of an “integrated” Traveller. But she is skeptical of those who welcome her for that.

“My disability is a camouflage for my Traveller identity,” she says. “If I was a different sort of Traveller woman, without a disability, I’d be less amenable to settled people.” And her campaign brings yet another wry irony to this Seanad election: “I’ve never trusted settled people (i.e. non-Travellers). But very few Travellers can vote. Our community used to ask settled people for money. Now I’m asking them to vote for me.”

The Seanad, as she sees it, is “pale, male and stale,” though she would rather it were reformed than abolished. But even if this proves to be the last Seanad, McDonagh would achieve much by simply being elected.

“I want settled people to say, where are the Travellers? Where are my Traveller neighbors, my Traveller politicians? I want to put up a red flag and say, ‘I’m here!’”

Fine Gael has argued that the Irish bicameral system is an anachronism: In Europe, Ireland is the only small, nonfederal state with a second chamber; countries such as Sweden, Denmark and New Zealand have all abolished their second houses in recent years.

Ireland, though, is an outlier in another key respect: the depth of our economic crisis. It seems, yet again, deeply ironic that, in the wake of a crisis facilitated by lack of oversight, and deepened by pervasive “group think” (as the recent inquiry into the banking crisis by Finnish expert Peter Nyberg found), the country should abolish an institution not associated with the crisis, and which has the potential to offer greatly improved oversight and radically different representation. As Byrne has put it, “a radically reformed Seanad offers a cathartic possibility to establish a new Republic.”

Dr. Fiona De Londras, a law lecturer in University College Dublin, also supports reform, arguing that deepening representation and increasing the expertise in the Seanad could have “real transformative potential.” In the current climate, though, even those arguments will be difficult to make. As De Londras observes: “That’s a much harder sell than saying — ‘let’s just abolish it and save €25 million.’”

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Colin Murphy
Colin Murphy is a journalist in Dublin, and a regular contributor to Politico.ie, amongst others. His recent radio series for RTÉ, From Stage to Street, about the politics of Irish theatre, is available for podcast. His website is colinmurphy.ie.

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