Friday, June 14, 2013

The Seanad Referendum: Why Go Looking for Trouble?

First published in the Western People on Tuesday.

The last thing a sensible person should go looking for in life is trouble. Why would you go looking for something that is more than willing to come looking for you?

When Enda Kenny was elected Taoiseach two years ago, trouble was the one thing in the country that was not in short supply. The country was broke, nobody could go for a bag of chips without checking with first with Berlin if they could have both salt and vinegar, and it wasn’t so much a question of hoping the 80s wouldn’t return as praying to the living God that we wouldn’t be pitched all the way back to the 50s, or worse.

In those stormiest of days, Enda kept a steady hand on the tiller. He held his nerve in Europe and has reaped rewards. The bailout will soon be over. The man should be hailed a hero.

But that’s not what’s happening. For reasons best known to himself, when he should be basking in the warm glow of clear and visible success, the Taoiseach and his government have got themselves mired in two crises from which the rewards if successful are slim, and the punishments if unsuccessful and many and painful.

On abortion, the Government’s handling of the hottest of Irish political potatoes for the past thirty years has been anything but sure, and the outcome of current moves to legislate for the X-Case is anything but certain. The battle is very far from over.

All this was trouble that the Government didn’t need with the economy in such dire straits – and don’t forget, even though the Government has done great work, the country is very, very far from saved yet. As such, with the huge issue of the economy looming over the state like the iceberg over the Titanic, and the abortion nightmare rearing its head again, the very last thing the Government needed to do was to hold a referendum that isn’t wanted by the people, that is unpopular among their own parties, that is badly thought out, difficult to explain and can only lead to heartache and woe down the line. And yet, for reasons best known to themselves, that is exactly what the Government has chosen to do.

The first Seanad was founded under two noble auspices. It was set up as part of the 1922 Free State Constitution with a view to protecting  the Protestant minority in the Free State, a protection that minority badly needed – their treatment in the triumphalist early years of the State should be a cause of burning shame to every Irish citizen.

When Eamon DeValera introduced his own constitution in 1937, he retained the second chamber but built it around the idea of vocationalism. Vocationalism was the idea that there was a Christian (ie, Catholic) social order, where everyone had a place and there was a place for everyone, a doctrine that was worked out in papal encyclicals from Leo XIII and Pius XI.

This is where the idea of the panels in the Seanad come from, that each social order would be reflected in the various panels. The Seanad recognises five vocations in Irish life, and categorises them as Agriculture, Labour, Administration, Cultural and Educational, and Industrial and Commercial. Farmers, manual workers, civil servants, teachers and shopkeepers to you and me.

And this is where it gets tricky. How relevant vocationalism is in the 21st Century would be more a matter for Father Hoban over the way but Leo XIII reigned at the end of the 19th Century and Pius XI until the start of the Second World War and neither of those may be considered today or yesterday. There are big changes in the world since.

And even if it were relevant, if vocationalism were a magic bullet of social organisation and cohesion, exactly how much of a role does it play in deciding whom is elected to which panel? What qualifications must you hold to get on the Agricultural Panel, or the Industrial and Commercial Panel? How come you’re on one and not the other?

And what of the baroque inside-out method of filling those Seanad seats? We enjoy elections in Ireland – why don’t we hear more about the inside and outside panel seats, who’s been nominated by what body, what difference .874 votes can make on the 13th count? Isn’t all the world’s drama there? Or does the fact that the Seanad currently does as much work as a child’s rocking horse pulling a plough take something of the bloom from the rose?

This is another problem with this referendum. Both sides are as one in saying that the current Seanad is a crock. The Government says wreck it, the Opposition says reform it.

But if the referendum is lost, will the Seanad ever be reformed? Or will it just tick on like it does, filling inside and outside seats in panels of Administrators, Educators, Labourers, Industrialists and Farmers who do not themselves administer, educate, labour, indust [sic] or farm? Is there any way the people can win in this, or do they end up with the worst possible option, yet again?

It’s early days in the campaign yet, but it’s interesting to note that the Government has not gone bald-headed in an attack on the Seanad. To win the election, they should portray the Seanad as a rabid dog that must be shot on sight for the safety of the village. Instead, they’re portraying the second chamber as Old Shep, who has to be taken back the land by his weeping master, holding his shotgun in one hand and his spade in the other. Who wants to pull that trigger?

Of course, politicians can’t go bald-headed and attack the Seanad for doing nothing because it’s they themselves that are inside in it, doing that same nothing. Hasn’t anybody thought this out beforehand? With everything that that needs doing in the country, with everything the Government have on their plate, why would they bother with the Seanad? Why are they looking for trouble?