Monday, October 07, 2013

Seanad Dodges Bullet, State Remains Critical

Abolishing the Seanad should have been as easy as knocking the head off a thistle. The thing does nothing. Even the anti-abolition side in the referendum campaign acknowledged that much (apart from a single, bizarre instance of groupthink, more of which anon). And even though all the No advocates trumpeted reform, reform, reform at every turn, reform was never an option. The sovereign people were asked to vote on whether the Seanad was to stay or to go. Nothing else.

So were the people hoodwinked by this talk of reform, whose chances are about the same as Ireland qualifying for the World Cup – possible, certainly, but by no means probable? Or did something else happen?

Your faithful correspondent has two theories about this. The first is that the Seanad was saved because the Yes side made such a tremendous hames of their campaign. Referenda are adversarial contests, like trials in courts of law. If you want to make a case, you don’t spare the blade – you go straight for the jugular.

It was suggested at the start of the summer that if the Government did want to shoot down the Seanad, it had to make the case that the Seanad was a rabid dog that must be shot for the safety of the community. Scaremongering? Of course, but certainly how referenda have been fought here in the past – hello divorce, goodbye Daddy, vote no to Lisbon/Nice to avoid being conscripted into the pan-European army, vote yes to Lisbon/Nice or else have the Albanians holding telethons to feed the starving Irish, and all the rest of it. Dirty of course, but politics is a dirty game.

What did we get instead? The world’s most watery excuse, that the abolition of the Seanad would save €20 million per year. In ten days’ time, the nation will be looking at steering a €3.5 billion budget “adjustment” through the houses of the Oireachtas. €20 million is 0.0057% of €3.5 billion, five thousandths of one per cent. Doesn’t seem like a lot in the bigger picture.

Did the Government then hammer the Seanad as useless, a drain on scarce resources, a dead weight in the body politic? No, it did not. A meme developed during the campaign that great additions had been made to Irish public life by Senators like Gordon Wilson, Mary Robinson, David Norris and WB Yeats. And this was accepted across the board, instead of being attacked in every instance.

Gordon Wilson’s great moment of forgiveness occurred in a TV interview, not the Seanad chamber. Mary Robinson jacked in her job as First Citizen of the sovereign Irish nation to trade up to the UN, treating the highest office in the land as nothing more than a stepping stone, a back to climb upon on her way to higher ground. (Robbo was also the victim of a truly vicious yet strangely endearing autobiography review by her one-time compatriot Mary Kenny in the Spectator magazine last year). And Norris could have been dismissed by simply playing VT of his extraordinary and disgraceful attack on Regina Doherty at the start of the campaign over and over again.

None of this is very nice and almost none of it is even fair but again, we’re playing politics here. This is how the game is played.

WB Yeats is the most interesting of the four Senatorial icons, but again the Yes side failed to point out that there is virtually no similarity between the Free State Senate of which Yeats was a member and the modern Seanad, of which both Richard Bruton and Labour’s chief (if not only) Yes advocate, Alex White, were members.

And this is perhaps what was the final nail in the Yes coffin. It was impossible, in the end, to figure out just where the Seanad ended and the rest of the body politic began. What made the Seanad so much worse than the county councils below it or the Dáil above it?

The Seanad has sixty seats. Three are for Trinity Senators who talk among and are admired by themselves, and are utterly irrelevant to anyone else. Three are for NUI Senators, who have been a mixed bag between teachers’ union hacks, wannabe Trinity Senators and Rónán Mullen.

There are eleven Taoiseach nominees, most of whom are party hacks or those to whom the Government party owes a favour. And then there are the forty-three others, county-councillors elected by other county-councillors in a tightly closed and confined bubble where a single preference in the twelfth county can be the difference between success and failure.

Political paths go from the council to the Dáil. Some councillors stop off on the Seanad, either on their way up or as a safety net from not having made the leap to the Dáil. It is one-half nursery and one-half nursing home. Nothing else. All this talk about scrutiny and safety valves is blather.

And it’s blather because the majority of Ireland’s laws are now made in either Brussels or Berlin. Gavin Reilly, the excellent political correspondent at Today FM, reckons "over 500 EU-related statutory instruments signed by ministers without parliamentary input," which then begs the question of what exactly it is the Dáil does.

And this is the second reason the Seanad hasn’t been abolished. The people didn’t see the point of abolishing the Seanad because they felt it would change nothing.

The people, based on the result of this referendum, the turnout of recent referenda, and the extraordinary prevalence of independents as viable Dáil candidates suggests that the people have almost given up on the very notion of governing their affairs, and are reasonably content to let faceless mandarins in the EU run the shop.

The Irish nation don’t cherish independence anymore. The founding moment of the state, the 1916 Rising, is being airbrushed into the background by this totally spurious "decade of commemoration," and nobody seems to mind. The Irish nation not only no longer knows who it is, but it no longer cares. We are on the verge of giving up, and letting the country be ruled from outside once more.

This is the real lesson about the state of democracy in Ireland in the aftermath of the failed attempt to abolish the Seanad.