A lot of people I’ve been talking to are confused about the forthcoming referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. It seems that a lot of Irish people don’t fully understand why the Seanad exists, and how it contributes to our governance. I believe it’s this lack of knowledge the current government is seizing upon as they put this referendum to the people, selling the story to an ill-informed electorate that the Seanad is a needless financial drain on the country.
Let’s get real here. The Seanad may cost money to run, and it may be in definite need of reform in this and other respects, but its abolition is not actual reform, and in the long run any such move will prove a lot more costly to the Irish people.
More and more we see a political system that adheres to the party whip mechanism, where non-independent TD’s, instead of representing the wishes of their constituents, adhere to party policy handed down from on high by the cabinet. And if they don’t, they pay a high price. By voting to abolish the Seanad, we will effectively be giving the highest powers in the land the ability to drive through legislation without nuanced debate, where the issues are teased out in a way that’s fully about the people, not about party politics.
We’ll also be getting rid of an institution that has had an invaluable and positive influence on the laws of this country in terms of securing LGBT rights.
David Norris became the first openly gay public representative when he was elected to the Seanad in 1987. His independent presence there over the past 26 years is a prime example of how the Seanad provides a wider platform for a variety of issues coming from minority or independent voices. Senator Norris could put forward private members bills in the Seanad that would be heard and debated, with issues being teased out, particularly progressive ones. Those bills could then be put before the Dáil, which provides special time for their hearing.
Arguers against the Seanad will highlight the negligible number of private members bills that have been accepted into law by government, but they’re missing the point. The way to measure the effectiveness of the Seanad is not simply in terms of how many bills become acts, or how many amendments are made to bills. In fact, the provision of a space for the introduction of progressive ideas, and the democratic deliberation on them is immeasurable. The progressive ideas that are consistently introduced in the Seanad couldn’t surface the Dáil, not only because of time constraints, but because of the combatitive nature of debate there.
Senator Norris’ private members Civil Unions Bill went before the Dáil in 2004, and although it was not accepted, it pushed forward the partnership agenda. By the time the government’s own Civil Partnership Bill came before the Seanad in 2009, the debate was phenomenal and historic, and was a highlight not only in building all-party consensus on same-sex partnership, but in acknowledging the children of same-sex couples need to be given equal rights to both their parents under law.
More recently, Senator Ivana Bacik put forward a bill to change the ban on same-sex marriage that was inserted into the Civil Registration Act in the Dáil when no-one was looking, or had the time to properly debate the issues arising for same-sex couples with the legislation.
This year, Senator Averil Power made recommendations to change Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, which allows religious run organisations to discriminate against their LGBT employees. The rich and extensive debate Seanad debate on her recommendations established an all-party consensus on what was required, which in turn enabled our Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Alan Shatter to publicly say such a change is going to be advanced.
This year also, Senator Katherine Zappone introduced her private members Gender Recognition Bill, which propelled the government forward into introducing their own heads of bill. Although Minister Joan Bruton’s Gender Recogniton Advisory Group did not include one member of the trans community, Senator Zappone is a member of the LGBT community, and she understood that working closely with the trans community was essential to getting it right. As a result, the Zappone Bill laid down a standard by which the government’s forthcoming gender recognition bill will have to be judged.
Apart from introducing private members bills, or business motions, and debating them, members of the Seanad are also advocates. Senator’s Norris and Zappone, Bacik and Power, and more like them are effecting change through advocacy, reaching out from the Seanad across the political and social spectrum to affect change.
Any vote for the Seanad to be abolished is not a vote for reform. It will be a vote for regression. Although we have a coalition between a centre right party and a seemingly progressive one now, this emeshed group of politicians is advocating the abolition of a key element of our democracy. They are seeking to give increased power to the Dáil in respect of things like impeaching a President or getting rid of a judge. Without the Seanad’s constitutional vote on such moves, a majority government in the future could literally get rid of a liberal President.
Above all, the government is offering to the people the opportunity to get rid of the Seanad without putting into the Constitution any additional ways to ensure a check against an overly powerful government with a huge majority. It’s akin to your doctor asking you not only to refrain from seeking out a second opinion, but to vote to stifle all other medical opinions.
I’m not saying that everything about the Seanad is perfect. Certainly the way Senators are elected needs to be changed, as is how much they are paid. There are already Seanad Reform Bill before the Dáil. Rather than trusting this all or nothing option, we should keep the Seanad and allow proper reform to be undertaken.
None of us knows the future in terms of government elections. Ireland could end up with a far right wing majority one day. In that light, is it wise to put all your eggs in one basket?
On October 4, please go out and vote for progressive democracy. Vote ‘no’ to the senseless abolition of our Seanad.
Tweet me your opinion @finneganba #SeanadRef
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