The steady hand behind Fine Gael for sometime is starting to tremble. By now I think they expected to have been in the middle of a General Election campaign. If you believe the polls, and I do, Fine Gael would emerge from any election with extra seats and a likely party set for government. Instead they can only watch as the country passed Lisbon, the Greens rolled over and NAMA seems to be on course. I find it hard to believe that the budget won’t go through as the Greens and Fianna Fail will hang together rather than hang separately at the polls. Add to that the John O’Donoghue fiasco where Fine Gael was outflanked by Labour’s Eamon Gilmore and the pending polling this week from Red C which could see Labour support grow and possibly invite comparisons with Fine Gael and it just might reflect unfavourably on some of Enda’s recent calls. So there was a lot riding on it when Enda Kenny stood up to speak at the FG Presidential dinner in Saturday night.
What he came out with may well garner him support among an electorate sceptical about politics and sleaze but it possibly may start tongues waging in his own parliamentary party. Essentially he wants to abolish the Seanád. He says he will introduce a referendum within 1 year of winning power to abolish the upper house.
Brendan Howlin is our spokesperson on constitutional affairs. At present Brendan is putting together a policy position on the future of the Seanád for Labour. We don’t do things like FG. Policy will be presented, discussed and agreed by members before it is accepted as party policy. We haven’t a policy yet and I don’t wish to pre-empt any party decision however, I’d be reluctant to see the Seanád abolished. I think it serves a use. Its important to scrutinise legislation and provide a forum for the wider diaspora. There are people in the Seanád who wouldn’t be elected in a clientalist election.
There’s a number of problems with the Seanád. But do you dump it because it’s popular to bash politics? Already McCarthy proposes to abolish many local councils at a time when there is agreement to give more power back to local authority. I’ll declare an interest in the debate. I have a vote for life in the Seanád Election by virtue of filling in a CAO form 30 years ago and completing the course offered to me in college.
Let me tell you what I think is wrong and right about the Seanád and let me suggest how you may well fix it. What’s wrong is that how candidates are selected and elected never changed as society changed. Do we need to rely on the Seanád to provide vocational diversity in political life anymore? Do we need to continue with the mechanism by which only councillors and graduates from TCD or NUI worldwide elect the Seanád and a Taoiseach to add 11 extra senators, In the case of one sitting senator he was rejected at both the Daíl and Seanád election in 2007.
What’s right is that the Seanád allows Irish citizens outside the jurisdiction to take part in an Irish election. What’s wrong is how and when the election takes place. Simply remove the right of degree holders or councillors to vote in the election and extend the right to every Irish citizen. By simply electing one senator from each county or city council on the same day as polling in a General Election you will oblige candidates to pick which house they wish to serve in and eliminate the perception of the Seanád as either a rest home or a reward. Lets be honest and ignore the suggestion that senators represent a sectoral interest in the Oireachtas. All candidates need a nominating body to get their name on the ballot paper and if elected they obey their party whip.
At present Leitrim has no TD. This change would ensure all counties have representation. What’s more a postal ballot of all registered Irish passport holders living in Northern Ireland or outside the island can elect more senators. By simply changing who votes, who runs and how they are elected you can radically improve the Seanád and allow it to reflect the Irish diaspora and draw on the vast wealth of values that are there in our people. At max I’d elect 40 voting senators directly and allow MEP’s or Northern MP’s or MLA’s a right to speak.
However I don’t believe that the Seanád will change at all. 30 years ago a referendum was held to change the election of university senators but nothing changed. I suspect the motivation on Enda Kenny’s part for raising the subject is more to do with punching through the media noise rather than a deal breaker (or maker) in any negotiations to put together a coalition after the next election. The real question I’d love to hear Enda answer is would he walk away from coalition negotiations if a potential partner refused to agree to Seanád abolition? I think already I know the answer to that.