Foolish But Noble?

Although division has arised in the parliamentary party, Fine Gael announced over the weekend plans to launch referenda on a number of issues if elected in the next national election – including the abolition of Seanad Éireann. The Irish Times carries full details.

Given the enormous patronage power that the Seanad offers to the Taoiseach and the rest of the political establishment, this is either an extremely foolish move by Enda Kenny or a truly noble one. The question is: will the public reward him enough to balance the internal political opprobrium?

There are clearly some talented public representatives in the Seanad, which was once described by former Tánaiste Michael McDowell as “a cross between a political convalescent home and crèche” (although he has since revised his position). If the Seanad was abolished, no doubt the best and brightest would migrate to the Dáil. No harm done.

There are some other credible risks associated with its abolition. Critics of the plans have appealed to the spirit of bipartisanship present in the Seanad, and the good work that they do in crafting legislation. No doubt members of the Dáil might find themselves with more work to do in its absence, but frankly there is room to expand the hours that TDs clock in Leinster House actually debating legislation. Hopefully, the already snail’s pace of progress will not slow further.

As regards misuse of temporary majorities? This commentator is no expert on the checks provided by the Seanad on the Dáil. But given that the Government typically engineers a majority in both houses at any given time, it seems that there would need to be an unlikely confluence of factors necessary before the Seanad could become necessary or willing to stop abuse of power by a temporary majority in the Lower House.

So why does anyone care whether the Seanad gets abolished? Patronage is undoubtedly the deciding factor. Not only does the Taoiseach of the day get the opportunity to make personal nominations of eleven members, an extremely useful tool in rewarding cronies post-election. But the processes which elect the remaining members (with the exception of those representing the country’s college graduates) benefit the leadership of the individual parties.

How? Because the balance of power in the various nominating and electoral committees varies widely, and is made up of TDs, senators and local councillors. These parties have a strong interest in obeying the party leadership when voting and nominating. They will take direction from them on the best candidate and the best interests of the party to which they have sworn allegiance. Unfortunately for Irish politics, it doesn’t pay to rock the boat or object to directions from the Party leader.

So we are left with the Seanad as it currently stands, full of political favours and party cronies – with the odd independent thrown in for good measure. Since all the party leaders (including Enda Kenny of Fine Gael) benefit from the patronage that the undemocratic elections to the Seanad affords them, nobody wants to change anything. Historically, only small non-governmental parties have objected to the process. Fine Gael is changing that.

Irish politics without the Seanad would be less wasteful and more honest. But this commentator wonders.. If the Taoiseach can’t give out seats in the Seanad as favours, how will he reward party hacks in future elections? It may not be pretty. More likely, we may not make it that far as Enda Kenny finds that abolishing the Senate will make his life more difficult.

© The Free Marketeer 2010

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5 Responses to Foolish But Noble?

  1. Andrew says:

    “If the Seanad was abolished, no doubt the best and brightest would migrate to the Dáil. No harm done.”
    Is that not a bit of an assumption? Could you really picture Shane Ross and David Norris running in Dáil elections? Mary Robinson likewise could never have been elected to the Dáíl.

    Your article is a good analysis of the Seanad, but you put the choice as being either keep the Seanad as is or abolish it. I’d opt for neither of those.
    The main reason to keep and reform the Seanad is that meaningful Dáil reform will never happen – the Irish voters simply love their local TD too much. It will never be changed! Therefore our only hope for a decent political body is to reform the Seanad. Bring in a list system and encourage talented individuals to enter politics for 5 or 10 year stints. Allow it to conduct investigations, monitor EU law, approve heads of state bodies etc. All the sorts of things you would never trust the Dáil to do!

  2. thefreemarketeers says:

    very interesting! i think that the list system could plausibly be introduced into the Dáil (indeed, FG are proposing as much but it might not make it through the parliamentary party). so surely the norris’ and ross’ of the world could make it to the Dáil via that route? i don’t think i can trust the Seanad while it’s so crooked and undemocratic..

  3. Barry says:

    Tony Benn once said that whenever he talked about the British system of governance with politicians (?) from the eastern block they always thought that the House of lard’s was a great idea as their governments were generally ruled by aging gerontocracies and the lords was a way to give the elder statesmen of Britain, prestige and influence without any actual power.

  4. Barry says:

    Also, it’s interesting to compare to the debate over the abolition of rotten boroughs as part of the reform act of 18XX (some time around the middle of the 19th century). A lot of politicians thought that although they were undemocratic they were necessary in that they gave up and comers the chance to get elected and added a voice to the commons that was more insulated from public opinion.

  5. Barry says:

    In my final comment in this sequence, the Duke of Wellington was elected to the rotten burough of Trim, probably a good addition to the commons but given that he didn’t run in a regular constituency he may have been unelectable for some reason or another.

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