The Seanad referendum is drawing near and the campaigns are in full swing. What is interesting is how well mobilised the No side is and the arguments they are using. Rather than a rational debate based on political realities, the No side has resorted to hysteria and fantasy. Even the name of the main opposition group, Democracy Matters, implies that a democratically elected government putting the decision before a vote of the people is somehow engaging in dictatorial actions. The vote is being ridiculously described as a power grab while reform is being held as a panacea that no one seems to be able to describe. So let me address the 5 reasons Democracy Matters gives for voting No and bring a dose of reality to the debate.
There is a common perception among the No side that if they vote No the government will come up with a better idea that better suits their preferences. I have no idea why people believe this. Seanad reform has been an empty soundbite for 70 years that successive governments have ignored. What makes them think this will change? The moment the referendum is over all talk of reform will drop instantly never to be heard of again (just like all previous talk of reform). If we vote No, politicians will conclude that reform is too difficult and not worth attempting. Fine Gael and Labour will be in mood to risk defeat again, Fianna Fáil’s talk of reform is opportunism and nothing more. Sinn Féin and the Socialist parties have declared their commitment to abolishing the Seanad, not that they’re likely to get in a position to do anything about it anytime soon. Who does that leave? Who will implement the reform the No side claim they want?
The simple fact is that political parties gain too much from keeping the Seanad. It’s a convenient place to reward party members and train in future TDs. Why would they ever replace this with something that will challenge their power? The only reason we are having this referendum is because Fine Gael want to cover for the fact they have the exact same policies as Fianna Fáil and wanted to sound radical in the last election. If we vote No we won’t get another chance. The No side furthermore seem to believe that we will leave the Seanad in its current woeful state while we wait for reform (do they not know the slow pace of reform in Ireland?). How about a better idea, why not abolish the Seanad while we are waiting for reform? We can still push for a new reformed Seanad and it will be easier with a clean slate. This way, if the promised reform does not materialise, we will not be stuck with the current Seanad, which is nothing short of a disgrace.
Democracy Matters fails to realise that the government is actually democratically elected and accountable to the people in a general election, not a foreign imposition on the people. The government is accountable, we vote for it. Had the Seanad been democratically elected in 2011, we would have still given Fine Gael and Labour a majority. I don’t see how duplicating the process would be an improvement. The Seanad would still be comprised of party politicians who would act the same as politicians in the Dáil, there would be no extra insight or criticism or wisdom added. After all, if we want more voices in the parliament, why not just increase the size of the Dáil to 200 TDs?
A lot of the talk for reform involves quotas of some sort (gender, racial or protecting unspecified “minorities”) which is always discussed in a vague manner that would lead to an awful mess if the time ever came to have to turn them into something concrete. However all these plans are to some extent undemocratic. They all rely on appointing people who were not elected (perhaps for a good reason) who will have power to block laws proposed by people who were elected. How is this increasing accountability? If Fine Gael wins a majority of votes but Sinn Féin has more members who qualify as “minorities” who would agree that Sinn Féin should have a majority in the Seanad? (The No side seems to presume that the new Seanad will have a majority that agrees with them, if it doesn’t they might have to rethink their support).
This is by far the most absurd claim and shows that Democracy Matters is so devoid of genuine arguments that it must resort to making some up. There should be little need to point out what a terribly disingenuous argument this is. The state of the economy depends on the people we elect and the decisions they make, not the number of chambers the parliament has.
Yes because if you vote Yes the Fascists win. I mean do even Democracy Matters take this argument seriously? Abolishing the Seanad will not remove any of our rights, it will not undermine the law. I can assure that if we vote Yes, in a decade we will still have a functioning democracy, still have rights and the law will still be upheld. Ireland without the Seanad will not resemble a scene from Mad Max.
The people in Democracy Matters are not idiots, most are quite intelligent and I respect a number (Diarmuid Ferriter in particular). So it is not from ignorance that they make these arguments, rather they are being deliberatively misleading and playing on emotional fears of people. This is dishonest and they should know better.
Democracy Matters claims that “The Seanad has a strong record in representing independent and minority voices.” By which they mean that one time back in the 1920s a Protestant was in the Seanad and had absolutely no effect. That’s it. That’s the grand tradition of protecting minorities. Sure if we didn’t have the Seanad looking out for Protestants, we would have ended up with the Catholic Church running the country. Oh wait, that’s what happened. The Seanad continues to allow Trinity College a major influence in the Seanad, something which is symbolic of elitism not protecting minorities. There is nothing to be proud of in allowing the most privileged members of society a disproportionate influence in the parliament. That idea (along with university seats in general) got dropped with the advent of democracy and replaced with the notion that ordinary people had a say in the running of the country.
By far the most absurd poster of the campaign is the one above depicting a boot stamping on the Constitution. Just to be clear no military coup is underway in which democracy, the Constitution and the Republic are being overthrown. The Constitution will still be pretty much the same and the sky won’t fall in. That I need to point this out shows how ridiculous the campaign is. Enda Kenny is not a dictator trying to crush opposition. Nor is it a power grab, after all the Seanad doesn’t have any power to be taken from it. The No side are crying for a debate on the issue and furious that Enda Kenny will not debate them on TV (despite the fact there is no precedent for a Taoiseach to be in a televised debate on a referendum. If people are that desperate to see Kenny debate they can watch the Dáil proceedings in TV). However, hysterical and sensationalist posters like this add nothing to the debate.
The Seanad serves no purpose and the poor arguments above show how groups have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to justify it. Even if we had a powerful Seanad we would only end up with either a second chamber that duplicates the first or one that vetoes everything the Dáil does leading to US style gridlock. We don’t need a second chamber to give people a voice, that’s the role of the media (and in the 21st century a blog can get a message across to more people than a backbencher). There is no hope of reform, no party that will implement it and nobody seems to even know what they mean by reform. Instead of having a debate, we have to listen to hysterical and unrealistic claims by people who should know better. The No side can only offer meaningless clichés like “more democracy” “reform” “accountability”, it can’t tell you what it means by them. Voting yes will abolish a meaningless and unnecessary institution. Everything else is just empty promises.