Democracy Matters – But The Seanad Does Not

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.

946699_589928737726667_673169997_nThere 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).

1003504_589928811059993_260541760_nThis 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.

998925_589928821059992_1963533593_nYes 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.

1095102_589928831059991_485793662_nDemocracy 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.

No there's nothing suspicious about the fact that Kenny is a terrible debator or that the Taoiseach never debates referendums. There are enough debates on TV, on the internet and in the newspapers.
No there’s nothing suspicious about the fact that Kenny is a terrible debator or that the Taoiseach never debates referendums. There are enough debates on TV, on the internet and in the newspapers.

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.

9 thoughts on “Democracy Matters – But The Seanad Does Not”

  1. Great post! Bicameralism is a remainder of a time when representative democracy was still in its infancy, and politicians and political theorists were finding ways to counteract the “tyranny of the majority”. However, two centuries of democratic reforms have produced many alternatives. Constitutional rights and judicial review have been proven to be able to protect minorities from laws which might violate their rights.

    The idea that unicameralism is detrimental to democracy, is effectively refuted in countries such as Sweden or Denmark.

    1. Exactly. Most proposals for “reform” include barriers to popular will or extra votes for elitist institutions like Trinity College. It really resembles something from the 19th century

  2. Sweden and Denmark have more than 4 times the amount of local councillors than we do, and we are getting rid of town councils so we’re going to have even less local representation (who’s being misleading now?).

    Abolishing the Seanad to then push for a reformed version is a nonsensical argument. Why not push for real reform or at least save it until somebody really will reform it? If the Seanad was used correctly and transparently the Taoiseach could nominate people with actual experience and expertise in their fields; not publicans and aspiring TD’s trying to raise their own profile.
    The government is not accountable in the slightest. They decide what is debated and how long for. We’ve seen from this government what happens if you disagree with them.
    There are no benefits to abolishing the Seanad, the €100m that Kenny first said would be save is now down to €14m (remember that ‘deliberately misleading’ argument you mentioned), add to that the fact that Phil Hogan has already said that the money saved will go straight to setting up new committees ie ‘jobs for the boys’.
    The idea of reforming the Seanad came from a political whim from Enda Kenny, six weeks previous to announcing this as an election promise he had unequivocally ruled out abolishing it, instead preferring to reform it. Is it a coincidence that that week Labour were ahead in the polls?
    I don’t see any benefits to abolishing the Seanad especially when the money ‘saved’ will be ploughed into useless committees, it’s easy to trash down arguments like you have done, but I haven’t seen you mention one benefit of abolishing it.

    1. “at least save it until somebody really will reform it?”
      Because it will take years if not decades before it is reformed and in the meanwhile there is no point having such a useless institution continue in operation.

      “If the Seanad was used correctly and transparently the Taoiseach could nominate people with actual experience and expertise in their fields;”
      It would also be great if the Seanad was populated by unicorns, be realistic, do you honestly think that will happen?

      “The idea of reforming the Seanad came from a political whim from Enda Kenny,”
      That’s completely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter who came up with the idea or why but whether the idea is a good one. Make you decision based on the merits of the proposal alone.

      “I haven’t seen you mention one benefit of abolishing it.”
      I did an earlier post on why we should abolish it, this was a response to the issues I had heard.

  3. I’m not familiar with what’s Seanad referendum is about (I’ll have to google it later), but the DM’s arguments sound as if they were written by our Republicans 🙂

    1. Basically when the Irish state was created we had a lower house (the Dáil) and an upper house (the Seanad, which is Irish for Senate). However during the 30s there was a crisis as two seperate parties controlled each chamber, similar to the current gridlock US faces at the moment.

      So the then Prime Minister organised a referendum which stripped the Seanad of its powers. It could no longer block legislation but only delay it for 90 days. 11 out of the 60 Seantors would be hand picked by the Prime Minister in order to ensure the government always has a majority.

      So the Senad only existed in name as an institution, in reality it was a joke. It served mainly to reward party members and people who failed to get elected. There have always been calls for reform but they have never materialised. Next week we will vote on abolishing this waste of space which a small country like Ireland does not need.

      1. You talk about a small country not needing the Seanad, but look at the other similar sized countries with one chamber. They all have radically different local government than us, much much more local representation. You fail to mention that there won’t be any money saved at all. It will cost us more in the long run.

  4. I heard of a woman in England who objected to the removal of the second chamber because her husband was a Liberal Peer!
    That was more than just a matter of Democracy!

  5. The State of Queensland in Australia has a unicameral system. Look there to see the consequences for parliamentary oversight, the rule of law and separation of powers when a government has a huge majority.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: