August 28, 2013 by Fiachra
As a politically active young person, I am all too aware of how disenfranchised the youth of today feel by our political leaders. The only prospect we face, after finishing our education, is that of emigration or unemployment. This is a fact that I feel as keenly as any other person, and it is one of the main reasons my colleagues and I in Future Matters have taken such a strong interest in the upcoming referendum on Seanad Abolition.
Some might argue – and with a certain amount of justification – that the Seanad as it currently stands is a waste of money. This, I believe, is an overstatement of the case; but it cannot be denied that the Seanad is an incredibly flawed institution. Even so, many questions remain to be answered regarding the subject of the referendum – the principle one being: why has reform been ruled out? This is particularly puzzling, given how modest the reform proposals are.
Fergal Quinn and Katherine Zappone’s bill envisages a gender-equal upper house, mandated by the people to hold the government to account. Crucially, these reforms do not require a referendum. While there is no doubt that referendum could further enhance the Seanad’s potential and introduce further democratic safeguards, the most immediate problems could be solved by an Act of the Oireachtas.
“Why do we need a Seanad?” the abolitionists cry. A fact that they fail to consider is that our political institutions were created for a reason. They may not work as well as they should – in fact there is no “may” about it – but rather than smashing them to pieces in a fit of populist anger, we ought to consider our options carefully. As young people, there are many ways in which the Seanad could represent our interests, some in ways the Dáil can only dream of. The Quinn-Zappone bill would provide a voice for the diaspora. This is of great significance for us, because not only do we face the very real possibility of emigration, but every single one of us has friends and relatives who have had to move abroad due to the economic downturn.
Some are living farther away from us than others – but regardless of whether they are living in Birmingham, Boston or Bahrain, they deserve representation. A reformed Seanad, directly elected by Irish citizens at home and abroad, would be the ideal forum to debate issues affecting the diaspora – but it will remain a fantasy if the Seanad is abolished on October 4th.
Another reformed Seanad could excel at representing young people, along with other minorities within the political system. A knock on effect of its non-geographic and vocational franchise, young people would be strongly represented on the Cultural and Education panel. To a certain extent, young people are strongly represented within the current, flawed, system.
Lorraine Higgins, Averil Power, James Heffernan, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Kathryn Reilly, Thomas Byrne and Catherine Noone were all 35 or younger upon their election to Seanad Éireann in 2011. If the franchise were expanded, the number of youth voices would be much greater, and possibly even more independent. However, this proposal will remain a fantasy if the Seanad is abolished.
A more general point is that a directly elected Seanad would (as indeed it should now) act as a chamber of experts. The flaw in the current panel system is that while unions, charities and other vocational groups have the power of nomination, so too do members of the Oireachtas.
This leads to a mind-boggling system, where half the senators from each panel must be nominated by the Dáil, and the other half by vocational groups. Even worse, voting power lies solely in the hands of councilors, most of whom are party political. Thus, rather than nominating experts in their own fields, vocational groups have learned that their best course of action is to nominate career politicians that they trust to be loyal to them.
Unfortunately, Senators have a split loyalty. The work they do representing their nominating bodies is often subordinate to the queries they receive from Councillors on issues as diverse as medical cards for constituents to match tickets for Croke Park. Yet if the power of nomination was removed from the Dáil, and ordinary citizens enfranchised, our upper house would truly come into its own as a chamber of experts.
Why do we need a chamber of experts? The sad fact is that some of the most important decisions that affect our country are made by people with only a cursive knowledge of the issues behind it. Certainly, our politicians rely on their advisers, whom we assume are competent in their field, but that is no substitute for first-hand experience. A chamber of experts would be the proper forum to discuss complex issues such as the budget deficit, the banking crisis, unemployment and emigration in a mature, informed and sensible fashion.
It would also create an environment conducive to cross-sectorial collaboration on a wide variety of issues. A joint strategy by representatives of the diaspora, volunteer groups, unions and business groups to boost the economy could produce revolutionary results. Unfortunately, just like the last two proposals, this will remain a fantasy if the Seanad is abolished on October 4th.
The bottom line is that we are being offered a false choice between a defective upper house and no upper house at all, and the sooner we wake up to this, the better it will be for democracy. This is why my colleagues and I in Future Matters will be voting ‘no’ to abolition. We hope that as many young people as possible will join us in doing so. A sobering fact is that political change on this scale, both good and bad, happens only once in every lifetime. If we do not demand real political reform now, we will never get it.
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