The choice facing the Irish voting public on October 4th is a very simple one; do you want to abolish the Seanad, yes or no? A Yes vote will save €20 million a year, reduce the number of national politicians by a third, and bring us into line with other European countries of our size, all of which have just one chamber of parliament.
Everyone agrees that the current Seanad is not fit for purpose. It is totally undemocratic; in fact just 1% of the population voted to elect the Seanad, and just over 3% of the population are entitled to vote in Seanad elections in the first place. The Seanad electorate consists of graduates from Trinity College and NUI, and existing politicians. Most of those who are successfully selected to sit in the Seanad are former politicians of one variety or another. And on top of this, the Taoiseach of the day can nominate 11 people of his own choosing to the Seanad, a move which usually guarantees a Government majority.
So what role does this utterly undemocratic institution play in the functioning of our democracy? The truth is, very little. The Seanad has almost no power. It can only delay, not overturn legislation, and the last time it actually did so was 50 years ago. In the words of my colleague, Minister Richard Bruton, what good is a watchdog that only barks every 50 years?
Defenders of the Seanad argue that it should be reformed. Micheal McDowell, with his former Government partners Fianna Fáil, is leading calls for the Seanad to be retained and reformed. This is despite the fact that both McDowell and Fianna Fáil were previously in favour of Seanad abolition, and neither did anything during all their time in Government to reform the second house. Voters shouldn’t be fooled by this political opportunism; there is no reform option on the ballot paper. And for good reason; ten reports have already been published on reforming the Seanad, and nothing has changed. I believe the Seanad has proved itself incapable of reform, and I don’t believe a country of Ireland’s size needs two chambers of parliament.
Ireland is the odd one out among European countries of our size in terms of political representation. Not only are we the only European country of our size with two chambers of parliament, we also have a third more politicians than the average. The abolition of the Seanad and the reduction in the number of TDs by 8, which has already been agreed by the Government, will mean Ireland has the same ratio of politicians as other small European states.
I fundamentally believe that a reformed Dáil can and should perform all of the roles of the Seanad more effectively, saving tens of millions of euro in the process. In tandem with the referendum on the future of the Seanad, the Government is radically overhauling the committee system to make it more independent and to allow external experts to be put centre stage. Changes will be made to the way draft laws are considered to allow for closer scrutiny of key legislation. This will allow for far greater oversight than a powerless and costly second house of parliament.
I believe that the Seanad is a luxury the political system can no longer afford. And I believe a reformed Dáil can deliver accountable government with fewer but more effective politicians, just like every other small country in Europe. If you agree, then I urge you to vote Yes to abolish the Seanad.