The people have spoken but is Ireland’s Senate still relevant


The idea that de Valera had when this structure for the Senate was put in place in the 1937 Constitution was that it would provide an intellectual elite who would improve legislation with their experience and original thinking.

De Valera liked to ramble on about the thatched cottages and the maidens dancing at the crossroads, but as a former math teachers at one of Ireland’s most exclusive schools he never lost that tendency to elitism he had.

Even though as a university graduate I had a vote in Senate elections, it always made me uncomfortable that I could vote but my father could not because he never got to college.

Over the decades, probably because it was powerless and therefore largely irrelevant, the Senate was ignored by the public and became a play thing of the political parties.

It was used by them as a nursery and a retirement home — a  nursery for baby politicians they were grooming for a Dail seat, and a retirement home for mature Dail members who had lost their seats and needed somewhere to rest and recuperate.  And of course there was a good salary and expenses as well as pension benefits.

Debates in the Senate are similar to the stuff you hear in university debating societies, a mixture of outrage, piety and a disconnect from the real world, with lots of preening, inane jokes and facile point-scoring to cover up a lack of in-depth knowledge of the subject.

Some of the senators from the universities are the worst.  Most of the members of the Senate, who owe their seats to the votes of the  elected members of local councils around the country, divide along party lines in Senate votes.  The predictability of their votes added to the lack of any real power makes the proceedings of the upper house very much a non-event.

Yet despite all this, given the opportunity, the people voted to keep the Senate instead of getting rid of it.

Does it matter?  Not a great deal, is the answer.

It would have saved us somewhere between €10 million and €20 million a year, but that’s a drop in the ocean of our spending.

It would also have meant fewer politicians around, which has to be  good, but since no one was listening to them anyway it hardly matters.

Does it have ramifications for Taoiseach Enda Kenny who put forward the idea and then failed to do much campaigning to back it up?

Not really is the answer to that one.  Yes, it’s embarrassing for him because it was a proposal that came from him alone rather than from his party, but that’s about it. It’s a one-day  wonder.

There is a great deal of nonsense being talked here about the defeat being a threat to Kenny’s leadership. It will take a lot more than this to rattle him.

There is also a lot of nonsense being talked about pressure now being on the government to radically reform the Senate — ignoring the fact that any substantial reform will require constitutional change and therefore another referendum.  And that ain’t going to happen ... once bitten, etc.

Far more important for Kenny is the budget, which is now just a week away.  We know it’s going to be another savage round of cuts in state spending and tax hikes in one form or another.

By this time next week no one will be talking about the Senate. And as usual no one will be listening to it.  


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