|The Senate referendum Dublin count center on Saturday.|
Against all the predictions by political experts and opinion polls in the past few weeks, the government lost the referendum last Friday that proposed the abolition of the Seanad, or Senate.
The Senate, the upper house in the Dail (Irish Parliament), is famous for being useless. But it is part of our structure of governance, enshrined in the Constitution, which is why a referendum was required to get rid of it.
Most of the commentators were expecting that a majority would vote for the change, even though there are always people who are suspicious of any government meddling with the Constitution and will oppose any change on that basis alone.
No one was expecting a landslide — there was such little interest that the voter turnout was just 40 percent — but the general feeling was that the proposal to abolish the Senate would be approved.
So the 52-48 percent result of the national vote against abolition was a surprise, if not a total shock.
Many moons ago, way back in the 1970s, I began my career in journalism as a trainee sub-editor on the Irish Press, then one of the main morning papers in Ireland. Straight out of college I didn’t know much. But you learned fast on the subs desk, where the content for the next day’s paper was edited and shaped into pages.
After a couple of years working on news pages I was promoted to being the Dail sub-editor, the person who put together the page about the day’s proceedings in the Dail and Senate.
I was very pleased with myself. I thought I was very important, selecting which Dail stories to give prominence to and editing them as I saw fit. Such power!
But the delusions about my importance faded quickly. Yes, there were days when events in the Dail topped the news. But most of the time the Dail debates were of little consequence and hopelessly boring.
Even worse — far worse — were the debates in the Senate. I spent a couple of years of my young life wading through that stuff (and I’m not blaming the reporters who had to cover the Senate and file the stories) in search of material worth printing. Usually it was a fruitless exercise.
I learned a lot about the Senate in those two years. Unlike most people, I had to read a lot of the guff that was spouted in the chamber.
So I learned the hard way how useless the Senate was. And in the 30-plus years since, from what I have read, the debates in the Senate have not got any better.
For that reason you won’t be surprised to learn that last Friday I was among those voting yes for abolition.
For American readers, our Senate is nothing like the Senate in the U.S. (although Congress is hardly an example to anyone at the moment).
The problem with the Senate in Ireland is that it is an elitist, undemocratic talking shop with very little power and not much purpose.
Like the House of Lords in Britain, which it vaguely resembles, it’s full of old (and a few young) windbags in love with the sound of their own voices.
Legislation going through the Irish Parliament has to be passed by both the Dail and the Senate before being signed into law by the president. The Senate can delay bills coming from the Dail for 90 days, but it cannot stop them. It does not have the power to delay financial bills.
So, as I said, it’s a talking shop with no power. That might not matter all that much, but the make-up of the Senate is disturbing from a democratic point of view.
Following every general election, the Senate is dissolved and a new Senate comes into being. The 60 members of the Senate are not elected by the people — 11 are appointed by the taoiseach (prime minister) six are elected by the graduates of Irish universities and the remaining 43 seats are elected by the members of city and county councils and members of the incoming Dail and outgoing Senate.
To run for one of those 43 seats you have to be nominated by one of five panels representing various interest groups, cultural organizations and professional bodies, or by members of the Dail.
The five panels — cultural, agricultural, labor, industry, administrative — include almost every organization of note in the country, from the Royal Irish Academy of Music to the Irish Greyhound Owners and Breeders Federation and everything in between (the professional bodies of lawyers, doctors, teachers, business leaders, engineers, accountants and so on).
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.