Since the emergence at the weekend of unanimity amongst political parties that the Seanad should go, contrarian commentators have been forced to argue that this is not a ‘real’ political reform, what we need is fundamental change, etc etc.
The move to a unicameral parliament is a pretty big change, and for the better. This is what I wrote for today’s Farmers Journal.
The decision of the Labour Party to support Fine Gael’s plan to scrap the Seanad pretty much seals the fate of Ireland’s experiment with a two-chamber parliamentary system. Fianna Fail and the Greens have also, however belatedly, come to the same conclusion, and all the main political parties are now signed up to this particular political reform. The Seanad costs around €25 million per annum directly, and An Bord Snip suggested, in July 2009, that its time was up. The direct saving however is not the full cost of the second chamber.
Civil servants spend a considerable amount of time dealing with queries (they call them ‘reps’, short for representations) from Senators, many of whom see themselves as trainee TDs and engage in clinics and general messenger services for voters in whatever constituency they have their eye on. Ministers must attend the Seanad regularly in addition to making themselves available for questioning in the Dail. This eats into the time ministers can devote to running the country, and while Dail accountability is essential, the demands of the Seanad on ministerial diaries is substantial and very hard to justify. I recall spending several hours with senior officials some years back waiting for a minister detained in the Seanad who apologised profusely and predicted, quite accurately, that not a syllable of the Seanad proceedings which detained him would make it into the parliamentary reports in the newspapers the following day. In addition to the direct saving of €25 million per annum, there should be further savings in civil service personnel and a reduction in the time-wasting demands on ministers.
Under the current Irish system, we have 166 TDs and 60 Senators, for a total of 226 national parliamentarians. This is rather a lot for a small country, and most countries of our size make do with a single-chamber parliament. The public seem quite happy to let the Seanad go and there have also been calls for a reduction in the number of TDs. Bord Snip did not feel that a major reduction in the size of the Dail was advisable, although the number does not have to be 166. Cutting numbers saves only the direct costs: scrapping the second chamber in its entirety provides opportunities to make all sorts of indirect savings as well.
There have been numerous distinguished Seanad members over the years, including some of those elected from the university panels. But there have also been legions of defeated TDs and wannabe TDs, leading one wag to describe the Seanad as a mixture of creche and retirement home. There is nothing to stop the better class of senator to welcome the inevitable and run for the Dail. I can think of a few I might even vote for! But the occasional emergence of good contributors in the Seanad cannot conceal the overall mediocrity that has been its hallmark. The Irish Times managed to disagree with itself last weekend on the following crucial issue: how many reports have been prepared over the years (the first was in 1928) on the reform of the Seanad? Harry McGee thinks there have been twelve, Noel Whelan plumped for thirteen. I recall, as a student in the late 1960s, attending a discussion group called Tuarim, whose leading lights included Tom Barrington, Barry Desmond and Garret FitzGerald. One spirited debate was about , you guessed it, reforming the Seanad. Any institution still searching for a meaningful role seventy four years after its re-creation in current form needs to be scrapped.
Of course scrapping the Seanad is not a political reform programme on its own. It is essential that the Dail becomes a more effective chamber and that a better balance be restored between executive and legislative branches of government. But scrapping the Seanad will help both directly and indirectly. Those with ambitions to serve in national politics will now have no option but to shoot for the Dail, which should make that a better chamber. The politicians need to restore credibility as a group, and the public will see abolition as evidence of serious intent to reform, at the cost of some cushy numbers for the political class. This will help when the time comes to face the music on local government reform, through eliminating the excessive number of local councils, and on reforming the public service, where numerous useless quangoes survive.