Senate attendance farce shows our second chamber is beyond reform

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Eamon Delaney

Apparently, just 13 out of our 60 Senators showed up in the Seanad last week to hear Health Minister Simon Harris speak about the appalling cervical cancer scandal. This is absolutely shocking and shows a contempt for what couldn’t be a more crucial issue, right now gripping the country.

About the same derisory number of Senators attended EU Commissioner Phil Hogan’s Brexit address which was also last week. Again, you couldn’t get a bigger issue than Brexit, and well-placed Hogan has the inside Brussels track. But barely a fifth of the Seanad was there. Dont they care at all? It really is an indictment of this farcical, self serving and irrelevant ‘second assembly’.

Worse still it is now confirmed that any hope of changing this pointless upper house has been completely kicked down the road, with the Cabinet agreeing to set up a 26 member Oireachtas Committee to look at the implementation of the Manning Report into Seanad Reform.

The Head of the School Government at DCU, Gary Murphy, who was part of the group Democracy Matters that campaigned successfully to save the Seanad, said he was ‘deeply frustrated’ at failure to reform the Seanad and did not believe there was any political will to carry out reforms.

Murphy is absolutely right but why is he surprised ?. The political culture has no interest in changing the way this eccentric chamber operates.

It suits them as a nursery for aspiring TDs and as a retirement home for the same, and even better as combination of both: where TDs who lose their seats able to recuperate and recover and then make another attempt on the Dail, which is our real parliament and not a vanity assembly for egos and has-beens.

Even more cynically, many of those, from Labour and FG, who campaigned to have the Seanad abolished in 2014 are now themselves in the Seanad and have quietly changed their mind.

Why wouldn’t they? Politics is all about personal survival and personal advancement, especially in Ireland where there is no great ideological divide to trouble the main parties. Its really about localism and big personalities and securing your balliwick. So there’s apparently no problem in changing your mind when the Government loses a vote to abolish.

I should declare an interest here. I campaigned for Seanad abolition 2014 with a group of others under the ad-hoc group One House. It was a good fun, and we fought a strong campaign which would have passed had there not been the usual mid-term ‘kick the Government’ (and its proposals) mood among the electorate as well as an unwillingness by then Taoiseach Enda Kenny to lead from the front on it.

Having said that, voters did have a great chance to abolish this farce, but they wasted a good hand. So, no point in the public complaining now.

However, despite losing, the current farce and attendance only confirms my abolitionist feelings. High-minded proposals to improve the Seanad with ‘experts and special interests’ is pointless when such experts can appear elsewhere, in the media or public debate. The reality is that the Seanad will just default into a talking shop for nanny state busybodies, and wannabe TDs.

And proof of this is the Seanad’s derisive and pointless attendance record even on the really big issues. Meanwhile, of course, we have plenty of ridiculous debates with proposals to curb the urban invasion of seagulls and silence the jingles on ice cream vans to stop children from buying ice creams and getting fat !

Meanwhile, the mandate of the Seanad electorate remains as meaningful as those rotten boroughs of pre Victorian England, with the university system in particular oozing elitism and marginality. Senators are appointed who are rarely heard from again.

Interestingly, the lack of energy for reforming the Seanad seems to go to the very top, including the current Taoiseach. Why? Because Varadkar needed those (unreformed) FG Seanad votes to get elected leader, and still needs them given his electoral numbers for Government. Politics is all about survival and in this case, as they might say in Las Vegas, the House always Wins !