Independent senator David Norris says Ireland needs its upper house, but must reform it to give the Irish abroad the voice they deserve
I wonder what genius dreamt up the slogan on the posters for the Abolish the Seanad campaign that I noticed just this evening in Gardiner Street: “One Parliament, One People, One Vote”.
Perhaps he or she was too young to have even a folk memory of the 1930s slogan: “Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer”.
With a Government as arrogant as this one I would have thought that they would at least avoid memories of where such cheap sloganeering can bring an otherwise civilised country. For the plan to abolish the Seanad is a smash and grab raid for naked power.
It would have been unthinkable some years ago. But now, of course, the Government has everything its own way except for perhaps a few inconvenient voices in the other house. They won the Presidency and a huge Dáil majority which allows them to hunt out and silence dissenters among their backbenchers.
They also control the local authorities, whose power and number they have significantly diminished, the bankrupt banks which they bought with our money, all the Oireachtas committees and of course the army, navy, air force and gardaí. So what more do they want?
The concentration of extraordinary power in the hands of a small Government elite apparently. One knows what the wise Lord Acton said about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely.
But why should emigrants who have no votes bother about this apparently domestic matter?
Well, firstly most of our emigrants are not only Irish but proud of it. They want this country to succeed and should make their opinions known to those who do have a say at home.
Moreover through the nearly 200,000 graduates who have voting power in the only democratised panel, the NUI and University of Dublin senators, there are already many voters scattered throughout Britain who continue to represent emigrant issues to their representatives.
It’s a pity — and quite an anomaly — that the Irish abroad are specifically precluded from voting in Irish elections. For many years it has been suggested that a reformed Senate could make provision for some seats to be reserved specifically for first generation Irish living abroad. And of course there is a need for such reform, which will disappear forever if we lose the Seanad.
At the moment even Irish citizens normally resident here cannot even vote at Embassies if they happen to be on holiday at the wrong time.
We should also change, but not abolish, the Seanad to get rid of the cosy little party political circles, the tiny and often rigged electorate of a few politicians. The last election I remember was in one of these rotten boroughs and the total electorate was 327.
Not only that but despite his proud horror at the corruption of the Senate by party politics, Enda Kenny in the last few weeks has just parachuted another young Senator in without even the farce of an election.
The Senate has also been accused of being “elitist”. I should sincerely hope that there would be an element of elitism about the Senate. There should be.
Our constitutional duty is to bring specialised knowledge to the improvement of legislation and I am proud to say that in addition to myself as a social reformer in the group of six democratically elected university senators, there is a multimillion businessman (Feargal Quinn), a world-class cancer specialist (Dr. John Crown), a leading economist (Dr. Sean Barrett), an eloquent spokesman for conservative social values (Ronan Mullen) and Reid Professor of Criminal Law in TCD (Professor Ivana Bacik).
Each and every one of these has added a unique and valuable knowledge and expertise to our debates and each and every one of the independent university senators has produced and presented legislation in the house during the past session.
That is no easy task when the parliamentary drafts people are not available to help independents and only serve the Government’s interests.
Think of the colossal waste of money the Referendum will cause – anything up to €20 million and all allegedly to save €4.5million per year. And I think that the need to maintain, clean the historic chamber, relocate staff, pay pensions etc. will probably end up costing the exchequer money rather than saving a penny.
But what is the price of democracy? What we need is not less politicians but more honesty and integrity in public life and the Government has sadly given few indications of these qualities.
Finally to be frank the Irish people have been squeezed financially until they are bleeding.
Evictions and soup kitchens are no longer a thing of the 19th century and naturally the Government have put the Budget, which will undoubtedly create more misery, two weeks after the Referendum.
If the Senate is abolished what a hangover the Irish electorate will have two weeks later when they realise what has hit them in the Budget. The Government think that we are a stupid people who will do what we are told and will give them power to create more wreckage.
But I rely on the good old Irish awkwardness being against the Government so to speak. Why miss an opportunity to kick the ball into what is an effectively an open goal?
It would teach the Government to be meek, a lesson that will be painful for them, may wake them up to some of their failings and will come at no cost to the electorate.
After all, come the Budget there will be no more they can do to us — all the blood will effectively have been squeezed out of the few remaining stones.
David Norris is an independent senator who represents graduates of the University of Dublin in the Seanad. He is well-known for his gay rights campaigning and contested the 2011 Presidential election, coming fifth.