Gavan Reilly

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Archive for the ‘Politics’ tag

Seanad reform: Fixed terms?

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Chatting to a friend this morning about the general laying of the political land – including that story about the Donegal County Council annual budget* – we ended up on the thorny issue of parliamentary reform and stumbled across the idea that while a fixed-term parliament (à la the United States) might not be a perfect system, the possibility of having one of two houses sit in fixed terms while the other sit to a maximum length was floated briefly.

In Ireland this would mean that while the Dáil would still sit to its maximum five-year term and be dissolved whenever necessary, while the Seanad would have a fixed term – it was suggested four years, so as to avoid the chance that it might end up running almost perfectly parallel to the Dáil and to stop it becoming as anonymous as the European Parliament (not of course that the Seanad is more relevant than EuroParl currently is).

It struck me as being a pretty good idea – instead of having the American system where either house could be swung by a single election, when polling for either house came around we’d have a fair bit of jostling to win public support. While the Seanad’s current inability to stop most Bills from passing outright would likely not be moved, surely we’d be a step farther away from the us-versus-you attitude that destroys so many parliaments?

What do you think – as part of a greater Seanad reform, wouldn’t a fixed term independent of all other bodies (the Dáil, local councils, the European Parliament) be a good idea?

* As an aside, if FF are part of an alliance in Donegal County Council that can elect a Mayor, why did they need to rush through a Budget vote when presumably their alliance was going to win it?

Written by Gav

January 4th, 2010 at 3:55 pm

The Upper House rules

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A piece I wrote for today’s University Observer on Seanad reform and why getting rid of the Seanad, as per Enda Kenny’s proposal, is a myopic and short-term solution to a longer-term problem…


Let’s be clear from the off: Seanad Éireann is an imperfect institution. It is little more than a political car park for those postponing the inevitable decline into retirement; a breeding ground for a political party’s new hopes, trying to blood their new meat in the life of Leinster House before the savagery of the Dáil floor; and a consolation prize for those who came close-ish to winning a seat in the lower house in the previous election.

Its work is limited; its relative power to put a stop to legislation is nil; its members largely wish they were elsewhere. It’s a morose place where the good go to die and the young come to roar, all just to get a few minutes’ token coverage on Oireachtas Report three times a week for their trouble.

seanadWith the Seanad being the almost entirely useless entity it has become, it was prudent for Enda Kenny to take a stab (almost literally) last week by proposing its abolition, saving the taxpayer about €25m per year, as part of an Oireachtas reform package that would also see the number of TDs cut by about 20 per cent. The country has grown frustrated with a body that it sees as nepotistic and ineffective, and Kenny needed to be seen as proactive in tackling what is, legitimately, a high-profile waste of exchequer money.

The abolition of a house of parliament is a big choice to make, and one that here, at least, would require a referendum of undoubted painstakingness equal to a Lisbon. Process aside, it’s also a fundamental amendment to the operation of a parliamentary democracy. What Enda Kenny seems to have overlooked, however, is that the Seanad can easily be reformed into a body that works, without necessarily triggering any political seachanges.

The Seanad, in its current form, was established by de Valera’s new Constitution in 1937, with its makeup inspired by Catholic social teaching of the times, led by Pope Pius XI and his visions of social order being based on the co-operation of vocational groups (a system that can be likened to the modern notion of social partnership). With this in mind, the Constitution established five Vocational Panels, with the prevailing logic being that nominees would have special experience or knowledge of one of the five topics, thus becoming eligible for election to that panel. So, for example, those with knowledge or experience in the business world would be elected to the Industrial and Commercial Panel.

The overall aim was that while the directly elected Dáil would remain – as all lower houses are – a political playground, the Seanad would be able to meditate on the nitty-gritty of applying the Dáil’s legislation in the real world, and transcend the relatively lowly bickering of a party political system.

In the seventy-odd intervening years, though, the Seanad hasn’t worked out quite as planned. Because the members of the five Vocational Panels are elected by members of the country’s town and county councils, the elections have become purely party political, with councillors from a political party voting along their own party lines so that the Seanad ultimately mirrors the political constitution of Ireland’s local government.

Another provision allowing for six members to be elected by graduates of Ireland’s two universities (at the time), the University of Dublin – comprised solely of Trinity College – and the National University of Ireland, including UCD, has fallen flat over the course of history. Ireland has seen newer universities formed in the meantime, and despite a referendum allowing the law to be amended to the contrary, the graduates of these colleges have not yet been offered a vote – creating the valid perception that the authority of the Seanad, like its membership, is limited to a minority of society.

While abolition of the Seanad would solve both of these problems, realistically Enda Kenny’s better legacy would be to reform the Seanad in a meaningful way that allows it to best fulfil the intent of the Constitution. An easy start would be to propose the legislation the Constitution already allows for: a law allowing the graduates of other third-level institutions to vote in the university constituencies.

It’s not as if the Seanad hasn’t come up with enough ideas on how to make itself more useful: no fewer than twelve reports on reform have been published over its lifetime. Indeed, only five years ago one of its own subcommittees recommended the abolition of the Panels, opening up nearly half of the seats to direct public elections, and that the eleven seats filled by the Taoiseach’s own appointees be more reflective of the Republic’s role in Northern Ireland, rather than – as present – being merely used to pad out the Government’s majority in the upper house.

The public, however, shouldn’t be surprised if Enda Kenny changes his tune should he somehow manage to lose the next election; he’ll find that due to his party’s victory in the local elections last June, his party will be in the majority in the Seanad irrespective of the nominees of an opposing Taoiseach. In that light, don’t expect the referendum to come any time soon.

Written by Gav

October 27th, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Lowering the Voting Age

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For lunch today I popped into town to meet the missus, as a break from the educational humdrum that has returned to our lives with alarming ease. Over grub we ended up chatting – as we invariably do – about politics and the disinterest of the youth.

Now, I’ll preface this thought by saying that I’ve always thought the voting age in the Western World was too high to begin with – and for those of you who may not agree, I recommend going to have a watch of the West Wing episode called A Good Day. If you argue that kids are open to being intimidated or co-erced into voting a certain way (“Vote Green and get €10 free call credit!”), I challenge you to show me an adult who wouldn’t react likewise. What’s the difference between offering a kid free phone credit, and offering an adult a tax cut?

But I digress. We ended up talking about how the youth today seem to be becoming polarised into those who are more politically aware than their predecessors, and a worrying, higher number of people, perceivably female, who are opinionated but casually unaware about how politics might shape their worlds and how their opinions, if acted upon, might effect change.

The age of childhood innocence is dangerously close to complete abandonment: through nobody’s fault in particular, the times where kids weren’t sexually aware at eight or nine, or active by twelve or 13, are over. There’s no point in pretending otherwise or attempting to act in reversing this; it’s just the way it is. But with this comes a greater worldlyness. Last year at work we ran a few day tours around UCD for disadvantaged kids from the northside, and even amongst those nine-year-olds there was a latent disapproval for the Lisbon Treaty and what it meant for Ireland. Though their concerns were entirely unrelated to the Treaty, they were (though in not as many words, of course) duly concerned about the role of European integration in having foreigners coming into Ireland and taking the jobs that their parents and elder siblings would gladly have taken themselves. And this was in nine year olds! Don’t ever try to tell me that young people don’t care about politics. I challenge you to visit a USI Congress and tell me the youth don’t care any more, or to go to Noel Rock’s campaign website – Noel is 21 and running for Dublin City Council in Artane-Whitehall – and tell me we don’t care.

Our schools – though they don’t do a great job at it – even teach people how to become more politically aware. Every single Junior Cert student in the country is taught a basic curriculum in Civic, Social and Political Education – where they’re taught the basic history of each party, the role of the courts, How A Bill Becomes A Law, and the importance of getting involved. Now, the curriculum isn’t without its faults – why only teach people about party history or mention how people get elected, but not go into ay political theory? Why mention that Ireland became a republic under Fine Gael but not mention what republicanism is, or unionism, or socialism, or capitalism? CSPE ought to be a child’s crash-course to creating a more active society where every social structure is under constant review to make sure it’s the best option for the society of its times.

Regardless, kids are more astute at a far younger age – and at 15 or 16, they’re taught about politics, the number of TDs, the election of parties, how coalition works, and all of this – and then, once they sit the exam (which doesn’t even have the Pass/Honours divide – you can’t be an Ordinary Level Citizen or Higher Level Citizen…) they take up part-time jobs where they’re taxed and treated like adults, but never given the choice either to vote for those who decide how their tax is spent, nor put their learning of the political world into reality.

If any of you readers reckon the voting age is perfect as it is, leave me a comment – I’d love to hear why you think so.

Written by Gav

January 23rd, 2009 at 6:42 pm


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Great start to this whole daily blogging routine – my host has been down since mid-afternoon and has only just resurfaced, minutes before the day is out. Fantastic start, really. You can’t help but love a good omen.

But anyway, the first post. For a week or so I’ve been trying to come up with a topic worth blogging about, somewhere in the happy medium between easy reading and not-insignificant thought. It wasn’t until yesterday – irony of ironies, the last day of 2008 – that I happened upon something I thought I’d share.

Being the time of year that it is, the world is awash with new hope and ideals, of people outlining hopes and dreams for what they want of 2009. Tickled as I was by writing a blog on the idea, I was at a total loss as to what to specifically focus on. Yesterday, though, I got my idea.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Gav

January 1st, 2009 at 11:33 pm