Gavan Reilly

thinking out loud

Archive for the ‘University Observer’ tag

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

An Evening Off

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8pm on a Wednesday evening, Champions League on the telly, and I’m at home, sat on the sofa with the crumbs of a pizza (thanks Cat) on a plate to my right. Average as it sounds, this is an idle evening of relative luxury – if I’m honest, it’s the first evening I can remember for a couple of weeks where I made it home during daylight hours, even if it was dwindling away as I got off the bus and crossed the street for home.

UniversityobserverTwo issues down.

For the last month I’ve been (an active, unlike the previous two months of my tenure) Deputy Editor at The University Observer. It’s been, to say the least, an all-hours kind of job. You’re in early, you work hard (often more physically than you think), you keep constructive during the idle periods, and when the production weekends come around every fortnight you eat shite takeaway food and run yourself emotionally, psychologically, physically into the ground. You invest everything into it; you preen over every single spelling and every choice of words, you watch out for an opportunity to use a thesaurus, you obsess over making sure you have everything laid out properly, throw together emergency news analysis pieces that in the light of day you probably wouldn’t use as toilet paper, and nitpick over the tiniest things. You drive yourself slowly mad, work yourself into semi-permanent crankiness (sorry, Ci, I know I’m shit this weather), and you leave the office at 5am to get home so that you can wake up early and be back in for noon so that you can start all over again. And when you have a rare evening where there’s nothing much to do and you can let yourself off the hook, you come home and distract yourself from the football by blogging about it.

But then it comes back from the printers, compact and glorious, and you sweat buckets shoving it around in trolleyloads across a 355-acre campus, and you see people pick it up and start pointing at pieces, drawing each others’ attention to the content.

And it’s then that the whole thing is worth it and you start to smile, knowing that that‘s why you do it; that’s why you took the job that pays a third of the minimum wage and demands everything, because it’s a labour of love that’s totally vindicated the second you see someone pick one up and take a look.

I can honestly say – with all the stuff I’ve gotten involved in in UCD, and Christ knows there’s been a lot of it – that I’ve never felt as rewarded or as spiritually fed as I do at the Observer. It’s tough but the connectivity you have and the privilege and duty (in equal parts) you have to share what’s happening with the people who it affects is proper chicken soup for a pale, bleary-eyed journo-kid’s soul.

And so it begins again. Tomorrow we have a news meeting and I’m doing an interview for the centre piece of the otwo magazine; Friday night I might have to tip in to Tolka Park to see if the soccer team can get a result at Shelbourne and keep up their chances of promotion back to the League of Ireland Premier Division, and Saturday… well, on Saturday I’ll probably be glued to a telly, or more likely a computer screen, seeing if the Lisbon opinion poll of UCD students that I spent two days doing last week bears any resemblance to the will of the nation.

Two down. Four ’til Christmas. And on it goes.

Written by Gav

September 30th, 2009 at 8:46 pm