Save The Senate

Logo of the Oireachtas of Ireland
Logo of the Oireachtas of Ireland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s not try to avoid the obvious here. The Seanad is an embarrassment. It’s astonishingly, intrinsically and indeed deliberately unrepresentative. It is a pawn of the executive, a sinecure for the superannuated, an affront to democracy.

But it’s something.

Embarrassing and undemocratic, because our Senate is fascist through and through. I’m quite serious. Its structure was inspired by a social theory called corporatism, applied under Mussolini’s government and endorsed enthusiastically by the Papacy as an alternative to the danger of electing socialists or communists.

The idea was that instead of voting in the traditional area-based way, members of society would be represented according to the role they played. So there would be workers’ representatives and bosses’ representatives, and instead of strikes (which would be illegal) they would reach agreement in parliament. It all seems rather sweet and naive really. If you overlook the fascist bit. It’s also fantastically paternalistic and condescending. Rather like communism, you don’t get to elect lawmakers directly. You elect people who elect people who elect people.

Well OK, one sort of person is considered sufficiently mature. As a university graduate, I get to vote directly for a Senator! We’re smart. The rest of you, you’re all represented by your trade union or your business organisation. And if you’re not an employee, an employer or a member of the graduate professions, well I guess you just don’t belong in the ideal world of Pope Pius XI.

At the same time though, the Senate can’t actually do anything. In framing the constitution of 1937, de Valera wasn’t going to create a power system to rival his party machine. Arguably it was a sop to the Catholic Church – which unlike communism actually could threaten democratic government. The Senate can say what it likes but it can’t stop a law passing or force any amendments. It can just delay a bill.

Unless the Dáil considers it urgent, and suspends even that power.

We should be glad I guess that it’s both powerless and undemocratic, and not just one of those things. But what it should be of course is neither. Whether directly elected or appointed by lottery (actually a better idea than it sounds), it must be constituted in a way that represents people equally. And it should have powers. Not to rival the Dáil’s authority of course, but sufficient to oversee legislation.

We speak of the checks and balances necessary to democracy, but in practise we ignore them pretty much completely. We have a winner-takes-all system of government. When you’ve got the Dáil you’ve hit the jackpot. Take the opposite extreme: In the US the executive is elected directly, entirely independently of the legislature. The legislature itself is divided into two houses of almost equal power, watching each other. These three branches plus the judiciary keep power balanced. Sometimes rather closely balanced as we’re seeing right now, but balanced.

Our system looks a lot like that, but the resemblance is almost wholly superficial. Despite being directly elected, our President is virtually powerless. The executive is elected by, and from among, the party or parties that win the Dáil (House). Finally, the Senate is packed with the executive’s nominees. So it’s true to say that the deadlock currently besetting America wouldn’t happen under our system. But that’s because under ours, the President and the Senate would be Republican too.

An Irish Taoiseach is as close to a dictator as it’s possible to get under the rule of law. Party discipline ensures cabinet assent. Except in rare cases of a minority administration, his will is inevitably carried out by the legislature. Only the judiciary is truly independent, and the circumstances under which they can review legislation are highly circumscribed. So it’s true that abolishing the Senate won’t remove a lot of government supervision. Just the little bit we had.

And once it’s gone, once all power is finally vested in the Dáil, do you seriously think they’ll ever give it back? We need a parliamentary system with more checks and balances, not fewer.

Three Billion In Change

Bank Dance

All This Needs Is a Soundtrack By Loituma

Are we not the sharpest-dressed protesters you have ever seen? We’re at the launch of a new commemorative coin – face value, €15 – an event we found more than ironic on the day that the Dáil debates a budget designed to exact from the poor the money promised by the rich to the rich. Unemployment benefit is being cut. Children’s allowance is being cut. Respite support for carers is being cut – this last so obscenely cruel to the vulnerable protectors of the even more vulnerable that I strongly suspect it was put in the budget just to make the other cuts seem politically acceptable.

All of this, basically so that we can make the latest €3.1 billion of payments to the people whose reckless lending destroyed our economy. Yes seriously, we continue to reward the rapacious, wilfully short-sighted, knowingly unsustainable lending that led to 2008. Though we cannot afford it, though we will never be able to pay back the enormous sums our banks went bust owing, we continue to try – by means of attacking the unemployed and impoverished. This is not the function and duty of a state.

Ours was a restrained, even polite protest today. The only real way to tell us from the people who were invited was that we wore less make-up. I’d come directly from an exam in project management. There my wearing a suit had been cause for comment, but I think it gave me a real psychological advantage. No one else did the management exam dressed like the manager.

Whether it was this or the intense preparation I put in, my least-favourite subject turned out be probably my best exam. If it had a fault it was that I spent more time than I really should have on a favourite question. This concerned people issues in “Agile programming”, a modern approach that requires the code-trolls to closely interact with clients. The people issues, they abounded; for the rest of the exam I kept going back to the answer to add new ones I’d thought of. Mixing people with coding skills and interpersonal skills together is not a business methodology, it’s the premise for The IT Crowd.

And that, incidentally, concluded my first semester. What a short strange trip it’s been. That in six months I could end up actually enjoying questions of personnel management theory… It’s some change all right.

Fornication Once Again

Not a term you hear much these days, fornication. For those of you without the benefit of a Catholic education, fornication is the sin of having sex with someone who isn’t your spouse, a puzzling concept in a day and age when few still believe in sex after marriage.

Michelle Mulherin’s (FG) use of the word in a Dáil debate was amusing, but rather distracted from the issue. This being that the courts have found – years ago – that there are circumstances where a woman has a right to an abortion, but the legislature has never overturned existing or created new law to decriminalise it in those circumstances. It’s such a touchy subject that even an ostensibly woman-friendly party like Labour are avoiding it. (This attempt to correct the situation was sponsored by the tiny Socialist party.)

The basic problem is that the issue is not open to reasoned debate – not when a significant proportion of people (probably a minority now, but still a blocking one) stick with the Pope‘s opinion that human life and its concomitant rights begin at the moment of conception. It’s an extremist position, but it effectively closes down the subject. If abortion is murder, how can you even discuss it?

Others do take different stances. That humanity begins at birth, or that there is some stage of development after which a foetus may be said to be human. The latter though is really passing the buck. There is no medical definition of humanity, the start of human life – conception, birth, some point in between – is a matter of how you define life and how you define humanity, a philosophical question with no definitive answer in science, or indeed in scripture.

This being the case, can we not accept that the only relevant opinion here is that of the woman?

Bent

Paragraph from the Mahon Tribunal findings, image courtesy Simon Carswell

Fifty years and God knows how much money to reach a conclusion that – let’s face it – we already knew. Madness?

No, worth every penny. Because the “everybody knows” needed to be brought out and made official: Politics in Ireland, and planning in particular, is filthy, stinking, riddled with the most blatant corruption, bent. That’s official.

And now it’s official we can begin to dismantle it, to make politics fair and open in this country. No more blind eyes can be turned now that a little boy – well, a panel of judges – has pointed out that the Emperor is walking around with his giblets out. It will be a huge task, but at least we can face up to it and make a start.

There will be resistance, even now, from all corners of society. Because you know that while some of us feel this as fresh air on our faces, there are a lot of people in Ireland – a hell of a lot of people – who will see it as a loss for their team, a massive letting of the side down. Huge numbers of ordinary voters who were loyal to their party not in spite of but because of its corruption, who genuinely believed they were advantaged by nod-and-wink politics. Because that was our political culture, and the parties did nothing to discourage it – to say the least.

They were not advantaged of course, not the vast majority of them. In fact it disadvantaged all voters, in favour of those who could afford to purchase their political representation wholesale. Because political corruption destroys democracy, raising a secret aristocracy in its place. What is your vote worth, when others are paying cash?

How Abject Can We Get?

The Dail Eireann
What is the opposite of social welfare?

A Dáil committee debate; someone yet again makes the point that if we selectively burn lenders now, they will remember it if we ever want to borrow again.

The government’s logic seems to be that the bank debts taken on – but not created – by the State are just like all public borrowing now. But they’re not the same. It was money lent into an overheated credit market by reckless lenders. Just as our banks made loans they should not have, those international institutions lent money they should not have lent to our banks. They took unreasonable risks, they stoked a boom, and they helped collapse the entire Irish banking industry.

We want them to remember not to do that.

No On Both Referendums

"Well Connected" - Photo Irish Independent

Turnout is low. Too low.

Late in the day as it is, I want to urge people to get out and reject both referendums. There is a lot of confusion about them, I do not think government has paid sufficient attention to explaining them – in itself a reason to refuse their request for a change – and in particular there seems to be misunderstanding over the judges’ pay issue with many associating it with the exorbitant legal costs, of the Tribunals in particular.

The legal profession does need to be reined in, but this amendment simply has nothing to do with that. It is the fees charged by barristers and law firms that make legal action so expensive. Judges are paid by the state, and the cost of employing them is almost trivial by comparison.

Of course reducing their pay would save some cash. But not a lot, and it would come at the price of a very important principle. What is there to stop a future government, with a bill being tested in the Supreme Court for constitutionality, threatening judges with drastic pay reductions? If this amendment passes, nothing.

The independence of the judiciary is essential to a free country, and we shouldn’t even be dreaming of compromising it.

As for the other amendment, I think the Oireachtas should have the power to hold parliamentary enquiries. But I would rather we did without them for a bit longer than give excessive powers to government. This amendment seems very vague, and I simply can’t believe that broad new powers for TDs and Senators won’t end up being abused for political ends. We need to examine this more carefully.

And as for the Presidency, that’s turned from a fun game into a desperate last-minute attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of Fianna Fáil. You may not be a fan of Michael D., but he’s the only one now who can prevent our next President being a man who, increasingly, looks like a new Bertie Ahern.

Please, get out there and help.

Vatican City Limits

From Roma with love
Ideally, it should be in a hollowed-put volcano

What I hate about the Vatican is their holier-than-thou attitude. It may not pretend that it’s above error, but it continuously insists, to us and to itself, that even if it does on occasion do harm it ultimately achieves a greater good.

Look closely at the logic of that. The more harm the Vatican does therefore – whether it be protecting paedophiles from the law or impeding the prevention of AIDS – the more good it must be doing. The benefit of its existence must outweigh these ephemeral evils. To think otherwise would be to confront a truly appalling vista.

And if the good the church does must inevitably outweigh the bad, then preserving it and its power in the world must surely be worth more than the safety of a child. Or any number of children.

This kind of ruthless logic is what makes religious organisations last for thousands of years while kingdoms and empires rise and fall.

But when an Irish politician unequivocally condemns the actions and the attitude of the Vatican, you know that times are changing. Addressing the Dáil, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said:

The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’.

Couldn’t have put it better myself really. Well maybe stylistically, but the content is spot on. He continued:

. . . a report into child sexual-abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic . . . as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so . . . excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism . . . the narcissism . . . that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.

Broadly speaking, he tore them a new one.

Hight time, and popular support is overwhelming. Irish new media publication TheJournal.ie did decide to give space to a priestly apologist for the Catholic church, but I think that was mainly to give the rest of us a target. His point though, if the metaphor is not unfortunate, was that we should not throw the baby of the church’s teachings out with the bathwater of its failings. Society needs a spiritual dimension, and the church has contributed much of practical value too.

I’m not going to argue against the social utility of religion – not today at least. For the moment I’ll accept the assertion that people, some people at least, require or benefit from religion in their lives. The question that still remains however, which I would like to ask this apologist, the Vatican, and every cleric who put the instructions of the Vatican before the safety of children: Why does that religion have to be Catholicism?

There are many other faiths. Heck, there are even many other forms of Christianity. Perhaps people in Ireland who wish to practice a religion should choose one that has sinned less.