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.

Another Presidential Assassination

Banner of the Irish Blueshirts.
You mention Fine Gael and far-right militants in the same article, and the automatic image search comes out with the Blueshirt flag. Stop editorialising, image search.

Could Norris have won? No, not now. He was the fun candidate. I am not saying he wasn’t a perfectly serious candidate as well, but he more than anyone else stood for liberation from tiresome, hopeless, party-controlled politics, and if he was going to be elected it would have been on a wave of joyful voting against the establishment. The sheer fact that his ex-partner had committed rape was inevitably going to take the wind out of that.

I wish he had been allowed to continue though. I’d like to have voted for him, if only to say that what he did wrong was forgiveable.

If indeed he did something wrong. From reading the actual letters (PDF) he sent to Israel, I don’t think he represented himself as speaking on behalf of the Irish people or government, or even his constituents. The only part that seems to have been on official Senate paper was the brief and rather bland character reference. The long, detailed plea for leniency appears to have originally been a separate document sent in a personal capacity.

The question of whether he should have pleaded for leniency at all in such a case remains, and I think that was a mistake for a person in his position. But I wouldn’t want to vote for someone who never did a stupid thing for love.

So now, bizarrely, it’s Gay Mitchell’s turn. He’s the candidate of Fine Gael, the party leading the newly-elected government, and so very arguably the favourite since Norris’s departure. Mitchell too made an appeal to a foreign judiciary, in 2003 when he was FG’s spokesman on foreign affairs. His though was for a man due to be executed for the murder of a doctor and his bodyguard, outside an abortion clinic in Florida.

Mitchell says that it was in the context of a consistent campaign against the death penalty. All I will say is, it had better be.