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.

The Sensible Season

In many languages, the silly season is called ...
In many languages, the silly season is called “cucumber time” or similar – presumably because newspapers publish photographs of amusingly-shaped vegetables. Or maybe just because eating cucumbers is bloody silly.

The silly season is over now, says the Taoiseach. Hmm. I didn’t think cutting the funding for disability carers was all that silly myself. Stupid, yes. Wrong certainly. Atrocious, unthinkable, regressive, inhuman and vile, these are all good words. But not silly.

What I did last night now, that was silly. I was checking the lights on the new old car, which meant I had to walk around it while it was switched on. I keep my keys attached to a belt loop by a curly cord which, while absurdly stretchy, was not going to wrap around the whole vehicle, so I was about to detach them when I remembered the fault with the ignition.

The key doesn’t lock in like it’s supposed to. You can pull it out while the electrics are still on, even while the engine is running. Which sounds pretty risky – and indeed we’re waiting for this to be fixed by the dealer. But I thought I might as well take advantage of it. Rather than detach the keys from the carabiner, I simply pulled them and continued around the car.

But I was tired yesterday evening – my first day, as I was saying, of getting up before humans. So when I finished checking I just turned the lights out, I didn’t use the key to put the ignition back to its off position. I didn’t know it would make a difference.

I know now. This morning, up with the lark once more, I vaulted into the car only to discover I had an absolutely stone-cold dead battery. I’ve never had the experience before of turning the key and getting no reaction whatsoever, not even dashboard lights. It’s kind of creepy, as if time has stopped. I almost expected to look up and see birds frozen in mid flight. The LED display that shows time and mileage was blank. Even the random blinky red light that magically scares away car thieves wasn’t randomly blinking.

After a slightly frantic search I found my father’s old car charger. It hadn’t been used for maybe a decade, but to my huge relief it still seemed to work. So what had happened to flatten the battery? I’d definitely turned the lights off. Blinky and gauge are normally on at night. What else was there?

When the car finally had enough juice it became clear. The fan was on at its lowest setting – so quiet I hadn’t noticed it, but enough to let all the vim leak away. Perhaps that battery isn’t the world’s freshest either.

Well, I’m just glad this happened now. If it had been tomorrow morning, the first day of my MSc course, it would’ve been awkward. Flat battery stymies career in science. Student vague on concept of galvanic cell. I’m beginning to feel like irony is out to get me.

 

Unclean

It's all about projecting a market-friendly image

Enda Kenny just rang the opening bell on the New York stock exchange. He spoke for many of us I feel – indeed, for his whole country – when he uttered the immortal words “Me love you long time, five dollah”.

OK, possibly not his exact phrasing, but we won’t quibble over details. The gist of his appearance was that the country has invested in a new tub of lube and we’re ready once more to give the markets what they want. What did we learn from our recent, unhappy affair with global capital? That we’re a bottom, it seems. Not a lot else.

The Taoiseach is there to assert that we’ve put our financial house in order. Pretty much. Well, it’s still in a subsidence zone, but compared to some neighbouring houses it’s very very well propped up. That’s all fine, but what about Wall Street’s house? Foolish borrowing and mismanagement of the euro were factors, but it was the unstoppable flood of credit that washed away the foundations and caused the entire economy to slide into the sea. And that all began with the wilful pretence that bad debt could be magically turned into a good investment – basically, a confidence trick.

Shouldn’t it be Wall Street ringing the bell?

Private Profit, Public Punishment

loan shark... 218365
Image by paloetic via Flickr

Is it true, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny said at Davos, that Ireland went mad with borrowing?

Far from it. We went mad with lending. A very different thing.

No seriously. The Taoiseach’s choice of words suggest that it is right for the public as a whole to have to pick up the tab for this, because we bear a collective moral responsibility for it – by going a bit mad. Whether he intended it or not, this is insulting nonsense. For a start, many were too sensible to borrow more than they could afford. Others were too poor to be lent money at all, even with the lax standards of last decade.

Some of us were both.

People did not suddenly become extra-greedy last decade for no apparent reason. People were always greedy, and until recently banks made their money by exploiting these human desires – but exploiting them sustainably. This changed when they managed to convince themselves that they could turn a profit on less secure lending.

This is not to exonerate people who borrowed recklessly. It’s still foolish behaviour and people should not be rewarded for it. But neither should the rest of society be punished. The idea that this could all have been avoided if the public had, en masse, just budgeted more sensibly is patently ludicrous. It was the lenders who had their hands on the control valves; they precipitated the crisis.

They, and of course the people who encouraged these lending practices by investing in them. Bondholders, as we call them.

Address To The Nation

Enda Kenny making a speech in the Burlington H...
The Taoiseach, saying things. For some reason

The country stood by today as our leader Enda Kenny addressed the nation – only the sixth time in history that a Taoiseach has done such a thing. His speech left but one question on lips across the country.

What the hell was that for?

The speech contained much that would have been bad news, if it had been news. It was depressing, sure, but confusingly it did not contain the really awful tidings that would have justified its existence. So it’s pretty much as we expected.

No mention of any welfare rates being further cut, but no mention of them not being cut either. So expect that.

Direct taxes will not be raised, but indirect will. In other words, money will be extracted not just from those who have it, but rich and poor alike. Or as Enda put it:

“I wish I could tell you budget won’t impact on citizens in need, but it will.”

It seems the poor and sick aren’t actually going to be rounded up and shot though. Presumably they’re dying off at a rate sufficient to give markets confidence in our government’s international-finance-friendly ruthlessness.

The highlight I think was when he told us that the economic collapse was not our fault, even if we were all going to have to pay for it. Nice of him to mention that I suppose. We did know though.

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Happy Bertie To You

Croke Park Dublin
Intimate Venue Available For Family Occasions

Talk Show host Joe Duffy just claimed “Nobody is saying Bertie Ahern¹ was corrupt.” Does he not know about the libel laws in this country? A person can pull shit like this and we are still not allowed to say they’re corrupt.

Let’s just put it this way: Nobody is saying his financial affairs were entirely above board either. Among the people who aren’t saying that are the tax office.

It’s hard to say if somebody personally received corrupt payments when that person seems to have no clear concept of a difference between personal, family or party money. But corruption isn’t just kickbacks and envelopes full of cash. Ahern, and the party he led, were closely involved with the property, construction and finance industries in two distinct but intertwined ways: On one hand the party came to associate its political fortunes with the runaway success of these sectors. On the other, a great many of them associated their personal fortunes with that success too. Virtually the whole party – and it must be said, a sizeable portion of the Irish political caste as a whole – were compromised by their involvement. Is compromised the same thing as corrupted?

Not if it won’t get me sued.

Ahern is in the news again now because it’s his 60th birthday this weekend. More specifically, because he’s having his party in the country’s most important stadium, Croke Park. Seriously. His immediate family don’t seem to see any problem with this. Sure it’s an entirely private matter. It’s just that it’s being done in the most public possible way.

I invite them to consider how this will be perceived from abroad. As our country depends for its day-to-day running on funding from the rest of Europe, the man who presided over its financial implosion is being fêted at our national stadium. It’s difficult to explain, isn’t it? Frankly it makes Berlusconi’s Italy look respectable.

 

  1. For late arrivals, the Taoiseach of Ireland during most of the boom years.

China, The Vatican, And Ireland

Pope Benedictus XVI at a private audience (Jan...
I'll Get You For This, Kenny

This is priceless. Our Taoiseach‘s recent outburst against the Vatican has been taken up by the official Chinese media – which is not really a different thing from the Chinese government – in support of its campaign against the Catholic Church.

What campaign? Well basically, the government think they should appoint Catholic priests, rather than the Catholic hierarchy. Much as they have an ‘official’ Dalai Lama, etc. Ain’t that an interesting idea?

Wow, I really don’t know which way to jump on this one. Much as I think the Vatican should basically not do anything anywhere at all, a state-appointed priesthood is an extraordinarily totalitarian idea.

Well OK, the English invented it. But that was back when England was really very totalitarian. It’s as opposite to the separation of church and state as is possible. On the other hand, I think it would be great if Catholics in Ireland cut ties with Rome.

It’s a power struggle between two quite different yet equally objectionable powers – when I think about, probably the two most powerful absolutist regimes on Earth. And now Enda Kenny is caught in the middle.

Maybe I’ll just get some popcorn and enjoy this one.

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.

And That Completes The Set

garret-fitzgerald1
The Way We Were

And that completes the set. Now there are no honest politicians left at all.

Maybe I exaggerate a trifle, but Garret Fitzgerald did seem different. Even though he led a right-of-centre party, even though he could give the impression of being confused and ineffectual, even though he didn’t achieve much of what he set out to, he was the greatest leader that Ireland has had in my memory. There was never any doubt that Garret’s motivation was not personal power, status or wealth. He wasn’t there to be liked by his coterie or cheered by the the masses. He was there to do something about the mess the country was in.

He did that, and he was still liked anyway. Though the sobriquet ‘Garret The Good’ was intended to lampoon his earnestness, no one doubted that it was true. This was a good man in politics. A man who did more than anyone to free Ireland from religious domination, who first dared to attempt what finally bore fruit as the Peace Process. That rarest of things, an intellectual in a leadership role.

And in 1987, the voters of Ireland decided that they would actually prefer to be ruled by Charles Haughey. So perhaps we deserve all that has come since.