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Upper Houses

20/05/2012

The Seanad is a microcosm of Twentieth Century Ireland, inefficient and elitist, a relic of by-gone days that the Irish people should be eager to leave behind.

Let us look briefly at the rise of democratic institutions to see how democracies should function and what role upper houses play in them.

In Ancient Greece in the Fifth Century BCE, the Athenians drove out the ruling class and established the world’s first democracy with Cleisthenes the name-sake and grandson of a former dictator as leader of council. The 60,000 Athenian citizens would gather in public fora and discuss matters of importance to society. After rounds of debate they would vote on the issue under discussion ensuring that society ran on democratic principles as well as efficiently and fairly.

The principles of democracy and the Republic (rule by law) considered and refined by Plato, Aristotle and Euripides later spread to Rome. The plebeians would elect a parliament of their representatives while the affluent patricians elected the more powerful Senate.

In England in 1080 CE William the Conqueror formed a council of barons to serve as his advisors, the country’s first step away from absolute monarchy. In 1215 King John signed the Magna Carta, a legal document which gave further powers and rights to the barons to establish a parliament of landowners and aristocrats. The civil war of the 1640s saw the victory of the parliamentary army over the king’s army. Eventually further powers were granted to the people and thus a constitutional democracy was established. To this day the United Kingdom is run by a democratically elected House of Commons and an elitist House of Lords in conjunction with the monarch.

In America in the late 18th Century wealthy colonists with Prussian leadership and French reinforcements funded an insurgency which over-threw the British government in the colonies. Leading and forward-thinking Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams and George Washington drafted the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and later the Bill of Rights, laying down the unalienable rights of man and establishing the World’s first republic. Operating under the principles of the separation of powers, the directly elected Senate existed to hold the super-powerful Congress to account.  This republic only included white males over the age of twenty-five and landowners. President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognised that no model of democracy is ever complete, “I do not look upon these United States as a finished product. We are still in the making.” Nebraska, the Union’s only unicameral state operates just as efficiently as the other 49 states. Its soul house is the Nebraska Legislature.

In France 1789 a disgruntled French middle-class rebelled against the Anciene Régime, arguably sparked by recession brought on by the country’s participation in the US rebellion. After 11 years the bourgeoisie was over-thrown and a republic was founded based upon the principles of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”. The First Republic did not thrive and is now in its Fifth Republic after a number of dictatorial regimes from Robespierre, Napoleon and a reinstated King Louis XVIII to the Nazis. In Vichy France, autocrats under Marshall Pétain changed the national motto to “Travaille, Famille, Patrie”, work, family, homeland. They ignored the rudiments of how the citizens should live together as enlightened individuals and sought to have the citizenry live merely to serve the state.

In New Zealand, in 1951 after adopting the Statute of Westminster allowing it to change its constitution without going through the British legislature, the New Zealand National Party abolished its upper house, the New Zealand Legislative Council. Since its abolition, the lower house, the New Zealand House of Representatives has arguably run the country as effectively as when it was bicameral.

In 1936 the Irish Senate, established, under the radical 1922 Free State Constitution was abolished after challenging constitutional reforms favoured by the government. This original Senate was meant to be directly elected by PR and to bring a level of diversity to the legislature. A far weaker Senate was created by Éamon de Valera in the 1937 Constitution with greatly reduced powers, able only to delay legislation for three months.

The reasons to abolish the Irish Seanad are over-whelming. It is a sycophantic, ignoble, dysfunctional organ of Irish Society. It has no real legislative power and instead serves to provide a home for politicians on the way in or out of office and jobs for the friends of those in power. Of 60 members, 11 are chosen directly by the Taoiseach, a further 43 by senators, deputies and councilors already in office and the remaining six by two universities, TCD and NUI. There is a long history of individual senators abusing their privileges, particularly financially such as the recent scandal involving Ivor Callely. We shouldn’t put up with a superfluous extra house and the economic burden associated with it when the Seanad carries out no function which could not be carried out by Dáil committees.

We live in a deeply unfair society. Our courts are unable to convict the bankers and technocrats who brought our country to financial ruin, instead imprisoning citizens who are left unable to pay their debts or their legal fees.

We need to return to a more Athenian form of participative democracy where people from all walks of life are encouraged to learn from and debate with each other. Often less than half of eligible voters partake in elections and referenda while those who do, complain about the choice of candidates and parties and about being in the dark on so many issues. Citizens should participate in public fora and directly influence legislation in a Citizens’ Assembly. Then we could draft a new constitution and decide what sort of society we want to live in.

We need to remember the last time there was this much public discontent in Europe, the continent became controlled by totalitarian fascist hegemonies. We should take this opportunity to move towards a more just and inclusive Ireland and to educate ourselves to become a more engaged and aware citizenry. Without sordid and out-dated institutions like the Seanad corrupting our discourse, we can.

~Colm

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