I apologise for missing last week’s blog, but the reasons were good and I will write about it another time. Anyway, I was reading the Irish Independent over breakfast in a Dublin hotel this morning, and was reminded of another subject that has long engaged (and enraged) me.
This autumn, the Coalition Government here is proposing to hold a referendum on the future existence of Seanad Éireann, which is Gaelic for The Senate, the second house of government here in Ireland. They want to abolish it.
My father once said to me that while society continues to try and work out how to make democracy function, each nation employing a slightly different formula and none of them perfect, what we have in the UK, and by extension (because it is based on the British system), what we have here in Ireland, is Elected Dictatorship.
Once a government is elected here, if it has a decent majority (as the current coalitions do, and notoriously, the Labour government in 1997 in the UK), it can do what it likes. And one thing it is clear the current bunch here would like to do is get rid of any interference from the second house (and their own backbenchers too, especially Labour, but that’s a slightly different story).
Politicians will tell you it is all about efficiency but I’ve talked about that before; and personally, I’m not taking any lessons from politicians on the subject of efficiency.
What I’m getting at here is democracy, or at the least, doing the best we can to get close to it. Aristotle didn’t think democracy could work in states of more than 100,000 citizens, but we can give it a go. Whatever I or anyone may say about it, Democracy is still the worst system of government except for all the others, as Churchill once said.
Officially the Seanad Éireann is a selected group of 60 members, who are nominated by the Taoiseach or by a group of so-called panels representing vested interests of one kind or another (Wikipedia for details). But talk to anyone and it is seen as a platform for people who have failed to get elected into the Dáil (the Irish House of Commons – pronounced Doyle, but we can discuss the pronunciation of Gaelic spelling another time). Senators move from the Seanad to the Dáil, if they can manage it, not the other way around, as is the case in Britain.
The Second House of Government in a democracy is meant to be the place for the sober and, hopefully, disinterested discussion of proposed laws, without the burden of party or whip. It ought to be the place where laws, especially new laws and departures from ancient tradition, can be debated and delayed, if only to give us all, including the government itself, time to consider what the government is trying to do.
It seems to me this delaying process is even more necessary now that generally speaking, government is the work of the Cabinet alone or even a small clique within the cabinet, and the TDs (Irish MPs) are obliged by the whip system to vote as they are told to vote. The idea, the original idea of forming a Parliament to work with and restrain the Monarch, the idea that the people send representatives from their constituency to argue for them and represent their hopes and needs has all but disappeared, and now it is like a tug of war, with the majority of the TDs only there to pull in the direction indicated by their leaders and ask no questions. How these modern day court eunuchs deal with that, who knows? Certainly I don’t know and cannot imagine tolerating the loss of self-belief and self-esteem it requires.
On a slightly different topic, one I addressed earlier, the government have told us they’re going to whip the vote on abortion, which will take place soon. Surely this is a matter of conscience and moral judgement, whichever side you’re on. To force the TDs to follow the leadership on such an issue must be downright wrong. And if it isn’t to be debated in a disbanded Senate, then it is all down to the decision, judgement, whim, call it what you will, of the Taoiseach and the inner circle of his Cabinet, those who tell the other lesser (Junior or not) Ministers what to say and do.
Sounds like dictatorship, doesn’t it?