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I was never in favour of abolishing the Seanad. My reasons were to do with mass political communication which many would dismiss with one of censorship’s favourite labels: “academic”. Now, however, there is a more pressing reason to vote No.

I won’t go on too much about the communication aspect but some explanation is required. My interest is political communication and the information – i.e. data and argument – that a citizen requires to participate in public controversies. One of the requirements is access to a range of viewpoints. The Seanad wasn’t designed with this in mind but in its design there was a suggestion of comprehensive debate, something rare and something that could be altered to do the job.

Election to the Seanad is by way of some universities and by way of industrial panels – agriculture, labour and the like. Commentators have pointed to the quality of Seanad speakers delivered by the universities but also to the exclusion of any particular industrial component to the panel elections which came to be dominated by routine inter party competition. There have also been nominations by Taoisigh which sought to recruit particular perspectives. In summary, the Seanad is designed for the most part to institutionalise and deliver sectional perspectives but this simply hasn’t happened.

Had it happened, it would not have been a great success for political communication – or rather for the kind of political communication which the republican or participative citizen needs. It is corporatist thinking. The assumption is that all political debate is based on self-interest and competition for resources. It is the traditional Fianna Fáil way and has become the standard media perspective in Ireland. It has indeed an appealing democratic veneer. Its notion of representation is that voices must be heard from regions, classes, industries, NGOs, lobbies etc. The problem of course is that they may all be saying the same thing: “Me! No, me! No, no, me, me!” This is an intensely conservative position which can often give the appearance of radicalism as when a bit of extra resources for a “deserving” group is championed.

It could be different. Think about this as a specification to be handed to the designers of a new Seanad: It is required that the Seanad reflect not the interests of select groups but that it publicly and fully thrash out all issues on which it deliberates. In summary my long standing position on the Seanad is that it has a promising design which needs to be changed.

Enough of that. We are facing a referendum to abolish the Seanad. The reason we are facing this now has nothing whatsoever to do with arguments put forward over the years that the Seanad is elitist, undemocratic or unnecessary. No, this is happening because the Taoiseach and his advisors can see clearly that there is a growing, right wing, anti-state, anti-politics constituency and he has decided to feed it by sacrificing the Seanad. The cusp of competition for political support now is this large group (There’s no knowing its size yet.) of angry people. It is certainly odd that FG which prides itself on defending democracy should now be prompted in this direction. With the exception of revolutionaries seeking a crisis which might be exploited, the desire among leftists to attach to – even to lead – such people borders on incomprehensible. It seems to be based on a belief that anyone or group opposing austerity and willing to take part in protest is progressive – even socialist. In other words, the very people that might be expected to stand in the way of a populist move to the right are competing to lead it.

Two things remain to be addressed. Firstly, a no vote might be equally attractive to a member of the anti-state/anti politics (ASAP) grouping; “no” would be a rejection of a government proposal. However, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the No side canvassing support on this basis.

Secondly, ASAP may be nothing of consequence. My concern with it grew slowly. I watched Occupy and spoke to some of its adherents. I attended anti-property tax meetings. I live an ordinary social life and take part in conversations. On this anecdotal level ASAP gives cause for concern in terms of what they say, the aggressive stance taken and their numbers. There’s more, however. Published polling data shows firm support for right wing parties, that parties seek ASAP support suggests the existence of data that make that course worthwhile and the utter dominance of the ASAP perspective in the media all combine to support a case for treating ASAP very seriously.

The Taoiseach has reduced this referendum to a question of for or against cutting the number of politicians. That proposal is close to the hearts of the ASAP people. In these particular circumstances people who have been in favour of abolishing the Seanad for other reasons should consider voting No. A Yes gives encouragement to an extremely individualist brand of politics and many of those that I’ve heard advocating abolition of the Seanad over the years certainly don’t belong on that side.


One Comment

    • Donal O'Brolchain
    • Posted September 23, 2013 at 6:47 am
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    • Reply

    The key issue we face is the design, discussion, adoption and implementation of a series of checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – be they elected or appointed, public or private, local national transnational.

    An example is the new Freedom of Information Bill (FoI) which is going before the Dáil this week.

    This government promised to restore the 1997 FoI Act, as part of the programme for government.
    However, the new FoI still maintain fees for requests.

    If you have written on this, I have missed it.

    If you are interested, I offer some links to some of my efforts on FoI and other checks/balances

    FoI – Open letter to TDs and Senators September 2011

    Article in (8 May 2012) Cronyism and corruption – one quick change would help fight them It would be swift work to repeal the 2003 Freedom of Information Act, but it could have far-reachingconsequences, writes Donal Ó Brolcháin.
    also submitted to the Constitutional Convention here

    and another submission on the same issue
    Rebuild Trust – embed strong FoI in our Constitution

    Some earlier efforts

    Given your interest in political communication, you might also find another of my submissions to the Constitutional Convention of interest

    This case for direct democracy was published as part of the Human Rights in Ireland web – forum series
    Shadow Constitutional Convention on 15 October 2012

    Direct democracy is now essential to enhance communication between us the governed and those to whom we delegate our power to govern ourselves
    “There may be change in the criteria of decision – making at the top; change in social habits at the bottom. But unless these two are bridged by the mutual education of the democratic process, communication between the top and the bottom may cease. And in Ireland, where the stimulus to change is to a great extent external, something like this may in fact be happening…But if decision – makers respond more quickly to the challenge of change than the
    masses, the continuing vitality of democracy turns essentially upon their capacity to communicate their convictions to society…They must be able to persuade the electorate of the necessity of what they are doing. This, if anywhere, is where leadership that is otherwise good has failed in Ireland ”
    David Thornley, Ireland – the end of an era? Dublin . Tuairim. 1965. p.11 – 12
    Originally published in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review Vol. 53, No. 209 (Spring, 1964), pp. 1-17.
    Reprinted in Yseult Thornley Unquiet spirit:essays in memory of David Thornley Dublin. Liberties Press. 2008

    Citizens’ Initiative

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