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Tag Archives: seanad

I learned early that there is a great deal of pretence when it comes to choosing one’s appearance. Claims of comfort, fashion or even the word of God are often used to deflect questions or discussion. You see, I went to a Christian Brothers school, an appalling dump, managed and staffed by – let’s say – malefactors, and one of the ways I resisted and annoyed them was to grow my hair slightly long and wear mildly eccentric clothes. I knew what I was doing and never resorted to the defence of fashion or the common, “Jesus had long hair!” I remember a Brother standing over me fuming and spitting, “I know what you’re doing. You’re showing disrespect to me and all I stand for.” Knowing the risks of pushing provocation too far, I stayed silent, thinking, “How right you are, ye thundering bollocks.”

Now, that was a forceful – even antagonistic – statement expressed through appearance. But it’s not always the case. Dress is much more often a passive statement of a willingness to conform (to fit in, to dress appropriately) and/or an affiliation statement as in, “Hey look, I’m a manager cos I dress like you” or “Look, I never wear a tie; I’m just like the anti-establishment guys in Syriza”. Between the forceful and the passive are many mild but thoughtful statements. For example, I like to dress informally – routinely jeans and a casual top or tee shirt. However, as an adult when asked to lecture at University College Dublin, I presented myself quite formally. I did so for a minor and a major reason. Firstly, I thought it might improve my credibility. Much more importantly, I did so to express myself honoured to be working there and to express my respect for the students.

Those who attend the Dáil or Seanad wearing message-emblazoned T-shirts or studiously avoiding anything remotely formal, do so in a deliberate, thoughtful way.Their decision is like mine when dressing for my lowlife teachers and unlike mine when dressing for my respected students. Moreover, their expressive appearance says something which is not merely consistent with their political stance but goes to its core.

A requirement of their political stance is the reduction of the supremacy of parliament. Parliament, they contend, is simply one site for struggle and progress/concessions will be won there as well as on the streets and in workplaces. I’ve argued elsewhere that this approach is essentially conservative and easily accommodated within the Irish cargo/pressure political system.*

Parliament, moreover, is where the “establishment parties”, the “political class”, the “government” etc. reside. Everything about parliament signals establishment: it is constitutional, procedural, inhabited by the well off and the educated, and – yes – the well dressed/groomed who obey its rules and are respectful, and who seem to thrive in that environment.

Anti-establishment has been recently redefined as against all that sort of thing and anyone wishing to be so identified could not possibly dress and behave respectfully in parliament. The dress statement must be antagonistic to the institution of parliament and the establishment of which it is part. Elections are not fought to get into parliament to participate in government. They are fought to get into parliament in order to show disrespect for the establishment, especially the constitutional position of parliament, to show that an activist is consistent, whether in parliament or demonstrating outside the gate. The idea is that there’s nothing very special and certainly not supreme about parliament. It’s just an opportunity to confront the establishment.


* It’s what I’ve termed “left conservatism”: the integration of left campaigning to the point where it functions to stabilise the system.


The most popular post-referendum view seems to be that the result foiled an attempted constitutional “power grab”. The sudden decision by the Taoiseach to abolish the Seanad was nothing of the sort.It was Enda together with his advisers looking at a fast growing political constituency in Ireland and thinking, “We could attract them. Look at them: they despise politics, politicians and the state, they’d love the idea of an attack on all three and we could easily market senate abolition as just that.” * Given that survey data suggest that “savings” was the most common reason for voting Yes, Enda and co. may have been relatively successful in wooing that ASAP (Anti-state/anti-politics) constituency. That the outcome was rejection of the proposal may be due less to support for a reformed senate and more to do with a bizarre consistency among ASAP voters, many of whom – as DDI advocate – will vote against anything proposed by the government. In other words the referendum split the ASAP vote between a Yes side which confirmed the Taoiseach’s analysis and delighted in the prospect of fewer politicians, and a No side which would prefer to line up what they see as the elite rather than be on the same side as the government.


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.