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Who would want to be a TD?

16 Jul

This column is from two weeks back (July 3rd, 2017) and is both a guarded defence of the political party system and a warning of the dangers of the constant desire of the hard left fringe parties to take politics out on to the street.  

It is said that France has the only “tricameral system” in the world – the National Assembly, the Senate and the Street – but history and experience shows that the Street has always been the biggest hindrance to reform. Origianl column online here: www.broadsheet.ie/who-would-want-to-be-a-td/

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Who in their right mind would want to become a T.D.?

The pay is good, the perks are decent and the scope for promotion (career and ‘self’) is none too bad either, but can these incentives really outweigh the forfeiture of a private life, never mind the ongoing press, public and social media opprobrium whenever you express an opinion?

Shouldn’t politics be a vocation, not a career path?

The problem with that view is not just that it is naïve, it is that it simply won’t work. Try it and we end up with a Dáil full of only those who can only afford to be there by virtue of their profession, their families’ money or simple “pull” – by the way not all of them would be on the right, a fair few would also come from the comfortable left, but that’s just an aside.

So, recognising that we are in the real world, perhaps we should be looking more at how to make entry into politics less unattractive and encourage more people who would not just see it as a long-term career option, but rather as something to contribute to after they have done and achieved other things.

Billy Connolly used to say that “The desire to be a politician should be enough to ban you from ever becoming one”. He is right, but only in one narrow sense. Wanting power for the sake of having it should be disqualification, but wanting it so you can change things, whether that be how many street lights there are in your community cycle, how waste is managed or how the cost of housing is reduced – that should be encouraged.

One of the problems is that many of political parties still include obstacles and tests that deter all but the most ambitious and politically astute. There is value in these skills, but national politics needs others too: people with wider skill sets and experiences.

Politics is not well served when it full of neophytes who have spent plenty of time as parliamentary researchers and ministerial assistants but have no genuine experience of the real world.

This applies to both left and right. Politics needs more people who have built things from houses to computers to companies and fewer people who have made placards and organised protest marches.

This is one of the reasons we have political parties. The most crucial role of any party, after policy development, is candidate selection. Political parties are there to identify, encourage, resource and support new entrants – people who may not in other circumstances have considered or pursued politics. They are there to protect them and back when they come under attack and support their work by making policy expertise available.

It can and does work. After the 2011 election massacre, Fianna Fáil was left with a lot of vacancies for prospective TDs as it had a lot of constituencies with no sitting TDs and no seat blockers. This was a major plus, it had the capacity to rebuild and renew with a massive intake of new talent. But it also had a big problem. On the negative side, it had a poll rating that would not encourage many to see it as offering a pathway to the Dáil.

Squaring this circle was no easy task. It had both to identify potential future TDs and to reassure them that it was a sufficiently viable vehicle to help them make it to the Dáil and contribute positively.

Much of that work happened locally. In many cases the local organisations and activists were ahead of their national counterparts. By the time of the 2014 local elections the party, nationally and locally was starting to synchronise both tasks: it had sufficiently recovered in the national polls to offer a credible vehicle and also had a slate of people with a variety of backgrounds to fast track into the Dáil.

Looking back, it now looks far more organised and structured that it probably was at the time. Building a mythology around what was done and how it was achieved risks missing the real and valuable lessons of what really happened. It also risks allowing a re-emergence of all the obstacles and hurdles of the past.

Though much of Fianna Fáil managed over the past five years was much by local action as by national design, it still offers a template for how other parties can and should encourage more new entrants.

But there is one big proviso, they must also realise that the work does not end when you bring in a few new TDs. If anything, that is when it really starts. TDs are not shrinking violets, but neither can they be allowed become punching bags for any group, whether in or outside the Dáil, who want to take politics out on to the street and then abrogate all responsibility for the consequences.

Every TD has an equal right to be heard inside and outside the Dáil. Being a Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour or Sinn Féin back bencher does not lessen or reduce their mandate and should not reduce their speaking rights. Political parties are not an impediment to political progress, they are the bedrock of it.

Everyone has a right to disagree and to do so robustly and loudly, but the “What the Parliament does, the street can undo” mantra of Solidarity-PBP cannot be allowed to stand. It is a pernicious attempt to discourage wider political engagement and involvement in the guise of opening it up to those approved by Solidarity-PBP.

It is joked that France has the only “tricameral system” in the world – the National Assembly, the Senate and the Street – but history and experience shows that the Street has always been the biggest hindrance to reforms.

It is yet another reason why political parties now must ensure that many people who should be considering entering politics are given the opportunities, supports and protections to do so.

ENDS.

I have my doubts about Enda Kenny’s emigrants’ votes plans

13 Mar

Enda Kenny’s fascination with his predecessor John A. Costello continues. Not only is Enda determined to beat Costello’s record for time served as Taoiseach, he now seems to want to eclipse Costello’s penchant from making major constitutional announcements outside the country.

Costello announced his intention for Ireland to abandon the External Relations Act (and effectively quit the British Commonwealth and declare itself Republic) during a visit to Canada in 1948, while Kenny announces in Philadelphia that he intends to hold a referendum to give the Irish diaspora votes in future Irish presidential elections – but only in elections after the next one.

There are many legends about Costello’s Ottawa announcement, including one version that claims he made it when was “tired and emotional” and another that asserts he did it after being offended by the placing of a replica of the Roaring Meg canon used in the Siege of Derry in front of him on the dining table at a formal dinner at the Governor General’s residence. But they are only legends.

Moves to repeal to External Relations Act, which gave the British Crown limited recognition around foreign relations, i.e. Irish diplomats were formally accredited by the King, were already afoot before Costello even came to office. In late 1947 Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government started preparing a repeal bill, but work on this was halted by the February 1948 election.

At least Costello was able to announce something which he could immediately legislate for and see carried into action within a reasonable space of time. Within eight months Ireland was out of the Commonwealth), in Enda’s case he has just announced plans which may not come to fruition for another 8 years (never mind 8 months) – and only then if they are passed in a Referendum, which is no absolute certainty.

We must wait a few weeks more to see the detail of the Governments proposals on extending voting rights in Presidential Elections from 2025 onwards to Irish citizens living outside of the Republic. From what the Minister of State for the Diaspora said on Radio this morning it appears that the Government intends to publish a range of options rather than a specific plan, which suggests that this whole adventure may not even be as planned and prepared as Costello’s 1948 one.

According to Minister of State McHugh there are an estimated 1.8 million citizens outside the State and a potential electorate of 1.87 million in Northern Ireland. To put this in context the total electorate eligible to vote at the October 2011 Presidential Election was just 3.2 million (On the day just 1.8m (56%) of them chose to vote).

While it is likely, if not certain, that Enda Kenny will neither be Taoiseach nor leader of Fine Gael by the time the referendum comes around, his shadow will hang over this and let’s not forget that Enda has had a penchant for starting referendums that he cannot win.

Will this be another one? I personally hope not, but I must admit that I am far from thrilled or enthused by what I have heard from the Taoiseach and his Ministers over the past few hours. Surely such a major constitutional change should be accompanied by detailed research and argument, not followed along by broad range of options for consideration to be published a month or so later.

While I can see some merit in Leo Varadkar’s description of the proposal allowing for the transformation of the Presidency into one for the whole Irish nation, highlighting the fact that Ireland has become a global nation via its diaspora, won’t we also be effectively limiting the Presidency to just a symbolic, ceremonial role? Though they are not often exercised, the Irish President does have important constitutional functions, are we perhaps diluting those for what it effectively just a gesture?

I also worry about how the referendum campaign make shape up. As we have seen in past campaigns, indeed as Leo Varadkar has observed: referendums are “by and large” never what they are supposed to be about and they can often turn into a votes on “extraneous issues… or decisions being made by the Government, such as cutbacks.”

The government’s proposed referendum, if not managed and led effectively, could perversely be turned into a reverse border poll – with the focus falling not on the wider diaspora or on the positives of giving Irish citizens in the North a formal recognition in our political process – but on worse aspect of the North and the prospect of allowing a load of hard-line DUP voters (and others) have any kind of say in the South.

Public attitudes to the North down here as not always as positive and welcoming as we would have ourselves believe. A recent poll for RTE by Dr Kevin Cunningham’s Ireland Thinks found a very mixed appetite for a United Ireland among voters in the Republic, particularly when it comes to the costs of re-unification. It roughly found that that voters in the Republic split three ways with one third being in favour, one third against and one third undecided.

That said, Brexit has pushed Irish re-unification way up the political agenda for all parties North or South: not as an absolute inevitability, but as an increasingly likely consequence of the economic consequences of Brexit.

Re-unification needs to be seriously considered now, not as some rhetorical wrap the green flag around me slogan, but as a real and viable political option. This is something that needs to be thought through seriously, which is why Micheál Martin’s announcement today that Fianna Fáil will soon publish its 12-point plan to prepare the way for unification of the island is so welcome.

We need to start talking and preparing for unification by strengthening the economic, political and educational links between the Republic and Northern Ireland. While these could help re-unification, even if that were not to come about, they would still be mutually beneficial.

Hopefully Fianna Fáil’s proposals, due in the coming months, will help provide a sound and considered backdrop for the debate on giving votes for citizens North of the border.

For the record, when it comes to votes for Irish citizens outside the jurisdiction my own preference would be to look to Leinster House rather than Áras an Uachtaráin and follow the French model by having a constituency in parliament (either in the Dáil or Seanad) voted for exclusively by Irish citizens living outside the Republic, in fact I would suggest two such constituencies: one for Irish citizens living in the North and one for Irish Citizens living elsewhere.

As it stands today, while I am inclined to vote what Enda Kenny announced in Philadelphia, I am not so enthused as to go out campaigning for it – on that score, I remain to be convinced. Over to you Leo or Simon.

IMG_7982

Debating this column on RTÉ’s Late Debate – video clip below

ENDS

 

 

Irish ‘New Politics’ explained…. kind of… #Dail

25 May

DSMooney_Bio_PicThis is my latest article for Broadsheet.ie – available online here: http://www.broadsheet.ie/2016/05/24/the-new-politics-explained/

New Politics explained…..

What exactly is this “New Politics” we have been reading and hearing about so much lately?

It was the question that should have occurred to me as soon as the Public Relations Institute asked me to participate in a panel discussion they held last Thursday as part of a half day seminar entitled: Public Affairs in the era of ‘New Politics’.

But it didn’t. Like many others, I have been throwing about the phrase “new politics” in the two and a half weeks since the Dáil elected a Taoiseach as if everyone understands what it means.

But do we? Do the people who are supposedly responsible for our ‘new ‘politics even understand what the phrase means or what the concept is meant to encompass, apart from differentiating it from the “old politics”? Do we know in what way it is supposed to be different or why?

Unfortunately for me, this simple basic question only popped into my head while sitting on the dais last Thursday rather than during the days of preparation beforehand. But with each challenge comes an opportunity. Just as the question came in to my head the discussion opened out to the floor and with it came a rare moment of lucidity, dare I say: an epiphany.

Just then I heard a familiar voice re-enter the discussion to offer a definition “new politics”. It was a very familiar voice: it was mine.

The definition I came up with is quite simple: ‘new politics should be about policy not personality’.

PRII

Don’t get me wrong, I am no Pollyanna. I do not think that politics has changed overnight and that we have reached now some utopian perfection where every T.D. and Senator has suddenly become high-minded and abandoned all thoughts of party loyalty and personal advancement in favour of the common good

I also grasp that my definition might sound a little glib or overly simplistic but bear with me and I will try and explain why I think the definition I offer is valid.
One of the greatest failing of our supposed “old politics” was that most political crises of the past were not resolved by any great changes of policy or direction but by the drama of a political head on a platter.

Someone, usually not one of the main protagonists, was designated as the fall guy, they paid the price and the system continued along without change or reform, once the crowd’s lust for some blood on the carpet was sated.

By making a few boring, even tedious, changes to how Dáil committees operate and allowing them to actually oversee public policy and by making parliamentary questions work, we may just have moved the focus back on to the more complex issues of policy rather than the more simplistic and entertaining issue of personality.

One of the many reasons why the global economic crisis hit Ireland worse than other places is because public policy and economic dogma here had gone for too long unchallenged. The regulators went unregulated, civil society and the party system failed to advance realistic alternatives.

One of the most curious, and perhaps most re-assuring aspects to this gradual move to new politics is the fact that it has not come about by design. It is not the brain child of some think-tank or research group, rather it is the response of practising politicians working together to find a way of dealing with the result of the results of the last general election.

To their credit, the reform committee chaired by Ceann Comhairle, Sean Ó Fearghaill, comprising TDs from across the political spectrum worked quietly and quite speedily to devise an agreed reform package which though hardly exciting or thrilling may just be about to make day-to-day politics more responsive and more about policy.

The reforms agreed by committee from the establishment of a budgetary oversight committee to allowing the Ceann Comhairle to decide on the relevance of ministerial replies to parliamentary questions and the establishment of a league table of ministers who fail to properly answer questions move us closer to the levels of accountability and answerability we should have had long back.

No doubt we will continue to see “old politics” re-emerge from time to time, indeed it is hard to see Enda Kenny’s appointment of his expanded cohort of Minsters of State as an exercise is anything other than the old politics of personality – the personality in question being his and its maintenance in office for as long as it possible. We see it too in the handling of the O’Higgins Report and the embroiling of the Garda Commissioner in the controversy.

We can hope however, as the Dáil and its committees begin to exert their new powers and their responsibilities, to see less of the old politics, but not so much less that politics losses its touch of theatricality, drama and odd moments of farce. Not all aspects of the old politics should be abandoned.

ENDS.

Israel’s 2009 PR handbook on defending attacks on #Gaza

31 Jul

This is the handbook prepared by US Republican pollster Frank Luntz in 2009. It sets out the language and arguments that Israeli Government spokespeople should use on the media to explain and defend Israel’s then occupation of Gaza.

You can hear lines from this 2009 being used again today to defend the latest onslaught on Gaza.

IsraelProject

Here is an article by Patrick Cockburn from the UK’s Independent newspaper on the handbook.

Download #seanref #seanad information booklet here…

26 Sep

Download the Seanad Information Booklet produced by Democracy Matters!

Seanad Reform Information Booklet

 

Powergrab

Why @simonharristd makes the case for a #seanref #No vote much stronger #Seanad

18 Aug
The Seanad Chair

The Seanad Chair

As a firm believer in Seanad reform – and consequently a trenchant opponent of Seanad abolition – the Sunday Independent’s Millward Brown poll showing the No to Abolition side gaining further momentum is gratifying.

The past few weeks have hardly been great for the No side. Fine Gael has been pretty active on the airwaves over the Summer break, while Sinn Féin’s opportunistic decision to campaign for a Yes, having vehemently opposed the Government’s proposal in both the Dáil and Seanad, hasn’t helped the No cause either.

All this makes the increase in the pro Seanad reform level of support all the more re-assuring. Not that the poll suggests that the campaign is done and dusted. Far from it.

More than almost any other, this Seanad abolition policy, is the lone brain child of Enda Kenny. Though there seem to be no research papers, discussion documents or policy positions he can produce to justify the origins of this initiative, he is the man behind it and he has more to lose by its defeat than anyone else.

While Labour nominally favours abolition, its TDs and Ministers can reasonably see their policy obligations as fulfilled by the holding of a referendum. Don’t expect to see many of them working too hard for a Yes to abolition vote. Indeed, as the Labour Chief Whip has indicated, at least half the Labour parliamentary party may actually work for a No vote seeing it as the best way to secure a popular mandate for Seanad reform.

One of the two authors of Labour’s 2009 position paper on Seanad reform, Junior Minister, Alex White has not commented on the issue much, while the other author, Joanna Tuffy TD has indicated that she will be campaigning for a No vote.

The worrying shift in the poll numbers make it necessary for Fine Gael to up the ante over the weeks ahead.
Given that the main shift has been in the group who describe themselves as favouring reform expect to see Fine Gael focus its attentions there and try to convince them that a Yes vote is a vote for reform.

We already had a glimpse of this approach last week via its neophyte Wicklow TD, Simon Harris’s speech at the Parnell Summer School.
Harris advanced the argument that abolishing the Seanad counts as reform and gives power back to the people as it means the single remaining chamber of the Oireachtas: the Dáil will be 100% elected by the public.

Harris’s reasoning seems to hinges on the statistic that the number of people registered to vote in Seanad elections, under current legislation, is around 156,000; about 5% of the approx 3.1 million entitled to vote at the February 2011 Dáil election.

What Harris misses, however, is that this 156,000 (Councillors, Oireachtas members and NUI and TCD graduates) is defined in legislation – not the Constitution. Everyone in the North and South could be given the right to vote with the passing of an Act by the Dáil and Seanad. Indeed the Seanad has already voted for such a piece of reform with the Second Stage vote on the Quinn/Zappone Seanad Reform Bill.
The extension of the Seanad franchise to all is now completely within the gift of Deputy Harris’s colleagues on the government benches.

The only real obstacle to such a real reform is the Taoiseach’s obduracy in insisting on Seanad abolition instead of reform.

Though not central to the argument it is worth noting that the 156,000 figure is probably an understatement as it just counts the NUI and Trinity graduates who have registered to vote. Many 100s of 1000s more are entitled to vote by virtue of their graduation.

The other problem with Harris’s reasoning is the idea that the answer to existing disenfranchisement is more disenfranchisement. It defies all democratic principles to propose removing someone’s voting rights when you have it in your power to extend them.

If you were to apply Deputy Harris’s quirky logic to the campaign for women’s suffrage a century back you would determine that the way to ensure equal voting rights for all was to remove the vote from men so that the two genders were equally disadvantaged.

The very legitimate criticism that not enough people are entitled to vote in Seanad elections is properly addressed by giving everyone the right, not by removing it.

I would hope that Deputy Harris’s espousal of a position that is the absolute antithesis of reform is informed by loyalty to his party leader and desire for advancement rather than by belief in the argument itself.

If it is the former then the case for reform is all the greater, if it is latter then it is time to worry.

Ends

#Seanad: an early analysis of the campaign issues so far #seanref

23 Jul

TNT24.ie asked me to take a quick look back over the issues emerging so far in the Seanad referendum campaign. As a protagonist on the Seanad Reform side, I do not claim this to be an impartial observation, but I have attempted to make it as fair as possible. 

The Seanad Chair

The Seanad Chair

Just over eight weeks ago Democracy Matters, the civic society group advocating Seanad Reform rather over abolition, was launched. A week later, in Government Buildings, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Éamon Gilmore published their proposed amendment to the Constitution which, if passed by the people in about eleven weeks time, will abolish Seanad Éireann following the next election.

While the Seanad referendum campaign has yet to start in earnest: it has still been an eventful eight weeks with several shots fired in anger by both sides. We are already seeing some of the key lines of argument and contention emerging between the pro and anti campaigns. The debate, thus far, has seemed largely to focus on:

  1. Cost
  2. Scale
  3. Relevance

This has been to the advantage of the government side abolitionists so far. The discussion so far seems to have been on the government’s terms with very little real exploration of the No side’s reform alternatives. Nonetheless, the No side have had some success punching holes in some of the government’s case to date.

Costs: This has quickly emerged as an area of contention between the two sides. Fine Gael in particular has been focussing its attention of its claims that abolishing the Seanad would potentially save the State some €20million a year. This claim has been contested by several people on the No side, including Fianna Fáil, Democracy Matters and several Senators – including some Fine Gael and Labour ones. They put the figure at €10million or below

Fine Gael says its figures come from the Oireachtas Commission and offers the following breakdown on the €20m figure:

Total direct costs of running the Seanad of €8.8m (Gross), including

  • members’ salary (€4.2m);
  • members’ expenses (€2.5m) and
  • members’ staff costs (€2.1m)

€2m in annual pensions costs relating to the Seanad.

The additional indirect apportioned pay and non-pay costs of supporting sections of €9.3m:

  • ICT (€1.9m);
  • Superintendent (€1.6m);
  • Procedural sections (€2.8m) and
  • Other support sections (€3m).

Not that Fine Gael always used this figure. At one stage it was suggesting an annual saving of €30 per annum, but this was subsequently slimmed down – to a figure of around €10million. In June an opinion piece appeared in the Irish Times advocating abolition under the name of the then Fine Gael back bench TD Paschal Donohoe. It did not use this €20million figure, but rather suggested the €10m per annum one saying: “…at least €50 million over the lifetime of one Dáil term. Over five Dáil terms, with pension costs and expenses included, these savings alone would have us more than halfway to paying for a national children’s hospital.”

Reform advocates point to the January 2012 testimony of the outgoing Clerk of the Dáil, Kieran Coughlan who estimated the gross annual saving from abolition would be less than €10million. If you take into account that at least 30% of that €10million goes back to the Exchequer in taxes, levies and VAT, the real annual cost of the Seanad to the taxpayer is probably between €6 million and €7 million. The €2 million pensions cost would continue for all former members and might likely increase for the foreseeable future with 60 Senators being made redundant in one fell swoop.

As for the indirect costs the Oireachtas has said that it is not possible to estimate the net actual savings and advises there would be substantial increases in pension costs and redundancy payments.

The government does not mention the estimated €15+million cost of holding the referendum. This is based on the government’s own figures for the costs of the Referendum on the Protection of Children held on the 10th November, 2012.

The whole debate on costs is probably moot. As Senator Professor John Crown has pointed out, Minister Brendan Howlin has stated that money saved from Seanad abolition will be redeployed to Dáil Committees. So there will be no net savings to the Exchequer.

Scale:The government’s next big argument for abolition is that Ireland is too small a country to have a two chambered (bicameral) parliament and to have as many national politicians as we have.

These lines has been trotted out many times with the Taoiseach and Ministers making lots of references to such similarly sized places as Denmark, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand.

Reformists say that there is no direct correlation, between the size of State and parliamentary system. China with a population of over 1.3 billion has a single chamber (unicameral) parliament while the parliament of Saint Lucia (population 170,000) is bicameral.

They argue that bicameral is the norm for common law countries, such as ours – regardless of size. Indeed world’s wealthiest nations are mostly bicameral: of the fifteen countries with the highest GDP only two – the People’s Republic of China and South Korea – have a unicameral parliament.

As for the comparisons with Scandinavian countries, you are not comparing like with like. The overall structure of these Scandinavian political systems is very different from ours. In Denmark, Finland and Sweden local government is at the heart of the political system. In Sweden, for example, there are three tiers of government. These local governments can set their own local income tax. As for the numbers, contrary to having fewer politicians all these countries have more.

 

Local Authorities

Councillors

Denmark

98

2,500

Finland

304

10,000

Norway

423

12,000

Ireland

31

949

 

 

Relevance: Launching the government’s referendum proposal; back in June the Taoiseach questioned the relevance of the Seanad saying that modern Ireland cannot be governed effectively by a political system originally designed for 19th century Britain.

Putting the factual error on 19th century Britain element part down to the rhetorical over exuberance of his speech writer (perhaps the same one who thought Lenin had visited Ireland and met with Michael Collins), it is a theme frequently mentioned.

Does much of the question mark over the Seanad’s relevance stem from how it is elected – mainly by other politicians?

Government just defeats Seanad attempt to refer abolition to Constitutional Convention

Government just defeats Seanad attempt to refer abolition to Constitutional Convention

If so, could it not be addressed by extending the franchise for the Seanad and allowing every voter on the island – North and South – the right to vote in Seanad elections?

The method of elected the 43 vocational Senators is set out in law, not in the Constitution. It would not take a referendum to give every existing (and future) voter the right to vote in a Seanad election. Every voter could decide on which panel they wished to exercise their vote: Labour, Culture & Educational, Agriculture, Industry & Commerce and Administrative and vote accordingly. Everyone would get one vote – no more multiple voting.

With this one simple act – achieved by legislation – the government could do more to address the Seanad’s relevance and the issue of Oireachtas reform than with any number of referendums.

The new, reformed Seanad would be a positive response to the fiscal crisis and loss of sovereignty. The global crisis was exacerbated in Ireland because public policy and economic dogma went unchallenged. Regulators went unregulated, civil society and the party system failed to advance realistic alternatives.

Rejecting abolition and giving ourselves a new reformed Seanad is about ensuring this doesn’t happen again.

ENDS

#LE14 changes expose the big weakness in Government’s #Seanad Abolition case

31 May

Phil HoganOn Thursday last the hopes and political aspirations of many hundreds of aspiring and existing City and County Councillors were either dashed or revived with the publication of the new local government electoral boundaries.

Within seconds of being posted online the reports and maps containing the details of the new wards and local areas were being downloaded by political junkies and local election hopefuls across the country, looking to see how the new boundaries would impact on their community.

While these changes, reflecting shifts in population measured at the last Census, are always anxiously awaited, this review had a particular significance as it had been heralded by the Environment Minister as important next step in the Government’s programme for local government reform. Unlike previous reviews this one had a specific goal of improving balance and consistency in representational ratios in local government.

This has been an issue for many years with huge variations in the size of local council constituencies between Dublin and many rural areas. While someone running for election in Dublin City would need 2,500+ votes to secure a seat, someone else running in Leitrim or Roscommon might only require 900 or so votes.

In order to redress this imbalance the Government decided to set terms of reference that reduced the ratio in certain rural areas and reduced it in Dublin. The net effect was that Dublin and other major urban areas get more councillors and many rural areas get less.

The net effect of this rebalancing coupled with the Government’s already stated policy of scrapping Town Councils is a reduction in the number of council seats from 1,627 to 949 and in the number of local authorities from 114 to 31.

This is a significant reduction and it is not going down too well across the country.

While much of the analysis of the review and the changes has understandably focussed on this particular aspect, there is another area which is also worth considering, in the contexts of the Government’s plans to propose the abolition of the Seanad in a referendum later this year.

In scrapping the town councils and reducing the number of local elected representatives so dramatically; have they – to use a phrase from a bygone Fine Gael era – just shot their own fox?

Over the past few weeks and months Fine Gael has been claiming that Ireland does not need a Seanad or second parliamentary chamber based on its size. They have been particularly eager to draw comparisons with a number of the Nordic countries, pointing out that they only have one Chamber and that their average number of national parliamentarians is 160. They even put this claim on their Seanad Abolition posters saying that its time that we too had “fewer politicians”.

The problem with this assertion is that it is just plain wrong. The comparisons Fine Gael try to make don’t work because they compare apples with oranges. They compare bicameral (two chambered) parliaments with unicameral (single chambered) ones and shriek with terror that the bicameral ones have more members – well, of course they have. They are two chambered.

What Fine Gael don’t tell you though is that this is just half the picture. While countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark do not have an upper house of parliament, i.e. no Senate, they have far more powerful, advanced and resourced systems of local government instead. That is how they maintain the checks and balances essential to a proper democracy – balances this Abolition proposal will eliminate.

The statistics country by country are quite impressive:

  • Denmark has 98 local authorities and 2,500 local Councillors.
  • Finland has 304 local authorities and just under 10,000 local Councillors.
  • Norway has 423 local authorities and 12,000 local Councillors.

The most impressive one by far is Sweden. It has a whopping 50,000 public office holders.  In other words 1% of the entire Swedish adult population (ie between 18 and 80) is a politician.

Over 3,500 of these public representatives serve on regional council governments. There are 20 of these councils based on Swedish counties. But these are not our Irish county councils – these councils control local schools, health services and have the power to raise their own taxes. Below this regional government tier there are about 46,000 local Councillors running their own local municipalities.

Sweden has approximately twice our population. So to match the Swedish level of public access and participation we would need to create an additional 20,000 + elected positions. Even before Fine Gael put up a single poster we already had fewer politicians per capita than Sweden or any of the Scandanavian countries.

But Fine Gael has such a cock eyed view of its own logic that after the changes introduced by this government:

  • Ireland will have 31 local authorities and 949 Councillors.
CIMG0509

The courtyard of the Folketing (Danish Parliament)

Doesn’t this run counter to their argument? Surely the way to end elitism is to create more opportunities for access and participation – not less!

Doesn’t this expose and even widen a hole in the Government’s Abolition argument?

The Nordic countries may not have Senate, but they have a sound reason for not needing one. Their systems of government and administration are considerable more devolved than ours, with the Government and parliament retaining less centralised control over day to day services than we do.

In practice this means that the scrutiny and oversight we need to conduct in a Senate can be done by them at the local government level.

The Danish ambassador to Ireland, Niels Pultz, explained this approach in a recent column for the Irish Independent:“Another important fundamental in Danish politics is the division of labour between the national parliament and the local municipalities. The philosophy is basically that issues of importance to the daily life of citizens are best taken care of at the local level. That goes for primary and secondary education, social services, health, child care, local roads, water and waste management.”

If the government seriously believes that it can move our parliamentary system to resemble the Nordic model is it not going completely the wrong way about doing it?

ENDS

Scrap the #Seanad? No, we need a new, revamped one more than ever

28 May

Sorry for being late in posting this – it is my Herald column from last Friday, May 24th, on why the the Government’s plan to abolish the Seanad is as far from reform as it is almost humanly possible to get 

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Democracy Matters! Campaign

Democracy Matters! Campaign

Next week the Government publishes the legislation that paves the way for a referendum on abolition of the Seanad later this year.

Last week the same Government supported a proposal from independent Senators not to abolish the Seanad but to reform it.

So how can they advocate two such contrary positions within two weeks of each other?

The answer is simple – abolition is not as simple and straightforward as originally thought. It does not mean just rubbing out a few words in the Constitution: it will require about 75 individual amendments.

The origin of all of this is a Fine Gael knees up back in October 2009. That is where Enda Kenny made the surprise announcement that he planned to scrap the Seanad. His new policy came as a surprise as only three months earlier his policy was that it be given greater powers and become a forum on European issues.

So what happened over those summer months, when neither the Dáil nor Senate were sitting, to change Enda’s mind? Nothing it seems, apart from being upstaged by Éamon Gilmore and growing criticism within Fine Gael of his leadership.

Enda needed a soft target – and the slow, lumbering Seanad obligingly painted a nice big un-missable bull’s eye on its own backside.

While it is difficult to present an argument for retaining the Seanad as it is: with most of its members elected just by TD’s and Councillors, that is not the same as saying that we do not need some form of a Second House of Parliament.

Despite its faults, the Seanad has served the country well. It has been a champion of reform and minority rights in a way the Dáil has often not. To quote the President, Michael D Higgins from a 2009 Dáil debate: “historically, the Seanad has been the place where there has been legislative innovation.”

Indeed it has, even with its antiquated system of having 6 seats elected by University Graduates and the Taoiseach nominating 11 members. It has allowed many voices and views from outside the political mainstream not only to be heard but to have a say: from W B Yeats to Seamus Mallon to Éamon de Buitléar to David Norris.

The value of having a second chamber to revise laws and give proposals further scrutiny can be demonstrated with one simple statistic. Since 2011 the Seanad has made 529 amendments to 14 different laws passed by the Dáil with inadequate scrutiny.

Without a Seanad or Second chamber those defective laws would have passed on to the statute without correction.

In today’s Ireland we need more scrutiny and oversight – not less. Abolition strengthens the old system. It means fewer new voices. The answer lies in reform, not abolition: open up the system, don’t close it down.

We need a reformed Seanad that makes those in power accountable. We need a reformed Seanad that has a gender balance. One where all of us, not just an elite, get a vote, including people in the North and those forced into emigration.

These basic, but effective, reforms could be made without a referendum and major constitutional change. All that is required is a Government that has the will to make that change.
Enda Kenny is doing this the wrong way around. We should learn from the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harpers who told his people “…that our Senate, as it stands today, must either change… or vanish.”

We should be given the option of change.

Instead, the government will spend millions on a referendum that only offers a sham choice between keeping something that we know is not working as well as it could and handing its powers and resources over to a Dáil that has proved itself less than capable of holding Government to account.

Have we learned nothing from the crisis?

Do we want to fix the system or merely consolidate it?

My latest column in Friday's Herald

My latest column in Friday’s Herald