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2013-07 The Seanad Sideshow

James column for the SligoWeekender

Leaving aside the farcical Ivor Callely, for hopefully obvious reasons, I wonder how many of the sixty members of Seanad Eireann people can name. There are stand-out characters like Ivana Bacik, Marie-Louise O'Donnell, Martin McAleese (recently retired) and of course the ever-present and often controversial David Norris. After that I know I would struggle to single out any other individuals.
 
So is Seanad Eireann in actual fact a sort of sideshow to the Dáil, a `job for the boys', a cushy gig for failed or retired politicians, or for those waiting in the wings for the main stage? Can it be accused of being party-dominated, perhaps male-dominated, even at times family-dominated? Should it for once and for all be axed? One thing indisputably obvious to all is that it desperately and urgently needs reform. But perhaps that might open up an already overflowing can of worms, with the nation constantly calling for reform in the Dáil, as well as in local politics. But hey, maybe a shake-up all round mightn't be the worst thing.
 
It supposedly takes ¬20 million to staff and run Seanad Eireann every year. Of the sixty senators, some are appointed by the Taoiseach, some elected by University graduates, and others are elected by special panels of TDs and councillors, so does it suffer from elitism and cronyism as well?

Many legislatures in Scandinavia, New Zealand and elsewhere are unicameral (only one chamber) and seem to manage ok, and no-one can deny that we could do with cutting down on unnecessary expense at the moment. With a single chamber, there would unquestionably be clearer lines of accountability. But is abolition the solution, is it a no-brainer? Celebrated past senators such as Garret Fitzgerald, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Noel Browne, Gordon Wilson and Mary Robinson would lead us to believe that it's possibly not quite so straight-forward.

Based loosely on the British House of Lords, the Seanad is supposed to advise and revise, but surely if it was made up from some of our wiser elder politicians, and Irish citizens from all walks of life, and exercised real debate on real issues which may have become sidelined due to the recession, such as racism, abortion, rising suicide rates, cyber-bullying, homophobia, world hunger, the arts, etc. then the Seanad might actually play a viable, vital and central role in our country. There is no real reason why the Seanad shouldn't be made up of some of our elder wiser politicians, retired business people and entrepreneurs who actually know what they're talking about, and would engage in proper debate on relevant topics which otherwise may get overlooked.

Every Irish citizen votes for government, so why doesn't every Irish citizen similarly vote for our Senate? Why not make it equally democratic? Do we need so many in the Seanad? We certainly don't need so many TDs in the Dáil. The USA has a population of around 300 million people, and has 435 Congress Members. The UK has a population of around 65 million and has 600 MPs (10 MPs for each million). We have a meagre 4 million in our little country but we have 166 TDs and 60 in our Senate ("Do the Math" as they say). That is absurdly excessive, especially bearing in mind the astronomical salaries, pensions, expenses and cars-for-life set-up. Then of course on top of that we have 34 Local authorities, 80 Town councils, and almost 2000 Local Councillors  for a tiny country of less than 4 million inhabitants. Come on guys  it's a joke! With daily stories of mortgage arrears, repossessions, deaths by suicide, the residents of Priory Hall still in hotel accommodation a year on, and countless other heart-breaking real-life stories, it's obvious where cuts should be made and reforms ought to be put in place. Are we blind, or just blinkered?

In the House of Lords recently, during a discussion on same-sex marriage, an elderly Baroness said that "homosexuals can be delightful people and even loving". A cull of some of the dead weight in the House of Lords and in our own Seanad would seem to make a lot of sense for starters.
A single democratically-elected chamber may not of course be the solution for us, but we don't need so many TDs, senators and councillors for an island which has one seventy-fifth the population of the USA.