Be Afraid of the Angry Electorate, Enda, They May Prefer to Get a Kick at You Than Get Rid of the Seanad

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Byline: The Mary Ellen Synon COLUMN

BOLISH the Seanad? AWell, abolish this Seanad, certainly. I have no problem with an upper chamber acting as a pause-button on a lower, more 'popular' chamber. The United States' constitution designed the Senate to be a brake against the House of Representatives; the British House of Lords was from the start a buffer against the popular House of Commons. Fine. But that doesn't mean I like the upper chamber we've got. It is 60 people chosen in such an arbitrary manner that the senators have no more right to influence any part of our laws than the first 60 people who bought Euromillions quick-picks last Friday. Both the US Senate and the Lords were designed to represent different constituencies from those represented by the House of Representatives and House of Commons.

The Senate, originally elected by the state legislatures, was to be a moderating influence on the directly elected House of Representatives. Like the 18th-Century House of Lords, the US Senate would represent a different constituency from the lower, more popular chamber, so no single interest or single class could dominate the entire legislative branch. That idea worked in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, although it has evolved since in different ways in US and British legislatures.

But what have we at Leinster House now? A grotesque version of that heritage, an upper chamber that has not so much evolved from those earlier types as mutated from them. The Seanad today has its source in the Thirties fascist philosophy that everyone had to be identified first by his group, his gang, his sex, his university, his political party, his 'vocation', his usefulness to the taoiseach, anything but his own individual, sovereign self: it was anti-individual. The Thirties philosophy was to accomplish the 'groupification' of everyone.

The system survives. Today members of the most powerful gangs choose 60 of their own gang members for lushly paid jobs in the Seanad.

Yet supporters of the Seanad claim such a chamber must have the power to check and balance our elected chamber. That is wrong. The senators are not learned judges from the judicial branch of government who, quite rightly, have the power to examine legislation for unconstitutionality.

The senators are cronies, failed TDs, a random handful of people selected by tiny electorates such as university graduates.

And since you ask, yes, I have gone along to watch a Seanad candidate canvas local councillors.

Ten hours of that was enough to show me the system is ludicrous as well as wrong.

Are some of the senators good brains and good voices to have in public debate? Some are. Sean Barrett, a senator elected by the graduates of Trinity College, is one of them. His recent hammering of Brendan Howlin in a debate on tax rates was splendid, and I doubt we could have heard the same quality of informed debate in the Dail. But that only means we have to ask why men with Dr Barrett's abilities are not in the Dail.

Yet despite the few -- and I mean few -- worthwhile people who are in the Seanad, it is a repulsive system. It is only because the Dail itself is so hopeless at acting the way a legislature should that some people are jumping in to defend it. The Seanad defenders claim that the upper chamber is needed for 'checks and balances' against the Dail. Wrong. A brake, a pause-button, OK. But checks and balances in constitutions refer to the means by which the powers of the three branches of government -- executive, legislative and judicial -- are kept separate.

For example, the US Congress can impeach and remove the president, the president can veto legislation, the US Supreme Court can review legislation for unconstitutionality, and so on around, as one branch prevents another from exercising powers to which it has no right.

But since the two chambers of a bicameral legislature form a single branch of government, they do not work to check and balance each other. …