John Whelan– 15 September 2013
ABOLISHING the Seanad sounds, at first, like a good idea. Getting rid of 60 politicians in one go – not a bad start.
As a first-time politician and someone who was only elected to the senate in 2011, I still retain a healthy suspicion of the establishment and a protective cynicism of politics. On my first day in the senate, I actually said that the place needed to get its house in order or be scrapped. I still believe that.
The senate drastically needs to be overhauled and reformed. Seventy-five years
since its foundation, it needs to be made fit for purpose, far more relevant and representative. It should be reformed and retained, but not abolished.
The senate is accused of being elitist. I was elected to the senate off the dole and I grew up, the eldest of seven, in a council housing estate, St Evin’s Park, Monasterevin. My dad was a soldier, my mam a housewife. I went out to work as a trainee reporter in the Leinster Express, straight out of the Leaving Cert, aged 17. Elitist, as Richard Bruton suggests? You decide.
No, it is the elite that want you to abolish the senate so that they can have more power, more control and more and more say over our lives without some awkward sorts like myself standing up to them and trying to hold them to account.
A handful of men, a powerful elite, will secure even more power .They will run the country with less accountability or challenge to their rule with only their cronies and their highly paid special advisors whispering in their ear. They want you to abolish the senate.
Say ‘No’ to their power grab and tell them you want a better and improved senate. Abolition is not the answer.
They will claim that abolition will save €20m. That is untrue, but they are willing to mislead you to have their way and deny you your say. I get paid €65k gross and take home about half of that. (Some of the Government’s special advisers are on €158k!!) Scrapping the senate would actually save less than €5m, about a €1 a year for everyone in the country. What price democracy? Any savings that might accrue would only kick in after 2016, if at all, and will not go to the needy. but rather to fund new specially appointed Dail committees.
It has become fashionable in some quarters to make fun of councillors. But councillors are generally hard-working individuals on behalf of the people of their towns, villages and cities. They are available to their neighbours and community day and night to try and help solve problems. You elect them. The councillors in turn elect most of the senators like me. That is where we draw our democratic mandate.
The senate is flawed and has its shortcomings, but abolishing it will not help you one bit. Saving it and improving it will be good for you and the country. We need more accountability, transparency, and strong questioning opinions and voices, not fewer.
In this senate, for instance, I have seconded Senator John Kelly‘s Wind Turbine Bill, which would ensure that giant wind turbines are set back sufficiently and safely from family homes – but this has been blocked by the Government.
After being held up for three years in the Dail, Senator Feargal Quinn‘s Construction Contracts Bill, which will greatly assist small builders and sub-contractors, was finally passed in July.
Thanks to pressure from two senate motions, the Government is finally yielding and going ahead with the establishment of an independent Charities Regulator to monitor this €5bn sector. The original legislation was passed as far back as 2009. I could go on with a long list of good work conducted in the senate. The senate is effective. It could and should be much better, if the Government stopped impeding reform.
If the vote is carried in favour of senate abolition, the present Seanad will still remain in place until the next election. What a way to commemorate the centenary of 1916, our fight for freedom and democracy? The men and women of 1916 would turn in their graves at such a short-sighted sell-out.
For the good of democracy and the heart and soul of everything we stand for and believe in, vote No! If not for the sake of the senate, well then vote no to save yourself from an already powerful elite and their unaccountable, unelected and faceless special advisors.
John Whelan is a Labour Party Senator representing the Labour panel