In a cynical political stunt, the government has proposed a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. The Socialist Party is calling for a Yes vote. Not because we agree with the government’s hypocrisy or general attacks on democratic rights, but because the Seanad is an undemocratic, elitist, conservative body that should be scrapped.
Abolishing the Seanad must go hand in hand with a struggle against austerity and the undermining of democratic rights which is pushed in the Dail and Seanad by all the establishment parties.
Fine Gael and Labour have no credibility. Their proclaimed “Democratic Revolution” has become a counter-revolution, using the crisis to significantly undermine democratic rights. The government refuses to stand up to the Troika and the unelected European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF, not because they are powerless to do so, but because they choose to go along with and actively support and promote the austerity agenda for political reasons.
With the Fiscal Treaty and other European legislation, the right wing establishment parties have handed over significant to the European Commission – all in a plan to enshrine right-wing austerity policies in law.
It is no wonder that people are inherently suspicious of the government’s intentions in trying to abolish the Seanad. Correctly, people are opposed to the further centralisation of power and believe there needs to be a check on the power of the government. The Seanad has never and will never play this role. People power is the only real check on the government’s agenda. The Seanad is a fundamentally undemocratic, elitist body designed to be a conservative check on any progressive change.
In the past five years of the economic crisis, the Seanad has acted as a rubberstamp on austerity. In its entire history, it has only twice voted down a government bill. Its electorate is a tiny percentage of the population as a whole – 11 are simply nominated by the Taoiseach, 6 are elected by graduates of NUI universities and Trinity College and 43 are elected by Councillors, TDs and outgoing senators in one of the most undemocratic fashions imaginable.
Potential Senators must be nominated by four TDs or a so-called ‘nominating body’. These bodies include some genuine cultural organisations, but are dominated by big business organisations such as IBEC, Chambers of Commerce, the Construction Industry Federation, the Irish Exporters Association, and the National Off-Licence Association. While some politicians have more than one vote – the vast majority of working class people have none whatsoever.
This isn’t an accidental feature of the Seanad that could be resolved with reform – it is the purpose of the Seanad from its inception – a more limited franchise is designed to ensure a Seanad that is more conservative than the Dail. None of the proposals for a reformed Seanad change that reality.
Hypocrisy abounds on all sides on this issue. On the No side, Fianna Fail’s bleating about a reformed Seanad is just as hypocritical as the government’s talk about democratic change. The collection of right-wing politicians and journalists that makes up the so-called ‘civil society’ group, Democracy Matters, is just as guilty. If Fianna Fail was serious about reform of the Seanad, it could have driven it during its dominance of politics over the past decades.
It took 20 years and the death of Savita Halappanavar for the political establishment to legislate for the X Case, and even then it did it in the most limited way that was possible under the Supreme Court ruling. The idea that any serious progressive reform will come from any of the major parties is laughable.
Real democratic change
A fundamental democratic problem is that there is no significant party which represents the interests of working class people. All of the establishment parties fundamentally represent the bankers and big business – and they share the same right-wing economic policies. The cause of the deep economic crisis is not because of the ‘whip system’ or because of an absence of ‘experts’ in the Dail. It’s because all of the major parties agreed with the policies which created the housing bubble for the benefit of the developers and defend the crisis-ridden capitalist system. They all agreed with bailing out the bankers at the expense of the rest of us.
The banks and bondholders have numerous political parties to represent their interests in Ireland. Working people need one – representatives of working people to oppose the austerity agenda, to promote a socialist alternative and to assist the organisation of the opposition in communities and the trade unions.
FG Minister Richard Bruton in defending the abolition of the Seanad asked the question: “Can you imagine any other situation in your life where you would be happy to have 1pc of the people making a decision on behalf of the other 99pc?” This is precisely what happens in the capitalist system that he defends. Working people in Ireland and across Europe are feeling the impact of this now. Austerity makes no sense from the point of view of the vast majority of people or the economy as a whole. It does make sense for the 1% however, the rich bondholders who want to maximise their return and the bosses who want to drive down wages to increase profits.
In reality, we do not live in a genuinely democratic society. The key decisions about what happens in our economy are not even made by the politicians – they are made by the ‘financial markets’ (banks, bondholders and hedge funds) and by the directors of big business. Their decisions have caused a calamitous collapse of investment in Ireland, with the consequently very deep crisis.
Real democratic change is not just about the institutions of the state – it is also about economic democracy – the public ownership of the key resources and corporations in the economy under the democratic control of workers in those industries and working people generally. Then, rather than being ruled by short-term profits, a plan for sustainably developing the economy for people’s needs could be developed.
Real democracy also means a state not built on the model of electing people once every four or five years in elections dominated by money and right-wing media coverage. Instead, a socialist democracy means power being taken out of the hands of ‘professional politicians’ and into the hands of ordinary working class people – through popular assemblies and Councils in workplaces and neighbourhoods, making decisions on the matters affecting them and delegating representatives on a workers’ wage and subject to recall to higher bodies.