The Seanad Reconsidered

Or half reconsidered, since these are just some quick notes.

The other day I was saying that I didn’t think that the abolition of the Seanad would make a jot of difference to the power of the political establishment in Ireland. I think I was wrong. Worse, I was undialectical.

What I mean is, you have to look at the particular conditions under which the proposal to abolish the Seanad is taking place, and act accordingly, having regard for the range of potential consequences. In fairness, maybe this has nothing to do with dialectics.

The reason Fine Gael wants to abolish the Seanad is to give the appearance of meaningful political change. As a party of the right, it wants to pursue a social and economic agenda that concentrates decisive social and political power in the hands of the ruling class.

However, as often happens with parties of the right, it needs to maintain a sufficient degree of popular support, or at least acquiescence, in order to pursue this agenda. To do so, it needs to present itself as in touch with the views and needs of ordinary people. At a time when you are slashing spending on public services, disciplining labour, funnelling tens of billions in public money to bondholders and so on, it is not enough to simply have Enda Kenny talk about how much he loves Bruce Springsteen.

Popular disillusion with politicians in Ireland arises from the fact that they seem incapable of doing anything to improve people’s lives. All the criticisms about how out of touch they are, how overpaid they are, how they are pigs at the trough, and so on, have a ring of truth to them. There is never any shortage of newspaper reports to demonstrate this. Some of them might thunder on about vested interests, but they never mean the power of banks, or multinational corporations, or oil and gas companies. For the most part they mean trade unions and workers in the public sector. (Yes, I know this does not apply to all politicians, but I am talking about the general impression)

The disillusion also arises from the fact that you have a vast right wing media apparatus in Ireland dedicated to celebrating the incompetence, stupidity and venality of politicians, and contrasting this with the dynamism, good sense and real leadership material to be found in the upper echelons of the private sector, or with the expertise and studied disregard for petty matters such as democracy to be found in the offices of the Troika.

Against all this, ruling politicians need to be seen to be doing something, in case consent for the whole enterprise takes a turn for the worse. Bold initiatives. Far-reaching reforms. Bullet point lists. They would prefer not to be seen as the scum of the earth, at least not before the pension kicks in, and certainly not before it jeopardises their chances of getting a succulent advisory role to some fracking company way out East. Leaving Leinster House via helicopter is best avoided. The Chamber of Commerce in Tegucigalpa may not return your calls.

The preoccupation with getting fucked over by unaccountable elites who waft along happily while you risk sinking into insolvency, unemployment, ill health or god knows what else, after simply playing by the rules with the most modest of aspirations, becomes all the more acute once the risk turns into a reality. It is now starting to happen to lots of people, and lots more than before. It is not that Fine Gael is opposed to elites as such. On the contrary. However, getting rid of the Seanad is one way of advancing the case that you are on the side of ordinary people: classic right wing populism.

So, we have this widespread disillusion with ruling politicians. We have a right wing government seeking to use the Seanad as a scapegoat. But crucially, we also have the fact of the referendum campaign. Remember, from the government end, the whole justification for Ireland’s internal devaluation programme, its willingness to be the good pupil, to pay down its debts whatever the cost to public health and welfare, is the recovery of something called ‘economic sovereignty’, or sovereignty for short. Doing all this entails ignoring what the wider population has to say about things, or threatening them with apocalyptic bond market violence if they object, whichever proves easier.

But doesn’t it make sense, in such circumstances, to conjure up a spectacle of popular sovereignty, in which the people , not the politicians and the unaccountable elites, decide on their future, safe in the knowledge that it won’t make a jot of difference? I think we can be pretty sure that IBEC and Intel and Ryanair haven’t bothered with a war chest for a Yes vote. I’m reminded of what Jose Manuel Barroso said after the second Lisbon Treaty referendum –or was it the Fiscal Treaty referendum, or perhaps it was both- was passed in Ireland: the people have spoken. A concerted campaign of bloodcurdling threats and intimidation had produced the desired result, and in the end it was a victory for democracy.

So perhaps this referendum campaign –precisely on account of the fact that Fine Gael doesn’t intend it to alter the balance of power at all- ought to be treated as if it really does matter. Let’s recall all the media analysis that went into the aftermath of the undesirable referendum results –undesirable from the point of view of the political establishment- in times past. ‘The people’ were ignorant, they didn’t know what they wanted, they were confused, they didn’t understand the question. Would it not be better, in this case, for a resounding Yes vote, so as to demonstrate that in fact, yes, the people, when constituted, do want to do away with unaccountable elites and anti-democratic institutions? In this light, a Yes vote is not so much a matter of changing the institutions, but changing the people.

At the very least, the removal of the Seanad from view would get rid of one rather obnoxious fig leaf that helps obscure who really operates the levers of power. Stripping away a major source of waffle about political reform could give a genuine democratic programme considerably wider appeal.

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