OK, this is my final word on the Seanad referendum.
I think it will be better if the Seanad is abolished but it won’t make much difference either way. I have not been convinced by people who talk about power grabs and the like. There is no need for a power grab on the part of the political establishment, since it already does the bidding of elite groups quite effectively.
There has been far more commotion generated by the prospect of Seanad abolition than the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest legislation introduced back in May, even though the provisions of that legislation are far more destructive for democracy than anything the abolition of the Seanad might conceivably produce. This is precisely how real elite groups want things to work: let the little people have their occasional feeling of importance, provided they don’t interfere with the real business of running the country.
When Cornel West went to visit Hugo Chávez in Caracas, Chávez came into the room with copies of West’s book, titled ‘Democracy Matters’, seeking his signature. The book had been put on the Venezuelan school curriculum. Its subtitle is ‘Winning the fight against imperialism’. In Ireland, ‘Democracy Matters’ is the name of an astroturf civil society grouping that wants to keep the Seanad. One of its main figures is Michael McDowell, an authoritarian racist liberal who believes material inequality and loyalty to the State are necessary conditions for a properly functioning polity. Here, democracy matters only in so far as it is kept immaterial, and the majority of the political representatives and astroturf groupings on both sides of the referendum question are loyal and unquestioning servants of US and EU imperialism, and gratuitously obsequious to Ireland’s previous imperial master, Britain.
On the whole I think the referendum campaign has worked just as Fine Gael hoped it would: as a distraction from the upcoming budget and as a way of providing a sensation of mass political participation, for those who want it, without it going anywhere important. It will be treated as a reaffirmation of faith in the ballot box and in an Irish public whose main need, as the political establishment sees it, is not to take an active role in the shaping of history but to be appropriately represented, by representatives well accustomed to relying on the silence of the public to get what they want.
At times I saw a near Freemanlike faith, on the No side, in the power of the constitution to operate democratic ‘checks and balances’ (a phrase that, like Freemanism, seems to come from the US). Lots of people genuinely concerned about the concentration of power in the hands of a few unaccountable people appear unaware that the only real democratic protections come from a mobilised and vocal public.