At some time this year, voters in the Irish republic will be asked whether or not they wish to scrap the Senate and switch to a unicameral model of parliamentary democracy.
This has provoked outrage from many amongst the Irish political elite who have referred to the measure as knee jerk populism. There is a general consensus at the moment that the political system is broken. That it may have played a part to bringing the republic to the current economic crisis would seem to prove this. Cutting out an entire chamber from the political system seems rather crude on the surface, but should definitely be examined as an option.
The proposal’s detractors say the house should be reformed and not scrapped and that there is always value in a second chamber in a democracy. I beg to differ. Allow me, for a moment, to indulge my Scandophilia. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland frequently finish in the world’s top ten list for lack of political corruption, transparency, female and minority representation and press freedom. All of them bar Iceland have a bigger population than Ireland and all of their polities function with a unicameral system – one chamber, no senate. To the best of my knowledge, there is no movement in any of these countries to bring in an upper house. In fact, Iceland got rid of theirs in the early 1990s and hasn’t looked back since.
The cry remains that the house can be made relevant by reform. Every manner of suggestion has been made, from letting Irish expats have representation to representation for unions and other interest groups. How on earth could consensus be reached on reform in these circumstances?
Supporters of the senate say that unlike the Dáil, the focus of all the members of the house is on national issues and not local or “parish pump” issues. There are simpler more effective and cheaper solutions to this this. Firstly, local government could be made more powerful. With no direct tax raising measures Irish local government is one of the weakest in Europe. Turning local councils into effective forums for local issues thus reducing the demand of local issues on national representatives is surely sensible.
The second idea is to introduce a list or partial list system for parliamentary elections. This would insure that a certain section of TDs would have been elected on a national mandate and would, presumably, be appointed by their respective parties to cabinet or frontbench. As they would not have a local constituency to deal with, this would allow the deputies in question to focus energy on their briefs.
There is also the belief that the Senate gives a platform to those in public life who would not normally be elected. The classic case in point is gay rights campaigner Senator David Norris. I see no reason why Norris would not be elected as part of an “independent” list as outlined above. But at the heart of this argument is a belief that broad ranging societal problems can be solved with tokenism. For example, the problem of the electorates supposed reluctance to elect a homo can easily be solved by putting one in the Senate. This is a band aid solution in the most Irish sense of the phrase.
The Senate costs the taxpayer about €60 million per annum and gives little benefit in return. It can do little more than hold up legislation by fourteen days or so.
I believe the Senate should be scrapped. I say this as a registered and active senate voter. I support the Government’s proposed referendum.