11 October 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Although the majority of voters in Cavan-Monaghan wished it otherwise, the outcome of last Friday’s referendum on the future of Seanad Éireann has given a reprieve to the country’s Upper House, and left the Government, like the child who unwraps a Christmas present only to discover it’s not the gift they wanted, having to grin stoically and make the best of it.

That the Seanad vote was to some degree a chastisement of the incumbent coalition rather than a coherent stance founded on a championing of the democratic principle is undeniable.

But it is unlikely to have delivered more than an immediate glancing blow to the composure of a Government preoccupied with next week’s Budget, which will have more defining influence on how the people judge their tenure in office at the next General Election.

The teachers and doctors currently engaged in principled protest action about their remuneration and working conditions are perhaps speaking more eloquently and incisively about the state of the austerity-afflicted nation – but at least some of the many people suffering more severely from cutback and taxation and without a union to channel their grievances took the opportunity on Friday to let the Government know they are still there.

And Enda Kenny and his Ministers would be perpetuating a dangerous hubris if they were completely dismissive of the outcome of the Seanad abolition referendum.

A flawed assumption that the national mood was attuned to approving a cull of political representatives in knee-jerk manner led to a rather desultory Yes campaign which was undoubtedly undermined by the Taoiseach’s puzzling decision not to engage in a television debate on a reform he had himself initiated.

The Government spent on their campaign somewhere in the region of their contentious figure for the savings that the abolition of the Seanad would generate – only to lose the argument and be left with the legacy of setting about the reform of an institution they clearly regard as anachronistic and irrelevant to their political vision.

But reform the Seanad they now must – it would be an effective negation of the implicit wish behind the referendum decision if the Upper House was allowed to continue in its present form into another term.

The arcane and unrepresentative manner in which the Seanad is elected, the shallow pool from which its candidates spawn and the limits of its powers and functions were made patiently clear to the voter during the campaign – and the decision to afford it a reprieve is clearly freighted with the expectation that it will undergo a radical overhaul.

It may now fall to the vigorous No campaigners to make the hard running on this in the political realm, although it is a task that could benefit from initial referral to the Constitutional Convention – a body which, one is tempted to speculate in hindsight, might have been able to sort all this out without the need for the hullabaloo, and expense, of a referendum.

If the Government parties are more socially embarrassed than mortally wounded by the outcome of the Seanad vote, Fianna Fáil have certainly gained enhanced credibility in terms of political savvyness.
The party put its money on what looked like a losing horse but astutely helped get it first past the post in a manner which also allowed them to aim some stinging backhanders at the flanks of the Government mounts as they passed them out – they will have to do a great deal more of substance than this to become a compelling alternative choice for voters by the time of the next General Election, but Michéal Martin has begun to rebuild his own, and his party’s, reputation as adept political strategists.

Sinn Féin one presumes will be glad the referendum is over and they are free of the complications of having to align themselves explicitly with a Government-backed position and the conflicts this will have stirred in the hearts of grassroots supporters – an uncomfortable presage of the responsibilities of power, perhaps?

While the removal vans converged around the Seanad and then had to pull noisily away again, the new institution of the Court of Appeal slipped into residence relatively unobtrusively and with the comparatively emphatic endorsement of 62% of the voters.

That the establishment of a completely new tier of judicial functioning was relegated to a Seanad sideshow in the run-up to and aftermath of the referendums says something less than heartening about what preoccupies us as a nation.

Here too the people had an opportunity to cast an implicit lot into the bowl of reform by deciding not to approve this proposal – that they chose not to cannot, however, be interpreted as a vote of confidence in how the Irish legal system functions.

There was very little substantive debate around the merits of a Court of Appeal as opposed to a root-and-branch reform of the existing court structures – the public were undoubtedly won over by the argument that a Yes vote would help to break the four-year logjam of appeals currently waiting to come before the Supreme Court, but were left relatively uninformed about how the new court will function in practice and whether its not inconsiderable costs are justifiable in the current economic situation.

It is regrettable that very little effort was made by the media to stimulate more debate on this very important question – we can perhaps make amends for this by interrogating more consistently and thoroughly in the future the effectiveness of a system that continues to be bogged down by an emphasis on documentation and adversarial argument that results in many hearings at all tiers of the court edifice struggling to reach finality.

The best court system is one that privileges the litigant rather than the practitioner – whether the new Court of Appeal brings us any closer to that outcome should be monitored extremely closely when it is established next year.

On both issues placed before the country last Friday, the people have now spoken, and reinforced a principle that was succinctly encapsulated by the banner under which the independent No campaigners on the Seanad question chose to fight their corner: Democracy Matters.

Long may we continue to enact that principle.

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