THAT woman in the street, who was asked by an RTE reporter at the weekend why she had voted ‘No’ in the Seanad election, hit the nail on the head with her reply. “Because our democracy deserves a second chamber,” she said without hesitation. She’s dead right. Our democracy deserves everything it gets.
You’ll gather from this curmudgeonly opening that I’m not one bit happy about the survival of the anachronistic uppity house in the late lamented referendum. And democracy be damned, I’m a sore loser.
Long before Enda Kenny announced his proposal to abolish the Senate, I had suggested it myself - right here in this column - except that I also wanted to see the end of the Presidency, half the Council of State, 500 quangos and at least a quarter of Dail Eireann.
I even suggested restoring the Brian Boru dynasty to replace them all. Some people thought that I was a bit too bloody-minded, but the blood-letting happened anyway, with thousands of front line public workers, including teachers and nurses, being sacrificed instead, over the past four or five years.
The galling thing now, however, is that the Senate looks alarmingly invincible – a bit like the old Roman Senate that survived the fall of the Empire and the rule of the Barbarians, continuing right up to the middle ages, with the Barbarians still scratching their heads in bewilderment. This particular victory in the referendum has gone to their (senatorial) heads in Leinster House already. They’re strutting around like they’ve never heard of the ides of March and I swear I can see some of them sporting imaginary laurel wreaths, while Enda is still reeling from the “wallop”.
Now, isn’t that just a wonderfully evocative and picturesque word? It actually saved the day for me, when I was feeling at my lowest after the people had spoken. It’s a long time since I’ve heard such an honest and earthy response from anyone, not to talk of a Taoiseach. His handlers might have been mortified, but I was cheering. Then I remembered all the austerity wallops I had got myself, courtesy of Enda and his team, and the cheering stopped.
The people who spoke – in the referendum that is - didn’t really know whether to laugh or cry either. They saved their beloved Senate, one of the sacred cows of the Constitution, which by the way is now faced with a string of amendments in the pipeline. Why don’t we just scrap it and write a new one? Anyhow, the people who saved the Senate now want to reform it, if you don’t mind.
What kind of nonsense is this? If they had their doubts in the first place about its relevance, its efficacy, its elitism and its place in a modern democracy, they should have dumped it when they got the chance. As a mechanic said once about an old banger I had driven to a garage for repairs, it would be cheaper to buy a new one than to try and fix it. Some things are beyond repair and other things are even outside the range of a suitable metaphor.
Now if I were Enda Kenny, as soon as I had recovered from the wallop, I’d indulge the nation’s desire to retain the Senate, but I wouldn’t waste time or money trying to reform it.
I would, however, make people pay for the indulgence by upping the property tax in every constituency that voted ‘no’. This isn’t very sporting of me, I know, nor is it very democratic. But this is how I always react when I get a wallop, so be glad I’m not running the country.
Before I sign off, there are a couple of things I want to say about the shambles of a referendum campaign that saved by a small margin the cushy positions of those 60 politicians with the elite electorate and the very limited mandate, at a time when we couldn’t afford to properly man our schools or hospital wards. First, there’s the significance now being given in all electoral contests to the importance of American style TV debates. This campaign was won and lost on the telly, according to general commentary and American born Senator Katherine Zappone in particular.
Incredibly, the main gladiator had declined the chance to perform for the delectation of the audience. Heavens, we really have developed a Roman Forum complex. Sadly, however, the standard of debate, on or off the telly, seldom matches our gladiatorial expectations. Cicero’s ghost hasn’t been seen anywhere near Leinster House in a long time. Actually, I think I’ve seen more inspirational debaters in my old Macra na Feirme club back in the day.
Secondly, there’s the question of the ballot paper, which I have to admit, seriously threw me. Asking the question as Gaeilge, with an English translation, put extra pressure on my brain cells, as I strove to abolish the Senate with a ‘Ta’ that I wasn’t used to.
This was both unfair and unnecessary for the thousands of voters like me who speak only the English language. I suspect that the ballot paper wasn’t even democratic – just like the Senate.
Come to think of it, wasn’t that another thing that Enda promised to do before he was elected – to remove the compulsory aspect of studying Irish in the Leaving Cert? Maybe he could provide us with a complete English version of the ballot paper in future while he’s at it. Sacred cow, maybe there are only so many wallops a body can take!