We at The Edmund Burke Institute are not agitated by constitutional matters. Take the governments proposal to abolish the Senate. The case can probably be argued both ways. On the one hand the institution is expensive; it has failed to put down any deep roots, and it is certainly not held in great affection. It is no book of Kells to be preserved at any cost.. On the other hand it has provided a platform for those with unpopular views which might otherwise be neglected, in an Ireland which was once uniformly Catholic, and now risks becoming almost equally uniformly politically correct.
However while the outcome of the debate about whether or not to abolish the Senate is not itself important to us, the nature of the debate which proceeds the decision on the matter (which has to be taken by referendum scheduled to take place in early October) is of great concern. The Edmund Burke Institute operates in the borderland between education, economics,, politics, and even wider cultural concerns. As such though we are vitally concerned with the quality of the public discourse which takes place in our country.
We were therefore interested to see an attempt map out the case against the Senate by Mr Eamon Maloney a Labour party T.D. for a constituency in South West Dublin. There seemed to be four strands to his argument. We have alluded to the first two above namely the cost of the Senate which is undeniable; and the fact that it has not really ever become part of the fabric of Irish society. In it the ethos of Dublin 4 seems to be over represented. This too is difficult to dispute. There is something, perhaps, a little artificial about the Senate.
This though is an argument which is intellectually dangerous for a politician like Mr Maloney to deploy. Could not the same thing be said of the Presidency? While Mrs Robinson and Mrs Macalese were deservedly popular- the latter markedly so – the institution itself is not highly regarded. And in this connection let us not forget the other institutions of the State. The Supreme Court is not endowed with the numinous authority of its American equivalent. Even the lower house of which Mr Maloney is a member is not without its critics. The fact is that while support for Irish independence is deep, strong, abiding, and determined, the Irish people as a whole are far more loyal to Ireland than they are to any political arrangements or institutions.
This leads naturally to Mr Maloney’s third line of reasoning. He refers to the fact that the Irish Senate was set up- at the foundation of the state- to act “as a voice for the Southern Irish aristocracy.” This is all perfectly true. But Mr Maloney seems not to understand that institutions evolve. Take the American Supreme Court for example. The difference between the court which in the mid nineteenth century attempted to copper bottom slavery in the Dred Scot decision, and that which abolished segregated education in the Unite States in Brown v Board of Education in the early nineteen fifties is vast; and yet it was recognisably the same institution. (Although whether it reverted to type with Roe V Wade?- is, as we say in Wexford- “another day’s work.”) The fact is that institutions transcend their origins. And there is every sign that the Irish senate has done so. The Senate is clearly no longer the haunt of aristocrats like Sir John Keane – seated in the cap below.
Take three current Irish Senators taken almost at random. John Gilroy (b.1967) is Labour Party representative on the Cultural and Educational Panel. He is a former Psychiatric nurse and his a community activist. Mary White (b.1944) – not to be confused with former Green Party T.D. of the same name- who is the Fianna Fail spokesperson (sic.) for Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation. She is a businesswomen concerned with suicide prevention. And lastly Katherine Zappone (b. 1953 in Washington State) who holds a doctorate from Boston College and who is Ireland’s first openly lesbian legislator.
These are not people who are likely to agree with the Edmund Burke institute about very much. But they are well placed to contribute interestingly; and they are certainly not aristocrats. When we should like to know was Ms Zappone and her wife (sic) last entertained by the Devonshires at Lismore? When was Mr Gilroy last seen at a cocktail party at Curraghmore? Where are Mrs White’s ancestral acres- saved from the Land Commission by the intervention of the loyalist steward? We can perhaps suggest that the Senate is out of touch, but aristocratic it is not.
The final strand of Mr Maloney’s critique of the Senate is his assertion that Senate’s are typical of federal systems, but have no place in a unitary country like Ireland. He was no doubt thinking of the German and to some extent the American systems. In the former system the second chamber does indeed represent the lander into which Germany is divided. The case of the American system though is more complicated. The U.S. Senate does indeed provide representation for the states in Washington rather than for their populations- thus Calfornia with its vast population has two Senators as does the miniscule Rhode Island. But in The United States this local role- if it can be termed such- by no means the exhausts the importance of the Senate. For example the American Senate plays a crucial role in the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court, and in foreign policy. Moreover we should recall that the late Senator Teddy Kennedy was quite evidently a national figure who did for more than the represent his own state- as was- on the other side of the aisle- Senator Jesse helms of North Carolina. The US Senate is concerned with far more than States Rights.
More importantly though Mr. Maloney’s principle that Senates are only appropriate in federal states fails to take the French Senate into account. It is difficult to imagine a political system more unitary than that of France. Even the French overseas territories, of which there are still a surprising number, are departments of France. While it is true that under the terms of the French Constitution the senate is especially concerned with overseas territories and with defending the interests of the various localities within France, but as its informative web site makes clear, this is only a small part of its role, and consequently then Mr Maloney’s principle needs at the best to be greatly modified.
All in all then it seems that Mr Maloney has not got the debate about the future of the Senate off to an especially distinguished start. But he may though yet be proved right. The Senators and their supporters have some explaining to do. Are they going to able to show- for example that the state of Nebraska with it unicameral legislature is less well governed than neighbouring Arizona with its senate? Are they going to able to point to legislation that has been significantly improved by the Senate? Such demonstrations- like all contributions to this debate – will require intellectual effort and attention to the facts.
In the meantime it looks as if- at the very best- that those like Mr Maloney who want to abolish the Senate are about to do “the right thing for the wrong reasons.” But is it too much to hope that at least once we might do the right thing for the right reasons? But we can only do this if we have thoughtful and measured debate on the subject. The auguries at the moment do not look promising.