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Echo Editorial

Senate on the brink

A few days from now, voters in Ireland, though not Irish voters outside the Republic, will be asked to cast votes on whether or not the Irish Senate, Seanad Éireann will continue to exist.

This is no small question in a democracy where, it is to be assumed, parliamentary chambers are established at the outset with serious purpose in mind.

As it turned out, and though it bore a name that would bring to mind the United States Senate in Washington, D.C., the 60-seat Irish Senate, has not exactly blazed a trail across the political heavens since it came into being, initially as a legislative body of the Irish Free State in 1922, and later as one for the Irish Republic based on a revised model written into the 1937 Constitution.

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Unlike Dáil Éireann, the Senate is not directly elected, but rather consists of members sitting in various panels who are chosen by various methods. Its powers are much weaker than those of the Dáil, and it can only delay laws with which it disagrees, rather than block them by means of veto.

There have been calls for reform, and efforts to actually reform the Senate for virtually as long as it has existed.

The current government, in its 2011 general election manifesto, promised a referendum in which the government would advocate abolition of the Senate.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been to the fore in advocating the required majority "yes" vote that would result in the Senate passing into history.

Labour, led by Eamon Gilmore, has been more muted in its advocacy.

Sinn Féin, somewhat late in the day, decided to back abolition while Fianna Fáil, much diminished since the general election, stands alone as the primary force advocating a "no vote" with retention and reform.

If the vote goes in proportion to the position of the main political parties then, the Seanad will ride off into the sunset.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has attempted to formally debate the issue with Mr. Kenny, but, as this went to press, the Taoiseach had thus far demurred.

There is little doubt that there is a lot of scope for reform.

Martin has argued for a revamped Senate directly elected by voters and one in which there would be minority representation for various groups, including emigrants.

As a plum for voters, meanwhile, the Fine Gael/Labour government has outlined a series of Dáil reforms that would come into being after the Seanad is abolished.

It's difficult not to argue that the Dáil has been in need of reform anyway, regardless of whether or not it has to sit in a bicameral legislature alongside an "upper house."

Fine Gael has additionally placed a strong emphasis on the economics surrounding the Senate's abolition or survival.

An end to the Senate would mean, for one thing, fewer paid politicians and all told, so the government argument goes, the Irish taxpayer would save €20 million annually if the Oireachtas became unicameral.

In a hard economic time, this is no small bore argument.

Still, the right kind of reform could include cost cutting. And it's this idea, "the right kind of reform," that makes us hesitate as opposed to simply rowing in behind the Irish government on this one.

The fact that Irish citizens overseas still have no voting rights in referenda dealing with the very political essence of the Republic they were born into, such as this referendum, is another cause for hesitation.

Seanad Éireann as it was, and as it is, might be an imperfect institution in need of a radical makeover, but it's puzzling as to why government leaders haven't spent a little more time crafting a vision for such a makeover.

Voters are being asked a simple question in the referendum with a yes or no answer. If the Senate survives it is difficult not to imagine that it will be overhauled. But if it doesn't we will never know what form any change would have taken.

As it now stands, the Senate could be scrapped on October 4 without the Irish people ever experiencing a reformed model that could potentially bring benefit to the political life of the Irish in Ireland, and indeed the much vaunted diaspora.

So the choice on referendum day is indeed a simple one. But is it overly simplistic?