Villagers: Letters To The Editor 2005-01-08
The unfortunate events that have happened in the Indian Ocean since Christmas Eve have saddened the hearts of all the peoples of the world. In terms of giving, maybe the governments of Indonesia and India could stop the manufacture of their military war machines for one week. This would show their governments' real committment to their own people.
On the whole, 2004 was a poor year for democracy in Ireland.
Once again, our Head of State was returned uncontested. While some individuals did seek to contest the position, the main political parties decided there were more pressing matters to attend to. Of course, no one should be surprised by this. Only one incumbent president, de Valera, had to compete for a second term.
When given the opportunity to vote in the European and local elections, only 60 per cent of the electorate did so. That said this was a notable improvement in electoral participation when compared with turnout for similar elections in the 1990s and the previous seven referendums.
Finally, and perhaps most disappointing of all, is the absence of debate (and action) on the Report on Seanad Reform. The Seanad could play an important role in Irish politics. However, its weak political position and the method by which its members are elected mean that, as the 1996 Report of the Constitution Review Group puts it, the primary issue "is whether Seanad Éireann should continue to exist in any form". The report goes on to argue that "if the two main criteria for retention of the Seanad – the desirability of a system of checks and balances and of representation of as wide a cross-section of society as possible – cannot be satisfied by suitable reforms, then the case for a Seanad would fail and it should be abolished".
If these are the criteria, then there is little support for the Seanad as it currently exists.
The government dominates Seanad Éireann. The power of the Taoiseach to nominate 11 members to the Seanad more or less guarantees the government a majority in the second chamber. Michael Gallagher, a political scientist in Trinity College, recently noted in Politics in the Republic of Ireland that the Seanad has not rejected a government bill since 1964. Moreover, the Dáil can overrule any amendments that the Seanad makes to government bills. At best, the Seanad can delay a bill for 90 days. The only defence of the Seanad's ability to hold the government to account is that debates in the chamber are regarded as "more considered" than those in the Dáil.
The members of Seanad Éireann do not represent a wide cross-section of Irish society. Analysis by Liam Weeks and Michael Gallagher of the 2002 Seanad election in How Ireland Voted 2002 shows that the Seanad does not even represent a wide cross-section of Irish politics.
In 2002, an electorate of 970 people elected 43 Senators. The vast majority of this electorate were local government councillors; the rest were outgoing members of the Dáil or Seanad. The domination of local government by the three main parties meant that the only candidates elected to the Seanad from the five vocational panels were members of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.
In the 2002 general election, 75 percent of voters gave their first preference to one of these three parties. This implies that the political preferences of a quarter of those who voted in the general election were ignored in the Seanad election. An electorate of "party men and women" elects "party men and women" from each of the vocational panels.
Only the electoral contests on the two university panels provide any support for the idea that the Seanad represents a cross-section of Irish society. While the percentage turnout in both constituencies is quite low (14, 237 out of 38,000 for the University of Dublin panel and 32,249 out of 102,000 for the NUI panel), the electorate provides a more diverse cross-section of Irish society than the group entitled to vote on the vocational panels. Moreover, five of the six university Senators are Independents. The main weakness of the two university panels is that the franchise has been denied to tens of thousands of graduates from third level institutions such as Dublin City University and the University of Limerick.
For the Seanad to fulfil either of the two criteria for its retention, it must be reformed.
If anything serves to undermine the role of the Seanad it is the closed nature of the electoral competition on the vocational panels. There are many proposals for reforming how the Seanad is elected: from introducing new panels to creating regional lists. One simple first step would be the extension of the franchise of the university panels. While there was a time when this would (quite rightly) have been regarded as elitist, the increase in the numbers of graduates suggests that extending the franchise would give many more citizens the opportunity to participate in another aspect of the Irish democratic system. After all, the purpose of the seventh amendment to the constitution in 1979 was to allow for such an extension. The problem is that no government has bothered to pass the required legislation to give more people the opportunity to vote.
North Great Georges Street, Dublin
Eoin Ó Murchú's articles provide interesting instances of raison d'état and realpolitik taken from various issues of the day.
A typical example is the recent column on Martin Cullen's recent political problems (Cullen faces the guillotine, 30 December). According to Ó Murchú, the Taoiseach asked Cullen if "there were any problems in the woodwork" before reappointing him to his Cabinet. The Taoiseach is a highly intelligent politician who would not be where he is today without knowing to the last detail what is going on. To say that he had to ask Cullen if there were problems is to insult his considerable political intelligence.
Cullen is also a highly intelligent politician. He is alleged, however, to have failed to observe the diplomatic and administrative niceties when appointing someone to carry out PR work on his behalf. At the time of Cullen's reappointment to Cabinet both Ahern and Cullen would seem to have taken the view that there was nothing wrong with the transaction. To be fair to both, what Cullen spent is chicken-feed in comparison with what our government, headed by Ahern, and indeed all governments, spend on PR.
The question has to be asked, why target Cullen now and why, as Ó Murchú says, this "new-found concern for the proprieties"? If it was all right at the time of the Cabinet reshuffle, why not defend it now?
The Taoiseach had, in fact, a better reason than the procedures surrounding the appointment of a PR guru not to reappoint Cullen to his Cabinet in the recent reshuffle. Cullen made a very serious error in trying to impose a non-verifiable electronic voting system on the electorate before the recent European Parliament/Local Government elections. This was a more important issue, with more serious implications for the health of our democracy, than whether or not the procedures for hiring his PR guru were administratively kosher.
The vulnerability of the proposed system of non-verifiable electronic voting to human error or deliberate interference meant that the votes cast could neither be verified nor recounted. Electronic voting, without the capacity to verify that the votes cast exactly matched the votes counted, is a recipe for totalitarianism. With the proposed machines the manufacturer and his/her programmers would have had the capacity to write the result of every future election.
Since non-expert people would have had no access to the counting procedure, neither the people nor their representatives would have been in a position to know what had happened. The capacity of the people to give their consent to be governed in a fair and transparent election would have been rendered null and void if a small number of unaccountable people had been given the ability to tamper with election results with impunity.
Stalin's assertion to the effect that it is not those who cast the votes but those who count them that are important should be a warning to us all on how near we were to doing irreparable damage to our electoral system.
Yet this was the system that Cullen tried to introduce in 2004. He defended it in public and, I assume, he sold it to the Cabinet. It is difficult to come to the conclusion that an intelligent man like Cullen did not understand the serious flaws in the system he was trying to impose on all of us. That he persisted, despite the obvious dangers to the future health of our democracy, was sufficient reason for not reappointing him to Cabinet. That Ahern did reappoint him does not reflect well on his political judgement. Had Ahern not reappointed Cullen he would not have a politically embarrassing problem on his hands now. Ahern, as a highly intelligent politician, does not, as implied by Ó Murchú, qualify for a fool's pardon. If, as stated by Ó Murchú, he wanted "no scandals" or "no demands for enquiries" he should not have reappointed Cullen to Cabinet.
There has not been enough public discussion about the office of the President of Ireland since the founding of this state. It is a serious injustice that, unlike in the Ukraine, the Irish people were recently denied the opportunity of a presidential election. These are far too important issues to be left solely to political party leaders. Our presidency has become, almost by default, an inherited office. The fact is, the presidential duties could be fulfilled by the Rose of Tralee.
As for the supposed "gravitas" needed for the role, it is worth remembering that the job was originally created to fill the political vacuum left in the then Free State by the departing English Viceroy. It seems to me that the office gets its glamour in inverse proportion to our post-colonial blues, ie, our hankering after the Raj. The nation does not need a president, especially an unelected, "non-executive" one! The office has become one of superficial speeches, ribbon-cutting and symbolic sod-turning.
It is anathema in a democracy to have a Commander in Chief of the Army who has the power to fire an officer, but not the power to review that decision when an injustice has been done. My experience with our Presidents has been that they are haughty, elite, distant and dismissive.
In 1997, false allegations were made to the media concerning my retirement from the Army in 1969. The calculated press assault alleged that I had been dismissed for IRA and terrorist associations. As a result of these lies, my family was disgraced once more and my sister Adi Roche's presidential campaign was damaged.
These leaks took the pressure off Mary McAleese, who at the time, was accused of having Sinn Féin sympathies herself. Furthermore, the news media never reported in 1997 that President de Valera had "retired" me from the Defence Forces without trial, charge or conviction. In 1999, my case to access my military files was deemed to be "out of time" in the Supreme Court. There was no right of redress in 1969 nor has there been since. In 2002 TV3, with State connivance, utilised these false allegations on their six o'clock news, thus continuing the assault begun during the presidential campaign.
When the President has been asked to help me clear my name her reply has always been that she has "no executive authority", thus dissociating herself from any responsibility in rectifying a misuse of presidential power. Perhaps we should consider bringing back the viceroy?
DONAL DE ROISTE