Today, the 4th of October, the people of The Republic of Ireland will decide a crucial issue. We have been seeing political signs and banners on both sides of this incredible (to an American) issue. The people are going to vote to keep or abolish the Seanad Eireann or Senate of Ireland. Wha!?
Growing up in the States with our famous bicameral legislature, the thought of simply getting rid of one is incredible. "Let's just get rid of the US Senate, ya know, to save some money!"
Astoundingly, as I write this a few weeks before the election day, there isn't much in the news about it. On the radio, it is usually mentioned between other small headlines. It sounds like a minor detail, like business as usual. I can't even imagine what would be happening in the American media two weeks prior to a national vote to shake the Constitution like an Etch-A-Sketch and rewrite the distribution of power. The television and radio pundits would get months of material. Political action committees would buy all television commercial time- no more ads for cars, breakfast cereals, beer, or check-cashing stores- just smiling suits framed by waving flags and amber waves of grain pushing a political point. Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Al Franken would get (even more) lucrative book deals after screaming at each other for hours on television.
For our non-American readers, here's a primer of my native legislative context. The US, in its infancy, wanted to divide the legislative power among the original 13 states. They stumbled upon a problem in equal distribution. If they assigned representation simply on population, the larger, more populated states could overpower and bully the smaller states. If they gave each state equal representation, the small, less populated states would have the balance of power tipped too far the other way. The framers of the constitution wanted, at all costs, to prevent too much power going to too few, so a compromise was reached. There would be two Houses of Congress. The House of Representatives would have power divided by state population. The biggest states had more representatives and thus, more voting power in this house. As a balance, they also established the United States Senate. The Senate was to have two representative from each state, regardless of geographic size or population. The two houses were both to be elected by popular vote of the people of the States, and prospective laws would have to be written, evaluated, and approved by both houses. This is, of course, putting it overly simply. I have avoided (mostly because I don't remember the details...) the complex system of checks and balances between the two houses that keep either of them from pushing the other around.
I was inspired by this issue to look further into the Irish legislative branch and how this vote came about.
The Oireachtas is the entire Irish Parliament. It consists of two houses, the Dail (think like US House of Representatives) and the Seanad (not quite like the US Senate, as we'll see). The Dail is elected by popular vote of the people and handles most of the real legislative work. The Seanad is NOT elected by popular vote, but rather appointed by a number of interesting channels. Some members are appointed by the Prime Minister (not the President, different office), some members are appointed by alumni organizations of two Irish universities (!?), and most are nominated to special Seanad committees by members of the Dail.
Because the Seanad is not directly elected by the people, they serve a less direct role in lawmaking. The Dail makes and votes on most proposed bills, and the Seanad seems to act in a more advisory role. It is likened by some to the House of Lords in the UK. Having watched the House of Lords in action in London (A bunch of super-rich hereditary title-holders congratulating each other on their general superiority over the Cockney rabble eating garbage in the gutters of Westminster, aka the House of Commons) I certainly understand why the people are proposing the abolition of this government body.
Allow me to ignorantly slam the English for a while. The UK holds on to those lousy Lords because... "Ahem, I say there, ol' chap! Does Democracy have a place for us? The fief-holders? My family's title came from King Longshanks as a reward for attempting genocide! Doesn't that have any relevance today? I say!" As an American, I have been raised under the old 'American Dream' line, where (theoretically) everyone is equal, and anyone can become wealthy and powerful by their own hard work. No one is inherently "born better" as our UK friends still want to believe. My thoughts on the Monarchy will have to wait for another post.
In fairness to our UK friends, we did see the House of Commons in action in London, too. I admired the passion and efficiency of that house- even with such a demeaning name as "Commons." The commoners in that house debate and vote on action that has real political impact. In a refreshing change of pace, the Prime Minister of the UK has to stand up in front of the commoners periodically and listen to them heckle, shout, and otherwise question his or her choices- and the Prime Minister has to answer them directly. No pre-planned speeches and canned responses, just old fashioned verbal bar brawls until everyone is exhausted, bleeding, and singing and drinking arm-in-arm.
The Irish Senate doesn't seem quite so backwards as the House of Lords to me, the American, from the land of the Electoral College. Still, keeping a government body without much political weight at the expense of a country struggling with a recession does seem a bit silly. Most of the political materials here urge voters to vote for abolition. It stands to save the country hundreds of millions- no small potatoes. If the Senate is abolished, the few duties the Senate does hold will be transferred to the Dail without much fuss. It will simply cease to be. While I don't have a vote or a voice in this matter, I hope my new Irish friends and neighbours will forgive my curious observation of a young(ish) nation stripping itself of some of the old, tired traditions of its colonial past.