The most important issue facing our country today remains how we generate the economic and social progress which our people need. This will dominate the rest of the year and the rest of the Dáil term and we will keep this as our absolute priority. As part of this we will continue to point out that the need for a deep reform of the structure of Irish politics is required.
This week, attention has finally turned to the issue of the Seanad referendum. This is the largest ever proposal to amend the constitution, involving over 40 changes. During the last two years the Taoiseach refused to let either citizens or their parliament discuss what would be in this referendum. He excluded it from the terms of reference of the Constitutional Convention and voted down all efforts to put a reform of the Seanad and Oireachtas on the ballot paper.
The tactic of the Taoiseach and his government has been to take the low road. They have run an entirely cynical and negative campaign. Now they are trying to limit debate and to keep the Taoiseach himself away from having to actually engage with opponents or even citizens.
Each of the arguments promoted by the government has fallen apart, so all they are left with repeating lines they know are false and adding to them a healthy dose of abuse. Attack is becoming their only means of defence.
They started by claiming that the referendum would bring us into line with other countries. The facts show that the referendum would actually give Ireland a system unique in the democratic world for the amount of power held in the hands of ministers and their absolute control of a single-chamber parliament.
They then littered the country with posters claiming that the referendum would deliver €20 million a year in savings which would result in more teachers and nurses being funded. The facts show that nowhere near this would be saved and that not one cent will be saved in any budget to be introduced by this government. The savings claim is so false that yesterday the Director of Labour’s campaign admitted he couldn’t justify it and a Fine Gael representative said that it was untrue.
Then they rolled out a press conference and coloured graphs to say that they were delivering radical reform of the Dáil which would make any other chamber unnecessary. The facts of this became clear even faster; with even government TDs admitting that the so-called reform package is an empty gesture and might actually make the government less accountable because it provides less space for TDs to oversee the work of government.
Finally this week they have resorted to their final argument, which is that other people have changed their position so you shouldn’t listen to them. The facts show that every political party and every party leader in Dáil Éireann has changed its position on the Seanad. This is perfectly reasonable – how can anything ever change, how can we have a politics which responds to new situations if we never change our positions.
In the case of Fianna Fáil our position is absolutely clear. I outlined it early last and repeatedly since. We supported abolition of the Seanad only following the radical handing over of power from the government to the Dáil. This has not only not happened, Enda Kenny has said he will not allow us even to vote on whether it should happen. At the same time we have a government which has reduced the Dáil to greater irrelevance than at any point in its 94 years of existence. Our position remains that we need deep reform, and this is not being offered.
Enda Kenny contested 11 general elections as a defender of the Seanad. For 34 of his 38 years in the Dáil he believed in the role of the Seanad. He has no right to attack anyone for changing their position to address the situation of today.
A defining characteristic of this government has been its rising arrogance. It keeps talking the talk of reform and change but the reality is exactly opposite. This is how they campaigned against the use of guillotines on Dáil debate but have increased their use by so much that the Fine Gael Whip has been forced to admit that their record is “deplorable”.
This arrogance has reached new levels this week in the Taoiseach’s behaviour.
On Monday he started talking about what he would be doing when, not if, he is Taoiseach after the next election. He added to this a petty and insulting reference to one of his most distinguished predecessors. No previous holder of the office of Taoiseach would have made such a tribal statement – or have had the arrogance to claim to be the direct successor of a leader who died over 90 years ago.
In the past Enda Kenny said that the abolition of the Seanad was his personal initiative. He introduced the legislation. Yet now he is refusing to debate it in any place where he doesn’t control the agenda or where he doesn’t have his backbenchers on hand to shout-down opponents. He will not debate the largest ever amendment to our constitution. How else but undemocratic and arrogant can you define this behaviour?
This morning both the Taoiseach and I received invitations from RTE to participate in a television debate before the referendum. I have accepted. If he doesn’t people will draw the obvious conclusion that he does not feel he can persuade the people and prefers to stick to his negative, cynical and increasingly personal party campaign.
Major changes in public support for referendums can happen in only a few days. This referendum debate is only really starting now.
The issue at hand is becoming clearer by the day: If this referendum is passed it will mark the death of any chance of real political reform. An already too powerful government will cement its absolute control of our parliament and nothing significant will have changed from the system which was in place before the crisis.
I don’t believe that people want to give an already too powerful government even more power. I don’t believe that they want to leave Ireland with a unique and unreformed political system. I have no doubt that the result in two weeks’ will be a wakeup call to our arrogant and complacent government.