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Patronage is the Great Curse Of Irish Political Life; And the Senate is its Greatest Symptom

Posted on: September 21st, 2007

Last week, the 23rd Seanad met for the first time. It gave me the opportunity to take the chair before the election of Cathaoirleach took place.

I told my fellow members that there are great problems with the Seanad, problems which must be confronted before the 24th Seanad meets. We are too often seen, rightly so, as the product of the spoils of political war or as the product of patronage or elitist elections.

Much of the Seanad is elected by outgoing Senators, county councils and the outgoing Dáil. This in itself opens us to criticism and difficulties that mean we look too much like political insiders, as being the beneficiaries of outrageous political patronage.

Patronage is the curse of Irish political life. It permeates the appointment of judges, the Ombudsman and members of semi-State bodies. It is an area where political parties have tended to run riot because there is no check on such appointments. A reformed Seanad could play a role in scrutinising such appointments.

Here is my speech to the Seanad in full:

I do not wish to sound presumptuous but I want to say to everybody that they are very welcome. It has been a long and difficult road for all of us to get here, whether one was nominated, elected or brought in by any means. It is a great honour for me to be here as the longest serving Member and it is a great honour for everybody to be elected to Seanad Éireann. I hope we have a particularly constructive session over the next four or five years, although that is not a political prediction of any sort.

I thank the Leader of the House for keeping with the long tradition of allowing the Member with the longest continuous service to take this item on the agenda. There is a shorter tradition, which I intend to continue, that the Member addresses the House briefly before doing so. The definition of “brevity” is up to the Chairman.

Looking at the composition of this House today I am intrigued by the extraordinary amount of talent which has emerged for Seanad Éireann. I suspect it has the potential to be the liveliest Seanad in which I have ever served. I do not see any signs of shrinking violets around the House. Indeed, I feel some sympathy for whoever is elected Cathaoirleach in the next few minutes for the disparate views with which he or she will have to cope. It has tremendous potential and this will be a fantastic Seanad if that particular potential is realised. We will have difficulties but we must mobilise that potential and seize that chance to make this particular Seanad a parliamentary dynamo of great life.

I do not believe the Seanad should be or has ever been in competition with the Dáil. If we are honest, it has often been held to be a poor reflection of the Dáil. While that may or may not be the case, over the period of this Seanad we should consider that which has been considered many times before, namely, that this House would adopt and seize a new role in the parliamentary process.

That presents us with particular difficulties because Seanad Éireann has been basically unchanged since 1937. The reasons for this are fairly obvious, although I do not want to go into that issue. However, as a result, the Seanad is deeply embedded in the political process. That is not necessarily a bad thing given that the political process has fantastically positive elements, but it also has negative elements. If we are serious about examining ourselves, we must try to discard the negative elements and continue with the positive ones.

The positive elements are self-evident. We have had phenomenal debates in the House over the years. Undoubtedly, in the case of certain inspired Taoiseach’s nominees from Northern Ireland, we have contributed to the peace that is settling on this island.

Undoubtedly, many people have led public opinion from this House, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. This has been done with enormous vigour and has been a great credit to the House, a point that applies to all political parties and all shades of opinion. We should be proud of that. However, it will be difficult for us to maintain or adopt a new, exciting and vigorous role unless we reform the Seanad.

This is the problem the Seanad must confront. We are too often seen, rightly so, as the product of the spoils of political war or as the product of patronage or elitist elections — I refer to all elements of the Seanad in this respect. We are seen as self-perpetuating political insiders of the worst sort. It is no secret that the Seanad is elected by outgoing Senators, county councils and the outgoing Dáil. This in itself opens us to criticism and difficulties that mean we look too much like political insiders, which we are. We are often rightly seen as being the beneficiaries of outrageous political patronage. This is an issue we should tackle if we are serious about Seanad reform.

I will make one suggestion before I conclude. When the long-standing debate on Seanad reform takes place there has often been a suggestion that we, in order to fulfil a particularly different role, should be capable and should welcome the opportunity of scrutinising public appointments obviously made for political reasons — I refer to all parties in this regard. We should be capable of calling people who are politically appointed to the House for a hearing and of making them accountable to the public, to ourselves and to those who appointed them.

Patronage is the curse of Irish political life. It permeates the appointment of judges, the Ombudsman and members of semi-State bodies. It is an area where political parties have tended to run riot because there is no check on such appointments. I hope we might be able to play a role in this area but we cannot play a role in criticising, scrutinising or recommending political appointments if we do it from the basis of being quintessential political appointees and beneficiaries of political patronage ourselves. It is very difficult for all of us to agree to yield power and political clout but if we are serious about the role of this House, we should do so.

Let me give an example. One of the most outrageous customs in this House is the long-standing practice by which the Taoiseach of the day makes interim political appointments to this House of people who have no interest in serving in it other than from sitting here for a couple of weeks before leaving. We had a recent example of the Taoiseach appointing such nominees. With the honourable exception of the Leader of the House, Senator Donie Cassidy, people were appointed who had no interest in standing for the House again. Their membership gave them privileges with no responsibilities. Such behaviour denigrates the House in the eyes of members of the public.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with the custom of Taoiseach’s nominees but those appointed must take seriously the interests of the Seanad, represent something and come to the House to debate, as opposed to simply wanting to acquire membership of the House before sailing off into the distance. While the nominations have sometimes been used in an inspired way, they are too often used to reward people in various constituencies for political favours. The practice should end if the House is to be taken seriously.

I will refer to university seats in passing as it is only fair that I should do so. Those of us on the university benches who have been accused of being elected by unfair, discriminating and elitist methods should reply to that accusation by stating this is a perfectly fair criticism. It is a flawed electoral system which is as much in need of reform as any other part of the House.

There is no justification for certain third level institutions having a right to elect Senators while others do not have the same right. If University Senators are to criticise the composition of the House, it would be wrong not to take some of that criticism on the chin. Patronage should be abolished and removed and the university seats reformed.

Let us start by considering a proposal that the Seanad and Dáil be elected on the same day. This would immediately eliminate a great deal of the political patronage to which I referred. It would mean that people would have to opt for one or other Chamber and Senators would be here on the basis that they were committed to this House, not because it was their second choice.

We must grasp the nettle of reform in this five-year period. We must not return to an unreformed Seanad next time. We must not be the political insiders who benefit from the perks of others and do less in terms of legislation. I look forward to working with everybody in the House in a united way to make constructive changes to legislation and to taking initiatives and a leadership position on Seanad reform and other public issues.

I thank Senators for tolerating my contribution. I shall now take nominations for the position of Cathaoirleach.

To read the text of the full debate, click here.