In an interview published recently in the Irish Times, the man who would be Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, treated an anxious and fretful nation to his thoughts on the problems we face.
Those waiting with baited breath for the leader in waiting to come forth with some big idea or a great vision were sorely disappointed. In its place, like a man with the teaspoon offering to drain the Shannon, he offers some vague notion of electoral reform as the panacea to all our ills.
This is not to dispute the case for electoral and political reform. However, does the leader of Fine Gael seriously believe this is the most talked about issue in homes across the land? If he does, then he needs to get out and knock on some doors like me and hear what is really exercising the people.
It is not as if his plans to change the Oireachtas are detailed or advanced. At its centre stands his idea to scrap the Seanad, despite the fact that the FG Senators saved his leadership in the June 2010 putsch.
I want a public debate on the future role of the Seanad, but that debate should not be framed in simplistic back it or sack it terms. Surely the least we can expect before we add Ireland’s name to the list of single chamber parliaments beside those of Armenia, Cuba and Serbia; is a debate on whether the Seanad could be reformed to play a constructive part in our parliamentary life.
But when it comes to the voting system, Kenny does not appear to know what he wants. When asked if he favours a change from the multi-seat constituency system he replies: “Many years ago Liam Cosgrave favoured a single-seat system of PR and Dev tried to abolish PR twice and the people said ‘No’.
This one sentence alone exposes how little thought he has put into it. The last referendum on changing the PR system was held in October 1968 – over 42 years ago, the first was held in June 1959 (over 51 years ago). It would not be unreasonable to go back to the people in 2011 or 2012 with a considered proposal to change the system after more than four decades.
Also, as any first year Irish history student could tell Enda, while De Valera was Taoiseach in June 1959 by the time of the second referendum in October 1968 Jack Lynch was Taoiseach and had been so since November 1966: when he succeeded Sean Lemass.
Instead of actual electoral and political reform Enda offers us a “smaller number of really powerful committees”. He feels this will ensure TDs attend to their legislative duties and focus less on constituency matters. According to Enda it is only the absence of such committees that has TDs doing constituency work.
Do you really think so Enda? This is not Field of Dreams: build powerful committees and they will come. Speak to your own back benchers. The reason any TD attends to constituency matters is to ensure their own re-election. It is not just the political sine qua non of the multi-seat constituency system: it is a feature of almost all representative parliaments.
Even in Britain, MPs find it increasingly necessary to spend more time attending to constituency matters. The image of the sitting MP popping down from Westminster to visit the constituency a few times per month is a thing of the past. In taking this course, Enda is tackling the issue from the wrong end.
There is an old theatrical story concerning a director obsessed with the method acting system. The rehearsals drag on aimlessly with no actual attention to the script. It finally culminates in an exercise where he asks each actor to say what terrifies them most. One by one they list off such horrors as drowning, asphyxiation etc. Finally, he comes to lead actor who says: “we open in two weeks”.
Funny, but this story comes to mind a lot when I think of Enda and 2011.