Seanad abolition and Dáil reform
It must have seemed a good idea at the time: abolish the Seanad as part of a political reform programme. It would reduce costs, deflect attention from the role played by the Dáil and appease an angry electorate. Now, with a network of complex interests campaigning against the Government’s referendum, it has the potential to provide the Fine Gael party with the makings of a slow-motion crash.
It’s all about timing. If the referendum on October 4th goes down, it will damage Government morale; raise questions about the judgment of Enda Kenny and increase the prospect of disaffected elements splitting away from Fine Gael. Defeat would bring gloom to the party’s ardfheis, arranged for the following weekend. Instead of the expected, celebratory knees-up, dissidents could seek support arising from disciplinary action taken against them for their stand on abortion and present alternative approaches to the Budget of October 15th.
Of course, it may not happen like that. Opinion polls that offer the prospect of a referendum defeat, generate their majorities by combining would-be reformists with anti-abolitionists. There is, however, no place for reformists on the ballot paper. People will only be asked if they are for or against abolition. That raises the question: will reformists respond to this lack of choice by turning on the Government? It would represent a dramatic shift. One-third of the electorate have no opinion on the referendum. Of those that do, less than ten per cent favour retention of the Seanad in its present form.
The outcome will be influenced by Sinn Féin. Of the main parties, it seems to be the only one with fire in its belly. It has altered its stance and will campaign for abolition. Government parties have not engaged with the public. Most senators are opposed to dissolution while their Dáil colleagues are reluctant to offend them. Fine Gael, beset by such pressures, has organised a few events to promote its posters and explain why abolition would be a good thing. The Labour Party, equally divided, has not even done that. Fianna Fáil has formally opposed abolition but, as Micheál Martin admits: the referendum is less about the Senate and more about the reform of political structures.
Such anaemic posturing has drawn attention to Executive dominance. Government parties have never wanted a challenging, effective Seanad. They still don’t. It has performed as an occasional pressure valve on social issues. But its main function was as a crèche/nursing home for aspiring and rejected TDs. Beyond that, its composition and electoral system contributed to a debilitating system of patronage. For the referendum to have meaning, the Government will have to convince the electorate it is willing to answer to the Dáil and grant it the kind of legislative and oversight functions envisaged by the Constitution.