Fate of the Seanad may all come down to potential cost savings

The abolitionists are winning on grounds of cost, despite the disputed figures

Members of the current Seanad pictured in May 2011: only 5 per cent of survey respondents said they would like to see the Seanad retained in its current form.  Photograph: Eric Luke.

Members of the current Seanad pictured in May 2011: only 5 per cent of survey respondents said they would like to see the Seanad retained in its current form. Photograph: Eric Luke.


Taoiseach Enda Kenny appears to have found a receptive audience for the argument that lots of money would be saved by scrapping the Seanad.

In the final stretch of a lacklustre referendum campaign, The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll suggests arguments about the Seanad’s usefulness and elitism have gained considerably less traction.

The poll indicates the abolitionists are on course to win next Friday, with 62 per cent in favour of the proposition when undecided voters are excluded. While Seanad supporters have made some inroads, it looks like they now have too big a hurdle to overcome.

With a rapid turnaround in public opinion now required to save the Upper House, the poll findings suggest the Coalition’s argument on potential savings is driving support for the abolition campaign.

The irony here is that the debate over potential savings has been the most contentious aspect of the referendum battle, with supporters of the Upper House accusing the Government repeatedly of making “bogus” claims for annual savings of €20 million.

Fine Gael has led the charge, suggesting no less than €100 million could be saved in a five-year parliamentary term.

Labour campaigns along similar lines but with less emphasis, citing €9.2 million in immediate annual savings “with indirect costs saved over time”. The party also notes that the Public Accounts Committee was told abolition could save up to €22.5 million.

For all that, Seanad supporters received something of a boost 10 days ago when the body that runs the Oireachtas told the Referendum Commission it was not possible to estimate how much money would be saved by abolition. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission cited annual running costs of €20.1 million but could not pinpoint “the amount of actual net savings that would accrue if Seanad Éireann was abolished”.

The No side seized on this, but the Government refused to yield. The thrust of its message seems to have found acceptance.

Of those who will vote to scrap the Upper House, 43 per cent said the “main reason” was to save money. This was by far the biggest motivating factor for abolitionists, 16 per cent of whom said their motivation was that the Seanad didn’t do much or had no power.

A further 14 per cent said two chambers were not needed or that other countries had only one chamber.

In sum, the abolitionists are winning on cost grounds and their supporters appear unpersuaded by the argument that the Seanad’s role in holding the Government to account is so important that it should be kept.

The opposite seems to be the case on the other side of the debate, where the “power grab” argument is dominant.

Only 4 per cent of those who will vote to retain the House said their prime reason for doing so was because they “don’t believe the alleged cost savings”.

A further 2 per cent said they were motivated by the argument that the savings to be made are not significant .

By contrast, 54 per cent of Seanad supporters said they did not want to give the Government more power by scrapping the chamber or would vote to keep the House because they believe there needs to be a check on the Government.

A further 20 per cent said they would vote for retention because they didn’t like or trust the Government.

The referendum is, of course, Kenny’s brainchild. Among Fine Gael voters, some 61 per cent say they will vote for abolition.

While Labour is less enthused at the proposal and there is some dissent within the ranks of its parliamentary party, 56 per cent of Labour voters say they they will support the Government proposal.

Still, hardly any respondents said they would vote for abolition primarily because of party affiliation and a desire to vote with the Coalition.

In straitened times as another austere budget looms, it may be no great surprise that the savings argument appears to be winning out.

Of comparatively less concern to abolitionists is the desire to reduce the number of politicians. Though this is one of the main arguments on the Coalition side, it is the prime motivation for only 8 per cent of those who want to scrap the Seanad.

Similarly, only 5 per cent of the abolitionists say their main concern is that Senators are not democratically elected. This is despite a welter of complaints about the chamber’s tiny electorate, comprised of politicians and the graduates of older universities.

If voters are concerned about “the rule of the 1 per cent”, it appears they are far more concerned to reduce the cost of the political system.

All along, the Government side has argued that too many opportunities to reform the Seanad have been missed. There will be no option to vote for reform next Friday, and all signs are that the Government is not minded to go the road of reform if the referendum is defeated.

However, the poll shows support from 77 per cent of respondents for reform if the people vote to retain the Seanad. The fact that only 5 per cent call for the retention of the Upper House in its current form is as decisive a mark as any as to its low standing.

As for the other question to be decided on Friday, the proposal to establish a new court of appeal does not appear to have captured the public’s imagination. Although 43 per cent of respondents said they would vote to set up the new court, a total of 44 per cent were undecided.

At the same time, only 14 per cent said they would vote to maintain the existing system. If all of that suggests some kind of a majority will opt for the new courts, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement.