Government hopes public view that ‘fewer politicians is good’ will swing Seanad Yes vote
Civil society groups appear to favour keeping a reformed Upper House
Fianna Fáil Senator Averil Power: said political reform under the Coalition had been “largely cosmetic” and that a rash move such as abolishing the Seanad would result in the loss of independent voices from Irish politics. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
In 70 days the electorate will decide whether or not to abolish Seanad Éireann. Now that the October 4th referendum date has been pencilled into the political calendar, those on both sides of the debate are polishing their pitches.
In the pro-abolition camp are the Coalition partners, Fine Gael and Labour. Taoiseach Enda Kenny has questioned the “very relevance” of the Upper House, while Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has criticised the existence of a political entity that operates without “fair elections, where every citizen has an equal say”.
For now it appears the Government parties have another heavyweight on their side: the public. An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll last month found 55 per cent in favour of abolition, rising to 72 per cent when undecided voters were excluded.
The campaign for retention, and Seanad reform, will be fronted by the main Opposition parties. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has described the abolition of the House as an attempted “power-grab” that would centralise more power in the Cabinet. Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams has toed a similar line and his party says the future of the Seanad should be put to the constitutional convention. The Green Party is also opposed.
Seanad members such as David Norris, John Crown, Rónán Mullen and Sean Barrett all voted against the Seanad abolition Bill. They, and other Independent members, will likely contribute to the No side as the debate progresses.
To date it seems more likely civil society groups will come forward in favour of keeping rather than killing off the Seanad, with the caveat that it needs to be reformed. Democracy Matters, a group featuring former tánaiste Michael McDowell and former senator Joe O’Toole, has been campaigning for a rebooted Upper House for more than 18 months. The group Lawyers for Seanad Reform yesterday criticised the Government’s claim that abolition would save €100 million in a five-year term. It says a reformed Seanad could help revise and improve future legislation.
Adrian Kavanagh of NUI Maynooth’s department of geography said having an early lead in polls on abolition should not be a cause for complacency for the Government, pointing to the lessons provided by the first Nice and Lisbon treaty referendums and the potential for a protest vote.
He said it appeared the Government had not done much work building a strong case for abolition. Its assumption was “people will go with the lazy ‘fewer politicians is good argument’ and vote Yes”.
“Potential arguments against abolition could have easily been sorted by doing the spade work in terms of Dáil reform and changing procedures to ensure checks and balances and more power being given to ordinary members rather than the Government,” he said.
Regina Doherty, Fine Gael’s deputy Seanad abolition campaign director, said the Yes platform centred on the rationale that, as a small country, “does Ireland need a bicameral political system and more than 220 parliamentarians?”
She pointed to Seanad costs, and said that regardless of whether it cost €10 million or €20 million annually, abolition would lead to savings.
Doherty also said abolition was another strand of the Government’s political reform agenda, pointing to changes to the county councils system and extra Dáil sittings, while acknowledging that criticism at the speed of change was fair.
Fianna Fáil Senator Averil Power said political reform under the Coalition had been “largely cosmetic” and that a rash move such as abolishing the Seanad would result in the loss of independent voices from Irish politics, such as Seanad colleagues John Crown and Jillian van Turnhout.
In its 2011 general election manifesto, Fianna Fáil said it favoured abolishing the Seanad but only in tandem with political reforms such as an overhaul of the committee system and powers to appoint to the Cabinet people who are not TDs.
Power is critical of the Government’s failure to act on such matters, and says a growing number of U-turns on policy decisions in areas such as education and health highlight that decisions are being taken without “proper scrutiny”.
She said voters with whom she had discussed the referendum were “suspicious about the Government centralising power in the Cabinet”, and the issue of Seanad costs was being used as “a smokescreen” to garner public support.
Doherty, who fell foul of “intemperate” language from Norris following the launch of her party’s campaign, said voters told her the episode “confirmed the need to get rid of the Seanad”.