Ground may be shifting in debate on future of Seanad

Ambivalence is growing and ‘power grab’ charge has not been countered

Likely to be low turnout in Seanad referendum. Photograph: Alan Betson.

Likely to be low turnout in Seanad referendum. Photograph: Alan Betson.


On Monday night in Dublin, the NUI Galway alumni association convened a public debate on the future of the Seanad.

Two of its graduates argued the toss: Senator Lorraine Higgins of Labour proposing abolition; and Independent Senator Ronán Mullen favouring retention.

While there was little to separate the force of arguments made by both speakers – and agreement from just about everybody in the packed room that the Seanad was a failed institution and a rotten borough – when it came to a show of hands there was still a substantial majority in favour of retaining the Seanad.

Granted, there are so many caveats to enter that it would be churlish to be conclusive about what that says. Sure, the crowd were all National University of Ireland graduates and therefore have a dog in the fight.

As graduates, they also represent a single stratum of society. And there was also the likelihood that those interested in retaining the Seanad were more likely to turn up than those who want abolition.

But as a straw in the wind it still told a tale. There is likely to be a very low turnout in the referendum on the Seanad as there was in the children’s referendum. And a substantial number of those who will actually vote are likely to be drawn from this grouping, what marketeers call the ABC1s, a more affluent, higher-educated and older demographic.

What is happening may reflect a growing ambivalence towards the Upper House as a concept among the electorate, that more might favour reform over the binary option that is being offered.

That ambivalence is also seen in the Coalition, where Fine Gael is doing all the running, and Labour very little or none.

It is clear too that the argument of it being a “power grab” by Government has not been countered. And you wonder whether the two issues Fine Gael is majoring on – the claimed €20 million cost and slashing the number of politicians – is where the heart of the debate is.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael yesterday announced it will be bringing its campaign to the people with a series of town hall meetings.

The party’s message is becoming wider and more complex, which will probably be necessary.

Richard Bruton’s line about the Seanad being a watchdog that has only barked once in 50 years was particularly strong.

Checks and balances
Still the Government’s Dáil reform package is going to have to be, if not spectacular, strong enough to show that it’s not just another exercise in PR puff that’s never going to see the light of day. It will require ordinary people to be assured that the system will have some checks and balances that will allow the executive to be held to account.

Sinn Féin may play a key part in the outcome, which may be close. If it mobilises a strong “get out the vote” drive with its core supporters, who are predominantly blue collar, that might prove critical.

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