Kenny factor not the only reason Seanad referendum was lost
Very effective No campaigners had a big influence on voters’ decisions
Michael McDowell and former Green Party minister Eamon Ryan at the count centre in Dublin Castle.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
It was obvious the unremitting focus in the event of a No vote in the referendum would be on Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s thunderbolt announcement at the Fine Gael presidential dinner in October 2009. His decision to offer only a binary Yes or No and his refusal to engage in any meaningful debate were always going to be a big drag for the Yes campaign. But to suggest the referendum turned on the Enda Kenny factor alone would be inadequate to explain the dramatic and unexpected result.
Referendums are very different electoral animals to elections and political parties do not necessarily hold primacy. There have been very effective civil society groups in previous polls and this campaign was no different. The role of Democracy Matters in the outcome cannot be understated. Its public figures were well-known and respected and hugely committed to their cause, campaigning tirelessly for months. They included former trade union leader Joe O’Toole, Senators John Crown, Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn, barrister Noel Whelan, and former tánaiste Michael McDowell as well as hundreds of volunteers, many of them young, who participated in a very effective grassroots campaign orchestrated by Tiernan Reilly, who worked on US president Barack Obama re-election campaign in 2011.
One House, the Yes side civil group, with equally impressive advocates and headed by chief executive of the Labour relations Commission Kieran Mulvey, arrived just a little too late in the campaign to have a similar impact.
Early in the campaign, both O’Toole and McDowell floated the term “power grab” to characterise the repercussions of what would happen in the event of a No vote. They were able to point to ineffective Dáil reform, Government control of committees, as well as the four-person Economic Management Council (often portrayed, unfairly, as a “star chamber”). It was an effective phrase that had purchase and one the Government never fully rebutted during the campaign.
For its part, the Fine Gael slogans of €20 million in savings and reducing the number of politicians became increasingly hard to sustain as the campaign entered its final stages. The true figure for savings became the subject of circular debate that was never resolved. Moreover, the Yes campaign came under attack for using shallow, populist arguments determined by focus groups. Fine Gael left in the background some of the more substantive (and effective) arguments it could have made. The net effect was it was left wanting when people began to engage with the issues intensively in the last week.
In addition, there was an onus on the Yes side to explain that a single chamber democracy would be effective. But while the Dáil reforms it announced had merits (allowing citizens to be involved at the pre-drafting stage of legislation for example) they were hard to explain and the prevailing message was an extra three hours’ sitting time – hardly a clincher.
By contrast, Democracy Matters and Fianna Fáil succeeded in pushing a message that reform of the Seanad was possible, even within the constraints of the Constitution. Proposals from Zappone and Quinn, and a separate one from Crown, were received as credible alternatives to abolition. In reality, there would be practical problems in trying to apply the proposals. But the details were less important than showing it was possible.