No Government appetite for sweeping Seanad reform involving all voters

Sources say public interest focused on the economy

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who described the electoral rebuff on abolishing the Seanad as a “walloping’’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who described the electoral rebuff on abolishing the Seanad as a “walloping’’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Mon, Jan 13, 2014, 01:00

Legislation implementing the Government’s decision to give all third-level graduates a vote in future Seanad elections is expected to be published during the new Dáil term which starts this week.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny moved swiftly to announce the extension of the franchise in the aftermath of the defeat of the Government’s proposal to abolish the House in last
year’s referendum. Kenny, who had championed its abolition in Opposition, described the electoral rebuff as a “walloping’’ and was no doubt anxious to recover his political composure.

Amendment
It was easily done, given that a constitutional amendment giving the vote to all third-level graduates was passed as far back as 1979. Will it take another 34 years before further electoral reforms are introduced in the 60-member House, particularly extending votes to all citizens in electing the 43 members from the five vocational panels?

As the group, Democracy Matters, announces its proposals for reform today, Government sources privately concede that there is little enthusiasm among the Taoiseach and his Ministers right now for sweeping reforms.

All sides in the debate agree that a referendum on constitutional reform is off the agenda, given the lack of public appetite for one. Kenny and his advisers had banked on a disillusioned and embittered electorate dispensing with the Seanad in a referendum on the basis that it was elitist and costly. Some university graduates, politicians and the taoiseach of the day controlled its composition and the cost ran into millions of euro.

But voters, albeit narrowly, rejected the Government’s argument. While Democracy Matters led an effective No campaign, there were other reasons, not least anti-Government sentiment and a distrust of its motives.

The campaign was marked by huge apathy and confusion and 60 per cent of voters stayed away from the polls.

The view of Democracy Matters that extending the vote can be done by legislation alone is privately challenged by some Government sources. Last month, the Taoiseach ruled out the prospect of allowing all citizens to vote, arguing that it was not what the framers of the Constitution envisaged.

Following the referendum defeat, a group was established in the Department of the Taoiseach to consider the matter. Seanad leader Fine Gael Senator Maurice Cummins, who is considered to be highly effective, has initiated a number of reforms, including inviting high-profile speakers to address the House. Constitutional convention chairman Tom Arnold will be the Seanad’s latest guest this week.

Special responsibility
It has been suggested that the Seanad should be given special responsibility for European legislation and an involvement with the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. The Taoiseach has given a commitment that more legislation will be initiated in the House.

There is talk of providing more time for private members’ Bills. However, right now, major reforms are unlikely. Politics is a practical business. “The Government will live or die on the economy,’’ said a Coalition source. “Seanad reform is way down the list of priorities ... it is not an issue engaging the public to any extent at a time of recession.’’

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