The Seanad campaign
There has been a steady fall in public support for the abolition of the Seanad and the Government is worried. Two years ago, political complacency contributed to defeat of a referendum designed to give greater powers of inquiry to Dáil committees and ministers have no wish to repeat that humiliating experience. This time, the situation is more dangerous because senators from all parties, along with some of their Dáil colleagues, will quietly oppose the measure. Formal opposition will come from Fianna Fáil and from Democracy Matters, an organisation involving Michael McDowell that presents the referendum as a power grab.
Abolition of the Seanad will have no effect on Executive power. The Upper House has an in-built government majority. Members rely on the goodwill of party leaders who influence an electorate consisting of councillors and Oireachtas members. The Seanad can delay, but not reject legislation. It has, however, fulfilled a useful role in providing detailed examination of legislation and in raising contentious social issues that were denied space on the Dáil agenda. That limited, constructive role fell to a small number of Independent members.
Senators are aware of these shortcomings and the limitations of a tightly-controlled electoral system. Some months ago, they advocated reforms that would extend the franchise and include the general public, along with emigrants and Northern Ireland residents. A flexible nomination system and gender balance was envisaged. Critically, the Seanad would scrutinise legislative decisions and appointment to public bodies and hold governments to account. Such change would make the Upper House relevant. But with the Dáil being denied such important functions, what chance had the Seanad of securing them?
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been unambiguous. The choice being offered involves retaining an unreformed Seanad or abolishing it. No ifs, buts or in-betweens. Fine Gael’s September campaign will focus on public dissatisfaction with politicians in general and will offer the electorate fewer of them at a reduced cost. It is a crude tactic but it may neutralise a tendency by the electorate to punish governments for unrelated matters. Membership of the Seanad reflects a symbiotic relationship with the Dáil, rather than its intended status as a separate chamber. Forty percent of incumbents failed to be elected as TDs in 2011 and a majority exhibited previous Dáil ambitions. The pending referendum has, however, encouraged greater independence from Government. Fine Gael senators, expelled for refusing to support abortion legislation, are now making life difficult for Mr Kenny. The threat of a dissident conservative grouping being formed, composed of TDs and senators, is growing. A referendum defeat would provide them with necessary oxygen.