‘Cynically framed, cynically timed, and cynically executed’

Enda Kenny launched ‘personal initiative’, but now refuses to debate it

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore – “Government has timed a vote 10 days before Budget day,” a useful distraction .PHOTOGRAPH: ALAN BETSON / THE IRISH TIMES

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore – “Government has timed a vote 10 days before Budget day,” a useful distraction .PHOTOGRAPH: ALAN BETSON / THE IRISH TIMES

Sat, Sep 21, 2013, 01:55

On the October 23rd, 2011, the final poll published on the Oireachtas inquiries referendum showed the Yes vote at 76 per cent. Four days later, that referendum was defeated 53 per cent to 47.

While the Yes side still holds a commanding lead in the most recent polls published on the Seanad referendum, the outcome is still in the balance. As Richard Cowell of Red C has pointed out, the tendency for “don’t knows” to switch to voting No means that “this referendum is potentially much closer than the base figures suggest”.

In deciding how to vote in the Seanad referendum on the October 4th, voters should have regard not only to the merits or otherwise of the proposal itself, but also to the origins of the proposal, the timing of the referendum, the nature of the argument being advanced by the Government in support of it, and the extent to which the Government is prepared to debate it.

The provenance of this referendum proposal is suspect. It emerged from the mouth of Enda Kenny in October 2009 just weeks after he had passionately argued for Seanad reform at the
MacGilll Summer School. Yesterday he told us he came to this altered view over those nine weeks having “instigated a root-and-branch examination of the political system”.

Attention-grabbing proposal
The reportage then and since suggests, however, that the idea was devised by political advisers on foot of opinion poll research and was designed to lift his fortunes at a time when his leadership was in jeopardy. Kevin Rafter, writing in his book about Fine Gael, described Kenny’s new policy on the Seanad at the time as “a headline-grabbing proposal in keeping with the pragmatic populism of drunk tanks [and] ending compulsory Irish.”

If it was an attention-grabbing proposal, then this referendum is being used as a distraction tactic now. That is why the Government has timed a vote 10 days before Budget day on a constitutional change that, if passed, would not take effect until in or around March 2016.

The arguments being advanced to support the referendum are crude and cynical and have now also been shown to be inaccurate. Fine Gael ministers are openly boasting around Leinster House about how their clever lines about the cost of the Seanad and the need to reduce the number of politicians came from private polling and focus groups.

That is why they are so prominent on Fine Gael’s posters, why Richard Bruton sends weekly circulars to party representatives telling them to repeat these simplistic messages and why Regina Doherty always gets them out first before she draws a breath in answer to any question.

On this page yesterday, Enda Kenny himself repeated the claim that scrapping the Seanad would save €20 million, even though in the last week Fine Gael deputy John Paul Phelan told an audience in London that this claim was “erroneous”; Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn at a public meeting in Ranelagh characterised these claims as “misleading”; and the Minister of State Alex White told Newstalk that he did not know what the Government would save by scrapping the Seanad.

The Oireachtas Commission says that it is not possible to calculate the level of indirect saving that might result from Seanad abolition. Yet Fine Gael has included indirect saving in its claims.

Distorted argument
The distorted argument that Fine Gael is making on the costs of the Seanad matters not so much in itself but because it illustrates its cynicism: the Government will say anything to shore up this proposal.

The more this campaign progresses the more truth there is in Dr Brian Hunt’s assertion that this referendum proposal comes from the “announce first, come up with reasons later” school of policymaking.

Fine Gael deputies and grandees fain support for the referendum while many of them, even at a senior level, whisper encouragement in private to those of us who are campaigning against it. They sit mute in public, however, for reasons of party loyalty or career advancement, and they stand idly by while the lifetimes of legislative accomplishment of distinguished Fine Gael senators such as Alexis FitzGerald, James Dooge, and Maurice Manning are derided by their own party as having been of no consequence.

Labour parliamentarians, with some brave exceptions, go through the motions of campaigning on the Government side because this is the Taoiseach’s pet project and they don’t want to rock the boat. In fairness, some Labour TDs supporting the referendum have organised public debates involving speakers on both sides.

Meanwhile, Enda Kenny, who made much of the fact in October 2009 that this was a “personal leadership initiative”, refuses to debate the issue publicly. Although the referendum is by its very nature an extra-parliamentary process in which the people have the final say, the Taoiseach wants to deal with it only in the Dáil – and there he sidesteps questions with well-prepared witticisms.

Reading the vague generalities in the opinion piece he carefully crafted with handlers for publication in this newspaper, one can understand his reluctance to engage in public debate on the matter.

The referendum proposal is cynically framed, cynically timed and cynically executed. It remains to be seen whether the Government will get away with it.

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