FG fears day of reckoning over Enda Kenny’s Seanad gamble
There is deep concern within the Fine Gael ranks that its populist referendum campaign misfired so badly
Enda Kenny speaking to the media outside the count centre in Dublin Castle after the defeat of the referendum on Seanad abolition. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill
It was a torrid day for unicameralists, the one chamber aficionados. It was an even worse day for Enda Kenny. “Sometimes in politics you get a wallop in the electoral process,” the Taoiseach said after the counting was done.
At least he told the truth of it.
Kenny emerges with his authority dimmed from the unsuccessful campaign to scrap the Upper House. It was he who championed abolition, ran with it in the 2011 election and led the push for a referendum. Now it has failed, he is most closely identified with the defeat.
“Bad for Fine Gael because we will have an internal war over it,” said a wan TD as the tallies came in on Saturday. “Enda will be blamed for not debating. Advisers will be blamed for the campaign messaging. Leadership will be blamed for not doing enough on Dáil reform.”
The Taoiseach now faces the possibility of recriminations on Wednesday when his parliamentary party gathers for its regular meeting. Just one week out from another austere budget and days ahead of the party conference in Limerick, he finds himself in a defensive posture. Like all leaders, he likes winning. He lost this one badly.
Whispers in the back room suggest the top echelon may try to foist blame for the debacle on Richard Bruton, director of elections and Kenny’s erstwhile leadership challenger. In this assessment, the Brutonites might well retort that Kenny should have showed up for a television debate. No-one expects a full-on faction fight, but there is profound concern within the ranks that the campaign misfired badly.
Even the most ardent loyalists say fundamental errors were made by concentrating on the alleged cost savings. While it was perfectly clear that abolition would not eliminate indirect costs attributable to the Houses of the Oireachtas, Fine Gael insisted the economies would still run to €20 million per year. “You can’t put a price on democracy,” said another TD, who happens to be close to the leadership.
The postmortem is now under way in earnest. TDs complain that their concerns about the cheapening of institutional debate with money talk were brushed away. Strategists cited focus group and private opinion poll research, they say.
At the same time, a succession of polls for this paper and others pointed to the likelihood of a convincing and relatively easy victory for the abolitionists. Wrong.
Kenny’s position is not obviously threatened by all of this. Still, the Seanad’s salvation may yet make his job more difficult. It is likely to come up again and again as he seeks to advance other tricky political tasks.
Tension in the party over the abortion legislation is still fresh in memory. With Senators antagonised over the abolition campaign, the Taoiseach must now make peace with them. This referendum result may also provide ammunition to any TD who might challenge the wisdom of any radical departure on any other front. “I think Fine Gael politicians have had enough of referendums,” the second TD said.