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

Michael McDowell and former Green Party minister Eamon Ryan at the count centre in Dublin Castle.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Mon, Oct 7, 2013, 01:00

Donegal Labour Senator Jimmy Harte had the best line of the weekend when he called the Seanad Referendum “the costliest after-dinner speech in history”.

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

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.

Democracy Matters

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.

Another productive seam for the No side was its argument that the Government’s stark binary choice of a Yes or No robbed people of the option to choose reform. Kenny’s insistence the Seanad would remain unreformed in the event of a No vote created the sense of a plan being juggernauted through. “Why could it not have been put to the Constitutional Convention?” became an effective refrain from the No side.

There was undoubtedly a Kenny factor. The Seanad referendum became identified with Fine Gael and was personified by him. But at no stage did he set out comprehensively why he had suddenly arrived at such a radical decision or outline his reasons for scrapping the Upper House. He left all the heavy lifting to others, notably to Richard Bruton, who did as good as a job as he could under the circumstances.

Televised debate

Fianna Fáil craftily exploited that by challenging him to a televised debate. The Taoiseach’s refusal to do so was a strategic mistake compounded by the glib remark that he did not want to embarrass Micheál Martin. There were risks involved – Kenny is not strong at live and detailed televised debates – but they were not as high as the risks attached to not doing it.

When the televised debate went ahead without Kenny the optics were terrible. The “will he or won’t he” question had become an issue, and a determining factor in the final week of the campaign when he refused to do it.

The Government’s campaign also miscalculated the public mood. There has been a marked change since the febrile atmosphere surrounding the 2011 election, when politics was held in the lowest esteem. Raw anger has now diluted to a more resigned mood with less antipathy to institutions. There was cynicism in Fianna Fáil’s flip-flop on this issue but its stance was more in keeping with the changed mood.

Other factors included an anti-Government sentiment that is evident in most referendums, irrespective of issue. The clearest indicator of that was the political map – reflecting the highest No votes in Dublin and Leinster, where dissatisfaction rates with the Government are at their highest. There was also an innate caution among a section of the population on any change to the 1937 Constitution.

Finally the issue of polls, especially The Irish Times opinion poll, needs to be addressed. It was sampled a week before polling and showed a 17-point gap between Yes and No, as well as 21 per cent who were undecided. Was there a late swing or was the No vote underestimated. One of the reasons is that those who declared they were No voters were solid and committed while many who declared Yes were a ‘soft Yes’ who either swung in the last week or did not vote. The debates on RTÉ and TV3 both had an impact, but there was no one event that in itself swayed the outcome.

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