Result has undermined Taoiseach’s political authority
Narrow margin and low turnout provides little comfort for Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny during press conference at Dublin Castle after the Government lost the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
The unexpected defeat of the Seanad referendum marks a big setback for Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who championed abolition and made it the centrepiece of his Government’s reform agenda. Thanks to a defiant electorate, the initiative now lies in tatters.
That the victory margin was slim and the turnout low provides but little comfort. What counts is the end result, and it is clear enough: the No side took 51.7 per cent of the vote, the Yes camp 48.3 per cent. Voters have had their say. If the referendum campaign provided plenty of evidence to suggest the Seanad is unloved, the people still balked at scrapping the chamber.
This is bad news for Kenny on several fronts. First, the result undermines his authority as Taoiseach. While victory would have replenished his reserve of political capital, the opposite is now the case. In the run-up to a difficult budget next week, he has been thrust into a position of weakness.
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With Eamon Gilmore under acute pressure in Labour for separate reasons, the kindest that can be said at this point is that neither Coalition leader is on a winning streak. They may be within sight of a smooth exit from the bailout, but any triumphalism would be gravely misplaced.
Although there is no obvious threat to Kenny’s position per se, the likelihood is the retention of the Seanad will make tricky political tasks down the line a little more difficult. He held the party together over the abortion legislation, but not without the loss of a clutch of naysayers. Having antagonised restive Fine Gael senators with the abolition campaign, he will now have to make peace with them and live with them. What is more, any TD who might take issue with the merits of any future Government initiative now has ammunition to hand.
Second, a Taoiseach known for his caution and stage-management may now be blamed for turning an expected walkover into a defeat. In particular, he faces inevitable accusations that he himself did not campaign strongly enough.
The obvious point of contention is his refusal to participate in a television debate. While Government strategists point to protocol and a lack of precedent, the reality is that every vote counts in a campaign such as this. Experience suggests many voters make their minds very late in the day, but Kenny was largely absent. For a leader who trades so heavily on his personal popularity and likeability, this now looks like a fundamental error.