Seanad abolition not so clear-cut for Kenny now

Seemingly unassailable leads for Yes side in polls have been quickly wiped out in the past

The Seanad Chamber at Leinster House. The well-organised Democracy Matters group  has been busily campaigning all summer for its retention and reform. Photograph: Alan Betson

The Seanad Chamber at Leinster House. The well-organised Democracy Matters group has been busily campaigning all summer for its retention and reform. Photograph: Alan Betson

Sat, Aug 24, 2013, 01:00

If a referendum on scrapping the Seanad had been held during the febrile period around the 2011 general election, there is little doubt it would have passed with an overwhelming majority. The anger of that period has ebbed and a proposition like scrapping the Upper House does not seem as straightforward any more.

The early opinion polls seemed to confirm that Enda Kenny’s vow to abolish the Upper House had popular support, with a 30 per cent gap between Yes and No.

But then, no other voting events in Ireland are as volatile or unpredictable as referendums. In the past, seemingly unassailable leads for the Yes side in opinion polls have been wiped out in the space of a few months. In 1986, opinion polls in the early part of the year showed 77 per cent support for divorce, yet when the referendum was held in June, only 36 per cent supported the proposition. Another dramatic swing occurred in the first Lisbon Treaty in 2008. In early opinion polls, 23 per cent intended to vote No but at the end of an incompetent and incoherent Government campaign, the referendum was lost when 53.4 per cent of those who voted rejected the treaty.

In this Government’s term, the referendum that proposed to give parliamentary committees strong new powers of inquiry was defeated because of a Government campaign that was presumptive about voter intentions, as well as the well-timed intervention by six former attorneys general who asserted essentially a “power grab”. The children’s referendum was won but by a surprisingly small margin, given the tiny number of people who publicly opposed it and its discredited €1 million information campaign.

Then there is the issue of whether a bit of complacency has set in regarding the Seanad referendum. The Government launched its campaign in mid-July, with Richard Bruton as its director. Strong arguments were advanced: The Seanad is currently not fit for purpose; it has no powers; its election system is unfair; it has a high cost.

Other countries have got rid of their second chambers successfully. But the campaign seems to be on a break during the summer recess. Meanwhile, the well-organised Democracy Matters has been busily campaigning all summer. Michael McDowell has been effective in describing it as a “power grab” by the Executive, further concentrating power into the hands of the four-man Economic Management Committee. The campaign has also zeroed in on the dramatic U-turn by Kenny in 2009, moving from wanting reform in July to wanting it scrapped in October.

The Seanad sat for an emergency session this week. Most members on all sides were secretly delighted as it allowed them show how the chamber could be effective.