Ten reasons voters rejected the abolition of the Seanad
From fears of a power grab to a lack of debate: why the electorate said no
Taoiseach Enda Kenny needed to sell his idea and failed to do so. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill /The Irish Times
Here are 10 of the principal reasons why there was a narrow No vote in the referendum to abolish Seanad Éireann. They are not in ranking order.
1. Power Grab: The notion of a power grab by the Executive was floated by Joe O’Toole and Michael McDowell very early in the campaign. It was an effective slogan to describe the fears that parliamentary scrutiny of Government would be diminished upon abolition.
2. Democracy Matters: Civil society groups have played a leading part in referendums. They are usually small and underfunded but if they have some well known personalities (as this group had) and volunteers who have conviction and commitment they can achieve a lot. Members canvassed tirelessly and its message was cohesive and had a wide reach. McDowell, O’Toole, Noel Whelan, John Crown, Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn became the faces of the campaign. In contrast, One House, the group formed to campaign for a Yes vote arrived on the scene a little too late and struggled to reach the same momentum and attention.
3. Anti-Government sentiment: This is always a factor in referendums (its definition could be widened to anti-establishment) irrespective of the proposed change, unless it is wholly without controversy. How much of a factor it is is difficult to measure but it was clearly evident yesterday. The best illustration with that was the map of the country, broken down into constituencies. Dublin and Leinster, where support for Government has fallen most, recorded No votes compared with the western seaboard, where sentiment with the Government is not so low, and where most constituencies voted Yes.
4. The €20 million savings slogan: On the face of it it was an obvious strategy to pursue. It went down well with focus groups and also was cited by over 40 per cent of respondents in The Irish Times poll. Yet, it was a thin argument. Sure, it is a lot of money but not in the context of the billions of euro required in budgetary adjustments. And when it went beyond the headline figure to the argument as to what the implications would be, the Yes campaign did not have sufficient follow-through on its argument.
5. Dáil Reform: The Government’s record on Dáil reform has been poor in the first two and a half years of its term. Some of the new proposals it floated during the campaign do have merit (opening up legislation to citizens at the pre-drafting stage) but it was hard to explain. Overall, the reforms seemed puerperal rather than fundamental. The message received by the public was a mere half hour or hours extra of Dáil sittings on three days a week.
6. Seanad Reform: Democracy Matters and Fianna Fail succeeded in pushing a message that reform of the Seanad was possible, even within the constraints of the Constitution. Proposals from Senators Zappone and Quinn, and a separate one from Crown, were presented as credible alternatives to abolition. If they are ever accepted, there will be very real problems in trying to apply the recommendations. But that did not matter during the debate, where retentionists could show that an alternative was possible.
7. The Binary Option: The No campaign also had a lot of success in arguing that the Government should have offered more than two stark choices, abolition or retention. Those who campaigned for a No vote said that a third option should have been offered to the people for decision: that of reform. The Yes side could hardly concede that point, leading to Enda Kenny and others saying that there would be no reform in the event of a No vote. The starkness of the choice offered by Government may have led some voters to veer towards a No vote.
8. Enda Kenny: It was his idea floated without warning at a Fine Gael dinner in October 2009. It was in his party’s manifesto and in the programme for government. The policy became associated with Fine Gael and particularly with him. Yet, at no stage did he come out and make a comprehensive statement or speech outlining how he came to such a radical decision and defending his rationale for doing so. What the public got was a series of soundbytes and a refusal to engage. He left the running to others, notably to Richard Bruton who did as good as a job as he could under the circumstances. He needed to sell his idea; he did not do so, and the public called him out on it.
9. The televised debate that wasn’t: The Taoiseach is not at his strongest at live debates and his command of details in such situations is sometimes wanting. Fianna Fail baited him on this issue by challenging him to a televised debate. His refusal to do so - even with the risks it entailed - was a strategic mistake and he compounded it with a glib throwaway remark that the did not want to embarrass Martin. When the televised debate went ahead without Kenny the optics were bad. The well he/won’t he participate question had become an issue. It did not sway the outcome in itself but it was definitely played a big part. Of that, there is no denying.
10. Change of public mood. When the economic crisis was at its worst, there was widespread anger among voters about standards and values in Irish politics. For the political parties, an obvious measure to address and sate that anger was the proposal to abolish the chamber. The Fine Gael argument of €20m savings and fewer politicians would have had no difficulty in gaining widespread acceptance in the febrile atmosphere that surrounded the 2011 general election. A measure of that was that all the big parties accepted the scrapping of the Upper House as part of their election agendas. But there has been a shift of public sentiment in the past two and a half years, away from raw anger to a recognition that the State is in a slightly different place. There was a sense, especially in the last few days, that the public was looking beyond the arguments presented by both sides and asking what would abolition mean - would the money it saved be justified by what was lost, and could a reformed Seanad serve a useful purpose for other voices in an Irish democracy? Fianna Fail cottoned onto that change of mood and flip-flopped on its manifesto promise. There was an element of cynicism and populism to it but it does no seem to have done it any harm.