The people have spoken
The people have spoken, and delivered a resounding rebuff to the Government, and particularly to Taoiseach Enda Kenny who invested so much political credibility and capital in his own project of Seanad abolition – and then not enough, in refusing a TV debate. Although the turnout was low at 39 per cent, there is little evidence larger numbers out would have produced a different result.
And that a discerning electorate should simultaneously deliver a welcome and clear endorsement of the establishment of a court of appeal would tend to suggest that voters were less preoccupied with rational arguments about institutional overhaul and more with the politics in the Seanad debate - specifically their perception that the Government was trying to get one over on them. As they did, for broadly similar reasons, over PR reform and Daíl inquiry powers, voters decided politicians needed restraining.
Above all voters were saying that they do not believe the Government’s reform agenda is credible or sufficiently far-reaching. Indeed it seems likely that had the Taoiseach been on the other side of the argument, backing the argument for a reformed Seanad, the vote might very well have gone the other way. And, rightly or wrongly, those who want far-reaching political reform of our dysfunctional political system came to believe that the No side side offered the better home for their aspirations, the better prospects.
But if all are agreed on the need for reform the truth is that agreement on its specifics may prove extremely difficult. The devil will be in the detail. Most of those favouring reform, for example, will see the Bill proposed by Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, however welcome as a pre-referendum rallying point, as deeply inadequate – it is designed to change the Seanad without the need for a constitutional referendum, but preserves the elitist university seats, the unelected nominated seats, and the vocational panels. There is almost certainly no acceptable referendum-free option.
The key challenge will be to extend the electorate to a universal suffrage, and perhaps beyond that to citizens abroad or in the North, but without replicating the Dáil. But if that is done will the Seanad include the sort of minority or expert Senators whose presence in the old Seanad seems to have so endeared it to a majority of voters? Such senatorial stars have largely been the product of restricted university constituencies or Taoiseach’s nominees.
The debate about the shape of and powers of a reformed Seanad needs to start immediately and the Government, as a first step must ask, as it should have done in the first place, the Constitutional Convention to consider the issue. It also needs to put in place a realistic and speedy timeframe for the reform debate so that whatever referendum needs to happen, and whatever consequential legislation is required to be carried, will have happened and be in place to be implemented in the election of the next Seanad in 2016.