Angry electorate unlikely to look kindly on Seanad


Q Will next year mark the beginning of the end for Upper House?

October next year is understood to be the month pencilled in by Taoiseach Enda Kenny for a referendum to abolish the Seanad.

The Government will be busy with the EU presidency for the first six months of the year, leaving the autumn the obvious time to fulfil Kenny’s promise, made in Opposition, to have it scrapped as a cost-saving measure.

There is wishful thinking on the part of some Senators that Kenny will abandon the poll, but those close to the Taoiseach say that failing to hold it would lose him credibility with the public.

Kenny has consistently said there will be a referendum, envisaging it “in the latter half of 2013”. Seanad leader Maurice Cummins (FG), who wants the Seanad retained, said yesterday the Seanad’s remit next year would include debating aspects of the EU presidency. “I am also inviting our MEPs to address the Seanad and take questions from members,” he added.

Cummins has done his best in difficult circumstances to boost the Seanad’s profile. But the wise heads in Leinster House believe that only extensive reform will save from abolition an institution that costs an estimated €30 million annually and pays its members salaries of €65,621 plus expenses.

“People are now so angry with the state of the country they would even abolish the Dáil if they got the chance,” said another Senator.

There is cross-party agreement that the current method of electing the 60 Senators will have to go in any reforms. Forty-three are elected by county and city councillors and members of the incoming Dáil and outgoing Seanad; six are chosen by graduates of TCD and the National University of Ireland; and 11 are nominated by the taoiseach of the day to ensure the new government has an overall majority.

A discussion document with the title Open It, Don’t Close It has been launched by an informal group in an effort to save the Seanad. They include Independent Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, former senator Joe O’Toole, former tánaiste and PD leader Michael McDowell, and barrister and Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan. They want reform through legislation rather than abolition by referendum.

Legislation proposing significant reforms, including extending voting rights to the entire electorate and emigrants, is expected to be put before the Seanad by Zappone and Quinn next year. Zappone has estimated that the real cost of the Seanad is below €10 million.

O’Toole has argued the guiding principle of reform must be that every citizen would have the right to vote in the Seanad election on a one-person one-vote basis.

Would that and other reforms be enough to sway a majority of voters in favour of retaining the Seanad ? The jury is very much out.