Result has undermined Taoiseach’s political authority

Narrow margin and low turnout provides little comfort for Kenny

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.

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.

Third, the Government side can be accused of orchestrating a cynical campaign. On narrow populist grounds, the abolition proposal may have looked like a winner from the off. Voters were served up ample reason to question the allure of €20 million in annual savings dangled by Fine Gael. The result suggests this line of attack stuck.

While presenting abolition as an opportunity to sack 60 politicians, the Government campaign failed to hammer home its message about the Seanad’s gaping lack of democratic legitimacy. The Seanad has but puny powers, but the Government failed to adequately counter the ’power grab’ argument. While the proposal was characterised by the No side as an improper plot to entrench Government power in parliament, the fact remains that the upper house is an elitist chamber and is almost completely subordinate to the Dail.

Kenny’s fourth problem is that it will now be exceedingly difficult not to yield to political pressure to reform the Seanad. This was something he refused to do all along, the argument being that it would quash the case for abolition from the outset.

If the abolition campaign was predicated on the notion of the Seanad’s uselessness and democratic deficit, then Fine Gael and Labour could hardly plead now that it would be best to hold on to an unreformed upper house.

To do so, however, would necessitate a rather large dose of humility. What is more, there would have to be another referendum. The Taoiseach might think long and hard about that.

This also raises questions about other reform initiatives. Having also lost an earlier referendum on parliamentary inquiries, he will probably be reluctant to go again to the country on anything remotely contentious. This is all the more so with local and European elections looming next year. The Coalition will then be into the home straight in terms of its mandate, so it might be inclined to avoid presenting any further opportunity to voters to vote against it.

Kenny also knows that the Labour camp was deeply ambivalent about the abolition proposal. Although the junior coalition partner went along with the referendum, it was never as enthused as abolitionists on the Fine Gael side.

This might well give Gilmore a little more leverage the next time the going gets rough in Government relationship. But whether today’s result strengthens Gilmore’s case for a referendum on gay marriage is another matter.