Ireland: Voters set to make senators feel pain

Enda Kenny, leader of Ireland's Fine Gael party. Picture: Getty Image
Enda Kenny, leader of Ireland's Fine Gael party. Picture: Getty Image
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IRELAND votes today on whether the Dublin parliament’s upper house should be abolished almost 100 years after the state was founded.

Opinion polls suggest a majority are in favour of getting rid of Ireland’s 60-seat Seanad, which is broadly akin to the House of Lords in the UK system.

Both Fine Gael and Labour support its abolition. The move, which government parties say would save the cash-strapped Irish state around €20 million, is opposed by Fianna Fail, once the dominant force in Irish politics.

Polls at the weekend found 62 per cent in favour of scrapping the Seanad, and just 38 per cent in favour of retaining it. However, the result could hinge on turnout, often low in Irish referendums, and the destination of the many undecided votes.

Many Irish people see the referendum as a chance to pass judgment on politicians more generally, said professor Michael Gallagher, a political scientist at Trinity College, Dublin.

“When the taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was in opposition he put forward this referendum as a populist move. The government has presented it as a chance to cut the numbers of politicians. In an era when Ireland is not in love with its politicians, the idea seems to have hit home,” Professor Gallagher said.

The Seanad’s powers are much weaker than those of Ireland’s lower house, the Dáil and it can only delay laws with which it disagrees, rather than veto them outright. Proponents of Seanad abolition say it is undemocratic and elitist. Eleven of the 60 senators are appointed by the taoiseach, Ireland’s prime minister. Six are chosen by graduates of the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland. The other 43 are elected mainly by local councillors.

“The fact so few people are directly involved in electing the Seanad undermines its credibility,” said Prof Gallagher. “But that was equally true 30 years ago.

“Some voters are seeking revenge on politicians who let the economy overheat in the Celtic Tiger era and then oversaw the painful retrenchment afterwards, with so many young Irish people leaving to work abroad.”

A referendum is obligatory as abolishing the Seanad would mean altering the constitution. There is also a second question on a new court of appeal.

Senator Feargal Quinn has been one of the most vocal in favour of retaining the upper chamber. “The government have given only one option, which is either vote yes to abolish the Seanad or vote no to leave it as it is. We argue very strongly there should be a third choice, which is a reformed Senate,” he said.

Mick Fealty, who runs the popular Irish political blog, Slugger O’Toole, questioned what abolishing the Seanad will achieve: “Critics say that [the Seanad] played no major role in challenging the notorious groupthink of Irish politics. That’s largely true. Although it has also been said, neither did the parties who sat in opposition in the Dail throughout the years of Celtic Tiger excess. In any case, you can only get out of system what you put into it.”

Their days might be numbered but Ireland’s senators have shown few signs of going gently into the good night. On Wednesday, the Seanad delivered an embarrassing defeat to the government, upholding a private member’s bill to ban upward only rent reviews by a 27-23 majority