The referendum campaign on abolishing the Seanad sprang into life this week with an attack by Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams on Fianna Fail’s position, while Taoiseach Enda Kenny blankly refused to enter a televised debate on the matter.
The Seanad [Senate] is the upper chamber of the Dublin parliament and was modelled on England’s House of Lords, with certain elites permitted to elect or nominate Senators.
Sinn Fein is supporting the government in seeking the abolition of the Seanad, while Fianna Fail is backing a ‘No’ vote and calling for the Seanad’s reform, rather than complete abolition.
Both of the coalition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, have advocated its elimination and have sought to channel the strong anti-establishment feeling among the Irish electorate into the abolition campaign.
The parameters of the near-powerless second house of the Oireachtas [parliament] were drawn up by Irish President Eamon de Valera and helped to win the support of Irish elites for his 1937 constitution by salving the wounds of Ireland’s bitter civil war.
Motivated by the need of Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny to shore up his own popular support, his government has gone to the public to bring an end to Ireland’s Senate.
His party has claimed that abolition of the Seanad could result in a badly needed saving of €20m per annum. It has also pointed out in various internet posts that only 1 per cent of the population elects the Seanad, and that Ireland is the “only country in Europe of our size with two chambers of parliament”.
However, the simplistic, populist campaign has opened a wide-ranging debate on the failings of Ireland’s parliamentary system. Supporters of the Seanad have said the house could be changed to include a range of minority opinions and previously disenfranchised groups, such as the northern Irish and emigrant Irish, and that the refusal to consider reform is an expression of political failure.
But the only organised opposition to the abolition of the Seanad has come from Fianna Fail, a party attempting to reinvent itself after the political cronyism which destroyed the Irish economy in 2008.
Sinn Fein accused Fianna Fail of opportunism in their opposition to the abolition of the Seanad, and pointed out that its campaign posters mainly serve to promote its forthcoming local election candidates.
Ahead of a canvas in Dublin city centre, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams insisted the referendum “is not about reform. It simply isn’t on the table.”
He said the party would have liked a ‘preferendum’, allowing for a reform of the Seanad as a third option.
“The Seanad is elitist and undemocratic,” he said. “It must be abolished.”
He accused Fianna Fail of performing an “opportunistic U-turn” on Seanad abolition and said if party leader Micheal Martin was sincere in his wish for northern representation in the Oireachtas then he should support Sinn Fein’s call for speaking rights in the Dail for Northern MPs.
“Fianna Fail went into the last general election with a commitment to abolish the Seanad, yet Micheal Martin now opposes its abolition,” Mr Adams said.
Recent polls indicate a narrow majority in favour of abolition, although with a large number still undecided.