Fine Gael leader and 26-County Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been humiliated after the rejection by voters of a dictatorial attempt to abolish the Seanad, the upper house of the Dublin parliament.
Kenny was lambasted by even his own party members for refusing to debate in public an issue which he styled as his personal crusade. Meanwhile, his government is attempting to win public support for another austerity budget, the fifth since the start of the economic crisis.
Kenny originally surprised his own party when he told a Fine Gael dinner that he would seek the abolition of the upper house, arguing that its existence could “no longer be justified”.
The body was never intended to provide a balance to the lower house [the Dail] and remained a largely symbolic chamber consisting largely of political insiders who were either appointed or chosen by small pools of electors.
But its abolition was widely seen as a cynical move by Kenny to deflect voter anger away from the failures of his own government, while boosting his own image as a reformer.
So after polls predicted the vote would be carried, it was a major surprise last weekend when voters rejected the referendum by 51.7 per cent to 48.3 per cent.
Sinn Fein, who supported the Seanad’s abolition, said it felt let down by Mr Kenny’s lack of engagement in the run up to polling day.
Calling for major political reform after the result was announced, Sinn Fein president Gerry adams said that the chamber in its present form was “elitist, undemocratic and unacceptable” and that Saturday’s result “cannot be viewed as a vote to retain the Seanad in its present form”.
Media commentators heaped blame on Kenny for the defeat, castigating his “arrogant” leadership style. The Taoiseach admitted he was “personally disappointed” by the failure, which he described as “a wallop”.
Fianna Fail TD Billy Kelleher criticised as “cowardly” Mr Kenny’s failure to engage with the public in”any meaningful way” during the campaign which cost the taxpayer an estimated 14m euros.
The result was also another blow for Labour, Kenny’s junior coalition partners, whose support has plunged to just 6 per cent amid grassroots resentment over its support for a high-handed, right-wing government.
‘WALLOP’ FOR CITIZENS
The coalition budget due on Tuesday is set to again target pensioners and those on social welfare to secure a 2.5 billion euro ‘adjustment’, according to reports, but has not yet been finalised.
There is still a lack of clarity as to whether there will be a supplementary budget for the health service, which has cost overruns this year estimated at 150 million euro, or whether the overruns will have to be carried over into next year’s budget.
Launching his party’s ‘alternative budget’, which also outlines a 2.5 billion euro adjustment, Sinn Fein’s finance spokesman Pearse Doherty said the real debate about the fiscal plans was not about the amount of the cuts and taxes but “about who is actually going to carry the burden”.
The Sinn Fein alternative budget proposes the abolition of the property tax which the party says will save 1.8m homeowners an average of 278 euro per year. It also suggests giving 86,000 carers 325 euro extra in their respite grant.
In addition, the party is seeking to take 296,000 workers earning below the annual minimum wage out of the tax net, and to extend free GP care to under-fives.
“We will ensure no more cuts to disability payments, no more cuts to child benefit and an extension of the fuel allowance,” said Mr Doherty.
In terms of tax increases, the party say they would increase the tax paid on income over [euro]100,000 by seven per cent to raise 365 euro.
The party also calls for a wealth tax of 1 per cent on all assets over 1m net of all liabilities, including mortgages and other debts. The Department of Finance informed Sinn Fein it was unable to cost the proposal, but Mr Doherty said there was “no doubt” it would raise hundreds of millions of euro for job-creation programmes.