Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Seanad Referendum in Ireland: a lost chance for reform?

Across the media and in the Oireachtas, the legislative body of the Irish Republic, the recent Seanad referendum has dominated discussion over the past few weeks.

The discussion came to an end last Friday October the 4th, when the Irish electorate decided that they wished to keep the Seanad.

The Irish Senate is one of the three legislative bodies in Ireland, together with the Dail Eireann (the Parliament) and the President of Ireland.

All together they form the Oireachtas. The Seanad is consisted by 60 Senators elected after a general election. Eleven Senators are nominated by the Taoiseach (the Prime Minister) , 6 by certain national Universities (UCD and NUI) and 43 are elected from special vocational panels of candidates by local and national level elected politicians.

The Seanad has the power to delay only, not to veto legislative proposals. The Dail is the only House which can introduce amend financial and tax legislation. The government usually has a majority in the Seanad, which has not rejected a bill passed by the Dáil since 1964. Debate on the Seanad's future has focused on whether it would be better to reform it with or without constitutional amendment, or to abolish it altogether.

In October 2009, Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach Enda Kenny stated that it was his intention that a Fine Gael government would abolish the Seanad, and along with reducing the number of TDs by 20, it would "save an estimated €150m over the term of a Dáil."

Arguments in favor of the bill included that the abolition would save money and that the number of legislators is too large relative to the state's population. The method of selection is elitist and undemocratic and that the Seanad is a powerless "rubber-stamp".

The arguments against the bill were that a NO vote will create a mandate for reform of the Seanad and that the process of legislation needs greater scrutiny. Most countries with a Westminster system countries have bicameral legislatures and that the Irish financial crisis shows a need for more governance. (Wikipedia)

Ireland is an unusual case for a small country that has a Senate. The majority of EU Member States have one house of parliament, although it is interesting to note that more than five out of every six European citizens live in a country with two houses of parliament.  This is because most EU Member States with a bicameral system have large populations; countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK.  In fact, Ireland and Slovenia are the only two countries in the EU with a population under 10 million to operate under two houses of parliament.

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The composition and power of upper chambers varies quite considerably from country to country across Europe.  For instance, the Italian Senate’s 315 members are directly elected by all Italian citizens over the age of 25, with the upper house possessing equal power with the lower house. This is in contrast to most second chambers in Europe where the powers of the upper house are restricted, as is the case in Ireland, Slovenia and Poland.

The reason for the existence of second chambers also varies between countries; the House of Lords in the UK is steeped in centuries of tradition and is regarded as a historic institution, while the German upper house exists due to the federal nature of Germany. What is common across most bicameral EU countries though is the size of the state: the average population among the 13 bicameral countries is 35 million people.

Many of the 15 countries with unicameral systems are recent entrants to the EU with several of them being former Communist states. Of these unicameral countries, there is a fairly even split between those who created their political systems with only one house of parliament and those who abolished the upper house after some years of governance.

For example, both Denmark and Sweden abolished their second chambers in 1953 and 1970 respectively, while Croatia abolished its upper house as recently as 2001.  So it is not unusual or unheard off to abolish the upper house of the Parliament. Like the EU bicameral countries, the size of the population of the 15 unicameral states is similar: the average population among unicameral countries is 5 million. Greece is the largest country in the EU with a unicameral system with a population of 11 million. (

The turn out on Friday was very low, at around 39% of the Irish electorate and the referendum was lost by a margin. The NO side won with  51.7% of the votes, when compared to 48.3% of the YES campaign. Interestingly this referendum divided the country in half with the west of the country voting YES, while the eastern counties rejected the bill.

Some of the parties that supported a YES vote did not engage as much in the process, notably the Labour Party of Ireland. There was some misunderstandings among the party's Senators and the impression received from many of its members, some privately and some publicly, was that they were largely in favor of retention, despite campaigning in favor of the Seanad's abolition.

Also there was an overall mishandling of the debate by the Government. Many accused the Taoiseach Mr. Enda Kenny that his reluctance to engage in an open debate with the opposition leader Mr. Michael Martin, resulted in the government's defeat in the referendum. It is not the first time that the Irish Government loses a referendum. In fact it was defeated in every referendum for the past few years.

There are many factors that lead to another defeat. A lot of No voters were clearly suffering from referendum fatigue. Others are angry at this government, largely because of the spending cuts and tax increases it has implemented at the instigation of the troika, and saw the referendum as an opportunity to give it a "black eye". And there is no doubt that a small number of voters were confused by the minimalist ballot papers or campaign messaging and thought that a No on the referendum would get rid of the Seanad.

The idea of a “power grab” and the prospect of a one house legislature dominated by the executive resonated with some in a variety of ways. The recent vote on abortion legislation was often mentioned. The harsh treatment of six Fine Gael TDs who dared to defy their party leadership on a single, highly emotive vote angered a cross section of voters who saw it as bordering on the autocratic. And as the closer than expected results in rural constituencies partly suggests, the incident put hard line pro-lifers firmly in the No camp. (The Journal)

Another interesting observation was the position of each one of the parties that campaigned in this referendum. The two governing parties, the Fine Gael and Labour were for the bill, even though the Labour Party did not participate in the campaign as it was expected. Sinn Fein and the Socialist Party of Ireland also supported the bill, two parties that were usually campaigning for a NO vote in most previous referendums, notably the EU Lisbon Treaty.

The Socialist Party of Ireland campaigned in favor of the bill to "end the rule of the 1%, fight elitism and austerity." Not because they agree with "the government’s hypocrisy or general attacks on democratic rights, but because the Seanad is an undemocratic, elitist, conservative body that should be scrapped." (The Socialist Party of Ireland).

Interestingly, the party that has led Ireland in this crisis and the one that has managed to become an institution in the Irish politics, has campaigned in support of keeping the Seanad. The Fianna Fail party opposed the bill and advocated for a reform of the upper house of the parliament, instead of its abolition. Clearly this party is keen to keep the political status and system, that has supported for all these years and exploited for its own benefit.

If the Seanad was to play any decisive role in Irish politics, having a say and watching over the government, why didn't they have done so all these years? Its contributions would have been most welcome during the tragic mistakes that the Irish past governments committed. But its roles are indeed very limited to be of any significance.

It remains to be seen which will be these proposed reforms and if or when they will take place. During the debate the NO side gave no hint of what those suggested "reforms" should be, or how should the government proceed after the defeat of the referendum. There is a chance that the Seanad and the Irish political system will continue to operate as they have for so long.

This referendum was the first attempt to bring some decisive and much needed reforms in the country's political system, yet the Irish population decided that it would be too drastic to abolish something that has been part of their country's political life for so long.

The Fianna Fail victory will certainly give a much needed boost to the party's and its leader Mr. Michael Martin popularity. Perhaps that is what they wanted in the first place and why they campaigned against the abolition of the Seanad, as an opportunity to reassert themselves as a key player in the Irish politics.They have used populism and opportunities like this one many times before, to become a political establishment in Ireland.