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Jigsaws, ‘The Beatles’ and €20m: Fine Gaelers rue ‘dreadful’ Seanad abolition campaign

The post-mortem begins as Enda Kenny’s four-year campaign to get the Seanad abolished flounders.

Enda Kenny at a Fine Gael event during the referendum campaign
Enda Kenny at a Fine Gael event during the referendum campaign
Image: Barry Cronin/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Updated at 11.42

AS FINE GAEL wakes-up to defeat in the Seanad abolition referendum this morning party strategists will be trying to figure out where it all went wrong.

But they need not look far given that many within the party and some within the campaign itself believe it was not a well run affair nor were the arguments for abolition well made.

One party source described it as a “dreadful campaign”. One member of the campaign itself said that it was “wrong campaign, wrong messaging”.

Enda Kenny’s surprise announcement four years ago that he wanted to abolish the upper house was enshrined in the programme for government in 2011. But it still surprised many that coalition chose to run a referendum this month with the Budget less than a fortnight away and many other pressing matters on the agenda.

Right from the off the party’s decision to highlight the €20 million that it claimed would be saved annually if the upper house was abolished was considered to be a mistake by many.

The €20 million

Last month one Fine Gael TD, who declined to be named, told TheJournal.ie: “I don’t understand why they are sticking to it when it is so patently untrue.”

“We had discussions at a parliamentary party level before the summer and the €20m figure was discussed a lot and yet we had our first meeting after the summer and the f***ing posters are up with the €20m figure on it.”

Concerns were also raised about the message that Fine Gael pushed in the campaign: that abolition would save money and mean fewer politicians. But party strategists believed that the positive reception from focus groups to these messages was the right formula.

Even when the Oireachtas Commission said it was not possible to estimate the “net actual savings” achieved by abolishing the Seanad, Fine Gael continued to hammer this message, arguing it was up to the government to realise that €20 million saving in full.

One party source said that the €20 million was “highly disputed” but driven by headquarters.

The party’s daily media events were also caused some unease. Bizarre photocalls were organised nearly every single day of the campaign with props ranging from giant jigsaws to a Beatles tribute band.

At one point Fine Gael suggested to Labour that it get involved in similar media events but the junior coalition partner declined.

Labour’s low-key campaign

The parties did not appear to present a united front during the referendum. Many within Labour were against abolition including every single one of its senators and Labour did not hold daily media events, unlike Fine Gael.

For all of the talk of lacklustre campaigning the reality was that, as turnout shows, the majority of the public were simply disengaged from the campaign.

An Ipsos MRBI poll in the Irish Times this week showed that a fifth of those who were voting No were doing so because they did not trust or like the government. That will be a worry for Fine Gael particularly.

This defeat will be widely viewed as a blow to the Taoiseach who was flagging in the polls when he put forward this radical idea in late 2009 as the leader of the main opposition party.

He was not able to convince the public it was a good idea and he was not prepared to debate it with the opposition on live television.

Kenny defended this decision yesterday but there’s no doubt it damaged the party’s argument.

This article was first published at 7am.

Fianna Fáil: We put forward arguments which demolished Fine Gael and Sinn Féin

Read: ‘We don’t really simplify things that are straightforward’: Ballot papers cause confusion

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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