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Column: The Seanad 'No' vote was the first step towards political reform

Some cynics claim that the government will do nothing about the Seanad now, but they are ignoring the reality that 93 per cent of the people oppose the status quo, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THE PEOPLE have spoken.

After a campaign that excited the political classes, and precious few others, voters elected to retain Seanad Éireann on Friday. The No margin – 51.8 per cent to 48.2 per cent – was tight, yet it was a dramatically different outcome than the opinion polls, which indicated that the referendum would pass by a wide margin, led observers to expect.

As someone who was involved with the Democracy Matters organisation and who campaigned to retain and reform the Seanad, these poll numbers were the source of great worry: 60-40 was a buzz phrase that stuck in my head. Having wasted a lot of energy in previous political campaigns I worked on in the US trying to explain away negative poll numbers, only to be disappointed when the votes were counted, I feared the worst as 4 October approached.

I wasn’t alone. Most of us thought a “game changer” was needed in order to win the referendum. We didn’t get one. But we won anyway. What happened?

The answer to this question is complicated. Although some may say it’s folly or even arrogant to try and answer it, I’ll give it a shot. It’s not mere conjecture; I base this attempt on my experience of canvassing voters in the run-up to the vote.

Why did people vote no?

It was a confluence of factors. I believe some voted No for a myriad set of not entirely relevant reasons. There is a good sized grouping of voters in this country who are motivated to vote No on each and every referendum by diffuse concerns. Furthermore, 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.

However, I believe that the vast majority of voters who said No to the government on this occasion did so for substantive reasons. There is no doubt that the Taoiseach made a serious mistake in refusing to debate the issue. The people, in my view quite rightly, expected that he would defend what was decidedly his own initiative in an open, public forum. Doing so in the cosy confines of the Dáil he has been a member of for decades just wasn’t good enough. Even if he had debated on RTÉ or on Tonight with Vincent Browne and lost, people would have respected him for it.

I also think 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. “Who’ll watch the watchers?” was a question posed to me by one elderly woman on Shop Street in Galway. 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. Most I spoke to actually agreed with the Taoiseach’s push to legislate for abortion two decades after the X case, but were disgusted by the way he dealt with politicians who stood by their convictions. And, as the closer than expected results in rural constituencies partly suggests, the incident put hard line pro-lifers firmly in the No camp.

Additionally, the concept of a reformed upper house appealed to a segment of the electorate. The notions that there could be a house of parliament with equal numbers of men and women, that would allow for emigrants and residents of Northern Ireland to vote and that can more thoroughly scrutinise government appointments and European directives were all things that people mentioned to me specifically while I was canvassing.

Abolishing a house of parliament would be a drastic step

Finally, and perhaps most decisively in the campaign’s closing days, I think a significant number of Irish people recognised that abolishing a house of parliament, albeit a weak and flawed one, was a drastic step. Some in the commentariat expressed surprise at the international coverage the referendum attracted. It attracted attention because of how big a change it would have been. Americans, in particular, couldn’t imagine their Senate being abolished and were equally fascinated and perplexed that Ireland might do so. The Irish electorate eventually arrived at the conclusion that the case to take such extraordinary action was not made.

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In the end, Friday’s vote was just the first step for those of us who believe in political reform. Now is the time to push the government on the matter. Some cynics claim that the government will do nothing about the Seanad now. They ignore the realities that 93 per cent of the people oppose the status quo; that there is a clear mandate for reform; that reform proposals enjoy broad support in the Oireachtas; and that it would be a serious political liability for the government to refuse to implement reform after the unprecedented scrutiny and attention on the Seanad precipitated by the referendum campaign.

Nonetheless, the path to reform will still be tricky to navigate and the Dáil, not the Seanad, remains the most important battleground for advocates of political reform. Friday was a great day. But in many ways, our work has only just begun.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with IrishCentral.com.

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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