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Irish vote could put senators out of work

Friday's referendum on abolishing the Senate is seen by some as a way for people to take revenge on politicians.

Last Modified: 04 Oct 2013 13:09
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The campaign to abolish the Senate is ahead in the polls but many are undecided [AP]

For the grumpiest of voters it sounds like a dream. Not simply a chance to vote out a politician or a government. But the opportunity to, with one tick, get rid of an entire chamber of parliament, putting 60 senators out of work in the process.

That's the option facing Irish voters on Friday when they vote in a government referendum to abolish their upper house, the Senate - more commonly referred to in Ireland by its Irish language name, the Seanad.

Though there has been plenty of bolshy debate from the political chattering classes, and in the media, the issue has failed to excite the Irish public, with only a handful of senators – former President Mary Robinson and poet WB Yeats among them – becoming real household names in the chamber's 90-year history.

"Few care," David Farrell, Professor of Politics at University College Dublin, told Al Jazeera. "This is very much an issue for the (Parliament) bubble."

Early polls showed the Yes camp and its campaign to abolish would have an easy run and though the No campaign, led by the opposition Fianna Fáil party, has rallied and grown in confidence, the most recent surveys still put the Yes side ahead. The last poll before voting day, published by the Irish Times newspaper, found that 44 percent of people would vote to scrap the chamber, while 27 percent would vote to keep it.

That the rest were undecided will give heart to the No camp. Several other polls have shown that up to one third of voters are undecided and most political analysts are predicting a very low turnout, Farrell said.

"That means that the outcome is not as certain as many commentators suggest."

'Undemocratic, elitist, expensive'

Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, Enda Kenny first floated the plan to scrap the Seanad in 2009 and the referendum was promised in his Fine Gael party's 2011 election manifesto as part of a package of reforms to politics and the constitution.

The charges against the Seanad are that it is undemocractic, elitist, expensive and that it never really does anything, anyway. Government campaigners say the last time it delayed a bill was 1964, a fact they highlighted by pointing out that was the same year the Beatles had their first US number one record.

Legislative politics generally is very weak in Ireland.  We have the weakest parliament in Europe. The lower house and the upper house are firmly under the control of the government of the day.

David Farrell, Professor of Politics, University College Dublin

The Seanad's supporters insist it provides a vital extra layer of accountability for the lower house, the Dáil, from which the government operates, and that it should be reformed, not scrapped. But reform is not on the ballot.

Many No campaigners, though, say that a vote in favour of keeping the Seanad will send a strong signal to the government that they want it changed. Some have even been pushing an idea to write 'reform' on the ballot paper.

"We need fundamental political reform but this government is offerering a fig leaf, a smokescreen," John Crown, a senator and prominent cancer surgeon who has been one of the leading defenders of the chamber, told Al Jazeera.

"It will make the government less accountable," Crown said. "The Seanad has reined in the excesses of over-zealous, potentially despotic, governments before."

Crown, in common with some other senators, told Al Jazeera that, instead of abolishing the Seanad, he was in favour of wide-ranging political reforms for not only the upper house but the lower one, too.

There had been reforms to the lower house, David Farrell said, and more are promised, but he did not believe they amounted to the revolutionary turn in Irish politics that was promised in 2011. 

"Legislative politics generally is very weak in Ireland.  We have the weakest parliament in Europe," he said. "The lower house and the upper house are firmly under the control of the government of the day. This is why many of us have been calling for serious and sustained Dáil reform as a means of fixing Irish politics."

For some of Kenny's opponents, his push to abolish is nothing more than the fulfillment of an election promise made to ride a wave of popular resentment against politicians after the country’s once-lauded economy tanked, its property bubble burst and it found itself going cap in hand to the EU and IMF for a huge bailout in 2010.

The prime minister, who is also the longest-serving MP in parliament, did not talk much about Seanad reform before, goes the accusation. And he is on record as once saying that it had "real potential".

Less expense, fewer politicians

Kenny, Fine Gael and its coalition partners, the smaller Labour Party, haven’t held back since, though, slamming the Seanad and its senators as useless in the run up to the vote. A last-minute poster campaign, "48 hours to end this failure", featured a cartoon of a senator sleeping as bank notes fluttered towards him, probably in reference to the fact most senators have day jobs as well as earning about a €65,000 ($88,351) salary for their official duties.

The government campaign has been criticised for a lack of sophistication that has ignored, or at least sidelined, much of the debate’s nuance in favour of focusing on two main things: saving money and getting rid of politicians.

"Save €20 million. Fewer politicians. Abolish the Seanad," Fine Gael's posters say.

But the government also says that, without a senate, the Irish political system will be leaner. It has pointed out that many European countries of a similar size to Ireland - such as Norway, Denmark and Portugal - have single-chamber, or unicameral, parliaments and says it wants to bring Ireland in line.

Kenny and others in favour of seeing the back of senators will be banking on the Irish people, fed up with austerity measures, high unemployment and mass emigration, being unable to resist stripping 60 politicians of the title. 

Some political analysts are pointing out, often wryly, that this may be one of the few cases in the world where politicians have themselves fallen victim to austerity. And in which you have the rather unusual phenomenon of politicians appealing to the people to support a referendum that would dramatically reduce their numbers.

Kenny himself has said he is surprised at the sudden zealousness of some in the opposition, especially his traditional rivals Fianna Fáil, to protect the Seanad as he claims they never seemed to pay it much attention before.

"I suppose you could say the attitude of the Fianna Fáil party towards Seanad Eireann was epitomised a few years ago," he was quoted as saying in the Irish Independent newspaper.

"When the Senate was adjourned so the members could go and participate in the (Parliament) golf competition."

Follow Barry Malone on Twitter: @malonebarry

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Al Jazeera
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