Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Seanad Referendum – A roadmap to failure

The defeat of the Seanad referendum was a major blow for Enda Kenny. Of course the government must dust itself off and move on but it will leave quite a few lingering doubts. Many within FG will be watching closely to see if Kenny and the Party at large can learn from what happened.

First of all it must be pointed out that referendums are difficult things to win. This government has a particular love of them, but that affair may be reaching a turning point. They are starting to learn what their predecessors knew; referendums are always a recipe for a surprise.

It is important to examine what happened here and to do that we must go back to the start. Enda Kenny made this proposal to abolish the Seanad in a surprise move well before the general election. There was little consultation or discussion and he shocked many in his own party by doing it. It was from the same pool of thought as many other unnecessary election promises. It was borne out of the indelible mark of fear that the FF recovery in the 2007 general election left on Kenny’s mind. Anything can and would be promised just to ensure FF could not bounce back this time. Labour was also doing well in the polls at the time and the Seanad abolition was Enda’s attempt to grab the headlines.

The idea worked well at first. So well that it looked like a hugely popular measure. When the election came, even FF decided to row in behind it as they prepared their manifesto with all the signs of a student trying to cram in all their study to the night before the exam. However, such proposals always start to weaken upon further examination. The abolition argument started to run into trouble in government when it became clear that not everyone would agree.

That said, it was still easy enough to win it. The second problem was timing. The country was not ready for this referendum. We are used to governments talking about delivering a promise over the lifetime of the government. With so many promises pushed back the public was right to wonder why the Seanad suddenly became so important. There are serious problems affecting the everyday lives of citizens in this country. Serious problems that await legislation or action from the government. The Seanad is not one of these. People do not really care, its something that can be dealt with once more important matters are attended to. The government however was eager to tick the box and show its reforming zeal so it got stuck in.

Throughout the debate we heard much talk of a uni-cameral system. This could have even won the day. There was an issue with it however. The government’s whole argument for a uni-cameral system was as a result of their need to abolish the Seanad rather than the other way around. If the government had left this referendum for another year and in the meantime designed a proper uni-cameral system with greater checks on the executive, genuine Dail reform and a proper plan for what happens post abolition then the people may have had a different view. On this the government failed. Any further changes to the Dail would be a legislative process without need for a referendum and they could not prove that their system would be any better or more efficient than what we have. For the referendum to work it had to be about more than just the Seanad it had to be about a whole new way of doing business.

Then there were the promises. The savings and the fewer politicians. Those arguments in particular pointed to a belief that the electorate wouldn’t think too deeply about this. That is always a dangerous assumption.

The defeat will now linger. Reforming the Seanad will not be easy and could even be quite messy. It’s difficult for a government to control or shape a reform it has suggested it doesn’t believe in. Who will champion it? Who wants the credit? At the same time it might appear easier to kick the can down the road of endless discussion. The problem here is that while some might say it proves that reform was impossible, it is far more likely the electorate will view it as petulance on Kenny’s behalf and an unwillingness to listen. Kenny needs the Seanad put on a firm reform path and out of his hair quickly. He doesn’t want too much time spent talking about it and reminding everyone of the defeat for years to come.

The failure of the Taoiseach to debate may not have been the deciding factor but it was a contributory one. This failure must change the approach taken in the Taoiseach’s office. Kenny was right to point out that previous Taoisigh did not take part in head to head debates on such issues. The problem is the world has changed, and people expect different things now. Precedent has gone out the window. More importantly, while former Taoisigh might not debate, at least some of them were very likely to do media interviews. It was amazing that FG did not see the opportunity to avoid a debate but to do a one to one interview instead. A big interview facing the questions and answering them could have done more than any debate for Kenny. The fear remained however, that Enda should only do tightly scripted events. This is a strategy by handlers and it’s deeply unfair to Kenny who is not nearly as bad as people make out in such situations.

One thing is for sure, the next time there is a call for a debate it must be heeded. Enda got a yellow card and a new approach to the media is now necessary. He must be more available, more engaged and less controlled if he is to stabilise and recover. If not then this could represent the beginning of the end and a gradual downward spiral towards the public and colleagues losing faith in him.


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