By Muiris MacCarthaigh and Shane Martin
In a referendum held in October 2013, voters in the Irish Republic were given the opportunity to abolish the Irish Senate (Seanad Éireann). What was meant to have been a populist centrepiece of political reform for the governing coalition ultimately produced a surprising outcome: Irish voters, despite being heavily disillusioned with the political system and political elites, voted to retain bicameralism, albeit on a turnout of just under 40 percent and by a thin margin (51.7 voted to retain the Seanad).
Ireland is unusual: Around two-thirds of democratic political systems in the world today operate with a unicameral legislature. The Irish Constitution of 1937 specified a bicameral system including a less powerful, partly-appointed, partly indirectly elected, senate. Following the 2011 general election, the coalition agreement (Programme for Government 2011) agreed by the centre-right Fine Gael and the socialist Labour Party pledged to hold a referendum – amending the Irish constitution requires parliament to call a referendum – on “a number of urgent parliamentary reform issues” including abolition of the Seanad.
As the initiators of the proposal, Fine Gael’s campaign focused on three major themes – the unreformable nature of the current Seanad, its cost, and the argument that abolition would result in fewer politicians. Within both governing parties there were problems convincing incumbent Senators to campaign effectively for their place of work to be closed. Indeed, many of the government’s own Senators were unhappy at the timing of the referendum, which, if passed, would leave them in a political no-person’s land until the next election and the House’s closure. Later, there would be an open realization by some in Fine Gael that the campaign was overly-demeaning in tone to politics in general and the Seanad in particular.
The lead-in to the referendum featured prominent campaigns by academic, media commentators and former parliamentarians. Prominent on the pro-abolition side was the One House group. Academics affiliated with the group included Dr. Eoin O’Malley, Dr. Kevin Rafter, and Dr. Liam Thornton. For the abolitionists, much was made of the Upper Chamber’s ineffectiveness since its re-establishment in 1937, with its primary role portrayed as a ‘crèche’ for aspiring members of the lower chamber, or a ‘retirement home’ for those who had already served their time in directly-elected politics.
Those arguing for retention and reform (as no party or group argued for retention of the status quo) claimed the government was using the Seanad as a high profile sacrificial lamb to compensate for the deep political failures that had contributed to the economic crisis. The ‘Democracy Matters’ group, chaired by Professor Gary Murphy, included a number of incumbent Senators who had formed the ‘Seanad Reform Group’ some months previously, and argued that an already centralized system of parliamentary government would become even more insulated from necessary checks on power were the Seanad abolished. They argued the chamber has provided a platform for some of Ireland’s most prominent public figures (and representatives of minority groups) to speak out, and particularly those elected to the six university seats.
Polls suggested that although a large portion of the electorate remained undecided as to how they would vote, the numbers in favour of abolition steadily dropped as the campaign continued. An Ipsos MRBI poll published by The Irish Times in June suggested 72 percent of voters in favour of abolition (when those who were undecided were excluded), but less than a week before the ballot, another poll by the same company suggested 44 percent in favour of abolition as against 27 percent in favour of retention.
Explaining the Result
Turnout may be the key issue in explaining the remarkable turnaround in the last few weeks of the campaign, with those wishing to retain the Seanad more motivated to vote than those who preferred unicameralism. A follow-up survey for Ireland’s Referendum Commission revealed that the primary explanation for choosing not to vote in the Seanad referendum was lack of interest: Almost 30 percent of non-voters said they had no or not sufficient interest in the topic to warrant voting.
For those who voted, the same survey canvassed reasons for voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ A plurality of respondents cited the financial savings as the main reason for voting to abolish the Seanad. Despite the confusion around the real financial savings from terminating the second chamber, the argument clearly won favour with some voters. The other single most important factor encouraging a yes vote was the feeling that bicameralism was not needed in Ireland. Again, this was a central plank of the Yes campaign, based on the observation that small unitary states tend not to have bicameralism and countries which abolished bicameralism saw no obvious negative consequences.
Among those who voted no (i.e., to retain the senate), the ‘power grab’ argument seems to have held some importance. The No campaign had argued that the Irish political system was already heavily centralized, with significant legislative and executive powers concentrated in the governing executive. Thus, while almost everyone agreed that the Seanad had not been a particularly effective watchdog, the removal of a second chamber would nevertheless grant too much control to the government (and the remaining single chamber – which in effect is dominated by the government). This rationale may also explain the more general sentiment, reported by 21 percent of respondents, that the Seanad was an important institution which they wanted to keep. While a positive desire to retain bicameralism dominated the reasons for voting No, 10 percent of those who voted No said they did so out of a dislike or distrust of the incumbent government – a common feature in midterm elections and referendums.
The referendum campaign engaged political elites, those in the media and academia quite vigorously. Despite the usage of populist sound-bites on both sides of the campaign, the general public failed to become excited by the politics of bicameralism. The campaign thus concluded with one of the lowest turnouts at an Irish referendum. It seems that the cameral structure of the national legislature never became the hotly contested issue that other referendums, and particularly those on social policy, frequently produce in Ireland. While the governing parties were blocked in their attempt to abolish the second chamber, a majority of the electorate, by declining to vote, simply chose to ignore the issue.
Muiris MacCarthaigh is Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at Queen’s University Belfast. Shane Martin is Reader in Comparative Politics at the University of Leicester. He tweets @Shane_Martin. The post is based on their paper “Bicameralism in the Republic of Ireland: The Seanad Abolition Referendum,” which has just been published in Irish Political Studies.
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