Just after 8am last Friday morning, I got a direct message on Twitter from a follower on the far side of the country, who said, “I’ve no idea which way to vote, to be honest. Explain to me why I should vote no.” I replied, he responded and so it went for just under half an hour. In the end, he said he’d decided to vote no but worried that a no vote overall wouldn’t make any difference.
Around 18 hours later, when the result was near being announced, he got in touch, again unexpectedly, to say he, his wife and daughter had all voted no. If I was elated, he burst the bubble straight away, saying again he doubted it would make much difference. For him and his family, and for everyone else who voted no in the Seanad referendum, there can be no returning to business as usual.
This Government came to power promising it would fix the political failures that had caused the economy to crash with such devastating consequences. While there is a resigned acceptance that the Troika are still steering the ship as people brace for another austerity budget, on the matter of political reform, there is a firm view that the Government should be repairing the ship, not holing it below the waterline. It seems this message was missed completely.
There are, of course, a range of reasons why the people voted against the abolition of the Seanad. Some claims, like “save €20 million”, were bogus. Others, like “fewer politicians”, were plain populist and aimed at capitalising on a general dislike of politicians.
At the heart of the FG campaign was the mistaken assumption that democracy itself was the problem. While the term, ‘power grab’ came into its own during the campaign, in truth a silent power grab has been in full swing for decades, as the Executive and Civil Service have got used to running the show their way and expecting the Oireachtas to rubber stamp decisions made behind closed doors.
This result should cause them to pause. What people are saying is discussion, debate and dissent are essential elements of a healthy democracy, not some freak of political nature to be obliterated.
The refusal to put a reform option on the ballot paper was a major mistake, especially as there were two reform Bills on the table and the polls were indicating that, for every one person who wanted the Seanad abolished, another four wanted it reformed. In refusing to put a reform option alongside the yes or no question, ministers were thumbing their noses at everyone who wanted reform.
It didn’t much matter that people weren’t agreed on the detail. What was important was the direction, and the Bills written by Senators Quinn, Zappone and Crown showed what could be achieved within the confines of the Constitution. That the Government was holding a referendum to close the Seanad when it could be changing the law to make the Upper House more effective, left many wondering if the Government was engaged in a good old-fashioned power-grab.
The Taoiseach’s refusal to debate, or even to be interviewed, about such a fundamental constitutional change, became ever more toxic as the race moved into the final stages. We may carp and begrudge like no other nation on earth, but most are willing to give any argument a fair hearing, if it’s made fully and fairly. In keeping Mr Kenny
off the airwaves – and most of the Cabinet under wraps – the impression of a shifty political enterprise was solidified.
The Taoiseach’s absence was exploited to devastating effect by the no side, and especially by Professor John Crown in the Prime Time head-to-head between Richard Bruton and Michael Martin. Crown was also highly critical of the “lies” about the costs and work of the Seanad, and of the IOU that demanded people give up the Seanad now in exchange for vague pledges of Dáil reform in the distant future.
The package of reforms announced by the Government just two weeks before polling had all the appearances of being cooked up in haste. The press conference unveiling them was 25 minutes late in starting and it quickly emerged that the changes hadn’t even been discussed in advance with the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) of the Dáil.
Nor was it clear how the reforms, which were a long way short of what was promised in the programme for government, could be put in place before polling. And the question of whether a Government that wouldn’t reform a weak Seanad could tolerate a strong, independent Dáil hung in the air alongside the panic of the campaign.
The campaign by the Government was a shambles. It was heavily Americanised and relied heavily on focus group research, which is itself notorious for telling leaders what they want to hear, and for participants playing to the gallery. All sorts of odd posters appeared, including one featuring Bjorn Borg, which had to be pulled when a complaint was made that permission wasn’t sought.
The opinion polls have been criticised for getting it wrong. But did they get it wrong or underestimate the strength of the no vote? People don’t normally make up their minds until near the day. It may be that the winning margin suggested in the last IPSOS MRBI survey prompted the abolitionists to believe it was game, set and match. It certainly persuaded the reformists to raise their game enough to win.
Fine Gael said all along there would be no reform if the people voted no. The decision of the people means it would be a foolhardy Government that would kick this issue into the long grass.
However, political reform, as the people have indicated, does not mean closing off avenues for discussion, debate and dissent. In fact, it means opening them up, hearing the contrarian voices, and valuing independent thought and action, rather than the groupthink that landed us in this crisis in the first place.
The Bills on the table are radical in their ambition for the Upper House but not so much that they would create a Seanad to rival the Dáil. And that is completely in keeping with the spirit and operation of Upper Houses of Parliament the world over.
Some Ministers are already making noises about another referendum. Let’s try reform first. If there is to be a referendum at all, let it be to enshrine a right and obligation on every TD and Senator to “follow justice and truth in his or her office … to abide by the constitution and no other orders are binding on him or her.” That’s
how they do it in Finland. Surely that’s also worth having here?