The Seanad Referendum

And so, the Seanad referendum is upon us, at last. It seems like I have spent several years looking at constant suggestions, vague promises and outright lies about calling a vote on whether or not to retain the upper house, but in less than a week’s time, that plebiscite will finally take place. The people of Ireland will make a decision on the Seanad, to keep or the get rid of it in its current form.

Of course, there is also a referendum on a “Court of Appeals” but, in the coming weeks, it is fair to say that what comment I offer on the referenda will be mostly limited to the Seanad. The Court of Appeals vote appears to have no opposition worth speaking about, and will probably pass fairly easily.

No, it is the Seanad that we must focus on. Regular readers of the blog, or the Twitter account will know my personal feelings on the Seanad, and if you don’t I’ll be recapping them in another of my “Why I’m Voting Yes/No” posts closer to the date of the referendum. Until then, any comment I offer on the campaign is strictly about the campaign, and how it is affecting the main players. Even then, there is little I can say that is not immediately obvious or simply repeating what others have said before.

For Fine Gael, this is sort of a must-win. Having lost the Oireachtas Committees vote in humiliating style, having tottered through the Fiscal Compact vote, and having scraped through with the Children’s Rights vote, the government’s record on these events has not exactly been stand-out for good reasons. Every campaign has had a lacklustre feel, as if the parties just aren’t that fully committed, and would rather the electorate had just forgot that promises to hold referendums were even made in the first place.

And I think that has continued here, at least up to this point. Fine Gael has hammered repeatedly on the cost of the Seanad as the key reason to abolish it, a shallow motivation  that someone of even low intelligence should be able to see past. Better to focus on any number of its other flaws, but Kenny and company seem to think that, in a time of economic uncertainty, appealing to people’s fiscal mindset will work better. I don’t think it will.

Losing this referendum will just be another blow for Fine Gael, and while the government is far from collapsing just yet, it will just be one more crack, one more failure, one more round of recriminations with the coalition partners. Labour certainly don’t seem the least bit interested in this campaign, and it is an open secret that a large part of their make-up would prefer to keep the Seanad in place. Fine Gael will have to do all of the legwork, so the task is just that much harder.

Of course, they can always rely on Sinn Fein. That party’s decision to back abolition surprised me, since it sort of went against what I had come to expect from them. It just seemed natural to assume that Sinn Fein would be against whatever the government wanted, and would prefer some sort of reform effort for the upper house like Fianna Fail is espousing

Instead, they’ve gone wholesale down the route of abolition and are doing the most to campaign for that of any party bar Fine Gael. I consider abolition to be a hard sell, and I won’t be the least bit surprised if the question is answered “No” when the vote comes, so I can’t really fathom why Sinn Fein didn’t want to add their weight to the “No” side and get in on the ground floor of what would be another impressive victory against the government parties. Sinn Fein might not be the largest party in opposition, but there is still a very large amount of people who would rate them higher than Fianna Fail, so I think that Adams and company have missed out a little bit here.

I’m sure Fianna Fail would love a win to continue this apparent momentum towards “recovery”. That the party officially endorsed abolition less than three years ago is quietly shoved to the side, lest people begin to think they have just latched on to the most convenient stick to beat the government with. I don’t know how much Fianna Fail actually wants to retain the Seanad or how much of their limited resources they’re willing to put into a campaign that could end being very costly if they lose. I note that I haven’t exactly seen many posters from them in comparison to the “Yes” parties (I’ve never had a high opinion of posters, but they can be a good indicator of how committed parties are). I still don’t trust Fianna Fail as far as I could throw the average member of the party, but they are the main opposition party. I’ll hear them make their case, and that’s about it.

And the various tiny parties and independents are in the mix somewhere too, although in this vote, more than the others, I feel as if their opinions and impact have been muted. The Socialists, especially Paul Murphy, have been vocal enough in support of abolition, and this is less surprising to me than the Sinn Fein decision, since the various stands and former strands of the ULA have never had opportunity to form an attachment other Seanad. But they still won’t be committing themselves too much.

This vote really is shaping up more as a traditional Fine Gael vs Fianna Fail type battle, with Sinn Fein as the back-up, Labour as a disinterested spectator, and the looming shadow of government dissatisfaction rolling up behind Michael Martin.

I’ve never really felt as if the abolition campaign has got going until the last few days, far behind the myriad of groups like “Democracy Matters” that sprang up in the previous weeks and months. They only started coining a Twitter hashtag, “#onehouse”, last week.  Poll numbers would seem to indicate a shift towards retention.

At this point, I actually can’t call it. The polls are even enough, if I respected their opinion at all, and it’s hard to get a sense of which way things might be turning. In the end, I think that the government might just squeak a Yes vote, but it would ve very, very close, and it wouldn’t take much in the next two and a half weeks, campaign wise to swing it. In the end, I think that the slightly more committed approach from Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and to a much lesser extent the Socialists might be enough to capture a broad swath of the political spectrum for the “Yes” side.

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