Samuel Johnson made this famous pronouncement that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel on the evening of April 7, 1775, but perhaps it is populism which is the last refuge of the modern political scoundrel. Ever since the Irish economic crash and the failure of the political system to properly regulate, and then resolve the Irish banking industry, politicians and politics have often been seen as the most egregious form of low life in the country. Seeking to capitalize on this unpopularity, the Irish Prime Minister or Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, decided, almost on a whim, that it would be a good idea and an easy win for the Government parties to propose the abolition of the Irish Senatein a referendum to be put to the people. That strategy has just blown up in his face with a narrow 52 to 48% majority of the electorate voting against his proposal.
- The Senate has relatively few powers under the Irish constitution and generally has a significant built in Government majority thanks to the Taoiseach having the power to nominate 11 members.
- The lack of a popular mandate. Some Senators are elected by University graduates only, and most of the others are elected by local county Councillors to represent notionally vocational groups but are in practice mostly politicians who failed to win election to the Dail or lower chamber by universal suffrage.
- Numerous proposals to reform the archaic nature of the Senate electorate have to date come to nothing.
- A small country like Ireland doesn't require a bicameral system of governance.
- Abolishing the Senate could lead to an annual cost saving of up to €20 Million, although this figure is disputed, and is in any case trivial in comparison to the cost of the public service as a whole.
Nobody on the NO campaign side sought to deny that the Senate was in need of fundamental reform, although proposals for reform varied greatly. But what the NO vote did perhaps indicate was that the electorate wanted more political accountability, not less.
Opinion polls had consistently shownlarge majorities in favour of abolition, although the margin had narrowed slightly in more recent polls. Leo Varadker, Minister for Transport, has blamed the low turnout for the result rather than any significant swing against the Government position. However the turnout of 39% is not particularly low for this kind of referendum. Voters gave pollsters a variety of reasons for opposing the abolition:
In an opinion poll for The Irish Times the week before the referendum, the reasons given by prospective no-voters were: as a check on the government (54%), because they disliked the government (20%), and because they did not believe there would be significant cost savings (6%)
Undoubtedly the No vote contained a lot of generic anti-Government sentiment which is understandable in the context to the continuing austerity policies the country is having to endure. But there are also very good reasons for arguing that the Senate could be reformed to play a much more vital and important role in the Governance of the country. Historically the Senate has played an important role in providing representation for minority groups who might not otherwise gain representation through the popular vote. Most notable of these were the protestant minority post partition (3% of the population), women's rights, and the LGBT community whose most vocal representative, Senator David Norris, was almost voted president of Ireland in 2011. Poet and Nobel Prize laureate, W B Yeats, former President and UN Commissioner, Mary Robinson, and a variety of prominent writers, environmentalists, jurists and politicians North and south have been members.
My own view is that a reformed senate could play an important role in scrutinizing EU legislation, and in building closer community links north and south. To this end, I would support the inclusion of Irish MEPs and Northern Ireland Assembly members who wish to attend, and to either abolish the Taoiseach's 11 nominees or place the right of nomination in the hands of the (popularly elected) President. Some might be elected by Ireland's huge emigrant population (who lose the vote as soon as they emigrate) and others might represent the Social Partners in Ireland's collective bargaining system - employers, trade unions, and the voluntary and community sector.
I don't think there is much point in having an upper chamber which simply replicates the lower chamber, and we need to empower the civil society sectors critical to Ireland's social cohesion. Many voters are concerned that too much power is being accumulated by the cabinet and the economic management council without adequate accountability to parliament. The real question is how parliament, and particularly the Senate, can be made a more effective deliberative and decision making body.