People vote to retain Seanad: Action on reform is warranted
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The people have spoken,as the old cliché goes. Of the 1,026,374 valid cotes in the Seanad Referendum, 591, 937 voted in favour of Seanad abolition, and 634, 437 voted against. Every constituency in Dublin voted against Enda Kenny’s personal crusade to abolish the Upper House, thereby concentrating more power in the Executive, with a flimsy promise to reform the Dail by way of compensation for driving a coach and four through our political institutions. The margin of defeat for Kenny’s personal demolition project was small – 51/7% against to 48.3% in favour – but the message to his government should be clear: Either reform the system, as faithfully promised by the two government parties during Election 2011, and do so in a way that brings all other political factions on board with you, or squander the remainder of whatever political capital you have left in this vital area and reap the consequences of your negligence.
The ‘no’ campaign did not have the same level of resources at its command as the established political parties campaigning for abolition, which included Sinn Fein as well as the government parties, Fine Gael and Labour. Apart from Fianna Fail, who alone among the established parties campaigned against abolition, and whatever resources it had to hand to expend on its own campaign, the main organisation opposing abolition, Democracy Matters, had about 30,000 euro in its fighting fund; less than one tenth of what Fine Gael had to spend. Yet they won. It can be argued that they won on the basis of argument, defeating the forces of government ‘spin’ which, in the words of Senator John Crown, who campaigned independently, is ‘the real loser’. That is those who absurdly imagined that, in a mature democracy like Ireland’s, you can whittle a complex issue of major constitutional and political change down, as Senator Crown put it, to “two stupid little arguments” about cost and the number of politicians we should have.
Crown went on to say that in the wake of this defeat for the government by popular vote : “ the moral pressure for reform is absolutely overwhelming.” In the euphoria of victory, he may be more than a little overoptimistic.
Judging by the comments from some media pundits on today’s TV coverage, the Government would do best to ‘shrug this one off” and ‘put political reform on the back burner’. In essence, they should get back to their knitting; which is about ‘strong government’ and repairing the economy, dealing with the issues about which people are concerned, jobs and unemployment, managing their debts, the housing crisis, the mortgage crisis and so on.
Such a narrow perspective is mistaken, I believe. Yes, all of us are primarily concerned with the economic issues that threaten to overwhelm us, individually and collectively. Yes, we are ‘economic voters’ and in a general election we pass judgement on government performance on the distribution of resources and the health of the overall economy and reward or punish accordingly. But it’s profoundly foolish to underestimate the commitment of Irish people to democracy, as it is patronising to suggest that where people are asked to buy a pig in a poke – a proposal that would reduce our democracy that’s dressed up as somehow, magically, going to enhance democracy – that they’ll buy into it.
There are lots of losers in the outcome to this referendum. Ironically, the real winner is the integrity of our political system and the implied demand for its meaningful reform to make it work efficiently and effectively in all of our interests. It’s up to the government to recognise their responsibility to carry out the mandate they have now been given. No time for recrimination, excuses, or petulance. It’s time to act responsibly. Meanwhile, forget following the nonsense spouted in focus groups , the cheap and politically vulgar sloganising of complex constitutional issues, and the denigration of politics itself that mired this referendum campaign: a renewal of faith in our political integrity is what is warranted now.
In a statement from the yard of Dublin Castle – a somewhat unfortunate location in symbolic terms – the Taoiseach promised to ‘reflect’ on the outcome of the referendum. The process of the referendum debate has already aired all the issues on which reflection is warranted. Action, not long drawn out reflection, is what’s required now.