Guest Post: Irish Referenda 2013
I was fortunate enough to receive a guest post on the October 4 Irish referenda, which I did not have time to cover, from David J. Barrett
Two referenda took place in the Republic Ireland on the 4th of October on whether to abolish Seanad Éireann (the Irish Senate), Ireland’s rather powerless upper house, and on whether to establish a Court of Civic Appeal.
The Seanad has long been criticised in the Ireland due to its seeming irrelevance and extremely convoluted electoral system. The original constitution of the Irish Free State in 1922 contained a senate, which was used originally as a means to ensure the representation of the remaining Protestant Unionists in Irish politics, and was at first appointed and then elected as a nationwide, nineteen-seat constituency by PR-STV in 1925, which was considered chaotic, and replaced by selection by parliament. While it did return a lot of Protestant members, it also proved to be a stronghold for the fairly conservative Cumann na nGaedhael, which proved problematic when they retained a majority in the chamber after the party lost nationally in 1932. After making it a point to delay every piece of legislation of note by the new Fianna Fáil government, even after another election in 1933 which reaffirmed Fianna Fáil’s new dominance of the Irish party system; the party proposed the Senate’s abolition in 1936. Predictably this was also delayed, before the chamber was abolished entirely.
The modern Seanad was created by the new Irish constitution of 1937, and owes a lot to the corporatist ideas of Fascist Italy that were popular in political circles in Ireland at the time. The Seanad was given only very limited delaying powers of up to ninety days, and was elected in an extremely convoluted manner.
43 members are elected by five ‘vocational’ panels, returning between five and eleven members. The panels are meant to represent various sectors of Irish society and are named after those sections, such as the ‘Cultural and Educational Panel’ and the ‘Labour Panel’. Organisations involved in those areas have some rights in the way of nominating people for election, but the electorate for each panel consists of local councillors, members of Dáil Éireann (the lower house of Parliament) and outgoing members of the Seanad. This means that in practice no vocational members were ever elected and were almost never nominated for these seats, with most elected for them in recent years being former or future members of the Dáil and very much party politicians.
An additional six seats are elected by university graduates, with three returned by the graduates of Trinity College Dublin, a traditionally Protestant university, and another three by the graduates of the National University of Ireland, an umbrella group consisting of four other universities – University College Dublin, University College Cork, National University of Ireland Galway and National University of Ireland Maynooth. The graduates of Ireland’s other two universities, Dublin City University and the University of Limerick, do not have a vote.
The final eleven seats are appointed by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the day, who generally appoints promising party members who they feel can challenge for a seat in the Dáil in the next election, although they have also been known to select prominent figures in Northern Ireland for a seat. This inbuilt addition of eleven government seats means that only one Irish government has not had a majority in the Seanad, however the current Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, used most of his appointments to appoint prominent members of civil society, such as Fiach Mac Conghail, the Director of the Irish National Theatre Company, and Katherine Zappone, a theology professor who is pursuing a court case to get her Canadian same-sex marriage recognised in Ireland.
Background to the Referenda
While no one was particularly happy with the Seanad, and many reports were issued as to its reform, no government ever did anything. This reached a climax with a referendum passed in 1979 to give all graduates the vote for the university seats, which was never legislated for.
Faced with increased questioning of his leadership, Fine Gael leader and then opposition leader Enda Kenny said that, if elected, Fine Gael would propose a referendum to abolish the Seanad, visibly surprising the Seanad leader of his party sitting next to him at the press conference, as it was felt he needed to do something bold and dramatic to keep hold of the party leadership. The idea took hold, and Labour and Fianna Fáil included it as part of their manifesto in the 2011 election, and was included in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government’s programme for government.
Despite calls for the proposal to be put to the newly formed Constitutional Convention as a proposed change to the Irish constitution, this was not done and a referendum was announced for October 4th 2013, along with a larger procedural and uncontroversial amendment to establish a Court of Appeal.
Richard Bruton, Kenny’s defeated leadership and now Minister for Enterprise, was put in charge of the Fine Gael campaign. Also on the Yes side were their coalition partners in Labour, the republican and nationalist Sinn Fein, the small far-left Socialist Party and the civil society group One House. In opposition were Fianna Fail (motivated to do a u-turn and oppose the referendum presumably as a means of inflicting a defeat on Kenny), the now tiny Irish Green Party and the civil society groups Democracy Matters and Future Matters.
The campaign opened with polls showing wide leads for abolition. Fine Gael ran a very focus-group led campaign, with posters pointing out the Seanad cost the Ireland €20 million a year, and (ironically from the largest party in the state) that abolition would result in fewer politicians. While the party spent a lot of money on the campaign, the campaign never really caught the imagination of party activists and they stayed oddly muted.
The other Yes advocates focused on the undemocratic nature of Seanad elections, arguing that a chamber chosen by the already educated and powerful in Irish society was inherently wrong. This could be seen in Sinn Fein’s election slogan of ‘Equality not Elitism’ and the Socialists pointing out how many people had votes in the poorest parts of Dublin as compared to the richest. The support of groups for yes was regarded as surprising, as both parties are known for opposing virtually every referendum proposed by any government, with Sinn Fein’s at least likely motivated by attempting to seem more ‘responsible’. Labour’s campaign however was very lukewarm, with many prominent party members, including Joanna Tuffy and the party’s Seanad leader Ivana Bacik actively campaigning against the proposal, to no visible sanctions from party headquarters.
The No side said that the proposal was part of a government ‘powergrab’ that was undemocratic and intended to silence dissenting voices, pointing out that no reform had ever actually been done, so abolition was somewhat premature. No group on the No side defended the status-quo. The Fianna Fail, the most prominent No party, used the slogan ‘Demand Real Reform’ while the Greens ran with ‘Democracy is Priceless’ (although with posters only in the parts of Dublin where the party has the best hopes to rebuild). Democracy Matters ran a highly visible campaign, highlighting all of the prominent figures of Irish liberalism that were elected by the Seanad that was widely regarded as effective.
While the polls narrowed, every poll showed a lead for the Yes side, often over 50%, and the campaign failed to capture the public imagination. A debate on the issue on RTE, the Irish national broadcaster, between Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin and Enda Kenny was rejected by Kenny, who largely did not personally campaign, and his place in the debate was filled by Bruton. This was seen by many commentators as ‘chickening out’. Kenny argued that the Taoiseach of the day does not personally campaign on referenda and they are not partisan issues however.
There was no campaign for either a Yes or a No on the Court of Appeals, which was regarded as dull, procedural and a ‘common-sense’ solution to the problem of an overloaded Supreme Court.
Turnout was 39.17% for the Seanad question and 39.15% for the Court of Appeal question.
Abolition of the Seanad
No 51.73% (634,437 votes)
Yes 48.27% (591,937 votes)
Court of Appeal
Yes 65.16% (795,008 votes)
No 34.84% (425,047 votes)
The Referendum to abolish the Seanad was narrowly defeated, while that to establish a Court of Appeal was very comfortably passed, with a victory in every constituency.
The geography of the Seanad result was somewhat odd. The highest No vote was observed in Dublin South East, an extremely wealthy and somewhat bohemian constituency that has a high number of rich professionals, politicians (the Irish parliament building is in the constituency) and students (Trinity College Dublin is there as well) which gave the Yes side a mere 39%. However every constituency in Dublin, whatever their demographic profile, returned a No vote, as did the whole commuter belt around the city. Greater Dublin’s relative uniformity on the issue largely carried the day for the No side, whose performance was quite patchy outside of the capital.
In the south, Cork City’s wealthy southern suburbs were against abolition (unsurprisingly as this is Martin’s political base) but the more working class areas in the north of the city were narrowly in favour – apparently due to an active campaign by a local Sinn Fein deputy. The proposal similarly narrowly passed through Limerick City, while losing in Galway in the west, which has more students.
While some rural areas in Cork were very narrowly against abolition, these constituencies also have spillover from Cork’s suburbs in them as well. The only genuinely rural Nos were in the two northern Donegal constituencies, which seem to habitually oppose any proposal even slightly controversial (Donegal North East also had highest No vote to the Court of Appeals, and they were the only constituencies to oppose the European Fiscal Compact two years ago for instance). This will be very disappointing for Sinn Fein, who are very strong in the area and would have hoped their campaign would influence people there more.
Aside from the already mentioned Cork North Central and Limerick City, every area that voted Yes was rural, with the highest Yes vote being in Kenny’s own constituency of Mayo (57%), but many of them were quite narrow indeed.
While there were no publically released exit polls with demographic breakdowns there was clearly an urban-rural divide, something that seems to manifest itself in every Irish election that is not a General Election, and was certainly seen in the 2011 presidential election, and while it seems plausible that education made a difference (as more educated people were more likely to be voters in the Seanad already) we cannot know that from the result.
Notably, there is a heavy correlation between Fianna Fail support in a constituency and a Yes vote, and for Labour support and a No vote, something both parties will be keen to downplay when they go through the effectiveness of their campaigns. Fine Gael and Sinn Fein seemed to make no difference.
The turnout was very low, and was only somewhat above the 33% turnout of the Children’s Rights referendum of last year. There is talk of Ireland suffering ‘referendum fatigue’. These are the fifth and sixth referenda of this parliamentary term, with at least five more expected to be proposed over the coming years, including undoubtedly contentious polls over legalising same-sex marriage and lowering the voting age. While it is hard to get people excited over the abolition of a largely powerless upper house and these are more ‘meaningful’ issues to most people there is the possibility of referenda becoming dominated only by the seriously politically committed – the sort of anoraks with unrepresentative views of the general population that result in the banishment of the moderate middle from the Irish electorate.
What happens now?
The result is a real blow to Enda Kenny, who was seen as the personal leader of the Yes side and the Seanad proposal being very much a personal crusade, His refusal to debate is now seen as much more damaging than it did at the time, and the result is ominous for the readiness of the Fine Gael organisation for an undoubtedly difficult local election campaign next year.
Kenny’s association with the idea was such that apparent ineffectiveness of Labour and Sinn Fein has been largely ignored, but the lack of either to a real ideological commitment to abolition probably meant that they never really cared enough to really run serious campaigns, with Labour in particular conserving reserves for the local elections.
Kenny has indicated his intention to treat the result as a vote for reform of the Seanad, as the No side had hoped, but no one is of yet very sure of what that means, except that the graduates of all universities are likely to be given a vote for the six university senators, but beyond that – as nobody wants another referendum on the issue which is what real reform would need – it seems likely that the idea of Seanad reform will be eventually passed to the constitutional convention, which will issue recommendations but nothing seems likely for the remainder of this parliamentary term.
If you wish to contribute a guest post on any election or subject related to electoral politics, please email me at glhermine<at>gmail.com