Ireland votes to keep Irish senate

Voters reject proposal to scrap senate in shock defeat for government

Irish voters have rejected a government proposal to abolish Seanad Éireann, the Republic of Ireland's upper house of parliament.

The results of the referendum reveal that the plan was defeated by 51.7 per cent of voters in favour of retaining the senate, against 48.3 per cent in favour of its aboliton.

The proposal was put to the people on 4 October by the ruling Fine Gael-Labour coalition, and is seen as embarrassing result for the Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny, who championed the idea since taking office in 2011. Kenny now faces accusations that he failed to engage with the public, in particular over his repeated refusals to participate in a television debate. Along with junior coalition partner Labour, Kenny's Fine Gael (FG) party led the campaign to abolish the senate and – in a rare occurence – was supported by minor opposition party Sinn Féin, a usually vociferous critic of FG.

A central plank of the government's reason for abolishing the senate was that it would save Irish taxpayers up to €20 million a year. However that figure was strongly disputed by critics, including a number of Fine Gael senators. The government also claimed that the senate was ineffective and that its abolition would create a stronger system of government. Critics accused Kenny of a "smash and grab" and said the proposal was in line with his "autocratic" style of leadership.

The government said the abolition of Seanad Éireann would mean fewer politicians, and that the Seanad had failed to block or delay legislation for almost 50 years and was more focused on protecting politicians than citizens. Opponents accused the government of blatent populism, saying the senate played an essential role in holding governments to account.

The "No" campaign was led by the main opposition party Fianna Fáil (FF), which presided over Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" years as well as the start of the subsequent crash that saw Ireland forced to take a bailout from the World Bank and the EU in late 2010. Although now a significantly diminished party – thanks to a backlash from a resentful and humiliated electorate in 2011 – FF have claimed a victory over the Seanad result, calling it "a great day for democracy."

Joining FF in the No camp was the non-partisan Democracy Matters group among whose members included Michael McDowell, a former justice minister from the now-disbanded Progressive Democrat party. McDowell likened the abolition of the Seanad to "tearing out a fire escape" because it has never been used. Also vocal in his campaign to save the Seanad was the high-profile senator David Norris, a Joycean scholar and presidential candidate in 2011, who appealed to the public to retain a forum where diverse and contrarian views could be aired. For years Norris has used the Seanad as a platform to promote gay rights, and is considered "almost single-handedly" responsible for overthrowing the republic's controversial anti-homosexuality law in 1988. Other critics asked voters to remember that Mary Robinson, a former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, rose to prominence in the Seanad in the 1970s when she campaigned for a range of liberal issues, including the right of women to sit on juries, the then requirement that all women upon marriage resign from the civil service, and the right to the legal availability of contraception.

However most opponents of the government's proposal acknowledged that "things need to change" in Seanad Éireann, which has been in existence since 1922.

Total turnout in the election was higher than expected; almost 40 per cent of the three million eligible voters cast a vote.

It is now likely that Kenny will have to “watch his back” after the shock result, which comes just a week before another unpopular austerity budget is to be revealed on 15 October. Following the result a senior Fine Gael senator told Ireland's Sunday Independent newspaper "The knives are out for Enda Kenny after this result."

Speaking at Dublin Castle after the vote was announced Kenny said “The people decided Seanad Éireann should be retained, naturally I was personally disappointed but I fully respect and accept the outcome. Sometimes in politics you get a wallop in the electoral process, I accept the verdict of the people.”