Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Last week of campaigning begins

Enda Kenny wants to get rid of the Seanad and operate from one house - the Dail

Irish politicians will this week begin the final push in a campaign over the abolition of the country's upper house of parliament.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his supporters want to radically overhaul the political landscape by getting rid of the Seanad and operating from one house - the Dail.

His argument is abolition would create a leaner, more effective and more accountable system, and has appealed for a Yes in the public vote on Friday.

His opponents, led by the opposition party Fianna Fail, have argued for the retention of the Seanad - home to 60 senators - insisting it is necessary to serve as a government watchdog and to hold the ruling Cabinet ministers to account.

The Irish parliament - the Oireachtas - is made up of the lower house, the Dail from which government operates, and the upper house, the Seanad.

Senators have no final say over new laws passed in the Oireachtas, but they do have the power to delay legislation by up to 90 days. The last time the Seanad used these powers was in 1964.

While its supporters have argued senators can hold the Government to account, those in favour of its abolition have described it as a "toothless watchdog".

British Labour veteran Roy Hattersley recently compared the latter to the House of Lords.

He said while its figures give wise advice, "nobody takes a blind bit of notice".

Abolishing the Seanad will reduce the number of Ireland's politicians by a third, and the Government has claimed it will save the taxpayer 20 million euro a year.

Getting rid of the upper house would bring Ireland into line with countries like Luxembourg, Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Israel that manage with one chamber.

Mr Kenny has said the public should question the relevance of a second house, claiming modern Ireland cannot be governed effectively by a political system originally designed for 19th century Britain.

The Seanad has been home to some noted characters over the years - renowned poet WB Yeats served as a senator in the 1920s.

Former Irish president Mary Robinson used the chamber as a springboard for her bid for the presidency, and during her time in the upper house paved the way for new laws on contraception and family planning rights for women.

More recently, former gay rights activist and former presidential candidate senator David Norris has been a colourful and controversial figure.

He accused the Taoiseach of trying to rip democracy from the public, saying he had "blood on his fangs".

"This is not turkeys voting for Christmas,'' he said after the Taoiseach called on senators to back abolition.

"It's turkeys being invited to slit their own throats, eviscerate themselves and stuff themselves at the instigation of the Taoiseach.

"There isn't even a suggestion of a vegetarian alternative because Mr Kenny from the west of Ireland has blood on his fangs.''

Senator John Crown, a cancer specialist, has spearheaded radical moves to criminalise smoking in cars.

Mr Kenny first announced his intention to abolish the upper house when he was opposition leader.

He shocked members of his Fine Gael party when he made the announcement during a speech in 2009.

Since confirming the referendum would take place, he has described the chamber as "outmoded and elitist", and has introduced a new raft of reforms to the Dail.

The reforms include longer sitting hours of the Dail to afford TDs more time to consider legislation.

Under plans to involve the public, committees will be able to consult advocacy, civil society groups and expert individuals at the pre-legislative stage.

The public is responsible for electing only 1% of the upper house.

Some 43 senators are elected by five vocational panels made up of politicians, the Taoiseach nominates 11 of them and the remaining six are elected by graduates of only two universities - from Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland.

A second referendum will be held on October 4 on whether the State should set up a Court of Appeal.

Its establishment would change how the Supreme Court issues decisions in cases where it is asked to decide whether a law is constitutional.

More basic appeals from the High Court would go to the Court of Appeal as opposed to the Supreme Court.

The Government, which is campaigning for a Yes in the public vote, has argued introducing a new court at the level between the High Court and Supreme Court would help unclog a backlog of delays in hearings.

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