October 5, 2013 5:54 pm

Irish public vote to retain upper house of parliament

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A voter casts his ballot for the Seanad (senate) referendum in Dublin, Ireland, on October 4, 2013. Cash-strapped Ireland voted in a referendum on Friday on whether to back Prime Minister Enda Kenny's controversial proposals to abolish the upper house of parliament.©AFP

The Irish public has rejected a proposal to abolish the upper house of parliament by a narrow margin in a referendum, a blow to the government’s promise to reform politics following the country’s financial crisis.

The Fine Gael/Labour party coalition proposal to abolish Seanad Eireann was defeated by a margin of 51.7 per cent to 48.3 per cent. The result, announced on Saturday afternoon, was a surprise given that opinion polls just days before the referendum suggested the government would win comfortably.

“Naturally I was personally disappointed but I fully accept and respect the outcome,” said Enda Kenny, prime minister. “You cannot argue with a decision of the people,” he said.

The result is a significant setback for the government, which was elected in March 2011 on a platform to increase accountability in public life following an economic crisis that led to a rescue by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

It is also a personal blow for Mr Kenny, who first proposed abolishing the upper house as a way to reform politics and save money. He faced strong criticism during the campaign for refusing to take part in a television debate on the proposal.

Ireland’s upper house has very limited powers. Senators can propose amendments to bills and delay legislation, and they retain some constitutional powers related to impeaching the president and the judiciary. But the Seanad remains firmly under the control of the government, which appoints a majority of the senators.

The government argued that abolishing the Seanad would save €20m a year, remove a toothless institution that has become a retirement home for politicians and pave the way for broader parliamentary reform. It pointed to what it said were the successes of similar moves by Denmark in 1953, Sweden in 1970 and Croatia in 2001.

Opponents warned removing the upper house would further centralise power in Ireland, which already has one of the weakest parliaments in Europe, leaving the country vulnerable to the type of “group think” that many blame for its recent economic crisis. They also disputed that its abolition would save €20m.

“We looked at the dishonesty in terms of the €20m [saving claim], the populist position in terms of getting rid of politicians without having any coherent alternative,” said Niall Collins, campaign director for Fianna Fail, who advocated a no vote.

The Fine Gael/Labour coalition has now lost two successive referendums on political reform since it was elected to power in early 2011 promising a “democratic revolution” in the wake of the financial crisis.

In October 2011, it lost a referendum that would have given investigative powers to parliament, blocking its plan to hold an inquiry into who was responsible for the crisis.

A second referendum on Saturday to set up a new court of appeal looked set to be supported by the public.

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