10/02/2013 07:18 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Ireland grapples with whether to kill or keep the Senate

Expensive. Ineffective. Undemocratic. Elitist.

Sound familiar?  That’s the battle cry of Irish abolitionists who believe they’re en-route to seeing the country’s upper house — that’s right, the Senate, or Seanad as it’s known here — voted out of existence in a national referendum on Friday.

Opinion polls are behind them. But that doesn’t mean the battle over the Senate’s fate has been a knock-down, drag-out fight or a deep soul-searching affair — at least not beyond the political classes.

“The only people worked up about this are the politicians,” said the customs agent who stamped my passport when I arrived at the Dublin airport.

“We all know you have to have some place to send the old politicians,” he added with a wink. “You know, someplace they can relax.”

But the once-mighty roar of the Celtic Tiger was reduced to a whimpering mew in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has since decided it is time for a grand gesture.

The country currently faces unpopular spending cuts and tax hikes as it struggles to meet the demands of the so-called Troika — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — in exchange for a 2010 bailout package. And what more popular cut than a dusty old chamber that, according to critics, has failed to flex what little muscle it has for close to half a century?

'Extremely popular' idea

Political scientist David Farrell from the University College of Dublin says the 60-seat chamber seat is an easy target.

“We’re going through the worst economic crisis in our history and so the political class are not the most popular species right now, so anything that’s talking about killing off a group of politicians is extremely popular,” he says.

But he calls the referendum a bit of smoke and mirrors on the part of the country’s ruling Fine Gael, which has called the proposed abolition a fulfillment of its pledges to reform government.

“Whether [the Seanad] survives or it dies, it’s not going to change anything about the nature of Irish politics,” he says. “It’s a side show. What most of us are arguing is if the government is serious, they should be having proper proposals for Parliament reform.”

Senator Feargal Quinn is one of the most vocal advocates in favour of keeping the Senate — and, along with it, he acknowledges, his own job, although he insists it’s not about that.

A former supermarket magnate now in his 70s, the dapper Quinn took some good-natured heckling from colleagues calling the senator an “endangered species” in stride. But he’s passionate about what he says is a crucial check on the doings of the lower house, or Dail.

“It’s a dangerous power grab,” he said when we met at Buswell’s hotel, a popular watering hole for  politicians, just across the street from Leinster House, home to the two houses of Parliament.

“The government have given only one option, which is either vote yes to abolish the Seanad or vote no to leave it as it is. We argue very strongly that there should be a third choice, which is a reformed Senate.”

A question of cost?

Unlike Canadian senators, who can serve until the age of 75, Irish senators serve for specific terms. Most people talking about reform zero in on the arcane way in which the Seanad’s members are chosen. Of the Senate’s 60 seats, 11 are directly appointed by the Taoiseach, or prime minister, six are chosen by graduates of three Irish universities and the remaining 43 are elected either by local councillors or members of the lower house. The terms last as long as the government.

The elitist formula is reason enough for reform, say critics. Others argue the Senate should have sharper teeth. As is the case in Canada, the Irish Senate can introduce its own legislation. But unlike the Canadian Senate, it can only delay legislation from the other house for 90 days.

The Seanad’s critics say the last time Ireland’s upper house used its delay option was in 1964. But Quinn insists that doesn’t make it irrelevant, saying the Senate has amended more than 500 pieces of legislation over the past two years.

He also dismisses the government’s argument that the Senate is too expensive.

“They’ve done a very good job in scaring the Irish people into thinking, Oh, it’s an outrageous cost, 20 million [Euros] a year, we could build hospitals and schools. But they’re costing 14 million to run the referendum itself.”

Colin Ryan, a member of a political party called Direct Democracy, agrees.

“Enda Kenny has appealed to the basest instincts of people,” he says. “He’s gone around saying less politicians save 20 million [Euros]. That’s two little sound bites. And he won’t speak on anything else. He won’t do an interview. He won’t do a debate.

“It doesn’t cost 20 million.  It costs something between eight and nine. We have four and a half million people in this country. So that’s two euros a year per person. That’s pretty cheap democracy, isn’t it?”

'Apathy is the prevailing thing'

Kenny’s refusal to debate the issue in public has “undermined confidence in him,” according to Matt Cooper, host of a popular radio talk show called The Last Word. But he also believes people will vote to abolish the Senate simply because they don’t believe there is any hope of ever reforming it.

“Ideally reform it,” he says. “But we have no trust in this country about reform. There have been 14 reports conducted since 1938 suggesting reform of [the Seanad] and it has never happened.”

“Apathy is the prevailing thing amongst Irish people when it comes to something like the Seanad,” he says.

That hasn’t stopped the politicians from pounding the pavement … trying to battle that apathy and win the day for their side. But even the local media seems bored by it.

A scrum held by Richard Bruton, the government minister in charge of the Yes to Abolition campaign, drew only a handful of journalists to the plinth outside Leinster House for a scrum in the final days of campaigning.

But he insisted people do care.

“Obviously, it doesn’t affect their daily life in quite the same way, but I do think what people do recognize is that they vote their representative in the Dail … and only one per cent  vote [for] those who go to the Senate. What they want is a strong Dail that is more open to civic society groups.”

How abolishing the Seanad will actually reform the Dail of course is one of the unanswered questions.  And it bothers some Dubliners who stopped to talk.

“I’ve researched it a fair bit and I don’t think we’ve been given the proper arguments,” said one woman waiting for a bus. She’ll vote to keep it.

Not so Paul Murphy, a member of the European Parliament for the Irish Socialist party who wants to see the Senate voted into oblivion.

“No matter how you slice it, either you’ll have an elitist body or you’ll have a body that’s a direct mirror of the Dail,” he said, while handing out pamphlets.

And so back to the airport, where, as I was leaving, the women scanning baggage through the X-ray machines were actually talking about the referendum. When quizzed, they confirmed that they do plan to vote. But they were a bit unsure about the question: Did a yes mean they were in favour of the Senate or in favour of abolition?

Maybe it’s not going to be as clear-cut as everyone thinks.