As the United States grapples with a temporary shutdown of the federal government, across the ocean in the Republic of Ireland there are serious plans to completely eliminate the Senate (that is, the upper house of the parliament). The Dublin government is holding a referendum on Friday designed to get rid of the Seanad Éireann (the Senate) -- a move that was proposed by Prime Minister Enda Kenny and which apparently enjoys widespread support from both the public and most politicians, according to polls.
Kenny has scorned the Senate as expensive, unnecessary and immune to reforms. "It is undemocratic,” Kenny told reporters, according to The Irish Times. “It is minority representative. It is not possible to reform this body.” If and when the Senate is abolished, the Dáil Éireann, currently the lower house, would become a unicameral parliament, subject to direct election by the voters once every five years.
The Dáil currently holds 166 seats, including 69 members of Kenny’s Fine Gael party and 33 from their coalition partner, the Labour Party. “The Dáil is the house that under our constitution is where the government of the day is held accountable,” Kenny said. Eamon Gilmore, the deputy prime minister and member of the Labour Party, also agrees with dissolving the Senate, asserting that a country as small as Ireland needs only one effective parliament, not two parliamentary chambers.
Only the opposition Fianna Fail party – which currently holds 19 seats in the Dail – opposes the abolition of the Senate. According to the RTE television network, Fianna Fail regards the Senate as “essential to Ireland's democracy” and that removing it would be tantamount to a “fundamental change to the country's constitution.”
The BBC reported that much of the Irish public either does not know what members of the 60-seat Senate actually do or they think it’s a useless body of the government in which party hacks are given jobs for loyalty or as a gift for past favors. Opponents of the Senate’s very existence point to the fact that its members are not directly named by the public. Indeed, 11 of the 60 senators are chosen by the prime minister, six are selected by graduates of two Irish universities, and the remainder are elected by local councilors. "The fact that so few people are directly involved in electing the Seanad undermines its credibility," political science professor Michael Gallagher of Trinity College Dublin told the BBC. "But that was equally true 30 years ago."
Another factor is, of course, money -- for a country that is enduring a drastic austerity program and high unemployment, critics of the Senate see no point in maintaining the chamber at an annual cost of some 20 million euros ($27 million). "By international standards that figure may not sound very much either way," Gallagher said. "But though people tend to mention the cost as what they most object to, I think there's something even more basic underneath.”
Gallaher suggests that the Irish public is seeking to punish politicians as a whole. “Some voters are seeking revenge on politicians who let the economy overheat in the Celtic Tiger era and then oversaw the painful retrenchment afterwards, with so many young Irish people leaving to work abroad,” he noted. "The [20 million euros] may not represent a huge saving but it would be an important symbol. People want politicians to suffer the way they've suffered.”
In addition, precedents for the abolition of second chambers of government have already been established. "Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand all did it. As the abolitionists point out, no one is saying those aren't decent, democratic countries," Gallagher added.