An electorate of 3.1 million people in the Republic of Ireland, in a rare exercise, voted in a referendum on whether or not to consign the Seanad, the Senate or Upper House of the Irish Parliament, to the dustbin of history.
The referendum was to determine two constitutional issues. The first was whether to retain or abolish the Seanad (broadly akin to the U.K.’s House of Lords, or the Indian Rajya Sabha) in the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament). The second was on whether or not to create a court of appeal between the Supreme Court and High Court of Ireland.
For and against
The ruling coalition of the centre-right Fine Gael and the Irish Labour party is backing the case for abolition of the Seanad, while the main opposition party Fianna Fail is against it.
The pro-abolition camp argues that the Seanad is obsolete and a drain on the resources, whereas the opposition believes it is an important institution of Irish democracy whose abolition would allow the government to concentrate more powers in its hands.
Ireland’s Oireachtas comprises the President and two Houses, namely, Dail Ereann (House of Representatives) and Seanad Eireann (the Senate). The President, whose functions are largely ceremonial, is directly elected for a period of seven years. The Dail is elected every five years via a system of proportional representation. It elects the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach (pronounced tee shock).
Much like the Rajya Sabha, the Seanad has limited powers and its members are indirectly elected. Of its 60 members, 11 are appointed by the Prime Minister; six elected by graduates of Irish universities; and the remaining 43 elected from five panels of nominees by an electorate consisting of parliamentarians and local councillors.
The Seanad can scrutinise, amend and delay bills that originate in the Lower House, but it cannot block them. It can initiate non-financial bills, and can debate important political issues. For a bill to become law, it must be passed by the Dail and Seanad, and signed by the President.
There is much greater consensus on the second issue. The new Court of Appeal, if set up “would hear most of the appeals currently heard by the Supreme Court”, according to Ireland’s Referendum Commission.
“In future the Supreme Court would only hear appeals on matters of general public importance, or matters the interests of justice require that it hear.”
The Irish media reported a low turnout half-way through the referendum, an exercise that to an outsider would appear to be a political game-changer. The mainstream Irish (English language) press, on websites, seemed to reflect the general public disinterest in the issue — you have to scroll down to find news on the referendum.