It would be tempting to dismiss both sides in the Seanad referendum with Oscar Wilde's timeless observation about fox-hunting being "the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible". Sadly, it would be inaccurate, for fox-hunting is a vigorous, passionate exercise. The Seanad referendum, in contrast, evolved into little more than a miserable contest of absences. Although some irony surrounds the manner in which Enda Kenny has been berated for keeping an election promise, the Taoiseach has brought some of his troubles on himself, for if this unloved referendum is a template for the evolution of our public discourse, then the future of politics is grim.
When it comes to this contest of absences the defining factor that should influence our decision is the mendacious government campaign that has fiddled with the facts and jemmied up the figures. Mr Bruton's ropey sums and the amoral reductionism of his fewer-politicians stance provided us with an unedifying spectacle where a politician who once bravely opposed the Ceausescu-style excesses of Social Partnership has evolved into a bleating political sheep capable only of regurgitating focus-group findings.
Concerns about a 'power grab' can only be accentuated by the stealthy exclusion of Article 27 – where, up to now, if a specified number of TDs and Senators petition the President on a bill, he can refer it to the citizens.
Outside of noting that politics is hardly enhanced by the facile self-loathing that claims reducing numbers is a good thing, too much of the politics of a pig-in-a-poke surrounds the Government's promises of political reform. The case for abolishing the Seanad would be more convincing had the administration reformed the Dail first. In a contest where the endemic levels of justified disinterest, revealed by today's Millward Brown poll, mean the result remains finely balanced, those minded to defend the Seanad would have been aided by the existence of a campaign. Instead, as if struck dumb by the prospect of its own execution, the No campaign has been a palsied thing whose inchoate nature is best summarised by a Fianna Fail party that was for the abolition of the Seanad in government and against the abolition of the Seanad in opposition.
The scattered defenders of the Seanad have been fatally hamstrung by its status as neither the cause of nor the solution to Ireland's existential political crisis. Many of those defenders have openly admitted democracy is not in a healthy place when the Seanad represents a last brake on autocracy. This, however, appears to be the case in a country where the role of the legislature has dwindled to nothingness, hamstrung as it is by careerist government deputies and a fractured opposition. Outside of Ireland's gathering democratic deficit, we should vote No for the simple reason that it is always dangerous to reward that school of vice that is informed by contempt for the electorate.
The Government's mendacious campaign, driven by ambitious political ingenues whose ambition is only matched by their political cynicism, does not deserve to win. In a world where "manners" are being put on anyone who dares challenge this administration, though it may represent the loosest of brakes, democracy is hardly enhanced by snipping the Seanad cable. The Taoiseach should therefore reform the Dail first and come back to us then on the Seanad. Meanwhile, when it comes to the proposed Court of Appeals, the electorate might ask why reform in Ireland appears to always consist of more governance rather than real efficiency.