Wednesday 25 April 2018

The gloves come off as Seanad referendum campaign heats up

Senator Feargal Quinn hits the canvass trail with the Democracy Matters group in Wexford town
Senator Feargal Quinn hits the canvass trail with the Democracy Matters group in Wexford town
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

THIS Seanad referendum lark is a bit of a head-scratcher for that proportion of the electorate who are feeling particularly aggrieved and put-upon (ie most of them).

What to do? On the face of it, the choice seems clear-cut. With one stroke of a pen in the Government-backed Yes box on October 4, the voters can put 60 politicians out of their handy little numbers in Leinster House.

A tempting prospect for the vengeful. But not so fast, says the No campaign. Anyone who really wants to inflict pain on the Coalition – and Fine Gael in particular – should vote AGAINST the abolition of the Seanad. It'll be a mortifying defeat for the Taoiseach and it will prevent the denizens of the Dail from running amok without the Senatorial Fun Police to keep their legislative excesses in firm check.

It's a puzzler alright. And with just over four weeks until polling-day, there are portents that the campaign is slowly beginning to move up a gear. There's increased argy-bargy on the airwaves, and canvassers have started to appear on the streets.

Yesterday Senator Feargal Quinn was pounding (or strolling, it was too hot for exertion) the pavements of Wexford town on behalf of Democracy Matters, an independent group which wants the Seanad reformed rather than scrapped.

Flanked by a small but enthusiastically efficient team of volunteers, no member of the general public wandering along Main Street was left unbuttonholed.

It was the 76-year old senator's first-ever canvass, and he was quietly enjoying himself. He had a courteous manner about him, stopping passers-by with a polite query: "May I convince you to vote No in the Seanad referendum?"

Most people recognised him from the three series of the TV show on RTE, 'Feargal Quinn's Retail Therapy'.

And he knows a thing or two about communication. "What's your name? And where are you from?" he enquired, creating an instant conversation.

"The reaction is great, so many people are saying, 'yeah, I agree with you'. Do people automatically say that?" he wondered. "It's not the same in the grocery business where people come up and grab you by the lapels and say, 'I hate the way you do that'. It's very interesting."

Yes, well, that's because he was the man from the telly, rather than a government politician. He should climb into the trenches of next year's local elections if he wants a bit of blood-and-guts warfare.

And despite the brilliant sunshine, there was a dark mood on the streets. A good few people brushed past the canvassers without taking a leaflet. But it wasn't clear-cut. "I'm voting No because we need someone to keep them on track, a sensible man like yourself," one woman declared.

"I'm voting No" one auld fella assured him. "Why are you voting No?" asked a curious Feargal. "Out of spite," replied the pensioner with relish.

However, local man Larry Smith was having none of it. He reckoned the Seanad was undemocratic because he couldn't vote in the elections, and he was unmoved by Feargal's argument that this could change if the Upper House was reformed rather than axed.

"It's a rest-home for those who can't get into the Dail – saving your presence," he told the senator. "I'm so cross with the whole system."

Feargal is hopeful that this month-long campaign will give the No camp an opportunity to explain to voters just what the Upper House does.

The campaign is definitely heating up. A draft reform bill proposed by Feargal and Senator Katherine Zappone was dismissed yesterday by a member of the Yes campaign group One House. At a press conference to launch the One House cause, barrister Richard Humphreys called it "a tatty little Bill".

Feargal politely disagreed. "It is anything but. It is a well thought-out, well-judged and powerful piece of legislation. It's easy to cast words if you don't like something," he reckoned.

The senator then headed off for a photocall on the quays to promote the launch of the trial run of the Central Bank's rounding strategy which aims to phase out one and two cent coins.

From September 16 to November 7, more than 240 local businesses in Wexford will take part in the scheme whereby all cash transactions will be rounded up or down to the nearest five cent.

Feargal believes it makes sense, pointing out that 15 years ago he placed a small saucer beside every Superquinn checkout, so shoppers could take or leave their small coins. "The vast majority of times people didn't want the pennies, and left far more of them than they took from the saucer."

Right. So Feargal is for change (Seanad reform). But also against it (small coins).

A head-scratcher, for sure.

Irish Independent

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