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Dublin's austerity drive puts upper house at risk

Update: September, 30/2013 - 12:01

DUBLIN – It has been described as elitist, a political dinosaur and a mere talking shop but next month's referendum on whether to abolish Ireland's upper house of parliament is proving harder to sell than Dublin might have predicted.

Support for abolishing the upper house has ebbed away since the idea was first mooted and polls show only half of likely voters remain in favour of the move.

The proposal has the backing of the coalition government and some of the opposition but a hefty percentage of voters are undecided, lending momentum to the main 'no' to abolition campaign as the October 4 vote nears.

The reluctance to scrap the Senate is at odds with the sceptical view of many in Ireland of politicians and the high cost of government, especially after Dublin entered an European Union-International Monetary Fund bailout in 2010 after a decade of the 'Celtic Tiger' economic boom.

Voters have levelled heavy criticism at Prime Minister Enda Kenny's ruling Fine Gael party for its approach to the referendum, with Kenny controversially declining to debate the issue on television with the leaders of those opposed to the plans.

Posters and repeated claims from Fine Gael detailing how much the abolition will save have also been challenged.

"This represents an extraordinary grab for power by the government," said one veteran senator, David Norris.

"The government won the presidential election, they have an overwhelming majority in the lower house, they own a big chunk of the banks at our expense and they naturally control all the services of the state, so what is left? The Senate at least was a voice of dissent," he added.

Norris, Ireland's longest-serving senator, became one of the first openly gay people to hold public office in the world when he took his seat in the upper chamber in 1987.

After a failed run for president in 2011, Norris, also an expert in the work of writer James Joyce, returned to the upper house, where three of Ireland's nine presidents, including the incumbent, have served in office.

"I must say I am very much hurt by the idea that after nearly 30 years of work for the public... with noticeable results including the changes in the laws surrounding homosexuality, that people in government would intimate that I wasn't worth it, that I was wasting my time," Norris fumed.

The government, now almost three years into an austerity programme imposed by the bailout conditions, continues to seek savings.

"The Irish people have been asked to sacrifice tremendously over the last number of years and to do more with less, so there's no reason the political class shouldn't be doing exactly the same," Regina Doherty, a Fine Gael member and deputy director of the party's campaign.

"The direct cost that will be saved is 8.8 million euros ($11.9 million) immediately; the indirect costs are 9.1 million euros and eventually the pension costs of around two million euros a year will be saved," Doherty said – although many doubt if these savings will ever be fully realised.

'Springboard or retirement home'

Kenny performed a U-turn before the last general election and said he would hold a referendum on the issue after earlier backing reform.

"It's a minority, discriminatory (chamber) and is not reflective of the people. I want to see it abolished because it doesn't have many constitutional responsibilities to hold the government to account," Kenny said this month.

"And to those that say this is an attempt to centralise power: what is more democratic than asking the people for their view when the political system failed to do anything (about it) for 50 years?"

The Senate has 60 members, with most elected from vocational panels by local councillors and by university graduates. Eleven are appointed by the prime minister, generally ensuring a government majority.

It is not the first time the Irish have toyed with abolishing their upper house. Eamon de Valera gave it the chop in 1936 when he was prime minister, before bringing it back a year later.

Historically, many senators tend to be politicians who failed to gain election in a general election or those hoping to win a seat in the lower house at a future election.

"All the political parties have abused it, bar none," Pearse Doherty, a serving Sinn Fein lower house member, said.

Doherty, who served in the upper house during the last government before winning a seat in the general election in 2011, described the upper house as "archaic" and "undemocratic."

"It's either been a springboard for a seat in the lower house or it's been a retirement home for failed politicians," Doherty said.

He added: "We can't afford that luxury any longer; we never could."

The upper house is the less powerful house of parliament, often reduced to rubber-stamping legislation from the lower house.

Its ability to delay bills passed by the lower house for 90 days is its most powerful function, but that has only occurred twice in 75 years.

Comparable upper houses have been abolished in Denmark, New Zealand and Sweden.

Serving Fianna Fail senator, Mark Daly said: "They're thinking that if we get rid of the upper house it will satisfy the masses into thinking they have reformed the system.

"But it'll take a lot more than a cosmetic exercise getting rid of legislators to improve the system."

Dublin now has just days to win support for its proposals and avoid an embarrassing defeat ahead of yet another painful austerity budget this month. AFP

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