Ireland: Crisis for government - and for the left

Last week’s defeat of the Irish government in the referendum to abolish the upper house was a major blow for the Fine Gael/Labour coalition

The abolition of the Seanad (second chamber), a brainwave of taoiseach Enda Kenny, was included in Fine Gael’s ‘programme for government’ in the last election. Given the elitist and unaccountable nature of the Seanad, he was very confident of huge support. So confident, in fact, that he and his government made no real effort to campaign. Kenny himself refused to take part in any media discussions, dismissing calls for a televised debate with arrogant contempt. He believed that talk of the projected annual savings resulting from abolition of €20 million per annum would bring the cash-strapped working class flocking to the polls to back him.

And his bullishness seemed to have a strong basis in reality. A week before the referendum an Irish Times opinion poll showed 44% in favour of abolition, 21% against, 21% undecided and 8% who would not vote. However, the actual vote was something altogether different - a narrow victory for ‘no’ (51.7%), while only 48.3% were for abolition, in a turnout of less than 40% of those eligible to vote.

The opposition Fianna Fáil campaigned for a ‘no’ vote and there is no doubt that its supporters accounted for a significant portion of those opting for rejection. But it was essentially an anti-government vote - a slap in the face for a haughty elite which has inflicted major attacks on all aspects of social provisions, closed hospitals, cut benefits and imposed massive taxes as part of its austerity programme. With the budget looming later this month, we have been warned that there will be still more pain. €20 million is a tiny fraction of the billions already cut in public expenditure. Doctors and teachers are currently taking strike action over long hours and low pay. Conditions at the majority of hospitals are now dangerous because of overcrowding and a lack of resources. People are dying, as ambulances take hours to reach them. Charities like St Vincent de Paul have now become an everyday resource for families too poor to pay for food or heating.

If it had been just about the Seanad it would have been a very different story. It is not a popular institution - in any sense of the word. It is based on a sort of honours system for the business, academic and political elite, leaving the government of the day with little or nothing to fear. Created in its present form by Eamonn De Valera as part of the 1937 Catholic constitution, it was envisaged as a bulwark against mass pressure from below. The vocational panels set up to elect senators were a brainchild of Pope Pius XI, who in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, argued for measures to ensure a cooperative social order to safeguard against Marxist class conflict. The Seanad would act to subdue any dangerous elements in society. And it, rather than the masses, would hold the government in check.

Of course, the reality has been that the Seanad rarely opposed the government. It can only delay the passing of legislation (this has only happened twice since 1937) and the government can override it after three months. Therefore any idea of this institution being a brake on the government is pure rubbish. It is an illusion - designed to keep the population acquiescent and to mask the reality of power relations. Of course, if the TDs began to feel the pressure of a mass movement and felt obliged to make concessions, then no doubt the true role of the Seanad would be revealed.

Obviously Enda Kenny believed he had no need for this institution and as part of his ‘modernising’ agenda decided to lop it off. But, despite their general demoralisation after years of austerity attacks, people will automatically oppose anything the government proposes. True, some undoubtedly have illusions that the Seanad will act as a restraint on the government, but significantly there was an effective boycott of the referendum by a very sizeable majority of the electorate. Poor inner-city constituencies and rural areas had the lowest turnouts.


The response of the left has been interesting. The Socialist Party called for a ‘yes’ vote and published a detailed article setting out the history of the Seanad and its reactionary history.1 The Socialist Workers Party, on the other hand, published a short article by its leader, Kieran Allen, making similar points, but arguing that the outcome of the referendum was irrelevant.2 This seems a very strange position for a socialist organisation to take, when it is surely ABC that an elitist second chamber is of no value to the working class and gives every advantage to the bourgeoisie. No matter even that it is a “sham debate” or that Kenny has only cynical motivations. Faced with a vote on whether or not to retain the undemocratic second chamber, the left should not just have voted for abolition, but made use of the opportunity to campaign for full-blown democratic demands. Maybe Allen and the SWP were attempting to swim with the anti-government tide and did not want to tie themselves down. But I have been reliably informed that the SWP’s Brid Smith, People Before Profit councillor and recently announced candidate for the European elections in the Dublin constituency (where she will stand against the sitting Socialist Party MEP), has said she is for “reform” of the Seanad.

What is missing even from the Socialist Party is a worked out approach to the constitution and demands for an alternative. The 1937 constitution brings together everything that is reactionary, from the central role of the church, the subjugation and denigration of women, the funding of church-run social care and education, with almost all schools and hospitals dominated by priests and nuns. It was drafted deliberately to institutionalise the role of the Catholic church and remains so today. Rather than leaving it to Kenny and his cynical ‘modernisation’, the left should take up the question itself. We should have used the opportunity to place our programme for a democratic republic centre-stage. Irish republicanism does not have to mean Catholic rule. We need a secular republic - and we should outline an alternative democratic constitution.

However, the crisis on the left deepens. The announcement that Brid Smith will run against Paul Murphy in next year’s European elections has caused huge anger among many in our movement. Murphy, who replaced Joe Higgins when he became a TD, has a difficult enough challenge to hold on to his seat in this three-member constituency. The decision to oppose him is an act of pure sectarianism, especially when you consider that both candidates will be standing on essentially the same (reformist) politics.

The sad joke is that the United Left Alliance still just about exists. Or at least somebody is still sending out regular press releases on behalf of the ULA. This is farcical. In the middle of a storm of debate some leftwingers, including Brendan Young in the Irish Left Review, have argued that the SP and the SWP should come together on a ‘broad’ platform so as to overcome the problem - in other words, a ULA mark two. Does it not occur to Young and his supporters that this is exactly the project that collapsed amid accusations of sabotage and sectarian recruitment by the SWP? The prospects for leftwing unity based on reformist, lowest-common-denominator demands has been exposed time and again as a complete waste of time. Not only do the central differences between left groups remain: they actually deepen. All are in it for what they can gain and there is deep distrust. Non-aligned members become demoralised and have no real voice. And, of course, there is the fact that the politics put forward are dreadful. Why should we go back to that form of unity? Tried, tested and failed. Comrades, we need to learn some lessons from our experiences!

Meanwhile, a campaign has been launched to repeal the 8th amendment, which provides that the life of the ‘unborn’ is preserved under the constitution and is of equal value to that of a woman. But there are tensions between the various groups involved as to how to pursue the campaign. The Abortion Rights Campaign and Cork Women’s Right to Choose have taken by far the best approach by arguing that the central question should be choice. Action for X and the Women’s Council want a more ‘moderate’ approach, with the latter looking to the Constitutional Convention,3 a quango of selected citizens and politicians. This body is completely in thrall to, and part of, the establishment and will certainly not support any measures that will allow a women’s right to choose.

A recent demonstration organised by Abortion Rights Campaign showed the possibilities for principled action.4 A thousand people gathered for what was a very youthful and dynamic demonstration. Speeches were defiant, with Clare Daly TD - now no longer an SP member, of course - committing herself to fighting for the scrapping of the 8th amendment on the basis that women should have control over their own fertility and not be part of another generation to suffer ill-treatment at the hands of the Catholic state. It was small, but impressive, despite very little mobilisation by either the SP or SWP. These groups seem unable to make the break from the lowest common denominator and embrace principle.

Those in Ireland who consider themselves revolutionaries need to come together as revolutionaries. A venture called the Left Forum seemed to be an initiative where that could happen, but it has already descended into ‘broadness’ - a planned public forum of the left is to include Sinn Féin! Yes, the party that is part of the bourgeois government in the north and would welcome a coalition with Fianna Fáil in the south.

If we consider ourselves Marxists we need to take Marxist ideas seriously. That means openly putting them forward in our political campaigning. Or do comrades think Marxism is no longer relevant? anne.mcshane@weeklyworker.org.uk


1. www.socialistparty.net/theory/1257-seanad-eireann-its-origins-and-purpose.

2. www.swp.ie/content/no-senate-no-fake-democracy-we-want-real-democracy.

3. https://www.constitution.ie.

4. www.abortionrightscampaign.ie/2013/10/07/weekly-roundup-fr-doran-resigns-halappanavar-sues-and-we-march-for-choice.