Before the matter fades into oblivion altogether, some thoughts on the Seanad referendum outcome. I wasn’t expecting a No vote. I really thought that Fine Gael’s focus group-driven right-wing populism was a lot more attuned to broader public sentiment than proved the case.
I thought that the constant stream of propaganda from Ireland’s media outlets over the past number of years, with its unerring capacity for presenting politicians and public officials as the ruling class, combined with the message that there were going to be fewer politicians and hence less of a tax burden created by politicians, regardless of the relatively paltry sums involved, would have raised the hackles of sufficient numbers of homo economicus to guarantee a Yes vote. I was wrong. For starters, because homo economicus may consider a Friday night better spent watching a film and having a few drinks than going to the polling station and voting in something of no great consequence.
It’s hard to discern a dominant tendency in the No vote. Some people wanted to give the government a root up the hole, and not without good reason. Others seemed driven by a sense of foreboding and horror that the august institutions of the Irish State might be swiftly dismantled by a rampaging mob if the Seanad were to fall. Then no doubt there were those who believed a No vote was a No to the Seanad. The fact of different voting trends in the east and west led the outcome to be characterised in the media as an East-West divide, which had the convenient effect of presenting an image of the west as the land of unthinking bogtrotters whose love for the schpuds is second only to their obedience to Enda Kenny, and the east as the domain of gentleman legislators whose love of a sophisticated argument is second only to their loyalty to the State.
It seems unlikely to me that Enda Kenny will sustain any lasting political damage on account of this loss. There are too many people high up in this country, who are counting on the maintenance of order and a good business climate, to allow the Taoiseach’s image to become tarnished in the public eye. Not if they can help it. Hence when the cuts to public services and welfare payments and regressive taxation measures and tax breaks for the capitalist class are introduced with the forthcoming budget, there won’t be any noise from Ireland’s media about the contradiction between Enda Kenny’s anti-elitism as far as the Seanad is concerned and his thoroughgoing pro-elitism in matters of public policy.
Even though Kenny and Fine Gael lost the vote, I don’t think the image of the Seanad, even as a potential space for democratic representation, has been burnished during the campaign. Talk is cheap, but this particular form of talking seems rather expensive: to onlookers, the Seanad is like some weird outsize parakeet on the shoulder of the Dáil’s grotesque and flatulent drunk.
What the campaign solidified, I think, was the prevailing sense that representation, the fact of being represented, is the only legitimate form of politics there is in Ireland’s idiosyncratic political culture. This faith in representation, or on the flipside, the repudiation of political activity altogether, ought to worry people who look on in horror at victory after victory for the forces that Enda Kenny represents. However, many such people seem to be fixated on the idea of the ideal electoral vehicle to come along. But in the absence of some kind of rupture, some kind of refusal of representation, it most certainly won’t.