#SeanadRef: Will SF’s pro abolition campaign ‘yield the high ground of reform to Fianna Fail’?

So Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty led today’s launch of his party’s referendum campaign. His closing statement, has less to do with the ups and downs of whether or not to change the Constitution, keep or close the Irish upper house, than targeting old enemies:

“Do you trust these parties? Over the last decades there has never been political reform of the Seanad. There’s nothing to convince me that any of these individuals are genuine and sincere about political reform in the future.

If this week’s Phoenix magazine is true then Sinn Fein’s most impressive parliamentarian in both jurisdictions won the internal argument over which way to fight this campaign in the party’s governing body (the Ard Comhairle)…


It’s a valid argument to point to Fianna Fail’s change of heart since the last general election campaign. And he does not miss and hit the wall when he points to the cronyism of the last administration. Nor the cultural propensity for the established parties to prioritise the urgent (infrastructure and the economy) over the important (political reform).

But, as noted here on Slugger yesterday, the last Seanad is a different article to this one. The confidence of the Taoiseach himself to put  men and women like Katherine Zappone, and Professor John Crowne of a genuinely independent and intelligent mein, has provide the Seanad with a powerful upgrade at the very moment he wants to get rid of it.

It’s doubly puzzling since the party leader in the very debate moving the motion for the referendum to take place expounded some of the better pro Republican arguments for powering up the Seanad and rebalancing overall power away from the executive.

In throwing their hand in with Fine Gael, Sinn Fein will presumably get to differentiate themselves with their main rivals on the opposition benches. But their positioning may prove hard to define in light of Fianna Fail’s ready identification with a voluble and energetic #SeanadReform programme.

Strategically, this presents the party with a few sticky problems.

Whether the Referendum proves successful or not, they have presented Fianna Fail with an opportunity to tie them firmly to the anti reform lobby. Yes, it is true that the Referendum is not about reform. But this has the look of painting yourself into the wrong corner of the room next to the blue rather than the red door.

It may also point to a similar problem the party has in Northern Ireland, and its failure to sense, grasp and exploit genuinely popular opportunities to expand the provenance of the brand and broaden the party’s popular appeal.

In addition, for a party that is itself struggling to get rid of its past (at least for southern audiences), they play a dangerous game in choosing to fight their chosen opponents on the ground they occupied albeit under the same leader before the last southern general election.

That’s not to mention the fact that the Seanad is the only house in the Oireachtas that has consistently over its history allowed Northern Irish voices to speak as full members…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty