#Seanref and Northern nationalism’s missed opportunity.

Today voters in the Irish Republic will head to the polls to decide whether to abolish their second chamber, the Seanad. This issue has dominated political debate in Dublin. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition, in alliance with Sinn Fein, has come out for abolishing Ireland’s second chamber. While the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil have come out against abolition.

However, as this debate has been going on south of the border, people in Northern Ireland, particularly nationalists seem to have a total lack of interest in this referendum campaign. When you pause for a moment to think about all the complaining that nationalism has done since partition about its lack of a voice in the corridors of power in Leinster House this is remarkable.

This is a debate about the very future structure of the Irish parliament and Northern nationalists are not taking the opportunity to take part in this discussion. As the conversation goes on about what would a reformed second chamber would look like there seems to be a total lack of political will from this side of the border to ensure that there is some form of representation from Northern Ireland. Nationalism is in effect taping their own mouths over this issue.

We need to recognise the fact that for those who want a closer political relationship with southern Ireland this is a golden opportunity to put the argument for the creation of thirty-two county political institutions. There is little point in expecting an embossed invitation to arrive from Dublin for contributions from Belfast. Northern nationalists need to be to the forefront of this debate if they truly want to have a voice in Leinster House.

At a time when support for Irish unity is at record low levels, it seems to me to be a form of lunacy that key figures within Northern nationalism are opting to stay silent on this issue. We can never demonstrate that all island politics works, if we don’t firstly, take a greater interest in the affairs of one another and second, attempt to create more all-island institutions.

Why are nationalists staying silent on this issue? From my view it is just another example of the general malaise that exists within the movement as a whole. Since 1998, nationalism has been on auto-pilot as it appears to be playing a waiting game for around three hundred thousand unionists to one day come to their senses and embrace Irish unity. There has been no new thinking or new ideas about what a united Ireland would look like. The reason Irish unity has massively low approval ratings are due to the fact that nobody has bothered to make it an attractive proposition.

The Seanad referendum will simply be like countless others; a missed opportunity to advance an all island agenda. If Northern nationalism wants reunification to ever happen, then it will need to start putting much more effort into how it approaches debates like this.

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  • Cric

    Um, hasn’t the biggest Nationalist party in the North been very vocal on the issue?

  • Morpheus

    What a bizarre piece. What would you have northern nationalists do Mr McCann, go en masse to the nearest polling booth in Donegal, Monaghan or Cavan and vote for or against the abolishment of the second chamber?

  • BetsyGray

    Bizarre indeed…have I a missed something here….?..this is a another result of partition…not of Northern Nationalist making……How,why and when has it appeared to be a bulwark for a United Ireland all of a sudden…?…its been around a while ofcourse….maybe the second chamber has been doing the sleeping…!

  • David McCann


    My argument is that NI nats have not engaged with this at all. It’s not just about the Seanad-it is about a general disinterest in ROI matters. Where were the NI MLAs in Dublin making the case for NI representation in the Seanad or the future composition of the Irish parliament?

    We (I include me in this) have just opted out of this debate completely. We need toget out of the notion that a UI is just going to fall into our laps.


    It is a cause of partition but my argument is if you want to eliminate partition-you need to have a remedy for it.

  • Morpheus

    David McCann: “We need to get out of the notion that a UI is just going to fall into our laps.”

    On that we can wholeheartedly agree David. I for one think that political nationalism has been incredibly lazy on the issue and I think it is the reason why SF and the SDLP are losing votes. Both parties have reunification very high on their list of priorities yet apart from a mock border poll in a highly partisan area, what have they done? Absolutely bugger all but bizarrely 56% of the population, according to the BT poll, are either in favour of reunification within a generation or are not against the idea even in this economic climate and without political nationalism lifting a finger.

    The Seanad debate was never going to get Mr and Mrs Public interested in Northern Ireland for the simple fact that it is too far removed from our daily lives. The Seanad is something you read about or hear on the radio but this, like many of the other issues from down south is down to a lack of education on what life is like on the other side of the border.

    There is so much myth, mystery and misinformation about reunification and it is this lack of knowledge and fear of the unknown which many mistake for support for the union and unicorns are born.

    The reality is that no one knows what a new Ireland will look like in terms of economics, jobs, housing, health, education, political representation etc. and these issues need to addressed so the 1 in 3 of the population who fall into the ‘Don’t know’ camp can be informed enough to fall into the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ camps. This will gives us a realistic gauge of where we are at and how to move forward because at the minute we just don’t know.

    Step number 1 for political nationalism for me is to get clarification on exactly what the SOS needs to see in order to call a border poll. Is there something in the census? Someone thing in the elections? Something in the NILT? Something in the BT polls? A mixture? What? For the protection of both communities and even the SOS this grey subjective area in the GFA needs to be made an objective black and white area.

  • David Crookes

    David, your case is unimpeachable. (Let me say how refreshingly informative your recent postings have been.)

    Here is a body which accepts members from both sides of the present border.

    The present leader of SF sits in the Dublin parliament, but he represents there only the people of his RoI constituency.

    So the abolition of the Seanad reduces the ability of NI’s citizens to have their voices heard in a genuinely all-Ireland body.

    It is hard to understand the silence of those who ought to feel distressed and disadvantaged by the Seanad’s abolition.

    Do they really believe in the all-Ireland doctrines which they profess?

    Would they maintain a similar silence if the all-Ireland bodies established under the GFA were abolished?

  • John Ó Néill

    “…nationalists seem to have a total lack of interest in this referendum campaign. When you pause for a moment to think about all the complaining that nationalism has done since partition about its lack of a voice in the corridors of power in Leinster House this is remarkable.”

    I thought Sinn Féin were very vocal on the issue or are we now to pretend that they aren’t one of the voices that speak for northern nationalists? As a statement, I think it is very like a lot of the contradictions that have hampered the No campaign even in the face of some of the obvious nonsense put around by Fine Gael about cost savings. And since Fianna Fáil included abolition in it’s manifesto in 2011 that meant there was immediately a credibility gap in it’s arguments.
    Many of the main points of the No campaign have focussed on things the Seanad could do, whether that would be in providing representation for the north in the Oireachtas (which none of them have even pretended it did or would do), acting as a check/balance on the Dáil, providing an alternative route to introduce legislation from outside the political mainstream and, for some reason, as an opportunity for people to engage in the Oireachtas who seemingly eschew conventional electoral politics and prefer to be selected through vocational panels designed to conform with Catholic thinking in the 1930s and privileging NUI graduates as electors (even to the exclusion of graduates with same qualifications from non-NUI colleges). The paradox of obviously capable and intelligent people campaigning to retain the Seanad as somewhere that they feel they can participate in the Oireachtas raises the issue of why they don’t feel they should, instead, oust some of the professional politicians from the Dáil and take a direct role in government instead? Surely, a dramatic lesson that should have been learnt and is being learnt during the boom and bust years.
    The political mainstream happily used the Seanad as an incubation centre and life-support centre for political careers and the rewarding of loyal servants. Highlighting what it could have done has been merely an exercise in exposing the poverty of history the Seanad has in terms of making the types of interventions into political life that many on No the side say it could do. Given that twelve reports on Seanad reform were completely ignored by successive governments has also removed any credibility from claims to future reform of the institution.
    At no point was the Seanad used in a structured way to give a voice to northern nationalists. Any opportunities afforded were closely guided by the political concerns of the parties who proposed the occasional northern member and even then they were drawn from an acceptable and fairly narrow spectrum of upper middle class Catholicism or liberal Protestantism (Sam McAughtry was unusual in that he was elected from the Industrial and Commercial panel). The idea that northern nationalists should be falling over themselves to save an opportunity for representation in the Oireachtas that was never given in any meaningful way is pretty absurd.

    Not that Fine Gael and Labour actually gave the electoral an abolish or reform referendum either. The main purpose of the referendum was to clog the media in the run up to the early budget (in about ten days) and drown out the kite-flying exercises of the previous few years. Given that Enda Kenny has repeatedly stated that there will be no reform of the Seanad if the referendum is rejected, there is an air of surrealism about a No campaign that is asking people to vote No for something (reform) that won’t happen.

    Mick’s long term impact of abolition may turn out to be in forcing some of the talented individual who were in the Seanad (or aspired to it) into a position where they may bring their abilities to the Dáil instead.

    Either way, the debate needs to move quickly to the budget to at least try and stifle that part of the Fine Gael/Labour agenda in Seanad abolition.

  • Mick Fealty


    SF were very much involved in this debate (ML was great on VinB the other night by all accounts), though to David’s key point they did not take the opportunity to shape their own contribution in such a way as to bring NI in.

    There may be good practical reasons for that, but I think its a fair to highlight that northern Irish nationalism is still in that politically neutral state (all crunching gears and no ‘engagement’) of complaint and moral protest at still being ‘stuck in the north’ nearly a hundred years on.

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick – to be honest – ‘northern nationalism’ needs to go up a gear alright (I’ll get back to that another day). But I don’t think that’s really the issue as the logic behind it relative to the Seanad referendum is very weak.

    The constant back-referencing in the Seanad No campaign to what it might have done in the past (if there had been the political will and guile to do it) has merely been reinforcing the arguments for the redundancy of a second house that only discovered its special purpose in life when it was about to be discontinued due to obsolescence.

    I suspect there is a bigger under-current here and a largely subconscious one. The change in government in 2011 didn’t really lead to much in the way of policy changes and certainly, in terms of observance of EU-IMF instructions, none in the way of fiscal policy. I think that, by accident or maybe by design, the Seanad has been partly offered up as a cathartic purging of the political system to sort of expiate the types of wrongs in political culture that led up to the boom-bust cycle. I am not saying it is well-designed but, ultimately, the political culture that is at fault is in the Dail not the Seanad. The focus, post abolition [if approved], has now to be on reforming the political culture in the Dail, as there will no longer be any alternatives.

    As a whole, there has been a bizarre pallor of surrealism over the whole campaign – from many quarters. I keep laughing at the number of Twitter hipsters (I am guessing mainly NUI grads who are Seanad electors) who express outrage and ‘simply don’t know’ how the Yes campaign could be ahead in the polls when *everyone on Twitter* is voting No (without the obvious reality check that should follow), to Fianna Fáil (abolitionists in 2011) leading the No side, SF and FG having to both campaign on the Yes side, and, the apparent invisibility of the Irish Labour party. And in the background, a looming budget (the last before the supposed exit from the Troika programme) being kept well off the front pages.

    It is hard to see any real winners in this no matter what side wins the referendum (apart from Mary Lou).

  • Ruarai
  • Charles_Gould

    I just don’t see that this issue is one of importance to ordinary people either north or south of the border.

    This appointed club of elite people has made absolutely no difference to anything.

  • In most Western democracies a parliamentary upper chamber takes one of two forms: 1) it represents people on a different jurisdictional basis than does the lower chamber i.e. the states in the American Senate or the provinces in South Africa’s upper house; 2) it is an honorary privilege for either the aristocracy or faithful political hacks as in the House of Lords. The Irish Seanad has largely fallen into the latter category with people being nominated who couldn’t find a safe seat in the Dail so as to keep them in politics until they could when a Dail seat.

    The only way that it would make sense for NI to be represented in the Seanad is if it were reorganized on a provincial basis with elections taking place in all four provinces. Then a decision would have to be made as to whether elections would be held extraterritorially in NI with the cooperation of the NIO and PSNI or whether Northern nationalists would be expected to cross the border and vote in Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan. Unionists would no doubt object to the elections if polling were held inside the Six Counties and the flegs people might attempt to disrupt the voting (this would make for good sport if it were held between the marching season and the Christmas riot season) and so unionists and British taxpayers might object to the policing bill that would ensue unless Dublin were to reimburse the costs. But has anyone thought to engage with these practical issues and put figures to them? Would Southern taxpayers want to foot the bill for these extra expenses so that their Northern compatriots could vote?

  • Sorry, last line first para should read “they could find a Dail seat.”

  • David Crookes

    Good, good, good, tmitch. Now here’s an idea for ye.

    Postal voting.

  • @David,

    If the Irish postal system is ready to handle half a million postal votes in a short amount of time that might work. But has anyone seriously proposed a provincial reorganization of the Seanad?

  • David Crookes

    As far as I know only yourself, tmitch. But an interesting idea has to be conceived by someone in the first place!

  • Charles_Gould

    It’s pretty shameful that university graduates have votes for Seanad and others don’t.

  • Charles_Gould

    These senators are accorded a voice but they aren’t representative. David Norris, Ivana Bacik. They have generally done poorly when they presented themselves in normal elections.

    The problem with having a forum which gives “alternative” points of view is the process for selecting that alternative.

    Better to allow those alternative voices to speak via the media, rather than elevating them through dubious electoral / appointment processes.

    For the Lords, I favour a 100% elected system.

  • I just watched a news report that Ireland is going to allow residents of NI to vote in Irish presidential elections. The report ended by saying they will have to consider how this vote will be exercised in terms of logistics.

  • IJP

    Why would “Northern Nationalism” take any interest at all? This is a debate about a parliamentary chamber of absolutely no relevance to them (or to anyone, arguably).

    What “Northern Nationalism” needs to do is work out how to make the Northern institutions work. It is patently obviously they are currently totally gridlocked, and the public have all but given up on them. Where is “Northern Nationalism”‘s answer to that?

  • ConorinLisburn

    David, a good piece and a fair analysis. Personally I completely eschew the term “Northern nationalist” ; can’t I just be an Irish Citizen ? I’m a social democrat, Green, civic republican and Irish citizen … consequently do I have to be a “nationalist” ?

    Certainly, and despite my own agitation, the SDLP failing to engage on the issue was disappointing but Colum Eastwood’s letter to the Irish News is, at least, worth noting. Thankfully the No side won out but a clear position from the SDLP could have even have been decisive with such a small margin.

    @ IJP Why would “Northern Nationalism” take any interest at all?

    I declare my interest as a Seanad elector for starters. Other agenda items for a Seanad with northern representation: all island energy issues, water resource issues, all-island tourism, university entrance requirements and cross-border access issues, bio-diversity, off-island investment, broadcasting and telecommunications.

    To be clear; it is entirely reasonable for Irish citizens in the North to have (1) Presidential voting rights (2) Constitutional amendment voting rights and (3) Seanad representation and voting rights.

    APNI’s antipathy to these reasonable aspirations really goes to expose the “Northern Ireland nationalism” at the heart of Alliance thinking. If they were true liberals they would be falling over themselves supporting Irish citizenship rights fro their neighbours. Instead they scream “constitutional crisis” at the merest whiff of Presidential voting rights. You really need to go re-read the Belfast Agreement and what it says about citizenship.