Despite Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore insisting that all Labour Oireachtas members would be expected to back moves to abolish the upper house, some senators immediately broke ranks and the party’s chief whip in the Dáil said he would vote against abolition on the day.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny promised a raft of Dáil reforms if the Seanad was abolished in a national poll slated for early October.
Getting rid of the Seanad would require 40 amendments to the Constitution and opponents of the move have branded it a “smash and grab” bid for power.
Labour Dáil chief whip Emmet Stagg said TDs would be expected to back Government policy in Oireachtas divisions, but he would vote against abolition in the actual referendum.
“The idea of a single chamber system is very dangerous,” he said.
Mr Stagg refused to be drawn on whether he would campaign against abolition — despite Mr Gilmore’s clear ban on such a move.
“I am anxious to hear that from him. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.
Labour senator Jimmy Harte pledged to rebel against the Tánaiste over abolition and said: “The party will be having a campaign to abolish the Senate, but I think most senators and TDs in the Labour Party... won’t be voting to abolish it, including myself.”
Former Tánaiste and Progressive Democrat leader Michael McDowell expressed alarm at the plans.
“This is a smash and grab raid by the Government to give to themselves complete power over the legislative process. There will be no checks and balances left after this,” he said, calling for a reformed second chamber.
The Taoiseach claimed Ireland had too many elected representatives for its size and other countries such as Norway and New Zealand operated with just one house of parliament.
“The Seanad did nothing to challenge the unattainable policies of the Celtic Tiger. Its elitist composition is, in my view, completely incompatible with a democratic modern Ireland. It has ceased to be relevant.”
However, Mr Kenny, who said abolition could save taxpayers €20m a year, fudged the issue of whether proposed Dáil reforms would go ahead if voters decided to retain the Seanad.
Such reforms would see Dáil 14 committees given greater opportunity to scrutinise legislation — but only proposed laws deemed “non-emergency” by the executive. Committee chairs would also be selected “on a proportional and equitable” basis. The threshold needed for impeachment if the Seanad was abolished would be raised to 66% for moves against judges, and 80% against a president.
The Seanad would be abolished the night before the next Dáil meets after the general election, if the people vote to get rid of it.