The letter states that if the Referendum Commission intends publishing details of the €20m figure on its website, it “strongly advises” that it “include a strong caveat stating the figure provided are costs and may not translate fully into savings, should Seanad Éireann be abolished”.
The €20m savings claim has been a central plank in the Fine Gael push for a yes vote on Oct 4 and is prominently displayed on posters and leaflets distributed all over the country.
Last night, Fianna Fáil’s director of elections, Niall Collins, described the letter as “a major development” in the referendum campaign, and said: “Essentially, the Oireachtas authorities have confirmed that Fine Gael’s claims about saving €20m are bogus. The idea that these indirect costs, such as heating and lighting the same building that contains the Dáil, would be saved is idiotic and has now been exposed as such. Fine Gael should remove these posters immediately and apologise for insulting the intelligence of voters.”
However, Fine Gael’s director of elections, Richard Bruton, said the letter confirmed it cost €20m to run the Seanad a year but told the Irish Examiner: “As is the case with the rationalisation of all bodies in the public service, it will be up to the Government to deliver on the savings generated by abolishing the Seanad.”
After receiving a number of requests from the public, the independent Referendum Commission wrote to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission on Sept 11 asking for details of the savings which might accrue in the medium to long term if the Seanad was abolished.
The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission replied detailing previously published figures relating to direct costs of €8.8m, indirect costs of €9.3m, and a €2m annual pension cost. However, it warned that the costs may not fully translate into savings.
The Democracy Matters group, which is campaigning for a no vote to abolishing the Seanad, said the correspondence proves the Fine Gael campaign does not stand up to scrutiny.
“The €20m figure seems to be the number-one item on every Fine Gael poster around the country, and most people now know that it’s totally untrue and misleading,” said its spokesman Tom Rowley.
Meanwhile, it was appearing increasingly unlikely last night that Taoiseach Enda Kenny would take part in a live Prime Time TV debate on the abolition of the Seanad after Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin accepted an invitation from RTÉ to go head to head with Mr Kenny on Oct 1.
RTÉ issued invitations to both leaders. However, the Taoiseach said yesterday he had not seen it: “Micheál Martin wants to go around the country shouting the Taoiseach is unwilling to debate with him on this. I had my debate with Micheál Martin during the election for the Dáil. This is not in my gift or his gift, it’s the people’s choice.”
Mr Martin said such a major change to the Constitution deserved more respect from Fine Gael.