Constitutional Reform of National Legislatures
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Constitutional Reform of National Legislatures

Bicameralism under Pressure

Edited by Richard Albert, Antonia Baraggia and Cristina Fasone

Despite the importance of second chambers to the success of constitutional democracies around the world, today many fundamental questions about bicameralism remain understudied and undertheorized. What makes bicameral reform so difficult? Why choose bicameralism over unicameralism? What are the constitutional values of bicameralism? This innovative book addresses these questions and many more from comparative, doctrinal, empirical, historical and theoretical perspectives.
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Chapter 10: The failed referendum to abolish the Irelands Senate: Rejecting unicameralism in a small and relatively homogenous country

David Kenny


The chapter chronicles the failed attempt to abolish Ireland’s senate (Seanad) and embrace unicameralism. The failure of this proposal at referendum was surprising, as the Seanad was not popular, had few powers, and performed only modest representation and redundancy functions. The arguments put forward in favour of abolition, however, were not made well, and little affirmative case was made for unicameralism, a problem in a country where politicians were unpopular and the lower house dysfunctional. The case against abolition was not a case in favour of the Seanad as currently constituted, but in favour of a vague, aspirational, reformed Seanad that referendum opponents had no power to deliver. However, this was enough to persuade the Irish people - by a very small margin - to retain the Seanad. This chapter offers lessons from the Irish experience, which speaks to general difficulties of reforming bicameralism: that it is difficult to persuade people to embrace structural change that requires a leap of political faith; that small, incremental reform may be more realistic than sweeping change; and that even grand public debates on bicameralism do not provide clear ways forward.

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