Ireland set to vote on abolishing upper house of parliament

DUBLIN (AFP) - Ireland votes on Friday on whether to abolish its upper house of parliament, a historic move that Prime Minister Enda Kenny argues will save money but which critics say is a power grab.

Opinion polls suggest the government's plans should pass, but many voters remain undecided and an increasingly vocal 'no' campaign has emerged - fuelled by Mr Kenny's refusal to debate the issue on television.

"The Seanad is powerless and undemocratic. It costs 20 million-euro (S$33.9 million) a year to run and has never engaged with the Irish public the way that it was meant to," Mr Kenny said in a video message posted on YouTube on Thursday.

"Other small countries like Sweden and Denmark have clearly shown that single chamber parliaments not only cost less but they work much more effectively and with far greater transparency."

He added: "After 70 years of no change, it is time to save money, put the public ahead of politicians and abolish the Seanad."

An Irish Times poll last weekend found 44 percent of respondents said they would vote to abolish the Seanad, while 27 percent would vote to retain it.

A further 21 percent said they did not know, and eight percent said they would not vote.

The money-saving argument has resonance in Ireland, which embarked on a major austerity programme after Dublin entered a European Union-International Monetary Fund bailout in 2010.

But critics accuse Mr Kenny's Fine Gael party of hiding behind a promise of savings to centralise power in the government's hands - and close the door on wider political reform.

Independent Senator Katherine Zappone warned that those pushing a Yes vote were taking Ireland into "a constitutional no-man's-land with no idea of the consequences of the decision for this generation and the generations that follow.

"A Yes vote will see the constitution of Ireland filleted and dismembered," she told the Democracy Matters conference in Dublin.

The Senate has 60 members, most of them elected from vocational panels by local councillors and by university graduates, although 11 are appointed by the prime minister.

Historically, many senators tend to be politicians who failed to gain election in a general election or those hoping to win a seat in the lower house at a future election.

The upper house is the less powerful house of parliament, often reduced to rubber-stamping legislation from the lower house.

Its ability to delay bills passed by the lower house for 90 days is its most powerful function, but that has only occurred twice in 75 years.

A separate vote on whether to establish a Court of Appeal is also taking place on Friday, with Dublin hoping the new court will ease the pressure on the country's heavily backlogged Supreme Court if it passes.

Polls open at 0600 GMT on Friday (2pm Singapore time) and counting begins the next day, with a result expected on Saturday afternoon.