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Ireland votes on scrapping upper house of parliament

Irish Catholic nuns exit a polling station after casting their ballots for the Seanad (senate) referendum in Dublin, Ireland, on October 4, 2013
Irish Catholic nuns exit a polling station after casting their ballots for the Seanad (senate) referendum in Dublin, Ireland, on October 4, 2013

Cash-strapped Ireland voted in a referendum on Friday on whether to back Prime Minister Enda Kenny's controversial proposals to abolish the upper house of parliament.

Opinion polls say voters will likely back the plans to scrap the Seanad, or Senate, which Kenny believes is elitist and ineffective, but turnout figures were alarmingly low by early evening.

In the fishing town of Killybegs in Donegal in the northwest, just over 12 percent of the electorate had cast their vote by 1530 GMT, while on the other side of the country in Co Kildare, university town Maynooth had a turnout of 14 percent.

In the Dublin Central constituency the turnout was at just 11.7 percent.

Previous voting patterns in referendums would indicate a surge after working hours but political commentators expect a similar national turnout to the last referendum when just 33.5 percent of the electorate cast their vote in November last year.

Opponents of Kenny's plans admit the 60-member upper house in its current form does not work but have said it should be reformed rather than closed.

Kenny shocked members of his own Fine Gael party when he said he would seek to scrap the upper house while campaigning during the last general election, in a move criticised as pandering to voters angered by the high cost of government in a country still recovering from a painful economic collapse.

Irish Catholic nuns exit a polling station after casting their ballots for the Seanad (senate) referendum in Dublin, Ireland, on October 4, 2013
Irish Catholic nuns exit a polling station after casting their ballots for the Seanad (senate) referendum in Dublin, Ireland, on October 4, 2013

Dublin was forced to accept an EU/IMF bailout in late 2010, with many blaming the country's politicians heavily for failing to properly manage the "Celtic Tiger" economic boom.

Fine Gael claim abolishing the upper house will save 20 million euros ($27 million).

A separate vote on whether to establish a new Court of Appeal is also taking place, with Dublin hoping the new institution will ease the heavy pressure on the heavily backlogged Supreme Court.

Sinead McNamara, returning officer for Cork County, said results would be known by Saturday afternoon.

An Irish Times poll last weekend found 44 percent will vote to abolish the Seanad, while 27 percent will vote to retain it. A further 21 percent said they did not know, and eight percent said they would not vote.

In a YouTube message Thursday, Kenny pointed out that other European Union nations had scrapped their upper houses without any negative effect on their democracies.

"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 said.

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

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

Katherine Zappone, an independent member of the Senate, warned that those pushing for 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 said. The Senate has 60 members, most of them elected 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 a seat 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.

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