Those Senators on the ‘Late Late Show’
Deaglán de Bréadún
People who couldn’t get through to RTE to complain about the Senators on the Late Late Show last night were ringing The Irish Times instead. It’s very hard to blame them. To watch the programme, click here (item is about one hour into the programme.)
At a time of soaring unemployment, levies, pay-cuts and general financial anxiety, small wonder that the public should get angry over a group of 60 people elected by elite groups or appointed by the Taoiseach who are getting €70K a year plus generous expenses and, in some cases, other payments. All this for meeting 94 or 95 days a year as the Upper House plus attendance at committees.
The Seanad gets nowhere near the space in the wider media (although the Paper of Record does the honourable thing as always!) that is given to Dáil Éireann. Partly this may be the philistinism of our society, partly it is the feeling that the Seanad really is irrelevant and we could do without it.
Personally I think the Seanad is, in fact, worth having but could be playing a more central role in our democracy than at present. The system of election needs to be changed: councillors electing most the members only serves to perpetuate the use, or misuse, of the Seanad as a preparatory “Fás” course for aspiring members of the Dáil or a retirement home for those who lost their seats in Dáil elections.
A good Senator can use it as a platform to promote unpopular causes. Mary Robinson is probably the prime example with her advocacy of birth-control legislation in the face of an obdurately unresponsive political elite at the time.
Senators can bring the prestige of their office to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Unfortunately not enough of them tend to go to the trouble. A good senator can be a tribune of the people, a rallying-point for protests against injustice and campaigns to right the many wrongs in our society.
But back to last night’s programme. There was a major row in advance between Fine Gael and RTE. FG Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames was meant to be one of the main panellists (the ones who sit beside presenter Pat Kenny) who would make some introductory remarks and get the lion’s share of attention.
However the main opposition party wanted Paschal Donohoe on the panel instead. They say they never nominated Ms Healy-Eames, who must in that case have been chosen by RTE. Donohoe is a candidate for the Dail in the Dublin Central by-election caused by the death of Tony Gregory and Fine Gael are promoting him assiduously, making him chairman of the Subcommittee on the Lisbon Treaty, for example. The Late Late people wouldn’t wear Donohoe, however, objecting that with David Norris and Donie Cassidy as the other panellists, there would be a lack of gender balance.
FG then pulled all its senators from the programme. RTE then put in – not another woman senator but Alex White, Labour candidate in the Dublin South by-election! As a former radio producer at the station, Alex probably understands the workings of the RTE mind better than I do, but it seems strange to reject Paschal Donohoe because he is a man and then choose another man instead.
Fine Gael were, in this writer’s opinion, unwise from their own point of view to withdraw from the programme. Fianna Fáil and the others got a walkover. The Late Late is still as far as I know the most popular show in the country and, even from the audience, Donohoe could have contributed and gotten his face into the sittingrooms of his target constituency. That’s what other senators did on the night, some getting their spoke in more than once. It would have made Donohoe’s by-election task easier as he knocked on doors to be greeted with: “Oh yeah, I seen ya on de Late Late the other night.”
Many of the contributions by individual senators were self-serving in nature, focusing on their achievements,with the none-too-subtle subtext: “Wouldn’t I make a marvellous TD?” Few, if any, seemed to take the broader view. Donie Cassidy is not what you’d call conventionally telegenic but he was about the only one who made a serious attempt to justify the Seanad as an institution. There is a lot of ego in the Upper House.
It’s good that the Seanad is being forced to justify itself. Deirdre de Búrca of the Greens said her party colleague, Minister for the Environment John Gormley has “an appetite” for Seanad reform.
He will have every encouragement from the public but not so much from within the political establishment itself. The first thing that should be done is to alter the basis on which university senators are elected. It’s a good idea to have third-level representatives but the electorate should include all graduates, not just those from Trinity and the National University of Ireland.
Journalist Ian Doherty had several goes at Eoghan Harris who was not there to defend himself. I suspect however that Harris will give him his answer in his Sunday newspaper column tomorrow. Wear a hard hat, Ian!