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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 21, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    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!

    • Emma says:

      PLEASE tell me why Brian Cowen is taking the government jet to Cardiff today. Does he not get it??
      Angry, frustrated and disappointed.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      I apologise in advance for my very lengthy reply.

      I think the format of this section of the Late Late last night was very polarising. It was a ‘them and us’ format squeezed into the end of the show. More famous (with all due respect to my colleague Senator Alex White) and even celebrity Senators were on the Panel and the less well-known Senators in the audience. Likewise the journalists were fairly well-known and are often on the TV or radio. Again, with greatest respect to the two journalists that spoke – neither report, nor report much, on Seanad debates. Irish Times Journalist Jimmy Walsh got a favourable mention by Senator Donie Cassidy. If any journalist should have been on the programme, and on the panel, it should have been Jimmy who would be objective but fully-informed and know the strengths and weaknesses of the Seanad. There could have been other panellists with other expertise such as knowledge of how other upper houses work. And more of the programme should have been given over to this debate. If it was worth doing this item on the programme it was worth doing well.

      I don’t think the Senators meant to be self-serving, and I don’t believe most of them took part so that it would help them in the next election, to be fair. Senator Cecilia Keaveny made this point which was a good point – When has RTE ever, other than last night’s show given her, a very able Senator and former T.D., a platform? Her local radio and newspapers cover the work that she does in the Seanad, but rarely the national media. You have often made comments about the small number of Senators that stood out in your view over the years. In fact from my experience as a former Senator some of the best contributions to debates and the making of legislation are not from the Senators the media tend to notice. Less well-known Senators don’t get covered by our national media much. Jimmy Walsh and Oireachtas Report are exceptions, as was pointed out by Senator Cassidy. It was notable too how many of the Senators from the floor that spoke were women – 5 out of the 7 who spoke. I think the gender balance excuse was more about a battle of wills between FG and RTE. You mentioned in relation to Q & A recently that the political parties call the shots as to who gets on. Well that’s not what I’ve heard, obviously my having a vested interest. Most politicians never get to be in one of those RTE Studios and I wonder why that is.

      The main problem for the Seanad, and this was alluded to by Senator Dan Boyle last night, is the lack of public engagement through a broader electoral franchise and therefore the media write it off, meaning even less communication by the Seanad to the greater public. Yes, the Seanad does need to be reformed and in particular to broaden that franchise. It would also be much better if the Seanad had more ability to veto legislation. But there are good people in there, there is thoughtful and insightful political debate, and legislation is often worked through in a way that does not happen in the Dáil or Dáil Committees. Legislation has been changed and even dropped because of the efforts of Senators. Having a second chamber slows the passing of legislation down and the purpose of that is to prevent legislation from being rushed through without being thought through. It is meant to be a safety net and it has acted as a safety net on occasion. Isn’t the debating of ideas and scrutinising of legislation what political chambers are for? But for that debate and scrutiny to have an impact it needs to be done in public and for it to be done in public it needs to be covered by the media.

      As for your point, which was also made on the programme last night, Senators either are on their way to the Dáil or on their way out. In fact there are many Senators who never have been or never will be in the Dáil. But the important point is that MEPS move onto the Dáil and vice versa, councillors become T.D.s and Senators and vice versa. American Presidents and vice presidents were once American Senators and/or Congressmen. Donie Cassidy wasn’t being flippant – he was right when he asked, so what? As one of the Senators pointed out, President Mary McAleese and former President Mary Robinson were both unsuccessful Dáil candidates and in Mary Robinson’s case, a former Senator.

      If the Seanad is worth having it’s worth having at a time of economic downturn just as much as it is needed in the good times. Ditto if it’s not worth having. There are a fair few commentators on various programmes and in newspapers that seem to think that politics is one of the things that it is dispensable on grounds of it being a waste of money at times of economic hardship. I think our politics and our political institutions are needed now more than ever, albeit needing to be reformed.

      There has been a dumbing-down in the quest for whom or what to blame for the recession and our politics and our political institutions are being found as some of the culprits. I am not saying our political system is without fault, but it was particular political policies that gave rise to our economy and that is a nettle that is not being grasped by many political commentators.

      Cynicism about politics is now a viewpoint that is being given a huge platform in various media outlets. But cynicism about politics is not just bad for politicians. If that cynicism were really to take hold it wouldn’t just switch more and more people off politics and the debating of political ideas that will ultimately determine our future. It will mean more and more people switching off media coverage about politics and ultimately the “news” as we know it. It will be less Q and A and even more chat-shows where RTE celebrity hosts interview other RTE celebrities about other celebrities.


    • Maybe it’s time to deal with the real unelected egos of RTE, those who, as Joanna pointed out, use airtime paid for by licence payers to interview their colleagues about their autobiographies (Ryan Tubridy interviews Gerry Ryan about the latter’s ‘autobiography’). That really is an abuse of a publicly-owned resource. The senators, by comparison, are small fish. Their salaries too.

    • Deaglán says:

      That’s one helluva comprehensive comment, Deputy Tuffy! Many thanks for your insights which are very valuable and informative. The Late Late took on an element of farce due to the shenanigans over Fine Gael’s participation. The fact that so many senators who spoke were quite self-serving was very depressing.
      The lifelessness of our parliamentary institutions cannot be laid at the door of the media. There are some extremely able people in Leinster House but others, er, not so able.
      I agree there should be more coverage of the Seanad and I have a longtime gripe about the lack of coverage of the European Parliament which, whether we like it or not, has an increasing role in legislation that affects our daily lives. Interesting to get your take on the lack of TV exposure for all but the chosen ones among politicians (I even know some journalists who feel they are excluded too.) But you will always be welcome on this blog!

    • PK says:

      The decision in Croatia to eliminate their senate was taken for many of the same reasons we are discussing. I fail to see any value in the our existing Seanad as an institution. It is no house of lords in terms of the reports it creates. Those senators who sit on it are not offering insight into areas like science and technology, while the Dáil has but only one member with close to this background. It falls short of doing anything more than allowing some practice for the big show for those Senators who do finally get elected to the Dáil. Perhaps these funds could be used to create a better local politician system that would better serve citizens and taxpayers. Or just create partisan think tanks like in the US, supported by the Government: at least we’ll get a few good reports out of it.

    • robespierre says:

      The debate was a very poor one. The tone was adversarial but neither side grappled at any real issues and the lack of structure in the debate made it even worse to watch. If there was any kind of an audience watching it, the debate will only have further undermined the dubious credibility of the upper chamber.

      Senators can moan all they like about the way the debate was set-up but they had about 10 speakers to Pat Kenny, Ian Doherty and John Drennan. Surely as paid full-time debaters they could come up with more compelling reasons for their existence than having to sit late to vote on a Bill they had no veto over?

      Nobody mentioned Shane Ross’s intervention in the statutory rape case a few years ago or the Seanad’s work on Mary Wallace’s monstrous Disability Bll. If Seanad members can’t remember the last time that they got promoint positive press,then why should Joe Public?

      It is an extremely expensive talking shop. All politicians are forced to self-justify but the fact that the Senators with the exception of David Norris spoke pretty much exclusively about the work they did for their (former) constituencies spoke volumes. As Senators they do not get elected (in the main) by Donegal NE or Dublin South, they are elected by canvassing councillors and dubious representative bodies across the country and therefore should have a national role.

      If a few of them actually focused on National or International issues like Bacik, Norris and Ross then they might find a media more willing to listen to them. Those that continue to behave like TDs deserve the contempt that they seem to bitterly resent.

    • peaear says:

      I listened to the debate and one thing really stuck in my mind.The first lady senator who spoke said she was elected by a group for nurses,garda etc. CIVIL SERVANTS for short. Now I have no gripe with civil servants, but am now astonished realising not only do civil servants get juicy perks for receiving a “modest income”, it now seems they can elect senators to discuss and relay their opinions,amendments, and suggestions IMPARTIALLY.

      Now I am very far from a genius but is even trying to suggest they would not favour their electorate just actually, stupid at the very least? It now seems to me we have new classes popping up in Ireland.These consist of the political class ,the civil servants,working-class and the lower-class.

    • Deaglán says:

      The problem is that the Seanad election takes place after the elections to the Dail, when nearly everyone is spun out and exhausted. The public has had its fill of politics and doesn’t want to focus on these frequently obscure and complicated contests. They are more interested in the efforts to form a government that usually follow a run to the country.

    • Richard says:

      In the world I live in, the real commercial private sector world of real business, none of these people would survive, as they do not have to account for themselves in any shape or form. Why are we paying these people to do what should already be done by other civil servants who are already paid by us?
      Do our so called “leaders” not know how to make real decisions?
      In the real world if you want to survive and protect your business and jobs you must make hard decisions. Not all decisions are popular and they don’t always suit the politics of the occasion.
      Since when did running the country’s finances become a “Coffee Table” discussion. I always thought that running a country is like running a business. So let’s see some real business people running this country. At the moment it feels like the deckhand is sailing the Titanic.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Having the election of the Seanad be at the same time as the general election would appear quite sensible. But since that requires a referendum we should go well beyond mere tinkering with the date of the election if we’re going to the bother of having a referendum.

      Of course I would extend the university franchise in the morning if I could. Indeed it is interesting to hear people refer to it as an elite when with more than 50% participation in 3rd level it’s the closest we’ve got to a universal suffrage at the moment. A shame that so many recent graduates aren’t automatically registered and their up to date addresses tracked via the information already held by other state agencies.

      My view (and it was my slogan for the Seanad election) is, Let everyone have a vote, have multiple panels as we do now, with the nature of those panels open to ongoing revision at the behest of the public. And let everyone vote in every panel.

      How would people campaign in such a large constituency? Why not use the web and present yourself to the public directly by that means? Instead of the current so-called no-party system that involves people driving up hill and down dale to meet with councillors to give them a DVD and a drop of the quare stuff. Or people who are celebrities or people purely to represent one minority or other that happens to be comfortably off and well organised. Seriously, are we really that lacking in teachers in the Oireachtas that the three unions have to enter proxy candidates?

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