Seanad referendum plans are on the road to nowhere
Despite the Taoiseach’s assurances, the vote on the Seanad’s future is being kicked down the road towards oblivion, writes DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN
STAND-UP COMEDIANS take a jaundiced view of the world and search out the funny side of tragedy. That’s what we pay them to do. One of the pioneers of the genre, Lenny Bruce, had a darkly humorous if somewhat cynical routine about child-custody battles.
The New York-born satirist saw them as a way for estranged spouses to get even with one another. “I really love that kid,” the departing husband would insist, but as soon as he had won the battle, the unfortunate child slid down the agenda
The current war of words over the future of Seanad Éireann recalls that Lenny Bruce routine. When Enda Kenny reiterated his plan for a referendum to abolish the Upper House there was a sudden outpouring of devotion for this neglected institution.
Don’t kill off the Seanad, change it for the better, we are told. But ironically, the best hope of reforming this body is if the Taoiseach keeps holding a gun to its head.
The Seanad has been an uncared-for child for many a long day. Eleven special committees and 10 reports on its functions have failed to produce any significant changes. Only the prospect of extinction will galvanise its supporters to take real action.
The late Patrick Lindsay, who spent three years as leas-cathaoirleach, summed up the Seanad as a refuge for “failed politicians and political eunuchs”. He acknowledged at the same time there were some very talented members.
Most Senators are elected by members of the Oireachtas and by county or city councillors, which strengthens the tendency to make it a temporary rest home or even retirement community for those who have lost their seats or failed to win one in the general election to the Dáil.
Kenny’s initial proposal to abolish the Seanad as a cost-saving measure came out of the blue when, as opposition leader, he got up to address a Fine Gael dinner in Dublin three years ago. He declared he would hold a referendum on it “within a year of taking office”.
Kenny’s attitude to the Seanad was echoed in a Labour document a few months later, with Brendan Howlin as its main author. But there were rumblings in the Labour Party. The Kenny-Howlin proposal was not going down well with all the comrades. Motions for and against were tabled for the party conference.
The implications were serious. Fine Gael and Labour were the obvious alternative government at the time but divisions on a basic constitutional stance taken by the Fine Gael leader might damage their prospects in the coming election.
The Labour conference took place in Galway that spring: what would the party do? In the event it pulled a masterstroke: the issue would be put to a citizens’ convention on the Constitution.
Eamon Gilmore’s move took the issue completely off the news agenda and removed the opportunity for Fianna Fáil and the media to highlight a potential source of division in the alternative government.
The general election came and went and when the two victorious parties sat down to discuss their coalition programme last year, they engaged in some serious salami-slicing.