Constitutional convention rejects motion on Seanad

Convention votes not to discuss abolition of the upper house before referendum on its future

Senator David Norris at the Convention on the Constitution during the session meeting in January. Mr Norris todayproposed the convention  should write to Taoiseach Enda Kenny asking for its terms of reference to be changed so as allow it to discuss the abolition of the Seanad ahead of a planned referendum on the issue. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Senator David Norris at the Convention on the Constitution during the session meeting in January. Mr Norris todayproposed the convention should write to Taoiseach Enda Kenny asking for its terms of reference to be changed so as allow it to discuss the abolition of the Seanad ahead of a planned referendum on the issue. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Sat, May 18, 2013, 17:05

The constitutional convention has voted not to discuss the abolition of the Seanad before the referendum on the future of the upper house.

Some 57 per cent of members voted against a proposal that the convention should write to Taoiseach Enda Kenny asking for its terms of reference to be changed so as allow it to discuss the issue. Forty-one per cent voted in favour and 2 per cent had no opinion.

The move was proposed by Senator David Norris in an unscheduled intervention at today’s session, leading to sharp exchanges between members.

Convention chairman Tom Arnold said there appeared to be a practical problem standing in the way of a discussion on the Seanad, in that the Oireachtas resolution establishing the convention stated that it could consider additional topics “following” deliberation on the eight topics the Government asked it to consider.

“We are not mandated to deal with any other issue until we have finished our discussion on the eight issues,” Mr Arnold said.

Given that the Government planned a referendum on the Seanad for September, that would mean the convention would have to complete all the business on its agenda by July. “It would be a very tall order to do that,” the chairman said.

Mr Arnold also said he was “gravely concerned” about involving the convention in a current political controversy. “For us to get involved in a current political debate, I fear, would have consequences for our independence.”

He said that, on the eve of today’s session, the convention’s steering group, made up of members of the forum, had concluded that the issue should not be considered.

“I have grave reservations about asking for the basic resolution to be changed,” he added.

In his intervention, Mr Norris warned that abolishing the Seanad was “very dangerous territory” and said his request that the convention write to Taoiseach Enda Kenny was a “very modest” demand.

He was supported by Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh, who said it would be “illogical” for the convention not to discuss the Seanad.

However, a number of politicians and ordinary members of the convention criticised Mr Norris for attempting to “hijack” the convention for political ends.

“I think it would be somewhat regrettable if the convention… becomes embroiled in what is essentially a political campaign by David and Aengus,” Fine Gael chairman Charlie Flanagan said.

He said that by holding a referendum, the coalition was acting on a commitment contained in the programme for government.

Sorcha O’Neill, one of the 66 ordinary members of the convention, said she disagreed with “how the convention is being hijacked for a specific purpose” and was worried that it could cause a precedent. “The Seanad definitely does need looking at, but not this hijacking,” she added.

Another member, Owen Finnegan, said: “I don’t see the point in going down this road if a referendum is taking place in September.”