Labour's Seanad whip to step down over party tension
LABOUR’S SEANAD whip Susan O’Keeffe has agreed to step down from the role in September in the light of serious tensions that have arisen between her and a number of her party colleagues in the Upper House.
At what was described as a “crisis meeting” of the Senators on Tuesday night, party chief whip Emmet Stagg disclosed that Ms O’Keeffe would be relinquishing the role from September.
According to those present, while the atmosphere of the meeting remained relatively cordial, Mr Stagg also clearly laid down the party rules in relation to abiding by the party whip.
He warned Senators about the consequences – expulsion from the parliamentary party – for defying the party whip. He also ruled out the possibility of any free vote or vote of conscience being countenanced on any Bill on the future of Seanad Éireann.
Ms O’Keeffe had earlier agreed to a proposal that the 12 Labour Senators adopt a system of a rotating whip, with each new incumbent being elected to the position by fellow members on a yearly basis.
The matter came to a head after three Senators defied a whip last week to vote against the party on a Fianna Fáil motion on the future of the Seanad. Earlier the same day the Coalition parties had lost two crucial votes in the Upper House on the order of business, paving the way for a debate on the Fianna Fáil motion.
There have been well-publicised differences between Ms O’Keeffe and a group of party Senators who have criticised her performance as whip and, given her position as the person who ensures the attendance of colleagues, her voting record. A senior party source said that blame attached to both sides in a dispute that had escalated and, which the source said, was undermining discipline as well as damaging the party’s reputation in the Seanad.
Mr Stagg told Senators that irrespective of the party manifesto, the programme for government had stated that the Seanad’s future would be put directly to the people in a referendum rather than being referred to the constitutional convention.
He said they were aware, and indeed had voted, for the programme for government as Labour members before becoming Senators. He said there were no circumstances in which any party Senator could vote against legislation or policy laid down by the programme, without facing sanctions.
He added that during a referendum on the future of the Seanad, Senators would be free to campaign against the proposal and vote against in the poll. But he said the whip applied for anything that happened within the Seanad.
However, several Senators have privately said their understanding of a meeting with party leader Eamon Gilmore last February was that they could exercise a vote of conscience should the future of the Seanad be debated before the Upper House. A senior party source close to the leadership said they had taken the wrong interpretation from the meeting. It was on the basis of this “misinterpetation” that no disciplinary action was taken against the three senators – John Kelly, James Heffernan and Denis Landy – who voted against the Government last week. Several Senators maintained they disagreed with Government policy on this issue and would be minded to vote against any Bill that proposed the abolition of the Upper House.