Máire Geoghegan-Quinn to vote against abolition of Seanad in referendum
‘I believe the Seanad should remain’
Ireland’s EU commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn has declared she will vote against the abolition of the Seanad in this year’s referendum, pitting her against the Government on the central element of its political reform agenda.
Although commissioners typically stay out of domestic political debate, Ms Geoghegan-Quinn intervened forcefully yesterday to make the case for the retention of the Seanad during a debate in the chamber on her work in Brussels.
“If Senators want a direct answer . . . yes, I believe the Seanad should remain and I will have great pleasure in coming home, whenever the referendum takes place, to vote No to the abolition of the Seanad,” the commissioner said.
Ms Geoghegan-Quinn said the notion of scrapping the Seanad raised questions of democratic accountability, and said she hoped for a measured and considered debate on the referendum planned this autumn.
The commissioner, a former Fianna Fáil minister appointed in 2009 by the Cowen administration, has made a point of maintaining good relations with the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition since it took office. Her intervention is all the more striking because she has kept a very low profile in Ireland since taking her first EU appointment in 2000 as Ireland’s member of the European Court of Auditors.
She has carefully retained that same low profile during her time in the commission, confining whatever public comments she has made on Irish affairs to European issues specifically.
In her appearance before the Seanad, however, Ms Geoghegan-Quinn took the opportunity to respond at some length to a question on the future of the Upper House from Senator Katherine Zappone.
“ First, when one has to make a really important decision in life it is always important to have a second opinion. That is one of the truths by which I live. The decade of remembrance we are going through, the big moments in the State, is a time when we need to look very carefully at democratic accountability,” the commissioner said.
“Checks and balances are needed. We have seen this in respect of the economic crisis. It is also a time of checks and balances in the whole political system and political landscape. People will have to decide whether they want a diminishing democracy or a democracy that is enhanced.”
She recalled many occasions during her time as minister or minister of state when she brought legislation to the Seanad.
‘Fast and furious’
“I remember the first time I came here, with a consumer information Bill, as long ago as 1977 or 1978. I learned more during the discussion in this chamber about the law and how it works than I could ever have learned in the Dáil.
“The debate in the Dáil was fast and furious and there were so many items on the agenda,” she said.
“When I came into the Seanad there was a possibility to tease out the legislation. There were giants here on the occasion of that debate, such as Ken Whitaker and Alexis Fitzgerald senior, who knew the law and could talk about the practical implications of what we were suggesting. I did something I believe few of my predecessors had done - I accepted amendments. I may not have been very popular with my colleagues in the Dáil at the time but I believe it was a good thing to do.”
Ms Geoghegan-Quinn also said the Seanad had provided an important perspective on Northern Ireland questions.
“There were people such as Gordon Wilson, Maurice Hayes, Séamus Mallon, Bríd Rodgers.
“There was a depth of understanding they were able to bring to this chamber in regard to the difficulties in Northern Ireland that could not have been brought to the other chamber.
“That is something we must also think about in this debate.”