Five Labour senators defy party whip in committees vote

Chaos, ‘kangaroo courts’ and the Constitution - in the Seanad

File image of John Kelly with Labour part leader Eamon Gilmore (left). Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

File image of John Kelly with Labour part leader Eamon Gilmore (left). Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Fri, Jul 19, 2013, 16:57

There were chaotic scenes in the Seanad today in a row over replacing rebel Fine Gael and Labour senators on Oireachtas committees.

Labour Senator John Kelly refused to accept his nomination to the European Affairs committee to replace his former parliamentary party colleague James Heffernan, who defected months ago.

And he criticised the “bullyboy tactics” for replacing senators. Mr Kelly said he fundamentally disagreed that “TDs and senators are expected to park their conscience at the front door of Leinster House”.

Five Labour senators then abstained in a vote, despite the party whip, on replacing Mr Heffernan and former Fine Gael parliamentary party senators Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy-Eames on five Oireachtas committees.

The Government won by 22 votes to 11 after Fianna Fáil senators walked out. They said they were going to seek legal advice on the matter.

Mr Kelly received a round of applause from the Opposition when he said he was honoured to be nominated but “I wasn’t aware of the circumstances as to how the vacancy arose. So on the basis of that I’m not prepared to take that position, so I want to ask the leader to have me formally removed.”

They asked for a deferral of the motion because it named Mr Kelly, who now no longer wished to be part of the committee.

Later Fianna Fáil Seanad leader Darragh O’Brien called for the vote to be delayed until the afternoon while they sought legal advice on the matter but Cathaoirleach Paddy Burke said “the House makes its own rules”.

The move to replace the rebel senators from the committees set aside standing orders and bypassed the Committee of Selection for Seanad Éireann, chaired by Denis O’Donovan (FF).

Mr O’Donovan said it was an “abuse” to set aside standing orders which was normally “in emergency situations of severe economic difficulties or war” and said the decision was being made “like a kangaroo court”.

Ronan Mullen (Ind) said there was a potential legal difficulty “perhaps of Constitutional significance” and the motion should be withdrawn until Monday.

Mr Bradford said it was “historically unprecedented not just in this House, but perhaps in the entire Oireachtas that we are set to vote on to a committee a person who does not wish to be part of that committee”. He said the Seanad leader should withdraw the motion, reflect and consider it on Monday. But voting on the motion went ahead.

As a result, Mr Heffernan was removed from the European Affairs committee, while Ms Healy-Eames was replaced on that committee by Catherine Noone (FG). Ms Healy-Eames also lost her place on the Education and Social Protection committee, replaced by Imelda Henry (FG).

Mr Bradford loses his place on the Seanad Committee on Privileges and Procedures, replaced by Deirdre Clune (FG) and is also removed from the Justice, Defence and Equality committee, replaced by Tony Mulcahy.

Fianna Fáil remained out from the Seanad all day in protest at the decision. None of their amendments were subsequently moved during the committee and final stage debate on the Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures Bill, which will allow an inquiry into the banking collapse to go ahead. The Bill now goes to the President for signature.

The House also passed the Electoral, Local Government and Planning and Development Bill, whose measures include a move to reduce the number of MEPs Ireland will have after the next election by one.