Politicians spar over Seanad at Kennedy summer school

Debate billed as first between senior politicians during Seanad abolition referendum campaign

Sinn Féin spokesperson on finance Pearse Doherty  launched an attack on Fianna Fáil at a seminar of the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Sinn Féin spokesperson on finance Pearse Doherty launched an attack on Fianna Fáil at a seminar of the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times


A public debate on the future of the Seanad, billed as the first between senior politicians during the current senate abolition referendum campaign, heard competing claims today as to the usefulness of the institution.

Minister for Enterprise Richard Bruton argued that in the current crisis, no institution could be immune from the need for change and politics was no different.

The senate was elected by a mere one per cent of the electorate, he told a seminar of the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross, held to commemorate the late US president and his connections to Ireland.

He said that democracies of a similar size as Ireland’s had a single legislative chamber.

In the events leading to the current economic crisis, the Seanad had shown itself to be an ineffective watchdog, last delaying legislation in 1964. A dog that barked but once in 40 years was not worth retaining, he argued.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin accused the government of cynicism. Trying to get rid of the Seanad was “the ultimate political power grab by a government with the largest majority in the history of the state,” he charged.

Last week’s reform package was dismissed as cynical spinning in the media.

Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty said the Seanad had to be abolished because it was elitist and represented the worst of cronyism and dynastic politics.

In a strong attack on Fianna Fáil, he said that Micheál Martin and his colleagues has uttered “not a peep” of dissent when former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern appointed his “cronies” to the senate for a single day, as a result of which they got “free parking for life”.

Senator Catherine Zappone, the only member of the upper chamber present on the panel in the St Michael Theatre encounter in the Wexford town, asked whether a single chamber Oireachtas would meet the “free parliament and free people” bar mentioned by president Kennedy when he addressed the Oireachtas in 1963.

What was key to reform, in her view, was a change in the relationship between TDs and the executive. She wanted a reformed Oireeachtas, including a reformed Seanad, in which TDs could “follow their consciences the check their colleagues’ power without the fear of being thrown out of their parties”.

Dr Jane Suiter, a former journalist now a political scientist at Dublin City University, said both sides of the current referendum campaign seemed to be based on comments derived from focus groups - “fewer politicians”; “end elitism” - who could be against either, she wondered.

But, she argued, real reform would need to be more radical and while the measures announced last week were a start, they needed to go further. It was “simply bizarre” to claim, as the Government had, that reform of the way the Dáil did its business could not happen if the Seanad remained, she said.

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