Wisdom of former taoisigh should not be ignored

Sat, Jul 24, 2010, 01:00

INSIDE POLITICS:Surely a way could be found to keep positions in the Upper House for ex-leaders to provide advice and guidance, writes DEAGLAN de BREADUN

IN CONVERSATION once with the late Jack Lynch, I broached the subject of a possible interview for a series tentatively entitled “Life After Politics”. The idea was that various former office-holders would reflect on their political careers and discuss what they were doing now, away from the limelight.

The Corkman’s normally amiable and even chatty tone suddenly changed. He drew a breath and said, with just a trace of bitterness: “There is nothing as ‘ex’ as an ex-taoiseach.”

The sub-text was that he had been more or less written out of the political script, and was now seen as surplus to requirements. Given the stormy relationship between himself and his successor, Charles J Haughey, this was probably inevitable.

But I felt he was also making a deeper point. The governing party might have dispensed with his services as leader, but the wisdom and experience he had accumulated still held value and should have been utilised in the national interest.

Lynch died in 1999, but happily we still have a number of living former taoisigh who are active in their different ways: Liam Cosgrave, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern, and, of course, the irrepressible Garret FitzGerald. Amid all the current discussion and turmoil over political reform, including the future of the Seanad, surely some way could be found to set aside positions in the Upper House for retired taoisigh who could offer their observations on legislative and indeed other matters in that forum (Bertie Ahern is still a TD, and would not be eligible as long as he remained in the Dáil).

They could of course run for election to the Upper House, but it seems somehow infra dig for former heads of government to be wending their way up rain-sodden lanes to lobby county councillors. Alternatively, the Constitution could be changed to allow former taoisigh to become Senators automatically, perhaps with speaking rights only.

But even as things stand, they could be nominated as members of the “Taoiseach’s 11” by the serving head of government. It would be an appropriate gesture by the incumbent to his predecessors, and would ensure that former holders of the office were on hand to provide advice and guidance if required.

The Seanad is also a forum that allows for more expansive thinking and reflection on the issues of the day, as can already be seen in the contributions from the diverse viewpoints of David Norris, Eoghan Harris, Shane Ross, Joe O’Toole, Ivana Bacik, Fiona O’Malley, Eugene Regan and Ronan Mullen, among others.

Membership of the Taoiseach’s 11 is normally subject to intense lobbying by disappointed candidates in the Dáil election, not to mention the pressure to accommodate the parties in a coalition. But there was never a greater need in the country for wise heads, sage counsel, and the knowledge that comes only with experience.

Our economic future is uncertain, we are saddled with massive debts from the banking debacle, and the hard-won peace in the North remains somewhat fragile.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny this week reiterated his pledge to hold a referendum for the abolition of the Seanad. Seasoned observers have the gravest doubts this will ever happen, or they feel that, if it does, the price extracted by Labour will be massive. Imagine the conversation: “Minister for finance? Obviously. Rotating taoiseach? What’s this about ‘rotating’?”

It also seems highly unlikely that so many Senators would have voted for Kenny in the recent leadership heave if they really believed he was going to “close the factory down”.

So the Seanad is likely to be around for some time to come. There was a time when the 11 nominees invariably included figures from the arts, public administration and Northern Ireland. Senator Harris is the only Independent among the current intake of Taoiseach’s nominees.

Choices made by previous taoisigh have included the playwright Brian Friel, distinguished public servants such as TK Whitaker and Maurice Hayes, and prominent Northern Ireland figures such as John Robb, Seamus Mallon, Bríd Rodgers and the late Gordon Wilson.

The nomination of Gordon Wilson by then-taoiseach Albert Reynolds was a particularly worthy gesture. A member of the Methodist Church, he was the father of Marie Wilson, one of the 12 victims of the horrific Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen in 1987. He told the BBC at the time: “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge . . . I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”

It is because of people like Gordon Wilson that we have relative peace today.

It is a pity that the tradition of inviting a Northern Ireland representative seems to have died away, and it would also be beneficial to have the former head of government as a member of the Upper House, where he or she could express views and opinions that couldn’t have come from the office of taoiseach but would now be voiced for the greater enlightenment of all.

Stephen Collins is on leave

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