Last hurrah for the Seanad


It could be the final Seanad election, but for now it’s Irish politics as usual. Candidates for the upper house are lobbying hard for the votes that can help rebuild parties and save careers, writes KATHY SHERIDAN

REJECTED, BRUISED and broke. That just about sums up the plight of the average loser in a general election. But it could be worse. They could hit the road as Seanad candidates.

Forget about the well-publicised university seats; they comprise only six of the 60 available. And never mind the Taoiseach’s lucky 11. Focus on the remaining 43. Here be madness. If the Seanad campaign were theatre, it would be a farce, starring a raging, pot-walloping Biddy, brewing up vats of tea while eyeing the cleaver, her hail-fellow councillor spouse and the latest hollow-eyed babbling candidate.

“It’s a rainforest of leaflets coming in councillors’ doors. Houses get like train stations. And if you have a wife with no interest whatsoever in politics, it’s, eh, not an ideal situation,” says Darren Scully, a genial young Fine Gael councillor in Co Kildare. Maybe the whole campaign should take place in a vast warehouse and run along speed-dating lines, he jokes.

Alarmingly, it makes sense: lay out 1,094 little tables for the TDs, county and city councillors and outgoing senators who can vote in this part of the Seanad election, then give the 113 candidates 10 minutes each to eyeball them.

This is an institution once described by David Norris as “an intensive-care unit for those discarded from the Dáil or as a convenient launching pad for aspiring TDs”. A glance at the aspirants hardly discounts it.

Of the five Oireachtas nominees on the cultural and educational panel, two are TDs who lost their seats and the remaining three were Dáil candidates. On the agricultural panel, nine of the 10 Oireachtas nominees have campaigned for a Dáil seat and the 10th has sought a nomination for one. So maybe nominations from “outside” bodies throw up a less politicised variety. Of the 18 candidates on the agricultural panel, just one has never held elected office.

The Taoiseach appears to be pressing ahead with abolition, announcing this week that work had begun on a constitutional referendum.

John Whelan, a Labour candidate, is regularly asked how he has the neck to ask for a vote. His answer is that “insofar as there’s a Senate and it’s the last one, then let’s make it a good one, more representative and run with good purpose”. But he clearly hasn’t given up on it either. “Unless its credibility is restored it’s doomed,” he adds, implying it might not be.

In fact no one we meet on the trail seems to support abolition. All add dutifully, however, that they want reform – as part of a package with local government. Councillors do expect a work rate from their senators. “As a channel of information and education some are terrific about sending on speeches and transcripts which can provide extremely useful insights into how a piece of legislation made its way through,” says Cllr Michael Abbey in Carlow, while being canvassed by Deirdre Clune. “But there are a few who came round before and were going to do the devil and all, and it’s a case of, Where have you been for the last five years?”

His colleague Cllr Wayne Fennell is one of the rare ones who doesn’t “see a really useful role” for the Seanad. “It’s a bit mad. A councillor has as much of a chance of becoming a TD as a senator. If I have issues I’ll go to my local TD. It was different when we had no TD in Carlow. The Senate is on its last legs anyway.” But does he favour abolition? “If someone came up with a reform package I’d be in favour.”

Limerick city councillor Tom Short stoutly defends the Seanad as an alternative voice during Whelan’s canvass. “You do have people coming through from different walks of life with a different view – people like Feargal Quinn, Joe O’Toole, people with an expert perspective on legislation, who are less party political. And, yes, one would equally acknowledge that it did allow people to build political careers. You get a lot of bitching about party politics, but what’s the alternative? Gadafy’s Libya? You have to be a realist.” He doesn’t support abolition. “Rather than dismantling public structures, make them better, more efficient.”

BACK IN CO KILDARE, Cllr Scully buys the coffees before leading Deirdre Clune upstairs to commune with some of his colleagues assembling for a major county-development-plan meeting. “Meeting councillors like this, you’re almost seen to be getting away with something,” says Clune ruefully. To an outsider it’s clearly the sane option.

But John Whelan describes recent scenes around council gatherings that saw candidates “descending like locusts on councillors”. “It became a bit of a jostling match, developing into a free-for-all that was, honestly, a bit unseemly,” he says. “Grown men were stalking councillors, literally throwing their canvass cards on to the tables as people were trying to eat their dinner . . . The minute one candidate starts, someone else is on their shoulder, then someone else . . . It’s more like a cattle mart than anything else . . . I felt silly, and I felt the whole thing was silly.”

Which is why everyone reverts to the traditional hard slog over thousands of kilometres for the one-to-one meetings. And why, after leaving Naas, Clune would be guiding her tasteful Audi SUV up Carlow boreens and through labyrinthine housing estates long into the evening. And why Fianna Fáil’s Denis O’Donovan, from west Cork, half jokes that he may need counselling when it ends. “It can be difficult, because you’ve to go in and sell yourself all the time.”

Why is Clune putting herself through it? “It’s an opportunity to be a member of the parliamentary party, particularly with Fine Gael in government. I expect the Senate to be abolished, and it is a very different Dáil. There’s never been such an appetite for political reform. With all the experience I’ve built up I really don’t want to walk away from it now.”

But it’s a gruelling trail. Councillors talk about candidates turning up at 11pm on a Sunday night, about a canvasser’s texts pinging noisily through the house at 2am, about being “chased down by fellas”, about “herself being driven mad making tea”.

War stories from the other side include the candidate who drove 70km to meet a councillor only to be told, “I’m very tired; can you come back tomorrow?” Another crossed the country to see 24 councillors and managed to meet only three. Some days, says O’Donovan, you might meet no one. One day he discovered they were all at a big funeral, and he had to divert to another county and come back another time.

Some appear to have it easy. As an “inside” candidate Clune has a precious party nomination. “Sure, if she doesn’t get the votes she’ll be in the Taoiseach’s 11 anyway,” sniff rivals.

In person her words are positive, but anxiety lurks in every pore. “How come you lost your seat in Cork?” is the first question from the mouths of her electorate. For a dynasty politician it amounts to humiliation piled on rejection: someone who managed to lose her seat (in Micheál Martin’s constituency) despite a huge swing to the party, then hit the road, forced to explain herself to hundreds of wily, inscrutable local politicians turned king-makers. “My pitch is that we need Oireachtas representation, that we want three seats next time. And I’ve been involved in the political development of the party for so long, and we need a voice like that.”

No one bothers to hide it: this campaign is about party rebuilding and party gains. Fine Gael’s guide for Seanad voters features replica ballot papers for each of the five vocational panels. The voting boxes remain unfilled, of course – apart from a select few in which the words “leave blank” appear in light print. The names to “leave blank” happen to correspond to Micheál Martin’s chosen 10, the ones who will be seriously challenging for Dáil seats.

Denis O’Donovan of Fianna Fáil carries no oddly flattering leave-blank Fine Gael directive beside his name. But he freely admits that he used the last Seanad as a platform to try to win back his seat and will do so again. Two key figures appear in red on his calling card: his 10,155 Dáil vote and the swing of 1.4 per cent that would “guarantee” a seat for Fianna Fáil next time out.

The entire back of John Whelan’s A4-sized canvass card details the figures from Laois-Offaly’s 13 counts and the impressive 9,026 vote for the first-time candidate in previously unpromising Labour territory. Whelan’s Dáil election skidded to a halt at 2am on a Wednesday morning in Portlaoise. A few hours later the former journalist got the call from Labour HQ to run for the Seanad.

But first there was the small matter of winning one of the seven party nominations, which meant traversing the country for a week, competing with 39 others for 106 Labour delegates, boosted considerably by his courteous appearance on The Naked Election, an RTÉ documentary screened a few days after the election. Then it was into the campaign proper, criss-crossing the country yet again. All entirely at his own expense.

On the upside his central location means he gets home at nights. And there are party supporters to do the driving. Today it’s Jim Garrett, a retired prison officer and equestrian enthusiast. By contrast O’Donovan hasn’t been back to west Cork since St Patrick’s Day. For three weeks the former TD and outgoing senator has been driving, phoning and canvassing up to 16-hour days, mostly alone, living out of a suitcase, paying €50-€60 a night for BBs, burning up about €75 of diesel a day. Any chance of a stipend from Mount Street? “Absolutely nothing. Some of us might get a stipend to stay at home, though,” he says with a rueful laugh.

BUT THERE’S NOTHING amusing about struggling with the temperamental mobile-phone signals, the satnav, the canvass cards and the decaying bananas. Or about being excluded from the list. At meetings Micheál Martin made positive noises about including him in the A team, says O’Donovan. “He invited me up to Dublin the morning he finalised his list, and I left that meeting almost assured that I would be on it. He did say he would ring me later in the day. But then the list just appeared on the website. I’ll admit I was hurt. I’ve given oodles of time to Fianna Fáil. People walked away with all sorts of pensions, but if I walked away now, at 54, I wouldn’t have enough to live on. I’d say my gross pension probably would be less than €28,000-€30,000.”

So it was just as well that O’Donovan took his lonely stand against the Dog Breeding Establishments Bill in the Seanad last year, because it was the Irish Greyhound Owners Breeders group that galloped to the rescue when he needed a nominating body.

Mutinous noises from Fianna Fáil cabals around the country suggest some are upset by the leader’s inconsistent approach to his list. As the idea was to prioritise constituencies with no sitting Fianna Fáil deputy, they grumble, how do you explain the choice of Kenneth O’Flynn, in Cork, or the other three where Martin has broken his own rules? Still, it might work in O’Donovan’s favour. “Fianna Fail councillors see me as someone who almost certainly will win back a seat,” he says. “So most councillors will not be voting for career senators this time but will be very conscious that, as far as they can, in places where there is no one [from Fianna Fáil], and where someone like me with a small swing would win back a seat, that’s where their vote will go. The vast majority would be looking at where they can rebuild.”

But that’s not what the Seanad is for, surely. “That’s a very valid point, but, really, our backs are to the wall now. We’re at the cliff edge. If we fall over, that’s the end of the party. It’s a cynical view, but it’s my honest view.” Then, he adds, “you must remember that Fianna Fáil do see a benefit in a reformed Senate. I think the university system should open up. The panel system should be looked at. And I’m on record for saying that Northern Ireland should be better used, for bringing people from there. That was originally the idea, but not since Dr Maurice Hayes have we had that.”

We’re sitting in O Donnacha’s pub in Kilmeaden, Co Waterford, where two friendly Fianna Fáil councillors have agreed to meet O’Donovan. So what do Pat Daly and John O’Leary want in a senator? “If we’re committed to rebuilding the party,” says Daly firmly, “the heart must go out the window and the head must come into play.” O’Leary agrees. “I’d be looking to the future, seriously looking at the calibre of candidates, what they’ve done, what they’re saying. The idea is to see how we can elevate Fianna Fáil back to the very top.”

Seanad election: The mechanics

Elections take place on April 26th and 27th for 49 of the 60 Seanad seats.

University panels Six seats

The 45 university candidates, who in theory have no party affiliation, have a registered graduate electorate of 134,000 between the NUI and Dublin University/Trinity College, though fewer than half of them vote.

Vocational panels 43 seats

The 113 candidates for the five vocational panels have 1,094 electors: 166 incoming TDs, 45 outgoing members of the last Seanad who are not TDs, and 883 members of county and city councils. Each has a vote on all five panels.

Candidates must show appropriate qualifications to run for the relevant panels: cultural and educational (five seats), administrative (seven), industrial/commercial (nine), agricultural (11) and labour (11).

Each panel is subdivided into candidates nominated by Oireachtas members and those nominated by outside bodies. The latter include the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association, the Road Haulage Association, the National Association for Deaf People and the Institute of Bankers in Ireland. They may each nominate two candidates; but on the Labour panel Ictu has a say in seven and the Irish Conference of Professional and Service Associations in another seven.

Taoiseach’s nominees 11 seats

The remaining 11 seats are the Taoiseach’s nominees.