Miriam Lord: In his Seanad debut, Leo kept the flattery to a minimum

Potential abolition will not be revisited. He sounded rather regretful, but dem’s the breaks

It’s the little things that count.

Fine Gael's Martin Conway was most gratified when Leo Varadkar made his first visit to the Upper House since landing the top job, graciously communing with the lower orders for more than two hours.

“I think it does speak volumes, seven months into his term as Taoiseach, that he is here,” marvelled the senator from Clare, who is nursing high hopes of running for the Dáil.

These days, the Seanad is temporarily housed in an oversized room on loan from the National Museum. It is mere minutes away from the Dáil chamber, thanks to the OPW knocking down a party wall.

Waiting seven months for Leo to address them could hardly be classed as an achievement.

But then we checked back and discovered it took his predecessor Enda Kenny a full 16 months to summon the mental courage to enter the intellectual and oratorical cauldron of Leinster House.

So well done Leo for meeting them in double-quick time. Perhaps it was the presence of a Taoiseach among them which stunned Leo’s less-than-capacity audience into thundering silence at the end of his address.

Say what what you like about Enda, but he always pulled in a big crowd. Then again, the rounds of applause and partial standing ovations afforded the former Taoiseach were due to his shameless buttering up of senators in speeches where he promised them all sorts and delivered nothing.

Leo kept the flattery to a minimum and, to be fair to the senators, for the most part they resisted buttering themselves up, which they tend to do on occasions like this.

Mark of respect

“Your presence in this chamber will be seen by senators as a mark of the respect that I know you always had for this house and I’m sure it will be the first of many such occasions” said Cathaoirleach Denis O’Donovan, welcoming their honoured guest.

There was a great deal of interest in what Leo was going to say, even if a large number of Opposition senators weren't present. Perhaps the likes of Terry Leyden and Ronán Mullen were down the road at the conference in the Royal Irish Academy, produced in partnership with the Oireachtas to mark the centenary of female suffrage.

That interest stemmed from the fact it was expected Leo would talk about Seanad reform, a subject of dear to the hearts of senators ever since the government unsuccessfully campaigned in 2013 to abolish the lot of them.

First he spoke at length about Oireachtas and constitutional reform before getting around to the bit everyone wanted to hear. Some had already jumped to the relevant passages in his supplied script, with whispered conversations going on among the interested parties.

Finally, he got to them.

“In the 18th century, Montesquieu believed that a bicameral legislature was superior because.....” began Leo, before taking the senators through the history of Seanad Éireann. He didn’t sound too keen on the Upper House and it general usefulness.

But then, as he reminded everyone, he supported the referendum to abolish the Seanad, believing it wasn’t really possible to reform it.

“However, the people have spoken and the matter is now settled. It will not be revisited.”

He sounded rather regretful, but dem’s the breaks.

There was outbreak of contented smiles.

Instead, the Taoiseach is setting up a committee to come up with specific proposals to legislate for reform. That won’t please the long-term seat warmers who might find their cosy existence under threat.

Grand gestures

And there is no point in being the boss if you can’t make grand gestures and distribute the largesse.

“The Taoiseach will continue to nominate 11 senators as that is a constitutional requirement,” said Leo.

“Hear hear!” shouted a voice from the rear of the hall, where the 11 Chosen Ones sit.

As it was St Brigid’s Day, the first of spring, Leo managed to get in a reference to Groundhog Day via the ancient Irish feast of Imbolc. He said that talking about renewing Irish politics, and specifically, reforming the Seanad “can often feel like Groundhog Day. It seems like we are condemned to do the same thing over and over, often repeating the same mistakes, with little or nothing changing”.

He wants to change that. The committee has an eight-month mandate. (Which may or may not be stymied by a general election.)

In the question and answer session that followed, Senators took the opportunity to talk at the Taoiseach about everything – from the economy, to housing, to crime, farming, education, direct provision, small farmers, supporting local councillors, the Universal Social Charge, equality, rural Ireland, Coillte, Travellers' rights, recycling, Brexit......

The “A” word hardly figured, despite there being talking of little else in Leinster House during the week following the Taoiseach’s announcement on abortion on Monday night.

The only mentions came from a small number of female senators, all of whom commended him for his courage in announcing the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment along with a proposal to legislation for terminations within a 12-week limit.


Veteran Kerry senator Paul Coghlan, who does not support repeal, was full of praise for his Taoiseach and included this brief observation: "I do want to salute the Taoiseach's recognition of conscience."

Catherine Noone, the Fine Gael senator who chaired the abortion committee, got little reaction from her Seanad colleagues when she told Leo: "I want to just commend you for your forthright nature in dealing with this issue in what is obviously a very conservative party and I think you have been very brave and courageous and, em, I really do commend you.

“I’m proud of Fine Gael, I’m proud to be a member of a party that is following through on this commitment and once and for all dealing with this issue. I really, really, am grateful.”

There were were some very thought provoking contributions, particularly from Independent senator Lynne Ruane, who wanted a "republic of equal outcome" to replace a "republic of opportunity". Taoiseach's nominee Marie Louise O'Donnell wanted a Seanad where there was more independent thought. There was too much emphasis on territory and "the group" over imagination and creativity.

Leo gave his response, thoughtfully too. And that was it.

The session sort of spluttered out.

After seven months, the Taoiseach had finally climbed the dizzy heights. Life will seem boring for him after this.