Miriam Lord: Seanad sits in Dáil chamber but still has that vacant look

News of Seanad’s return has heartsick country reaching for the tonic

Dáil chamber: Scene of Seanad debate. Photograph: Alan Betson

Dáil chamber: Scene of Seanad debate. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Three major events on Tuesday: Donald Trump’s last full day in office, Seanad Éireann’s first day back since Christmas and Dolly Parton’s 75th birthday.

Difficult to know which of them brought the most cheer.

The senators returning to Leinster House – albeit in reduced numbers due to Covid restrictions – provided a tonic for our heartsick nation, lifting spirits the length and breadth of the country.

Sorry, comma in the wrong place there. That should read “our heartsick nation lifting spirits the length and breadth of the country”. News of the Seanad’s return had them reaching for the tonic.

Thoughts of Trump’s departure made a lot of people happy although they were disappointed, if not surprised, when he failed to exit with a touch of class by pardoning Biden supporter Jon Bon Jovi for his cover of Fairytale of New York. Nor, as had been expected, did he absolve Donie Cassidy for organising Golfgate and wipe the slate clean for Leo Varadkar and his leaking misdemeanour.

But Dolly makes everyone smile.

'I know that every seat in this House would be full this afternoon if we had the choice'

The Upper House reconvened in the Seanad chamber just after 2.30pm and promptly adjourned for half an hour so the sitting could take place down the corridor in the larger Dáil chamber. When business finally got underway with the Order of Business, Cathaoirleach Mark Daly explained that there were 21 speaking slots available as there were only 21 seats available for occupation.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we want to make sure, as best we can, that there is no possibility of people contracting Covid-19. We will be reviewing this on an ongoing basis but that is why we are doing it in this particular order and why members have been allocated specific seats,” he explained.

The expanse of vacant seats was a cause of worry to senators who feared members of the public looking in might come to the false conclusion that members couldn’t be bothered coming in to do any work.

Leader of the House Regina Doherty didn’t want anyone to get the impression and pointed out that senators were operating under strict health and safety conditions. Mindful that a debate on the mother and baby homes was on the agenda, she stressed it was important to say “particularly for the survivors who might look in later” that the paltry turnout in the chamber “is not reflective of how we all feel”.

The former Fine Gael minister added: “I know that every seat in this House would be full this afternoon if we had the choice.”

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Last week, following the publication of the final report on the mother and baby homes, a handful of TDs were present in the Dublin Convention Centre to hear the Taoiseach deliver a lengthy apology on behalf of the State to survivors of those institutions. Even taking the necessary need for social distancing into account, the rows of empty seats just looked like one more insult to the survivors.

The lack of deputies on such a significant national occasion was widely criticised afterwards.

Disservice

But we have done them a disservice. Perhaps this is why Regina Doherty was keen to get the explanation in first before her colleagues got their chance to discuss the report in a similarly depopulated Seanad.

TDs took the decision to decamp from Leinster House and the Dáil chamber (with seating for 160) to the Convention Centre Dublin (CCD) so sessions and votes can be held with a full complement of deputies if required. The space was refitted at huge expense to allow parliament do its business while observing the distancing rules.

The CCD has a 2,000-seat auditorium and a modern air conditioning system.

'Everything about this report I struggle about,' said Lynn Ruane, speaking as a woman who was 'a pregnant unmarried minor' 20 years ago

However, in light of the latest Covid figures and increasing infection rates, a cross-party committee decided before last week’s first Dáil session of 2021 to drastically shorten the daily sitting time and restrict the numbers allowed into the huge auditorium to a maximum of 45 TDs. A lot of them are not at all happy with this new arrangement.

Obviously it would be different if they had to work at supermarket tills or teach class-loads of teenagers, but they don’t and politicians are far too important and precious to lose.

But back to the Seanad, where the Order of Business dished up its usual smorgasbord of topics from the lucky 21 selected to appear. Senators can raise any issue they like and they do.

Subjects included citizenship for non-national frontline workers, the Ombudsman for Children, homelessness, micro-electricity generation, pay for student nurses, tax loopholes, the cross-border healthcare initiative, vaccinations for social workers and carers, the Leaving Cert, the Dublin-Galway cycleway, the provision of period products in public buildings, the acquisition of new grounds by the Waterford Ladies Gaelic Football Association, online learning, the reopening of special schools and driver licence renewals.

‘Fraudulent presidential election’

Fine Gael’s Barry Ward gave everyone a start when he opened his contribution with the words: “I want to raise an issue that is sometimes easy to forget in circumstances where we have so many problems to deal with in this country, particularly with Covid. I refer to the aftermath of the fraudulent presidential election which took place in…”

Was Barry going over to the Trump side? Was he going to urge Seanad Éireann to Stop the Steal?”

But no. He was talking about Belarus and the many political prisoners still in jail there protesting against the general election result and wanted to draw attention to a campaign calling on parliamentarians in Europe to call out the names of special prisoners being held in Belarus.

He read the name of Maksim Pauliuschynk, into the Dáil record. He is a young man who was arrested for painting “we will not forget” on a footpath near the site where one of the first protesters in the post-election riots was shot down.

“This man is still in jail and I call officially for his release.”

The Upper House moved on to discuss the mother and baby homes report.

The reaction was similar to the Dáil’s response last week, in a debate held very soon after the 3,000 page report’s release. In the Seanad, members had the benefit of time, and it showed. The extra week only served to deepen disappointment.

“Everything about this report I struggle about,” said Lynn Ruane, speaking as a woman who was “a pregnant unmarried minor” 20 years ago. She couldn’t understand how the report could show so much evidence and find so little fault.

But it was the thoughtful and ultimately uplifting response of the independent senator for Dún Laoghaire, Victor Boyhan, which will stand to the record. He spoke movingly of his own experience growing up in institutions, never being adopted, having to take part in vaccine trials as a child and finding peace with his parents.

“It does not define me. I am not a victim,” he said. He, too, was critical of the report. Not least because many institutions were left out.

“Please, please allow people have redress. There are people and institutions that are excluded from this.”

Our response should be one of “compassion, care and justice”.

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