Seanad's batch of new talents become Dublin city ramblers


SEANAD SKETCH:“WHEN A man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Not strictly true.

If Dr Johnson were around today, he might be rounding off his famous observation with an important qualification: “unless the condemned man is a member of Seanad Éireann”. Concent- ration is beyond a lot of them.

The Senators sat in full sight of the gallows yesterday afternoon after Enda Kenny channelled his inner Pierrepoint and prepared the trapdoor and noose. The Taoiseach told the Dáil his Government intends to hold a referendum next year on the abolition of the Upper House.

So when the 24th Seanad held its inaugural meeting, the members were acutely aware that they were sitting on the political equivalent of death row.

But they hold out hope that the voting public will come to their rescue and grant clemency to their jaded institution. They will pitch their appeal by making the Seanad indispensable to the democratic process and this they will achieve by changing their ways.

Senator David Norris, the new Father of the House, led the charge with his trademark eloquence. “To put it bluntly, we are confronted with the possibility of extinction,” he informed his colleagues – old and new.

A ripple of nervous laughter greeted this statement of fact.

But old Fr Norris has no intention of quitting the field without a fight and he wants to take his legions with him.

Drawing inspiration from ancient Rome – “Senatus Populus Que Romanorum, The Senate and the Roman People” – he issued his call to arms: “Like an army, the Senate should be reorganised, drilled and disciplined, keeping ourselves honed in mind and body for the coming conflict. This is a task to which we, as Senators, must pledge ourselves today.” In order to survive, cautioned Fr Norris, members must reconnect with the people. The old ways will not do anymore.

It’ll be sword, sand and sandals stuff from now on.

The new intake – including Enda’s Eleven – sat back and watched the old guard to see how it’s done. And they duly rose to the challenge with all the bounce of a punctured inner tube.

But first, Fine Gael’s Paddy Burke was elected Cathaoirleach. The smooth Mayoman is Enda’s eyes and ears in the west and he slotted seamlessly into the vacancy left by his predecessor, Fianna Fáil’s Pat Moylan, who was Brian Cowen’s eyes and ears in Offaly.

Reflecting the redrawn battle lines in the chamber, Fine Gael’s Maurice Cummins took Donie Cassidy’s old job of Seanad leader, with Labour’s Ivana Bacik his second in command. Maurice and Ivana nominated Paddy for the chair. Fr Norris was delighted with this turn of events, reflecting, as he saw it, a wonderful example of cross-party co-operation. Or coalition, as others might see it.

He was over the moon when Darragh O’Brien, the new Fianna Fáil leader in the upper house, indicated that his party would also support the popular Burke.

“I see this as an even greater example of cross-party co-operation,” trilled David, as Darragh waved his hands to indicate that this might not be an ongoing arrangement.

Then the talking began.

For nearly an hour and a half, the old guard (mostly Fianna Fáil) showed that they still have a great welcome for themselves. As the clocked moved on, they talked about how great they are and why abolishing the Seanad would be a terrible disaster for the country.

At one stage there were fears that Labhrás Ó Murchu and Paschal Mooney might have to be taken down with elephant guns. Paschal waxed nostalgic, recalling “my late father, senator Joseph Mary Mooney, who served in this house in the Sixties . . . ” Long-time Senator Labhras said he had “a vision and a belief”. The new Cathaoirleach had a bell. A pity he didn’t use it.

Maybe he was afraid what effect it might have on former athlete Senator Eamonn Coghlan. A couple of tinkles might have seen him tearing off in search of a last lap. There were pleas for “respect” and pleas to the media for more coverage. New boy Trevor Ó Clochartaigh of Sinn Féin managed to use Obama’s “Is féidir linn” at least four times.

Ronán Mullen spoke twice.

“If he doesn’t shut up soon, I’m voting for abolition,” sighed one of the journalists tethered to the press gallery.

Senators shouldn’t be rushing “lemon, er, lemming like” over the cliff, urged Ronán, before he cried to the weeping hacks: “Don’t be strangers!” One of the Enda’s Eleven (we have high hopes for them) appeared to be asleep.

And Prof John Crown could have cleared at least three trolleys in St Vincent’s during the time the old guard were bigging themselves up.

He made himself useful when another of the Taoiseach’s nominees, Senator Mary Moran, sprained her ankle during a photocall on the plinth.

But where does this sit with Fr Norris’s lean, mean, fighting machine? Finely honed minds do not ramble.

Terry Leyden, back again, declared the Seanad to be “a home for all talents”. Then he managed to slip in a reference to meeting the Queen last week.

Fine Gael’s Fidelma Healy-Eames declared: “This may be the last session, but it also may be the best. Are we worth keeping? Are we worth saving?” We were saying nuttin’.

Louth Fine Gaeler Jim D’Arcy was the first of the much vaunted Eleven to speak. He was short and to the point and got a round of applause.

By and large, the new intake kept quiet. Broadcaster and educationalist Marie Louise O’Donnell looked fascinated and, occasionally, bemused.

One grizzled old stager whispered to the press gallery: “I’ve a few verbose colleagues, haven’t I?” Senator Mary White singled out the new Senator Martin McAleese for special mention. (She’s after his wife’s job). Quite what Enda’s Eleven and the other first-timers made of it all is anybody’s guess.

Going on yesterday’s proceedings, the future of the Seanad is in their hands.