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Sunday 26 March 2017

FF senators rebel over plans to axe their jobs

Michael Brennan and Patricia McDonagh

FIANNA Fail senators were last night in open revolt about their party's plan to hold an election day referendum to abolish the Seanad.

After Defence Minister Tony Killeen confirmed the plan will be discussed at Cabinet, furious senators claimed it was never brought up at party meetings.

They complained the move, designed to save the State €25m a year, was politically "opportunistic" and would deprive the country of an influential second chamber of parliament.

They are accusing the party's hierarchy of trying to gain popularity by copying Fine Gael and Labour who are in favour of abolishing the Seanad.

Fianna Fail Seanad leader Donie Cassidy is being blamed by some of his colleagues for the precarious position in which the institution finds itself. One Fianna Fail senator said Mr Cassidy had made the Seanad a laughing stock by failing to find a meaningful role for it.

At a Fianna Fail parliamentary party meeting before Christmas, Mr Cassidy announced that the Seanad would be sitting on Friday for once -- and Fianna Fail TDs burst out laughing.

Mr Cassidy, who could not be contacted for comment yesterday, courted controversy last year when he said that it was "not easy" for senators with families to get by on their basic salary of €65,000 a year.

And senators admit that its image has been badly damaged by the controversy over Senator Ivor Callely's claims for travel expenses from west Cork when his home was in north Dublin.

But Fianna Fail senator Mary White said it made her "sick" to hear that her own party was now planning to abolish the Seanad. She said it was an "opportunistic" move by Fianna Fail to copy the proposal made by Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny a year ago -- and now also backed by the Labour Party.

"I think it's ridiculous. I don't think it's good enough for Fianna Fail to react just because the other two parties want the Seanad abolished," she said.

Ms White said she would be very sad to see the Seanad -- which has been in existence for 73 years -- wiped out "on a whim by people playing politics".

Meanwhile, a survey by the Irish Independent of Fine Gael and Labour senators revealed that not all of them are in favour of their parties' pledge to abolish the Seanad either.

Fine Gael's policy was only endorsed by six of its 15 senators, with two saying they were opposed. Just three out of Labour's six senators could confirm that they were rowing in with their party's stance on the issue.

The Seanad is protected by the Irish Constitution so a 'Yes' vote in a referendum would be required before legislation could be brought forward to abolish it.

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An abolition would leave many Fianna Fail senators without any political office -- given that very few of them will be even running for their party as general election candidates.

Wexford-based Fianna Fail senator Jim Walsh said the party had to make decisions which were "well thought out" rather than just doing what was popular.

"It's a throwback to our auction politics system. I thought we had learned from the mistakes of the past in making decisions for perceived political party gain," he said.

He admitted the public would probably vote in favour of abolishing the Seanad if there was a referendum. But it was being offered as a sacrificial lamb on behalf of the whole political system, he said.

"If you had a referendum to abolish the Dail, it would probably be carried," he said.

Fianna Fail senator Diarmuid Wilson also said he was opposed to the abolition of the Seanad -- although he expressly said that he would back the move if it became government policy.

"There is a place for the Seanad if it is properly used," he said.

However, there are growing doubts about the likelihood of such a referendum going ahead, with the expected General Election in mid-to-late March.

Senator Alex White of Labour said it was "far too little, too late" from Fianna Fail to propose such a measure now.

Irish Independent

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