TAOISEACH Enda Kenny's push to abolish the Seanad has already been dealt a major blow, with one of Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore's closest allies saying he will vote to save the Upper House.
Labour whip Emmet Stagg – who is responsible for imposing discipline on Mr Gilmore's Dail ranks – is promising to vote against his own Government's proposals.
While all Labour TDs are expected to vote in favour of holding a referendum on the Seanad, a number are now saying they will oppose its abolition during the subsequent campaign.
As well as Mr Stagg, several other Labour TDs also say they want to keep the Seanad, and want "to win the battle on the doorsteps" in the October referendum.
And in a move that could anger Fine Gael, senior sources in the junior coalition partner say they are not particularly bothered about their TDs campaigning against the Government's own proposals.
This is even after Mr Gilmore said all his TDs and senators are expected to support abolition, which is a key personal policy goal of Mr Kenny.
Mr Gilmore stood beside Mr Kenny yesterday and said the position was "quite clear" that his TDs and senators would have to support abolition.
But Mr Stagg, a TD for Kildare North, is defying his leader and a number of other Labour Oireachtas members are also poised to do so.
The Labour confusion on the Seanad also comes at a time when the coalition partners are clashing
over plans to means-test farm assets for college grants and ban alcohol companies’ sponsorship of sports.
The Seanad proposal is widely seen as a Fine Gael project and is especially associated with Mr Kenny after he floated the idea while in opposition.
However, a senior Fine Gael source said the parliamentary party also had mixed views on the issue. The source felt that it would be “very difficult” for the Government to pass the Seanad referendum.
Mr Stagg said Labour TDs would be free to campaign to save the Seanad.
He said: “I will be voting against the abolition. As Labour whip, I will facilitate the referendum to be put to the people. The way someone votes is a matter for themselves.
“I won’t be campaigning on it at all and I will be voting against abolition.”
Mr Stagg also said Labour TDs and senators would have a free hand on what they could do during the campaign, but they would vote for the bill to hold
the referendum. “I said this last August, and he (Mr Gilmore) was aware of what I said then,” Mr Stagg said, adding that he did not hear what Mr Gilmore said yesterday.
In contrast to his whip, Mr Gilmore said abolition was a “government proposition”.
He continued: “The members of both the Dail and the Seanad of both parties will be expected to support the proposition in the Dail and in the Seanad. As is normal practice with all previous referenda, we expect our public representatives to support the proposition in the campaign.”
Asked if there would be consequences for people in his ranks who campaigned for the retention of the Seanad, Mr Gilmore said: “That is something that normally arises after referenda.”
However, a senior Labour source privately described abolition as “not a tremendous priority” and said there was “no great enthusiasm” for it in the junior coalition party.
“We’ll have a campaign on it but the Labour Party is broad church,” one source said. “People are already on the record saying they want to save it. We wouldn’t be too bothered (about what they do).”
The source also said TDs were unlikely to be punished for campaigning against the Government position, adding that they could not “compel people to vigorously campaign” for it.
A number of TDs would prefer to keep the Seanad. Dublin Mid-West TD Joanna Tuffy, a former senator, said she was still against abolition of the Seanad and wanted to “win the battle on the doorsteps”.
She also understood that Labour TDs would be getting a free hand to campaign either to save or abolish the Seanad.
“My understanding is Labour TDs can campaign against it,” she said. “I imagine what I will do is support the (referendum) legislation on the basis that the battle for this will be on the doorsteps and I will go out and try to save it.”
Cork South West TD Michael McCarthy, who is understood to be leaning towards voting against abolition, said his preference was for a reformed Seanad.
Ms Tuffy said she was open to reform but did not believe that the Seanad “needs to be given extra things to do”.