Sunday 23 October 2016

Reform of the promised land may not come easy

Published 09/06/2016 | 02:30

Senators David Norris and Mary-Louise O'Donnell Photo: Tom Burke
Senators David Norris and Mary-Louise O'Donnell Photo: Tom Burke
Fine Gael Senator Frank Feighan and his partner Elaine Mooney Photo: Tom Burke
Senators Maura Hopkins, Michelle Mulherin, Catherine Noone and Maria Byrne Photo: Tom Burke
Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway and his wife Breege Hannify Conway Photo: Tom Burke
The assembled Seanad Photo: Tom Burke
Senator Frances Black with her son and daughter Eoghan and Aoife Scott Photo: Tom Burke
Green Senator Grace O'Sullivan Photo: Tom Burke

To some, it was a Shangri-La of glittering possibilities.

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For others, it was simply banishment most foul. A place to lick their wounds and plot a comeback on the 'real' political landscape.

Either way, several of our newest senators had to ask directions to even locate the landing on which to reach the Hy-Brasil of Seanad Éireann - that mythical place we've heard existed but never knew for sure until the mists finally parted, revealing it to be surprisingly cramped.

Two huge marble fireplaces, three glittering chandeliers and a most sumptuous ceiling put in by master Georgian stuccodore Michael Stapleton - whose 'relief work' took on a whole new meaning for Ged Nash and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin as they contemplated the swags and garlands in desperation during some of the more tedious spells. Which was quite often. New politics is a work in progress, apparently - or could yet be another illusionary paradise.

Still, Senator Rónán Mullen provided a word of solace for the frustrated, acknowledging that while some were "wishing they were in the other house", they would soon realise they were now in a "transcendental place". "A higher form of existence awaits us," he reassured them.

The photograph on the plinth showed them as a unified team working to give the upper house the new relevance demanded by the electorate.

New senator Frank Feighan, the former Roscommon TD vilified for voting against the restoration of the accident and emergency unit in Roscommon on the basis of patient safety, happily posed for pictures alongside his partner, Elaine Mooney, who is expecting the couple's first child in November.

Frank is optimistic about the new Seanad, as is Frances Black - who hopes that new legislation can be brought in to help people with mental health difficulties who currently fall down the cracks in society.

Alice Mary Higgins, the President's daughter, is also keen that the Manning report's recommendations on Seanad reform can be implemented.

In the meantime, an unseemly row over seating arrangements did not bode well for this new dawn. Sinn Féin were the first to drag their boats to the shoreline and plant their flag - taking up seats in the front row which Fianna Fáil vehemently laid claim to on the grounds that they were designated for "the largest opposition party".

There was a stand-up row, resulting in Sinn Féin stubbornly staying on as an island in a Fianna Fáil sea.

Temporarily at the helm, Senator David Norris told them how he had been "appalled that so many senators had voted for the destruction of their own house", he said, prompting a snort of laughter as he ripely detailed how they had "rolled over and trussed, stuffed and eviscerated themselves".

There was a miniature version of the Taoiseach voting farce as Sinn Féin pitted Rose Conway-Walsh against Denis O'Donovan and it was put to the vote, with the system outlined for "slow learners and new members".

A comic funereal - or wedding - line-up ensued as the senators squeezed past the media bench to cast their ballot and mock commiserations - or congratulations - were exchanged. "I have to vote for Denis - well I voted for the Shinners as well - I believe in equality," Senator Norris confided loudly to his colleagues.

Senator O'Donovan, one of 12 children from Cork, had brought a large swathe of his family, including his sister, Sheila, who had gone to America when he was just a baby and sent 'dollars' home. He slipped gratefully into the Cathaoirleach seat.

But will reform be as easy?

Irish Independent

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