Tuesday 25 October 2016

John Drennan: Seanad caught in crosshairs as FG tribe at war

The Coalition is far too eager to abolish an institution that holds it to account

John Drennan, Political Editor

Published 21/07/2013 | 05:00

REBELLION IN THE RANKS: Taoiseach Enda Kenny and former junior minister Lucinda Creighton, who is one of a number of TDS to have been purged from the Fine Gael party
REBELLION IN THE RANKS: Taoiseach Enda Kenny and former junior minister Lucinda Creighton, who is one of a number of TDS to have been purged from the Fine Gael party

Our Taoiseach will be shedding few tears over the departure of Senators Fidelma Healy Eames and Paul Bradford last week.

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Both are the sort of independent-thinking politicians who, like Lucinda Creighton or Billy Timmins, are viewed with suspicion by Enda Kenny who prefers ambitious new TDs who do not suffer from a querying disposition.

But, while such virgin brides of Enda (in a political sense) as Regina Doherty are far more to Mr Kenny's liking, the Taoiseach should not sleep too easily on his Castlebar settle bed.

Mr Kenny may have purged his party of a small nest of 'turbulent priests' but he should be enough of an aficionado of horse racing to know that when it comes to falls, loose horses cause more damage than high fences.

Outside of the seven dispossessed ones, the loosest horse of all that Mr Kenny must watch is the runaway Seanad referendum.

The Dear Leader may have been pleased by the apparent immolation of David Norris in the Seanad last week. However, despite the best efforts of the senators to make life easy for Mr Kenny, this outwardly frivolous referendum may be the catalyst for a plague of troubles.

As with abortion, Fine Gael is split on the Seanad, with the former issue a mere teaser when compared to the havoc that the Seanad referendum will wreak upon a Fine Gael party that is visibly separating into fissiparous gangs.

This will be more galling to Mr Kenny for one of the Dear Leader's core values has been to do anything to prevent a return by Fine Gael to factionalism.

That plan is now lying in a heap of dust, for outside of that gang of a dozen senators, who will never forgive Mr Kenny, particularly if they are victorious in the referendum, there is plenty more trouble coming from the remaining 20 dead TDs walking, such as Michael Creed, Charlie Flanagan and Damien English, who remain unforgiven after Richard Bruton's failed coup.

Then there are ranks of the newly disaffected, disillusioned by the brutal realities of an abortion debate where politicians were forced to vote against their consciences to remain in Fine Gael.

The sense of disillusion has also been enhanced by the realisation that those notions of any wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle are as illusory as an oasis mirage in the desert.

Instead, a new sense of reality is dawning that our Grumpy Old Men, luxuriating in power after decades in the wilderness, have no intention of leaving the political stage to become nuisances under their wives' feet.

All this is creating a level of political tinder where the Seanad referendum is poised to light a major fire under the Taoiseach's feet.

The Seanad referendum is, despite the harmless history of this often derided institution, about to evolve into a battle for the soul of Irish democracy.

The reason for this is that two and a half years into Enda's 'democratic revolution' the Seanad is the final location that can hold our Government, and its gargantuan majority, to account.

There may have been much talk about accountability and new ways of doing things before and even after the election, but, accountability blossoms rarely in Leinster House these days.

Within Fine Gael for example, Enda appears to have adopted the views of Machiavelli that the ungrateful, fickle covetous nature of mankind means it is "much safer to be feared than loved".

But while the Dear Leader has cleaned out the FG Augean stables of dissent, this has come at the expense of any real freedom of speech or thought.

In the Dail, the Opposition consists of a warring coalition of the undesirables (Sinn Fein and the Ming and Mick wing of the independents) the Unforgiven Fianna Fail) and a mix of idealistic independents, FG independents, and Labour independents and now even that rare flower known as a SF independent TD.

The committee system is a broken reed while there has been an unprecedented level of interference with the independence of the Public Accounts Committee.

Given that the courts are now, for the most part, more concerned with their own pay, perks and conditions, this means the last independent forum is the Seanad.

It is important to note that Enda is not an opponent of free speech or democracy. Instead, rather like all Dear Leaders he doesn't like it much when it gets in his way, and in Enda's view, understandably, there is scant point in being the Dear Leader if you do not get to do that which you desire to do.

Some will be tempted to dismiss the gathering furore within FG on the Seanad as being yet another classic case

of academic disputations being so vicious because of the smallness of the prizes.

However, while our politicians have long fought for that which they love most, namely the opportunity for security, perks and position, something else is at play.

In a scenario where with the grudging consent of the Cabinet a gang of four and a couple of loose mandarins run the country, the Seanad is a critical safety net.

And the anxiety with which the Government is endeavouring to cut that net inevitably informs the central issue of this referendum.

Why is an administration with the biggest majority in the history of the State so anxious to abolish the one institution with the power to hold them, even mildly, in check?

The success or failure of the Government in the referendum hangs on the capacity of Enda to provide us with a credible answer to that query as distinct from Richard Bruton's ropey figures.

This context means the war for the Seanad is as serious a conflict as Irish politics has witnessed in recent decades.

Like abortion, it is a war between those who would ignore their conscience to serve the expedient necessities of a political leader and those who have believed since the Haughey era that the untrammelled power of government is a threat to the liberties and health of a democracy.

As he is wreathed in accusations of being engaged in 'a power grab' and a desire for 'arbitrary power', the referendum should at least provide Enda with a critical lesson about the dangers of frivolity.

The abolition of the Seanad may have started as a mere frolic that was intended to allow Enda posture as a radical political reformer at a minimal cost to himself and an even smaller gain to the exchequer finances.

It has instead, in a remarkably similar manner to abortion, evolved into the ageless cultural war between that wing of Fine Gael which wishes to reform the State and the more tribal majority which seeks nothing higher from politics than displacing their tribal FF compatriots.

The loose horses, exiled from the FG tribe, will also be looking on with some interest at the attempt by Mr Kenny to impose a slightly more pastel Haughey-style leadership upon his troops.

Some of those are more than willing to accept the rule of the Boss-man Enda but others, particularly within the cappuccino-kid faction, are increasingly uneasy.

As he faces into a referendum swiftly evolving into a political nightmare, 'tough-man' Enda should recall other advice from Machiavelli who warned that while it may be necessary for a prince to be feared, if he cannot secure the love of the citizenry he should avoid "being hated".

The balance, sadly, is a delicate one and Mr Kenny, when it comes to this particular high wire, is wobbling precariously.

Irish Independent

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