independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Hiding means a hiding for Kenny as No side has its say

"I feel an insupportable reluctance in giving my hand to destroy an established institution of government, upon a theory, however plausible it might be." – Edmund Burke.

Irish democracy has given a Burkean answer to Enda Kenny's campaign to abolish the Seanad. A venerable institution, set up to give Protestants and other minorities a voice, will not now vanish because of a vanity project. But the political implications of the result run much deeper.

Apart from the abolition issue, the No vote reflects growing public concern about the Government's massive majority and its increasing manipulation of the media to mask its two-tier approach to the Budget. As Disraeli said of Victorian England, we are now "two nations".

Given the Cabinet's gag on Dail deputies, we desperately need a second forum of wise men and women, elected by popular franchise and serving without pay, save for modest expenses. We need them to criticise old legislation, comment on current legislation, propose new legislation.

Such a Senate does not need the power to delay Dail legislation. It only needs to be able to speak freely. We will never get that from Dail reform. The Cabinet will always decide what deputies can do.

That is why it was so sickening to watch the contortions of the politicians, pundits and academics who scrambled to support Kenny. How could they have convinced themselves that if the Seanad were stood down, the Cabinet would give up its chokehold on the Dail?

How can they face their constituents, their readers, their students with a clear conscience? How can they feel anything but shame on seeing the Irish people reject their grubby populist proposal?

But of course the Coalition they support lacks shame too. Otherwise, it would not have brazenly sailed through this recession without taking a real pay cut. That is why it will get no credit at the next General Election. Like Haughey, it is easy to tighten other people's belts.

What Disraeli said of Victorian England is true of Ireland today. We are two nations. As long as we are divided by wealth and class and moral luck, we will need independent voices in parliament. We will never get that from Dail reform, because the Cabinet will always decide what deputies do.

* * *

Apart from one column criticising the lack of a Seanad reform alternative, I kept my mouth shut during this campaign. That's because I believe those who have benefited, however slightly, from an institution are not the most credible when arguing for its preservation. But I am always willing to take a 100 per cent cut in my modest monthly Seanad pension of €300 provided other retired politicians do the same.

But now that I am fully free to speak, I want to put a question to those querulous critics who singled me out for criticism during the campaign because I was appointed by Bertie Ahern. Naturally, they failed to mention that I did not let loyalty to Ahern stop me from carrying on a long campaign against his legacy of benchmarking in a padded public service.

My main question relates to their implied criticism about me being appointed rather than elected. Can these critics really claim any Senator was elected by popular acclaim? Let's take the cases of the two politicians who were director of elections for Sinn Fein and the Labour Party respectively: former Senators Alex White and Pearse Doherty.

Neither Doherty nor White can credibly claim to have been elected to the Seanad of 2007 by popular plebiscite. Doherty was nominated to the Agricultural Panel where the quota was a paltry 89 votes. As Sinn Fein had only 58 voters it would seem Doherty had no chance.

Yet somehow Doherty topped the poll with 103 votes. How did he do that? With the help of 40 votes from the Labour Party. Sinn Fein then scratched Labour's back by supporting Alex White, who was nominated for the Cultural and Educational Panel by four Oireachtas members, including his mentor, Pat Rabbitte.

Although the quota here was 162 votes and the Labour Party had only 125 votes, Alex White was still elected. Again, how did he do that? By the Labour Party doing a deal with Sinn Fein to get White the extra 40 votes.

Arising from these meagre tots, there is something I want to share with my critics. I am proud to have been appointed to the Seanad by Bertie Ahern, a man who helped bring peace in Northern Ireland, and who was well aware I had done my bit to persuade David Trimble that the Irish Government could be trusted.

But I would not have been proud, indeed would have rejected, a Seanad seat if it meant being elected following a backroom deal with Sinn Fein. So you will not be surprised when I say that the Sinn Fein shambles is one of the sweeter aspects of the abolition result.

* * *

Let me now summarise the state of play following the narrow No victory. Narrow or not, Enda Kenny will pay a high price for his failure. The bill is being prepared far below the surface of day-to-day politics, where middle Ireland, or what I call Moby Dick, is mulling over it all.

There will be no revolutionary result right now. That will come at the next General Election. But in minor ways the abortive abolition campaign will rebound almost immediately on its authors, Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, as well as on their respective factions.

Because, of course, there is now a Kenny Fine Gael and a Lucinda Creighton Fine Gael. This will widen the fissure and facilitate the birth of a new party. Furthermore, Kenny has been personally damaged by funking the broadcasting debates in support of his own ploy.

Recalling a Bertie Ahern blunder, Mr Kenny concealed himself in cupboards provided by his hard-pressed handlers. This has huge implications for the next General Election. Hiding will mean a hiding.

Conversely, Micheal Martin has benefited from the exposure, especially at the end of the campaign. By shifting the debate from the micro facts of Seanad reform to the macro issue of Kenny's massive majority and the arrogance of the Coalition, he provided the public with an indelible image of himself as an able and articulate contender for the title of Taoiseach.

The Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, is in even greater difficulty. The leafy suburbs of his constituency, like those of his Director of Elections, Minister Alex White, contain a majority of committed No voters. So I cannot see their advocacy of abolition doing them much good.

Long after the actual details of the recent revolting campaign have faded, the bad smell will linger. The philistinism and political barbarism of the ploy to stand down a public forum of free speech will not be forgotten.

Meantime, in the not too distant future we shall have what the polls keep telling us the people want: a new radical centrist party that will hold the balance of power.

Sunday Independent

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