News Gerard O'Regan

Friday 19 September 2014

What now for Seanad and the egocentric windbags?

Gerard O'Regan

Published 12/10/2013 | 05:00

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Voters gave the Seanad a reprieve

'Life can be so bloody unfair – and people can be so bloody ungrateful. You put yourself out on a limb knowing your head could be chopped off. But you still went ahead and did it, simply because you believed it was the right thing to do.

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"There was nothing to be gained personally by having got involved in the whole damn thing. Yet those who would do you down scented blood. They went on and on, as to how it was a power grab on your part, and that you were up to no good. And then when it was all over – you realised you had got one hell of a wallop.''

Such imaginary musings may well reflect the private thoughts of Enda Kenny these past few days, as he licks his wounds, following the humiliating rejection of his bid to close down the Seanad.

There have been various suggestions that the referendum setback will damage his authority both as Taoiseach and as party leader. But these are way off the mark. The defeat will prove to be but a blip in the history of the Government. The do-or-die issues for Kenny and his Coalition steadfastly remain jobs, taxes, welfare and living standards under unending pressure.

Meanwhile the central problem of what to do with the Seanad remains. A vast swathe of the public regard it as irrelevant – and most damming of all – a part of our politics which is essentially boring.

Of course there have been flashes of oratorical relevance over the decades, ranging from WB Yeats to Mary Robinson. But they have been few and far between.

Too many have used the Senate as a sinecure while trying to land a Dail seat, or as a kind of rest home if their political career has hit the rocks.

It has also overindulged egocentric windbags. There may have been occasions when proposed legislation coming from the Dail was improved, but the system is basically unstructured and chaotic. How senators are elected is something from another age.

However, the people have spoken, and now we are stuck with the way things are, unless there is some dramatic shake-up on the cards.

Despite much hot air in recent days, the Senate obviously cannot have the same status as the Dail. It can never be other than a kind of talking shop, where it can suggest improvements as to how things should be done, but without having any real power.

Flushed with success after their referendum win, the Lucinda Creighton wing were quick to demand not only 'Senate reform' but also 'Dail reform' although their aspirations for both remain vague and ill-defined.

Perhaps understandably given her own recent experience, Lucinda particularly wants an easing of the whip system, which would allow TDs vote against the Government if they so wish. But in the real world of politics such a proposal is simply unworkable.

In the 19th Century, Charles Stewart Parnell got his Irish Parliamentary Party MPs to "sit, act and vote'' as a collective, with the threat of dire political consequences if they disobeyed.

He simply wanted to ensure – that regardless of their personal views – he could deliver his party as a guaranteed voting block. By everybody doing as they were told, he could hold the balance of power between Conservatives and Liberals, and greatly improve his bargaining position all round.

Things haven't changed too much since. For example, Kenny would never have got the abortion bill through the Dail without the whip system – and without penalties for those who did not play ball.

In any case, the biggest issue relating to Dail reform is what could be labelled the curse of clientelism, reflected in frenetic funeral going and other pointless activities by many of our so-called legislators.

Our multi-seat system means TDs spend way too much time backstabbing constituency rivals, especially from within their own party.

On another front Kenny was castigated for not debating with political opponents during the referendum campaign. It was a strategy which undoubtedly told against him, and is one of the key lessons he should learn from his defeat.

The FG handlers grossly miscalculated, and between now and the election, they've got some serious work to do on the party leader's perceived 'charisma deficit' in television land.

The big problem is that he can come across as somewhat wooden, incapable of injecting verbal verve and passion into what is a fairly monotone accent and persona.

But all may not be lost. There was a mildly surreal encounter in the Dail this week, when a gloating Micheal Martin, determined to rub salt in the wound, clearly got under Kenny's skin, as he taunted him about the loss of the referendum.

Suddenly the Taoiseach's dander was up, and he hit back with more animation and conviction than we have seen for some time.

A bit of inner rage is no bad thing. Kenny had got a wallop, but on this occasion was determined to give a wallop back. Maybe he should let things rip a bit more in those TV encounters he has been avoiding to his cost.

Irish Independent

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