John Downing: Bitter exchanges in the battle to retain Seanad but so far it's 'advantage Kenny' exchanges in the battle to retain Seanad but so far it's 'advantage Kenny'
RICHARD Bruton may be exaggerating wildly when he claims abolishing the Seanad will save taxpayers €20m per year – but he's still a very unlikely Adolf Hitler.
There are grounds for annoyance at Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty parading her own recent ignorance of Seanad Eireann as grounds for its abolition – but it is not justification for accusing her of speaking through her nether regions.
The Fine Gael official campaign to abolish the Seanad may be based on some ropey arguments – but it is not done to use the word 'lies' in parliament.
Thus Senator Mary White of Fianna Fail, Independent Senator David Norris, and Fine Gael's Senator Tony Mulcahy erred when they responded angrily in Seanad Eireann yesterday to the Fine Gael campaign launch urging voters to abolish the Seanad in a referendum expected in late September or early October.
And those errors may yet prove to have damaged the senators' and other campaigners' chances of winning the difficult battle to save the upper house of parliament from closure.
The intemperate and un-parliamentary language deployed here yesterday takes from one major argument in favour of keeping Seanad Eireann. This is the reality that there is often better quality of debate in the Seanad because there is less time-wasting party political cant than in Dail exchanges.
But in some ways it is also easy to understand the senators' anger at this €20m savings figure. It may not work out to be any such thing and we may be at the start of the 'battle of figures' which risks putting the lights out in people's heads through a long campaign which could struggle to capture popular interest.
True, in broad terms the Seanad costs taxpayers some €20m per year. Roughly speaking, that is almost €9m on staff and members' salaries – much of which would be spared.
But a further €9m on 'fixed costs' for buildings, light and heat is unlikely to be saved as the Seanad premises would very likely be put to other parliamentary uses. It is also quite likely the €2m pension costs would remain with the taxpayer for many years to come – in fact the likelihood is abolition could see that figure increase. And even salary savings of some €9m on Seanad abolition might be further eroded by costs in setting up better-resourced Dail committees, backed up by experts, to improve scrutiny of legislation and other work. The Government has promised these better committees in answer to criticisms that losing the Seanad would diminish overall parliamentary scrutiny.
Proponents of Seanad retention were also pointing out last night that the unfortunate tone of the senators' utterances yesterday must be set against ill-judged comments by Enda Kenny in early June when the Taoiseach published the legislation to enable the forthcoming referendum.
In essence Mr Kenny said a key reason for abolishing the Seanad was its failure to warn us of impending disaster at the height of the Celtic Tiger excesses. The comment was true but utterly beside the point and drew further attention to his own failures in that regard as opposition leader for much of that time.
Even with this reverse for pro-Seanad campaigners, it is still too early to predict the referendum outcome. Mr Kenny was doubtless encouraged by two surveys in June suggesting voters will back his plan to abolish Seanad Eireann at a date yet to be specified this autumn.
Research company RedC, polling at the behest of bookmaker Paddy Power, found that more than half of voters favour abolition, while one-third back retention. Ipsos/MRBI, polling for 'The Irish Times', found that again more than half favoured scrapping the Seanad and fewer than a quarter wanted to keep it.
But a Millward Brown survey for the 'Sunday Independent' earlier this month suggested a much less sure outcome. While a 43pc majority favoured abolition, 30pc favoured keeping and reforming the Seanad. That means a 6pc-7pc swing could mean 'game on'.
But last night it appeared to be 'advantage Mr Kenny' in this battle over the future of Seanad Eireann.