Wednesday 24 January 2018

Kenny faces revolt over abolition of the Upper House

Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Only two Seanad members support Coalition's pre-election promise to reform political system

THE Taoiseach and Tanaiste are facing a Seanad revolt over plans to abolish the upper house as disgruntled senators refuse to toe a party line seen a 'knee-jerk reaction' to public opinion.

A Sunday Independent poll of Labour and Fine Gael senators found that just two members of the Seanad are supportive of the coalition's promise to abolish the second house in a referendum.

Senior Fine Gael sources believe public opinion has shifted away from abolition, and a failure to pass a referendum could be seen as a major embarrassment for Enda Kenny who has -- since 2009 -- said the Seanad "can no longer be justified".

Another Fine Gael senator said: "I think he [Mr Kenny] is getting the vibes that this is not happening."

Labour Senator John Whelan called plans to abolish the senate a "knee-jerk reaction" to public opinion in the lead- up the last general election.

He said: "It was a sop to a cynical public opinion of the day. The public were rightly tired and sick to the gills of politics and the political establishment, and the senate was scapegoated. The abolition of the Seanad is being put forward as a smokescreen or a charade of political reform, but it's not."

Twelve of Fine Gael's 20 senators opposed the party's position to abolish the Seanad, while six of Labour's eight elected members said they did not agree with their party's stance.

The two senators favouring abolition were Fine Gael politicians. However, none of the Taoiseach's nominees responded in favour of his plans to do away with the house.

The survey results are sure to concern Mr Kenny, who last week said he felt like he was in the "chamber of the condemned" when he addressed the Senate for the first time since he took office 16 months ago. The attempt at humour by the Taoiseach was greeted with nervous laughs from senators, who used the debate on Ireland's EU presidency to make arguments for the retention of the House.

Fine Gael Seanad Whip Maurice Cummins took the opportunity to quiz Mr Kenny on why the future of the House was not to be discussed at the constitutional convention.

He said: "Recently, we passed a resolution calling for the future of the House to be discussed at the constitutional convention and I outlined the Government's position to the House at the time. Perhaps the Taoiseach might clarify the situation."

The fact that the abolition of the house is not included among such topics as reducing the voting age to 17, and gay marriage, is a sore point among members of the senate.

Cracks first showed last month when three Labour senators defied the party whip and voted against the Government in a motion forwarded by Fianna Fail calling for the Seanad abolition to be included in the constitutional review.

A Fine Gael senator said: "In five years' time we might want to reinstate it so let the people, through the constitution review group, have a say on it. That's a good process, because, as well as Oireachtas members, it will have members of the public on it."

Senators consider themselves guardians of the Houses of the Oireachtas. One member commented: "It [abolition of the House] would be a dangerous legacy for Enda, look what happened when the banks were not regulated."

The majority of senators who want the chamber retained are also in favour of radical reform of the house, with many calling for the public to have a vote on who is elected. Fine Gael Senator Colm Burke said: "The Seanad should be retained, but only if there is major reform -- and not only in how it does its work, but how it is elected."

There is also some confusion around whether Fine Gael Senators will be allowed to campaign for the retention of the senate once the referendum date is announced.

The party said members are expected to support Government positions, but there have been no instructions issued to members regarding any possible referendum.

However, the Labour Party said, "There is nothing to preclude members campaigning against that referendum."

Sunday Independent

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