| 12.2°C Dublin

Kenny's Seanad plans suffer big blow as Labour senators revolt

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny's plans for the abolition of the Seanad have been dealt a serious blow by a revolt last week where three Labour senators voted against the Government's refusal to allow its future role be referred to the proposed constitutional convention.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, one senior source described the revolt as representing "the first crack in the Government". They also warned that should Mr Kenny attempt to abolish the Seanad -- which is the centrepiece of his political reform agenda -- any proposal to do so "will not get through the Seanad''.

Though the upper chamber can only delay the holding of a constitutional referendum, any defeat of the Government's proposals would be deeply embarrassing.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Fianna Fail Seanad leader Darragh O'Brien warned "the current scenario will make it seriously difficult for [Mr] Kenny to abolish the Seanad and leave the Coalition open to claims that it is using its parliamentary majority to crush any acts of dissent''.

Such an argument has also been put forward by Michael McDowell, and senior government sources are also acutely aware of the strength of such a claim.

The defeat has also generated real concerns that a government, which has the largest majority in the history of the State, has effectively lost control of the Seanad.

Though three of the 11 Labour senators, Denis Landy, John Kelly and James Heffernan, voted against the party whip, the Sunday Independent has also learnt that three other senators -- John Whelan, Jimmy Harte and John Gilroy, who were not present -- would also have voted against the Government, and that another Labour senator changed their mind at the last minute and voted with, rather than against, the Government.

Though the extent of such a rebellion within any organised party is unprecedented, Mr Kenny may face even greater trouble from a group of outspoken independent senators he himself appointed.

In last week's defeat, the outspoken university lecturer Marie-Louise O'Donnell, the businesswoman Mary Ann O'Brien, Jillian van Turnhout and the artistic director of the Abbey, Fiach Mac Conghail, all voted against the Government.

And it is believed other independent senators such as Katherine Zappone and Martin McAleese have serious reservations about the proposal.

This may pose the Government with unwanted political difficulties for, in spite of the unprecedented parliamentary majority it has in the Dail, its Seanad majority is far more perilous.

Currently, Fine Gael and Labour have 26 senators, which is four short of a majority. This means the Coalition is dependent on maintaining the support of at least four of the Taoiseach's nominees.

However, opposition to Mr Kenny's proposed abolition is hardening within the ranks of the independent senators.

It is believed some of the more independent-minded senators were astonished by the refusal of the Government to allow its senators to even talk about the FF motion to refer the issue of Seanad reform to the constitutional committee.

Sources close to Mr Kenny have said he remains "absolutely committed'' to holding a referendum on abolition. But Fianna Fail's Senator O'Brien claimed the Government has "effectively lost control of the house''.

Sunday Independent