Sunday 15 December 2019

Senator's bid for Ombudsman job puts FG on alert for Seanad seat

Senator Jillian van Turnhout
Senator Jillian van Turnhout

Niall O'Connor and Daniel McConnell

One of the Taoiseach's Seanad nominees is up for the job of Children's Ombudsman, raising the prospect of a vacancy in the Upper House.

Jillian van Turnhout is through to the second round of interviews for the €120,000-a-year position, which was previously held by the new Human Rights Commissioner Emily Logan.

The news of Ms Turnhout's interest in the Ombudsman job has placed Fine Gael on high alert, given the Government's troublesome minority in the Seanad.

The Government parties lost their Seanad majority late last year, following the John McNulty cronyism affair, and have 29 of the 60 seats.

This minority has caused a major headache for senior Government figures in recent weeks and led to a embarrassing defeat during the passage of the Irish Water legislation.

Although Ms van Turnhout is one of the Taoiseach's Seanad nominees - and therefore is technically independent - Fine Gael will show no hesitation in replacing her with a party member if she becomes the next Children's Ombudsman.

Fine Gael sources told the Irish Independent that Mr Kenny would have "no option" but to appoint a Fine Gael figure if the vacancy arises.

"We could have a nightmare year with this minority. Any chance of bringing the numbers back in our favour will have to be seized," said a party source.

If the Government gained an extra Seanad seat, it would have the same number of senators as the opposition.

Casting

But, crucially, the Government parties would be able to avail of the casting vote of Cathaoirleach Paddy Burke if required.

Among those being mooted as candidates in the event of a vacancy are councillor Maura Hopkins, who put in a credible performance in the recent Roscommon-South Leitrim by-election, Dublin City councillor Kate O'Connell and party activist Stephanie Regan.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Ms van Turnhout confirmed she would be forced to resign her Seanad seat if she was appointed Children's Ombudsman.

"I did apply for the job through the public appointments process and I can confirm that I have been invited back after a preliminary interview," she said.

"Obviously, children's rights is an area I have huge interest in and it's a position I would love to take up.

"But I am not taking anything for granted.

"I understand I am one of several candidates asked back for another interview, of which there is no date yet set," she added.

The news of the potential vacancy in the Upper House comes as the Fine Gael parliamentary party today gathers for a special mini think-in in Dublin city.

Among the issues expected to be discussed are possible changes to the Universal Social Charge, electoral strategy and wider communication issues within the party.

Nervous backbenchers are expected to put the Taoiseach under pressure to avoid the kind of mishandling of Government affairs witnessed throughout last year.

Ministers will be urged by backbenchers to "hit the ground running" in 2015.

Irish Independent

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