Rebel numbers not on cards for soldiers of destiny

The Fianna Fail senators had their abacuses working overtime yesterday. They reckoned that there were a few wobbly soldiers in the government trenches, who might go AWOL when it was time to vote for the most contentious section of the Social Welfare Bill – the cuts to respite care.

All focus was on the Seanad, and on these occasions they bask in the rare sunlight of attention with an overt enjoyment akin to the summer-starved Irish on a Spanish beach.

But they were striving mightily to be responsible and restrain from throwing more shapes than one would find in a Spirograph set.

Nonetheless they were a bit giddy – whetted by the Bill-related drama in the other House which saw Labour's Colm Keaveney take a short walk along the party plank, the opposition were hoping to entice a few dithering Labour colleagues to take a similar stroll in the Seanad.

By lunchtime it became clear that they had one definite rebel in the Upper House. Labour senator James Heffernan, despite last-minute love-bombing from Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton, announced that he would vote against the Government.

Would others join him? Six of the Taoiseach's nominees had already nailed their Níl colours to the mast the previous night – including Senator Martin McAleese who was taking part in his first Seanad vote.

And so when Social Protection Minister Joan Burton took the hot seat for the stage debate at 3.30pm, she faced into a litany of exhortations to strike out the controversial section on cuts to respite care grants.

Fianna Fail's Paschal Mooney declared that "words like fairness, equity and justice certainly don't apply" to the Bill. "How can you stand over it, considering your own background?" he asked Joan. "You should be ashamed of yourself," he reckoned.

One of the Taoiseach's rebellious troops, Independent Marie-Louise O'Donnell, gave it both barrels. "The Government must stand up for their actions, and I must stand up for mine," she declared.

James Heffernan rose and announced to nobody's shock that he would vote against the Government. "This is not a decision that I take lightly, I won't say it's an easy one," he said to Joan Burton who kept her head buried in her notes. "I don't fly any flag of convenience," he told the silent chamber.

But Joan wasn't for turning.

As she wrapped up the debate, she stated without equivocation that "it's not possible to remove the respite care cuts without derailing the Bill".

The vote was called, despite a dismayed Fianna Fail howling for an extension. The Government got over the line by a nose – 31 to 28.

An unhappy opposition called for a walk-through vote, hoping that some couldn't do what they called 'the walk of shame' and vote for the cuts.

But the result was the same. The Government won by three.

But Labour has now been hit for six.