Thursday 18 January 2018

Revealed: one in four senators miss each vote

SENATORS are failing to turn up for votes in the Seanad with an average of one in four missing every time, the Irish Independent can reveal.

A comprehensive study of votes in the Seanad in the past 12 months has found shocking levels of absenteeism by senators, who are paid €60,000 a year. Ahead of next week's Seanad abolition referendum, the finding that senators don't bother to turn up for one in four votes undermines claims about the Upper House's importance as a legislative chamber. Voting is a fundamental part of an Oireachtas member's functions.

Embarrassingly for the Seanad, some of the lowest turnouts were for votes on the Social Welfare Bill, which affects welfare rates; and the Personal Insolvency Bill, which is aimed at tackling the mortgage crisis.

But one of the highest turnouts was a vote on the future of the Seanad.

Almost all senators turned up to vote on the bill to have a referendum on the Upper House, which is taking place on Friday week.

The one party campaigning to save the Seanad – Fianna Fail – had the worst voting record of the main parties.

However, Independent senators, such as Taoiseach's nominees Fiach MacConghail, Mary-Ann O'Brien and Marie-Louise O'Donnell, have among the worst records of all.

The senators with the best voting records are all from Fine Gael, which operates a strict whip system.

But a senator with a low attendance record described senators under the whip system as "pond life".

To compile the results, the Irish Independent tabulated more than 12,000 individual votes, logging each senator's actions on all 207 votes in the Seanad from September 2012 to August 2013.

The analysis found the average turnout for votes was just 43 senators out of a total voting cohort of 58 – an average turnout of 74pc.

There are 60 senators in total, but Cathoirleach Paddy Burke was excluded from the calculations as he does not vote. Former senator Martin McAleese was also left out as he resigned his Seanad seat earlier this year.

Although a number of the senators say they only vote on serious legislation and issues they have detailed knowledge of, the findings do not back up these claims.

They also insisted they do not vote on the Seanad's Order of Business – which lays out how the chamber will run on any given day – because it can be a "farce".

The Order of Business often goes on for over an hour and senators can give speeches on random topics.

Only 28 senators voted on the later stages of the Social Welfare Bill, with 28 voting on aspects of the personal insolvency legislation.

However, 58 senators voted at one stage on the issue of Seanad abolition, just one shy of a full turnout since Taoiseach Enda Kenny had by this stage replaced Mr McAleese – a Taoiseach's appointee – with Fine Gael's Hildegarde Naughton.

The senator with the worst voting record is Mr MacConghail, a campaigner for reform of the Seanad and director of the Abbey Theatre, who voted only one in every five times.

"I voted on issues and legislation that I felt I have contributed to or competent in assessing," he said.

"Your analysis has to distinguish between divisions on legislation and voting at Order of Business. That can be a farce.

"In other words, I've been in the House when a vote was called but wouldn't vote for the reasons above. I'm not whipped either.

"Does that make me better or worse than someone who has been whipped? The Abbey would take me away from Seanad business at times."

Independent Senator Prof John Crown said he had stated when I went to the Seanad "it wouldn't be full time".

"You'll notice the ones with the best records are whipped," he said.

Ms O'Donnell said she votes on "issues I am informed on".

"But I do not vote when all that jig-acting is going on," she said about the Order of Business.

KNOWLEDGE

She also said she had outside commitments but insisted her work with RTE, where she contributes as a broadcaster, did not get in the way since she arranged this on days when the Seanad wasn't sitting.

Ms O'Brien, who founded Lily O'Brien Chocolates and the Jack and Jill foundation for sick children, admitted she had more time away from her business now since standing down as a director and becoming chairman of her chocolate company.

However, she also said she would usually only vote on issues that she had knowledge of, and also pointed out that, as an Independent, she was not whipped.

She said she would vote "if it is something I feel passionately about – like the respite care grant, which we did nearly swing about".

Ms O'Brien said it was different for TDs and senators who are under a party whip.

"There's the pond life but they've got to vote on all issues, they can't make an actual difference," she said.

Former Labour Party senator James Heffernan has the second worst record at just 23pc of votes. He did not respond to calls from the Irish Independent.

By Fiach Kelly Political Correspondent

Irish Independent

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