Saturday 16 November 2019

First Senate led way and showed how it could be done

The original second chamber was far removed from today's marionette show, writes Ulick O'Connor

SO ENDA'S to end it. The Seanad is to go. That ghastly gig we see on RTE at the end of the evening will be no more.

Seanad Eireann as we know it was the brainchild of Eamon de Valera. In 1936 he closed the First Senate, which was inaugurated in December 1922. Dev said arrogantly, "I have never been able to get in anything I have read or listened to, a suggestion that would satisfy that it is worthwhile spending money on the second chamber."

He reversed himself two years later by introducing his own self-made Senate. But it proved an over-complicated and impractical structure which degenerated into the marionette show that late-night viewers would see broadcast on the box.

The sad thing is that the First Senate, which had come into being in December 1922 under William T Cosgrave's government, had contributed enormously to the growth of the new State. That Senate had 60 members, 30 of them were nominated by the President. The nominees included the likes of Andrew Jameson, the whisky magnate and a leader of the Unionists, Sir Horace Plunkett, WB Yeats, and Lord Glenavy, who had been Lord Chief Justice from 1916 to 1918. The Clerk of the Senate, Donal O Suilleabhan, had this to say about the institution.

"It proved that Nationalists and Unionists could work harmoniously together for the good of their country. They unreservedly accepted the new order and I never found that they held corporate views, which ran contrary to the national interest. I never knew one who was not in a most genuine sense a lover of Ireland."

The courage of this pioneering body was outstanding. In the second month, after the Senate opened in 1922, 37 of the houses of the nominated senators were burnt and two members were kidnapped, by the anti-Treaty forces. But the passionate patriotism and devotion to the rule of law of these men kept what remained of the Senate alive. They would contribute powerfully to the growth of the New State, helping to legislate the Statute of Westminster, which would provide a charter for the Republic of Ireland Act of 1948, as well as backing the Shannon Scheme, one of the outstanding engineering projects in Europe over the decade.

The standard of oratory was high. Yeats' fine oration against the prohibition of divorce is one of the great speeches equal to those of the famous Irish orators of the past. He was speaking up for the rights of the Protestant community. It does you good just to read it.

"We against whom you have done this thing are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke: we are the people of Grattan: we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence."

A senator (not of Yeats' politics) who heard the speech told me it was hair-raising

"God, he was magnificent, he flayed us. Walking up and down, waving the notes he had in his hand in rhythm to the oratory that was pouring out of him."

The new Irish coinage supervised by the First Senate was the envy of Europe. Yeats' sub-committee had held a competition on an international level for the design of the coins, and had leaping salmon, horses and beautifully carved bulls engraved on them.

The world famous Yugoslav sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic, sent in an entry but his design came in too late as he had mistaken the date. Sir John Lavery, one of the most famous portrait painters of his time, was called in to design our bank notes with his luscious wife Hazel's portrait printed on the front.

In the first three years of the First Senate's existence, they considered one hundred bills and amended one third of those submitted to them. Of the 500 amendments, all but a dozen were accepted by the Dail. Just read through the Senate reports of its first 15 years and you can feel the glow of a new nation alight.

After de Valera became leader of the country in 1932, he might have made peace with the Senate, but he chose instead a policy of unrelenting hostility. Some idea of the relations between him and the Senate can be got from the speech of the surgeon-poet Oliver St John Gogarty speaking on a motion against the Emergency Imposition of Duties Bill in 1932.

After saying that he thought the President looked like "something uncoiled from the Book of Kells", Senator Gogarty began, "Never in my life have I heard such an utterance from any responsible person as I have just listened to from President de Valera. It was like a voice from a mathematical madhouse, from some algebraical world of minus values where everything is upside down and all the quantities are negatives . . . Therefore I tell you to have a care, President de Valera, lest your silhouette may come to be regarded as the most sinister whichever darkened the light in genial Ireland."

Why Eamon de Valera, one of the great Irishmen of the century, should have such animosity for the First Senate, it is impossible to say. But we can learn by going back to the achievements of the First Senate from 1922 to 1936 and scrutinising the system under which it operated. Much that could be of use in creating a new Second Chamber could be found there.

One thing is clear, the call for the abolition of Seanad Eireann more than two years ago by Fine Gael is a courageous and pertinent one which may have set the scene for a new and improved parliamentary institution.

Sunday Independent

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