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John Drennan: McDowell in comeback bid to save the Seanad

THE Sunday Independent has learnt that, like a latter-day General MacArthur, Michael McDowell is preparing a new year's "return" to active politics and hopes to become a thorn in the side of yet another Fine Gael leader.

The return of the former PD leader was signalled by his attendance at a recent "private" gathering of anxious senators, where he is believed to have claimed that any attempt by Enda Kenny to abolish the Seanad would "go down in flames".

In what represents a serious headache for the Government the Sunday Independent has also learnt senators believe Mr McDowell is now preparing to "front up" and spearhead the escalating "campaign to save the Seanad".

Such is the seriousness with which Mr McDowell views the Government's plan to abolish the Seanad, the Sunday Independent was told the prolific barrister agreed to address the caucus with less than 24 hours' notice.

It is believed Mr McDowell will operate in tandem with the respected veteran independent senator Feargal Quinn, who will be "the de facto spokesman of the civic campaign". Mr McDowell will in contrast provide the Seanad 'Confederates' with legal advice on issues such as how Seanad abolition is "a charter for a possible future elective dictatorship".

Speaking at what was colourfully termed "an early morning Leinster House dawn raid" it is believed Mr McDowell also told the hastily convened cross-party meeting in the corner of the Dail members' restaurant that it would be easier to replace the Constitution than to abolish the Seanad.

One impressed witness from the intriguing alliance of FG, Labour, SF and independent senators told the Sunday Independent: "he [Mr McDowell] said he had a high regard for Enda on a personal basis but the Taoiseach is on a hiding to nothing on this one".

In what will constitute a unique set of bed-fellows, other high-profile senators who are poised to play a leading role in the "Alamo-style" defence of the Seanad include David Norris, John Crown and Sean Barrett.

In what will be even more embarrassing for the Government, one FG senator told the Sunday Independent that "both Labour and FG senators, and quite probably independent senators nominated by the Taoiseach, are likely to play a key role in defending the Seanad".

Significantly, the Sunday Independent was also told that senators nominated by the Taoiseach, such as Marie Louise O'Donnell, the entrepreneur Mary Ann O'Brien and Eamonn Coughlan, also attended the meeting.

The Government has already been forced into one embarrassing U-turn, for the Coalition had been gung-ho about a referendum on abolition before Easter. The Sunday Independent, however, has learnt the possibility of an EU referendum means it is now unlikely any referendum will take place before autumn.

Senior government figures also fear that "having an EU referendum and a Seanad election together might alienate and confuse the electorate". The voters might, it is feared, "decide to reluctantly pass the EU referendum and punish the Government by saving the Seanad".

A defeat on a second referendum in less than a year would be politically humiliating for the Government and inflict a severe blow to their proposed "constitutional reform" agenda. Concern about defeat is so serious, both the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste have intervened to deal with their unruly senators.

One Coalition source told the Sunday Independent that Mr Kenny "fobbed the FG senators off" with the promise that there was "no need to worry lads; yiz will still have your jobs for the full term".

But indignant FG senators are believed to have been furious once they realised "they would be the subject of public odium and ridicule" were they to continue to receive their salaries after the abolition of the Seanad.

Eamon Gilmore promised to "reflect" on the issues, but warned his senators that Labour's commitment was "absolute". But in an intriguing concession, he said: "Labour senators will not be bound by any party whip when it comes to this issue."

It should make for interesting debates when the local Labour senator takes on the local Labour TD in the referendum . . . should it ever occur.

Sunday Independent