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John Drennan: Senators all fear falling from this other Eden

It's late afternoon on Wednesday and amidst the cloistered light that shines through dusty windows into the three-quarters empty chamber, 'the lads' and a couple of scattered women are about to start another week's work.

Outside, the laughter of the young secretaries can be heard but it is muted, for some senators complain if it is too noisy.

It might, of course, in these new efficient times seem to be a bit late in the week to be easing oneself into the job. The self-styled Upper House, however, is a civilised place where the old aristocratic values of politics as a part-time sporting hobby still prevail.

As one looks around they certainly are a curious grouping. But perhaps the most unnerving feature of the House is the excited manner in which they look at the press gallery when someone arrives. The gaze is best summarised as being infused by the uncertain excitement of the abandoned habitues of the Battersea home for dogs.

As with the dogs, there is a great commotion, but amidst this political equivalent of the wagging of tails there is something irrevocably poignant about the way our lost political pets -- like David Norris -- are nervously hopeful that they will be petted rather than annihilated. The excitement makes for some contrast with the Dail where, in between their critical ministerial tasks of texting and snarling at the opposition, the Government casts occasional glares of scarcely concealed contempt at everyone else. Sadly there is a reason why, like the fall of Eden, the pastoral innocence of our senators has been contaminated by a certain fear. Our harmless, dusty old senators have, you see, become the targets of a certain iconoclastic fury, for an institution that was once chiefly famous for the enthusiasm of its debates over the virtues of banning books is now in danger of being banned itself.

However, is it really the case that our senators should be booted into the dustbin of history? The Seanad may be responsible for the launch of the political careers of James Bannon and Mary Robinson, and it's hard to know which act was worse, but does it really deserve its reputation as Ireland's last rotten borough?

Let us look and contemplate before making our final decision. In a chamber that is now half full, Ronan Mullen is looking around, beside him sits Ivana Bacik, the slightly blowsy pet radical of the Labour Party, who has run for almost every office in the land outside of the mayoralty of Dublin and we haven't ruled out that possibility just yet.

Behind them the bad lads of the Seanad are sitting together chuckling with all the insolent gossipy delight of three gurriers in string vests standing outside a bookie's office. Joe O'Toole may be a left-wing social democrat whilst Shane Ross is the darling of the anarchic wing of the right and as for David Norris ... well, David is the darling of himself, however, within the chamber of the Seanad these three very different souls are united by a shared irreverent wisdom and a pleasure in undermining the sanctimonious pomposity of government ministers, bankers and civil service mandarins.

The afternoon sunlight pours through the gently settling dust motes, coating the thinking man's public intellectual, Eoghan Harris, with an ethereal aura. As Fianna Fail's Pat Moylan -- and yes, he is yet another pet of the Cowen clan who has advanced far beyond his natural abilities to the Cathaoirleach's post -- directs proceedings with all of the certainty of an Italian traffic policeman, there is an even more unconventional grouping gathered on the government benches.

Here, for example, can be found oddities such as Terry Leyden, who is a political survivor from the Haughey era. Terry, who was out of national politics for a decade before returning to the Seanad, cannot believe he is back, and to be honest neither can we. So far Senator Terry's most dramatic interventions have consisted of the near burning down of Leinster House by a scented candle in his office and a recent spat over an accusation that Fintan O'Toole has been inciting treasonable mobs.

There is also no shortage of dusty oul' fellas such as Jim Walsh, Camillus 'one punch' Glynn and Labhras O Murchu who, rather like the pensioners who attend court cases, would be quite lost for something to do if their Seanad bolthole were not there.

The Fine Gael benches, being full of aspirant TDs, are for the most part a significantly drier lot.

Frances Fitzgerald and Fidelma Healy Eames are emoting on behalf of the people -- whilst beside them the last lost leader of the cute hoors and pious protesters known as Mr 'What's His Name?', who is also believed to trade under the pseudonym of Ciaran Cannon, stares despairingly at the ceiling.

As we are consoled by the realisation that even our uncertain world can provide a safe haven for such harmless souls as Mr 'What's His Name?', we do, however, miss the agonised glances of Deirdre de Burca at Dan Boyle. Dan's great achievement has been to introduce twittering to Irish politics, though those of us who have contemplated Michael Woods for any extended period of time thought it was already here.

But for every Dan, there is the consolation of Donie Cassidy, the senator with the most nervously commented upon hairdo in Irish politics, for it has not changed either in style or colour for two decades. Mr Cassidy, who has recently been involved in an unfortunate furore over doing his duty by going on an Oireachtas golfing junket to Turkey, is a happy soul these days. Our man was once accidentally elected to the Dail at the expense of Mary 'Madame La Guillotine' O'Rourke. It is said of Senator Donie that the happiest day in his life occurred when he lost his Dail seat and was allowed to return to the Seanad. As we survey this political equivalent of some dying Welsh mining village, it's hard not to be infused by a genuine sense of nostalgia.

Half of them look as though they might be better suited for some gentlemen's club in St Stephen's Green. But the rest would make up quite the formidable Cabinet, for the country would certainly be none the worse if the iconoclastic acerbic qualities of Joe O'Toole and Shane Ross were blended with the political cunning of a Martin Brady. Then there is also the practical intelligence of FF's Geraldine Feeney and the latent capacities of Eugene 'the assassin' Regan who managed, even from these dim backwaters, to inflict more damage on Bertie Ahern and Willie O'Dea than his own party leader.

Looking at them, it strikes us that there is no need for FG's great constitutional referenda, for what we have in front of us is a selection of politicians any list system would aspire to produce.

Sadly we are locked into one of those awful Irish dances of death, where all decent public opinion now believes virtue demands the abolition of our poor senators. Nothing epitomised this appalling spectacle more than the sight of Enda casting a vacant mind in their direction as he hunted desperately for a cheap target. In truth, if he was genuine about improving the effectiveness of the political system, Enda might have been better off simply axing a few of his own backbenchers and replacing them with our senators.

Of course, the case for retention was not at all improved by the many misadventures of Ivor the expenses engine. But ultimately, the great problem for our senators is that, in the great age of Cowenite brutalism, we now live in a state where, like ikea, virtue is defined by the cheapness of a thing rather than its value. We would, however, posit one small final question. Such is the wretched nature of Irish governance that if an institution does not do any harm, we are ahead of the game.

Our senators may not be of much use but at least they did not bankrupt the State.

Perhaps, before we defenestrate our gentlemen amateurs, we should look at the track record of the TDs in the other side of the building lest we, in fact, abolish the wrong House.

Taken from 'Cute Hoors and Pious Protestors' by John Drennan, published by Gill & Macmillan

Sunday Independent