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Seanad will die before it is reformed - but sometimes there are historic moments

Hugh O'Connell


   

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Pioneer: Eileen Flynn yesterday became the first person from the Traveller community to take her place in the Seanad

Pioneer: Eileen Flynn yesterday became the first person from the Traveller community to take her place in the Seanad

Pioneer: Eileen Flynn yesterday became the first person from the Traveller community to take her place in the Seanad

Too often the Seanad is a place that typifies everything wrong with Irish politics. It can be a vacuous, self-­important talking shop that serves little purpose other than to occasionally scrutinise, but more often than not rubber-stamp, legislation that has already passed the Dáil. It can also be a place where political careers on the slide are swiftly and cynically revived through political patronage.

It continues to be a place of which many senators privately admit they can't wait to get out - whether they were elected through political party deals or appointed by the Taoiseach of the day.

But, sometimes, it can be a place where historic and game-changing moments in public life take place.

Yesterday was one of those days, albeit briefly. Just before 6pm in the Convention Centre, the upper house's temporary home during the Covid restrictions, Eileen Flynn, the first person from the Travelling community to sit in the Seanad, rose to address the chamber.

"I am actually extremely nervous," she said, her voice wavering. But she persevered, declaring it a day where finally there is "a voice for a member of the Travelling community" and "a voice for those at the very end of Irish society".

She continued: "I look forward to working with everybody and hopefully we can all learn from each other and hopefully I can be that person who can break down the barriers for Traveller people."

Applause broke out, the moment not lost on those who sat unmoved by the speeches that proceeded Ms Flynn's or those that followed.

Earlier, she had told RTÉ it had been the best call she had ever received when Taoiseach Micheál Martin informed her that he, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan had agreed to appoint her: "It was just absolutely amazing, it felt like I was just dreaming. I didn't know what to do."

Ms Flynn is a human rights activist who has campaigned on homelessness, same-sex marriage, abortion and hate crime. Born into a family of nine children on a halting site in Ballyfermot in Dublin, her appointment is a truly progressive moment in Irish society.

It should not be dismissed amid the cynicism about the new Government not representing the change voters demanded in February.

All that said, the Seanad remains an unreformed behemoth. Despite the change of venue, much of what we have grown used to in the upper house was in evidence yesterday.

The coalition deal between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens elected Mark Daly as Cathaoirleach.

Mr Daly's emergence from an internal Fianna Fáil contest was a surprise to those who had expected outgoing cathaoirleach Denis O'Donovan to win another term. He was by all accounts the preferred candidate of the leader. But then Mr Martin's internal popularity in the party has nosedived in the last 48 hours because of his Cabinet appointments.

A Fianna Fáil senator said the "view was strong that there was a need for the party to ensure that our identity was asserted and Mark best filled that vision [and] also a sense that the Seanad needs to act more independently and to hold the Government to account".

Mr O'Donovan, bedecked in a striking tan-coloured suit, did not look pleased but graciously seconded Mr Daly's nomination.

A Kerry native who first came to national prominence as a contestant on RTÉ's ill-fated 'Treasure Island' reality show in the early 2000s, Mr Daly has consistently called for Government to make preparations for a border poll.

His new non-partisan position will stymie that work, but the blow will be cushioned perhaps by his new €114,000 annual salary.

As his fellow Kerryman, Fianna Fáil Senator Ned O'Sullivan, remarked Mr Daly will now be "presiding, greeting, chairing and adjudicating", cheekily referring to the new Cathaoirleach as "the junior senator from Kerry".

In contrast to its predecessor, the 26th Seanad is unlikely to be a place where the Government suffers embarrassing losses. Between them Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens hold 40 out of the 60 seats with plenty of familiar names from the last Dáil finding their way to the upper house including former Fine Gael cabinet minister Regina Doherty and Fianna Fáil stalwart Timmy Dooley.

Rónán Mullen reminded us that Ms Doherty was a vigorous campaigner for the abolition of the house seven years ago. "I am resisting the temptation to remind her of things she said about the Seanad," he said.

He also criticised the decision not to appoint a senator from Northern Ireland as "a major failure of political responsibility" and a "huge oversight". This was echoed by several senators throughout the afternoon, including the Sinn Féin contingent who lamented the loss of the sharp-suited Ian Marshall, a unionist who served in the last Seanad.

Several hours behind schedule, senators eventually got to the important business of debating and passing the laws underpinning the Special Criminal Court, ensuring its jurisdiction did not lapse at midnight last night.

Earlier, Independent Senator Gerry Craughwell declared that if the Seanad was not reformed "it will die". But history tells us it is far more likely the Seanad will die before it is ever reformed.

Irish Independent