Conor Brady makes points for the retention of the Senate. I hope to make a similar eclectic contribution

The Irish Times – Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Seanad has protected us from the herd mentality: it can do so again


OPINION: We should celebrate those who resisted running with the mob and who had the courage to challenge those in power

THERE IS some reassurance in the way the debate on the future of the Seanad has evolved. The initial charge to the executioner’s scaffold in the run-up to the general election has been replaced by a more thoughtful dialogue.

Many will still argue the Seanad has to go. It certainly has to change. Increasingly, over the decades, it became a refuge for party activists who could not make it to the Dáil. It became irrelevant to the public. Many elements of the news media – regrettably – ceased to report it.

But that is not the full reality of the institution that I recall from my days as a reporter on The Irish Times when I would, on occasion, be assigned to cover proceedings in Leinster House. There were the inarticulates, the time-servers and the apparatchiks there. But often the quality of debate was higher than in the Dáil. Sometimes, one had the sense that the best of the members were striving to see to the horizon when most of the TDs were only looking at the immediate ground under their own feet.

I can remember the commitment and eloquence of Owen Sheehy Skeffington. He denounced corporal punishment in the educational system and narrated the brutalities of the industrial schools, long, long before these issues came into general public awareness. He understood human rights before the term was commonplace and before it became devalued. He was the kind of member that justified the existence of the Upper House.

I remember Augustine (“Gus”) Martin, railing against the destruction of Wood Quay while so many of the political ignoramuses wondered what the fuss was all about. I remember Noel Browne castigating his former colleagues who had entered coalition with Fine Gael in 1973 to form the “government of all the talents”. As it turned out, it wasn’t.

There was the softly ferocious Joe Costello, hammering away, when nobody else was interested, about a penal system that had remained largely unreformed since Victorian times. There was Garret FitzGerald, who used his Seanad seat from 1965 to 1969 as his early platform in politics, laying down barrages of criticism on the erratic economic performance of Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fáil administration.

I remember the 14th Seanad (1977) as being especially vibrant and rich in talent. It included Justin Keating, Pat Cooney, Ruairí Brugha, Conor Cruise O’Brien (replaced by Catherine McGuinness in 1979), Trevor West, PJ Mara, TK Whitaker, Valerie Goulding and Gordon Lambert.
Mary Robinson came to the Seanad on the Trinity panel and it was her principal platform as she argued for the liberalisation of laws on personal freedoms and women’s rights.

I remember the Seanad as a starting point for many bright young people who wanted to play their part in public life but who could not break through the cronyism and the party system to secure a Dáil seat.

Ruairí Quinn was nominated in 1976 by the then Fine Gael taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. John Boland, who failed in his bid to take a Dáil seat in 1969 entered the Seanad that year, becoming (at 25) the youngest ever member of the House at that time. Séamus Brennan was nominated by Jack Lynch in 1977, long before he secured his seat in South Dublin. Richard Bruton first entered Leinster House as a member of the agricultural panel.

We should be made cautious by the rush among the political class to despatch the Seanad. Is it not bizarre that where virtually every element of the administration has fallen down in its responsibilities, there has been so much focus on the institution that has done the least harm?

We should be grateful to have had voices in parliament over recent years such as Shane Ross and David Norris, Ronan Mullen, Joe O’Toole and Eoghan Harris, Feargal Quinn and Ivana Bacik. As we blundered deeper into the present morass, they made contributions that stood out from the vacuous party-predictability which has tended to define so much of the business transacted in Leinster House. One may not agree with their every utterance – or indeed any of what they had to say. But they, and perhaps some others, displayed a capacity for independent thought and some resistance to running with the mob.

Is this worth €25 million a year? It is certainly better value than the bloated, top-heavy HSE or many of the expensive, pointless, self-important local authority structures that are supposed to provide services in so many of the smaller counties and towns. There are many other possible comparators.

It would be wrong to ditch the Upper House until some mechanism has been created that can secure a platform for alternative voices. And it would be wrong if the Seanad’s demise were to be effected under an indictment that does not recognise its honourable contribution in the past and its potential for the future.

We need people who are not in thrall to the party machines, who will challenge the stewardship of those in power, while enjoying the protection of parliamentary membership. We need free and independent thinkers. We need more of the spirit of Sheehy Skeffington.