“SOMETIMES IN POLITICS you get a wallop,” Enda Kenny famously noted last October when the people voted to retain the Seanad, but in recent weeks senators have been moving to deliver more blows to the Taoiseach and more are likely in the coming weeks and months.
This week, the Seanad narrowly voted through a bill from independent senator Feargal Quinn to abolish upward only rent reviews. The legislation now goes to the Dáil where the coalition’s huge majority should see it go no further.
The irony is that even with a number of its own senators absent, the government could have defeated the bill – it did so in the electronic vote moments beforehand – had the opposition not scrambled to ensure that Paul Bradford, formerly of Fine Gael, was in the chamber for the walk through vote that ensured the bill passed.
It just served to show that unlike the Dáil, the coalition does not have the luxury of a super majority in the upper house. In fact the current numbers indicate that it has a majority of just one when you include the casting vote of the Cathaoirleach Paddy Burke.
This can and has led to situations where the opposition can muster enough numbers to defeat the government or pass its own legislation.
There are a number of reasons for this.
First, three senators have been expelled from the government ranks in the last three years. Both Bradford and Fidelma Healy-Eames, now of the nascent Reform Alliance, were expelled from Fine Gael after they voted against the abortion bill last summer. Before that, Labour senator James Heffernan lost the whip over his vote against Budget 2013.
Second, the Taoiseach’s much-lauded decision to appoint genuinely independent voices to the upper house in March 2011 has in someways backfired with the likes of Jillian van Turnhout, Katherine Zappone and others not afraid to vote against the government.
They have frequently done so, though they have also supported the coalition on certain unpopular measures, demonstrating that they really are independent minds.
All of the Taoiseach’s nominees campaigned for the Seanad to be saved and all were less than happy with the government’s cynical and ultimately poorly-run campaign.
That has arguably made the independent nominees less amenable to the coalition’s agenda as has the reluctance of Enda Kenny to implement the kind of reforms they want to see to how the Seanad is elected and run.
Kenny was able to recruit former Olympian Eamonn Coghlan to the party ranks two years ago and replaced another of his nominees, Martin McAleese, with Fine Gael councillor Hildegarde Naughten but that has only served to replace Bradford and Healy-Eames and not bolstered FG’s overall numbers.
‘The three amigos’
The third reason is that three Labour senators were absent for the vote this week and not for the first time. John Whelan, John Kelly and Denis Landy – dubbed ‘the three amigos’ by some observers – were all absent when the second stage of Quinn’s bill was passed last October.
After that vote, two days before the Seanad referendum, confusion and not obstruction was cited as the reason for Whelan, Kelly and Landy’s absence. (Senator Jimmy Harte also missed the vote and has since been hospitalised. He is currently paired for votes with Fianna Fáil’s Labhrás Ó Murchú.)
All were of the view that the government would be supporting Quinn’s bill or at least not blocking its passage in the Seanad.
Both Labour and Fine Gael in opposition, and in the subsequent programme for government, pledged to abolish upward only rent reviews, but this ran into difficulty after advice that abolition could come into conflict with the Constitution.
There was no one reason for the absence of Whelan, Kelly and Landy, who is believed to have been absent with illness, this week, but they take the view that this issue did not involve voting directly against the government, rather it was merely supporting a policy both parties are, in principle, in favour of.
Add to this that the three senators launched a co-ordinated attack on the government over the Seanad sitting for only two days a week recently. They are known to be unhappy with the disrespect they feel some ministers are showing towards the upper house.
They also might justifiably believe that the slim Fine Gael/Labour majority means their outright expulsion is not necessarily in Labour’s interests, as it only stands to harm the government’s chances of pushing through its wider legislative agenda.
All of which means, the government looks likely to face more trouble in the Seanad in the weeks and months ahead.