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Column: People don't believe it but Senators work hard. Really.

Senators are sittings ducks: damned if they do and damned if they don’t, writes Senator John Whelan.

John Whelan

I THINK IT was Minister Pat Rabbitte who said that there were some ‘exotic birds’ residing in the rarefied atmosphere of the gilt-edged cage that is the Senate. However unkind a characterisation that might be, Senators are certainly an endangered species caught in the crosshairs of an impending referendum aimed at killing them off.

Senators are a strange breed indeed, a rare hybrid of TD-lite-Councillor and quasi-Community Welfare Officer; for even though we are not supposed to have a formal constituency we are expected to have constituency offices and all that entails.

Senators have as much an input and role to play in terms of legislation as TDs; we play an equal and energetic role within our parliamentary party (PLP) and work our socks off on the ground in our constituencies to represent people’s interests and concerns, as well as serving and helping build the local Labour organisation.

Keep that under your hat, for if Vincent, Marian, Miriam or Ivan get a wind of it there will be all hell to pay. Senators after all are supposed to be exclusively transfixed with the lofty matter of scrutinising legislation, experts on all and sundry statutes that are placed before them.

Our expansive expertise expected to stretch from legislation on everything from septic tanks and turf cutting to gender quotas, the Legal Services Bill and the Fiscal Treaty. And then there’s the small matter of household charge and the chronic delays in the issuing of medical cards – something that was raised first in the Senate by my colleagues John Kelly and Marie Moloney.

Senators are sort of sitting ducks, damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Ideally, we have an obligation to the public and the national interest but in reality we are answerable to our constituents (e.g. the voters of Laois-Offaly) and accountable to the party whip – so any independence of mind or political tact is purely notional.

John with Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore and fellow Senator Lorraine Higgins. Photo: The Labour Party/Flickr

One of the country’s last Senators?

After contesting a gruelling general election campaign and narrowly failing to make the Dail, finishing up with 9,026 votes, I hit the Senate trail. Fortunate to be elected to the last seat of 11 on the Labour panel on the 17th count I barely defeated the outgoing Leader of the House, Donie Cassidy by two-and-a-half votes thanks to a 9th, 11th and 14th preference. Depending on the mood of public whose patience is wearing thin with all politics and politicians I could well end up with the dubious distinction of being one of the country’s last Senators.

Like the rest of my colleagues I have aspired to influencing policy; vetting legislation; addressing and formulating national strategies – and I have also helped get a teenager braces after waiting for four years, a medical card for a deserving woman after 34 weeks, a disabled persons extension after 12 months – so join the queue. I have even been approached to have a rural water pump that was stolen in the Vicarstown area restored, with no success to date, but parish pump politics is clearly alive and well.

Hard work

I suppose the point I am trying to make is that Senators work real hard; 24/7 on lots of stuff – things we are supposed to do and lots of other things we are expected to do. If certain elements of a corrosively cynical media get their hands on this confession they will have me for breakfast. But I for one am most impressed by the work ethic, the skill set and the genuine commitment of my Senate colleagues. And not all the wisdom is on the Labour benches as Senators like Trinity economist Sean Barrett always keeps us on our toes.

Although facing extinction we continue to strive (and some days struggle on) to be good Senators worthy of the task and trust placed in us. Under the leadership of Senators Maurice Cummins and Ivana Bacik this is a diligent and determined coterie of Senators.

In many ways there is nothing to distinguish the hard working Senator from the hard working TD, except for the bell to sound the Order of Business and the resumption of the Houses – for the Dail a deep sounding gong, for the Senate a more chirpy chime-like cuckoo’s call. Once the cuckoo beckons we emerge from our burrows deep in the bowels of the 1932 annex of Leinster House to make laws; to make our views known and hopefully make a difference.

Turkeys have never been expected to vote for Christmas so be warned: your Senators are a stubborn, strident and stoic bunch. We won’t go down without a fight.

Our call to arms, well, the cuckoo of course…

P.S. Did I mention our work on the Oireachtas Committees?

John Whelan was a journalist for 30 years based in Laois-Offaly before he became a Senator for the Labour Party in 2011. He tweets at @SenJohnWhelan.

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