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Dublin: 4 °C Monday 16 December, 2019

Poets, presidents and polls: The Seanad through the decades

It’s existence now secure after Friday’s referendum, takes a look back at some interesting moments from the history of the upper chamber…

IRELAND’S UPPER CHAMBER first came into existence in 1922, but was abolished entirely by Eamon DeValera in 1936 after it delayed a number of Government proposals. The Seanad in its current form was established the following year after the adoption of the Constitution. Often maligned as either a ‘retirement home’ for ageing TDs or a ‘creche’ where up-and-coming politicians could burnish their profile, the upper house has also given a platform to a wide variety of unique political voices over the years…

1925. WB Yeats lambasts the Government on its divorce stance

Senator WB Yeats delivered a series of speeches in the Free State Senate attacking the Government’s willingness to bend to the wishes of the Catholic clergy on the issue of divorce. The poet, who served two terms in the House, viewed the issue mainly as a confrontation between the emerging Catholic ethos and the country’s Protestant minority. In an iconic 1925 speech, he told the chamber that in “the long warfare of this country with England the Catholic clergy took the side of the people, and owing to that they possess here an influence that they do not possess anywhere else in Europe”….



1964. Drunk senators miss vote

The passage of the Pawnbrokers Bill was referenced by Fine Gael in the course of the referendum campaign — Richard Bruton staging a photo op with ‘The Beatles’ to point out that it’s been almost 50 years since the upper house last used its powers to delay any legislation. DCU lecturer Eoin O’Malley, speaking during a debate last month, said it should be remembered that senators only blocked the Bill because some of them had got ‘lost’ (ie. drunk) and hadn’t been in the chamber for the vote. Ahead of the ballot on the legislation, senator and professor Michael Hayes accused Justice Minister Charles Haughey of having an “insolent attitude,” before voting ‘níl’ on the Bill. “It will pass just the same,” Haughey said afterwards.


[Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland]

1970s. Mary Robinson campaigns on family planning laws

Ireland’s first female president launched successful campaigns on a wide range of issues during her time in the upper house, but is was for her stance on contraception that she first hit the headlines. Elected to the chamber in 1969 at the age of 25, she said later she “completely underestimated the reaction of the establishment” when she introduced the first bill proposing to liberalise the law in the area. Although ‘seconded’ by two other members, Robinson was refused permission to put the bill on the agenda for debate. She was denounced from pulpits around the country for the move.

Mary Robinson speaks about her Seanad career (Youtube: CarnegieCouncil)

1988. David Norris finally gets the right answer in court

Perhaps the most famous occupant of the upper house, David Norris was first elected as an Independent for the Trinity College constituency in 1987. Having initially lost a case in the Supreme Court challenging Ireland’s criminalisation of homosexual acts, Norris made use of his position in the chamber and his increased public profile to heighten public knowledge of the issue. Eventually, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Norris’s favour, and the laws criminalising the acts in question were eventually repealed from the statute book in 1993.

Norris speaks about gay rights at the 2007 Gay Pride march (Youtube: KarlHayden)

1993. Gordon Wilson’s heartfelt appeal to the IRA

Peace campaigner Gordon Wilson, who was appointed to the Seanad in early 1993, took the opportunity provided by his maiden speech to make an impassioned plea to the IRA to cease their armed conflict. Wilson, a draper from Enniskillen, devoted himself to the cause of trying to bring about peace in Northern Ireland after his daughter Marie was killed during the Remembrance Day bombing of 1987.  Three people had also lost their lives the previous night as a result of the conflict on the 23 March when Senator Wilson rose to begin his first speech to the chamber…


Later, he made a direct appeal to the IRA to begin considering an alternative course…



2001. Shane Ross spots a problem

The Government was forced to drop controversial plans to ban newspapers and other media outlets publishing opinion polls in the week before a referendum or general election, after Senator Shane Ross spotted a loophole in the Bill. Tánaiste Mary Harney said afterwards that the coalition was dropping its proposals as a result of the collapse of all party support for the issue. Opposition senators had put down more than 60 amendments to the legislations, which they called “unworkable” and “constitutionally flawed”. The ban was originally proposed in the wake of a TG4 poll that was broadcast three days before a by-election in Tipperary South, which Fianna Fáil lost.


Shane Ross [Screengrab/Oireachtas TV]

2013. Abolition controversies

The Government’s plans to do away with the upper house prompted a series of outbursts in the run up to the summer break. There was the ‘Fannygate’ scandal, when ‘Father of the Seanad’ David Norris accused Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty of speaking out of a particular part of her anatomy. Further insults were traded by Senator John Crown and Junior Minister Brian Hayes, while Fianna Fáil’s Marc McSharry’s description of Enda Kenny as “a clown” who was turning the Government into “a circus ring” was met with widespread criticism. It was all pretty unedifying stuff.



Read: As it happened: Seanad Liveblog >

Read: ‘Sometimes in politics you get a wallop’ Taoiseach on referendum result >

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