I THINK it was Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte who said there were some “exotic birds” residing in the rarefied atmosphere of the gilt-edged cage that is the Seanad. However unkind a characterisation that might be, the latter-day senator is 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 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 and work our socks off on the ground, as well as (in the case of Labour senators) serving and helping to build the local Labour organisation.
Keep that under your hat, for if Vincent, Marian, or Miriam 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 is 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 the household charge and the chronic delays in the issuing of medical cards — something first raised in the Seanad 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 (eg, the voters of Laois-Offaly) and accountable to the party whip — so any independence of mind or political tact is purely notional.
After contesting a gruelling general election campaign and narrowly failing to make the Dáil, finishing up with 9,026 votes, I hit the Seanad 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 the 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 to get a teenager braces after waiting for four years; a medical card for a deserving woman after 34 weeks; a disabled person’s 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 are clearly alive and well.
I suppose the point I am trying to make is that senators work hard and 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 cynical media get their hands on this confession, they will have me for breakfast. But I am most impressed by the work ethic, skill set, and genuine commitment of my Seanad colleagues. And not all the wisdom is on the Labour benches; senators such as Trinity economist Sean Barrett keep 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 Dáil 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 to 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...
PS: Did I mention our work on the Oireachtas committees?
* John Whelan is a Labour senator