IF the people abolish the Seanad, in a referendum in October, then that outcome will most likely be traceable to this week’s act of self-sabotage by members of the Upper House.
The abortion debate was a final, golden opportunity to showcase itself as a relevant, necessary part of our democracy — its most important legislative duty before the do-or-die referendum.
But instead of informed debate, the Seanad delivered a messy, incoherent brawl in a last-chance saloon. The use of the word “fanny” by Independent Senator David Norris (when debating the abolition of the Seanad) drew attention for its rudeness and sexism. But the words were almost soothing compared to the insensitive, creepy, and nauseating attack on women by some senators.
Fianna Fáil’s Jim Walsh said women who had abortions — for whatever their personal, medical, or mental reasons — were more likely to be “sexually promiscuous” and addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Fianna Fáil senator, Brian Ó Domhnaill’s attack on women who have been traumatised by terminating a pregnancy rather than carrying a foetus that has no chance of survival outside the womb, was even more sinister. He said they risked causing cerebral palsy and still births in future pregnancies.
The senators’ words made it hard to imagine how the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, ever thought it would be remotely possible to reach a consensus in his parliamentary party on supporting the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill.
He has, for a long time now, lost control of that element in the Seanad that successfully resisted his attempts to bring in younger, fresher faces and that is now doing everything it can to keep the party in the dark ages.
But although they are adrift, their comments still carry the name of the party — a party that is trying to portray itself as progressive and modern, while reaching out to female, urban voters.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan summed up the party’s predicament when he said he regretted that he was in a minority, in Fianna Fáil, in supporting the bill.
“Ultimately, this has to do with women. It has to do with their bodies, pregnancies, health and lives. We talk about gender equality, but I am afraid there still is a cohort of men who privately believe women’s place is in the home. They will not come out and say so publicly, however,” he said.
“There is something very unsettling about a group of male politicians presiding with great certainty on matters which are fundamental to the health and dignity of a woman, and which concern her, first and foremost.”
His party colleague, Paschal Mooney, proved O’Sullivan’s case when he told the House: “I do not necessarily agree in the concept of choice — that a woman is exclusively responsible for her own body.”
But two more Fianna Fáil senators went way further: Jim Walsh’s descriptions of abortion procedures were, according to those present, “graphic in the extreme.” Despite the presence of children in the visitors’ gallery, Mr Walsh used descriptions of scissors and suction machines, as he went step by step through his understanding of abortions.
The procedures he described have not taken place since the early 1970s, and even then rarely, according to consultants who contacted the Seanad after hearing his contribution.
In words too offensive to be printed, Mr Walsh described the foetus being stabbed, poisoned, and having its skin burnt.
At this stage, the women of the Seanad must have wished they worked in the Dáil, where the worst they could be subjected to was a pat on the bum by a male colleague.
So difficult were Mr Walsh’s words that some women walked out of the chamber. And Senator Marie Moloney revealed her own personal experience. It was an uncomfortable position to be in, but she obviously felt her intervention necessary to “stop this kind of talking.”
Emotional and clearly badly affected by what she had heard, she said: “I had a baby inside of me that didn’t live, that was dead. And that baby was taken from me, but it was taken under anaesthetic and I think the carry-on in here is disgraceful.”
The only thing lower than using shock tactics against women was the use of disabled people as an argument for not allowing terminations of fatal foetal abnormalities — which are two completely separate things.
In a complete lack of understanding of cases where women decide not to carry babies that have no chance of survival beyond birth, Mr Ó Domhnaill said that allowing terminations for fatal foetal abnormalities would lead to the destruction of babies with disabilities and Downs syndrome.
He said a senator who disagreed with him was “depriving future Special Olympics athletes of being born.”
Anyone who might have supported the retention of the Seanad is most likely to be offended into doing otherwise.
While some senators — on both sides of the argument — tried to contribute reasonable, informed and researched debates, the lasting impression of the week is of a Seanad that is self-observed, arrogant, insensitive, unrepresentative and out of touch with reality.
One week ago, it looked a lot different.
The Government’s campaign had got off to a shaky start, with Richard Bruton’s figures that it cost €20m a year being questioned, on top of the Taoiseach’s unconvincing speech when he introduced the motion in the Dáil.
An opinion poll showed growing support for reform, rather than abolition, of the Seanad. A Millward Brown survey found a 43% majority favoured abolition, while 30% favoured keeping and reforming it.
But Mr Walsh’s comments alone would be enough for some people to lose any sympathy with the argument to save it. And if his words don’t do it, then the generally unparliamentary and self-obsessed tone of their debate will.
The Government doesn’t need a campaign to abolish the Seanad, because its members are perfectly capable of self-destruction.
And Fianna Fáils’ own senators have contributed in a big way to strengthening that case.
The Seanad may still have a lot to offer.
But when the spotlight was on them and they had a chance to show that, they failed.
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