Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny is risking an internal party spilt over controversial plans to abolish the Seanad, Ireland’s non-elected second house of Parliament, if he is returned to power in the next general election.
Kenny stunned TDs (members of the lower house, the Dail), and particularly senators when he made the announcement in front of 1,300 party members at the annual Fine Gael presidential dinner.
Apparently sensing tetchiness among members, he then went off script to joke that he expects all the party’s senators to be promoted to the Dail at the next election anyway.
Whatever his intentions -- and he was adamant that he will call a referendum to do away with the Seanad -- Kenny sparked a fierce debate this week across all parties.
It even upstaged Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen’s clear intention to slash ministers’ salaries by up to 20%, down from €225,000 a year to €180,000, as part of the bid to beat the recession.
Cowen said his ministers are prepared to lead by example to share the pain of the electorate in what is expected to be the harshest budget in living memory on December 9.
Cowen insisted, “People can be assured that, from myself down, there will be a good example given. Our success depends critically on restoring our international competitiveness. It is only as a competitive economy that Ireland can prosper.”
Green Party leader John Gormley claimed the credit for the proposed ministerial cuts. He said it was “something that we pushed for” in recent talks with Fianna Fail, and which was now contained in the revised Program for Government.
Gormley added, “It hasn't received a lot of attention, but it's there in black and white that there will be reductions in ministerial pay.”
What did receive a lot of attention was the Kenny plan to scrap the Seanad. Kenny claimed it was not a new idea, and that he first signaled the proposal at the Magill Summer School in Co. Donegal in July.
He said, “I think it’s outgrown its usefulness. I made it perfectly clear that I was considering a real radical agenda in terms of the way in which we do politics in Ireland, and I signaled that. I’ve taken a leader's initiative on this and that’s what leaders are for.”
He claimed his proposals, allied to a plan to reduce the number of TDs by 20 to 146, would save the exchequer €150 million.
But while there was general acceptance that the Seanad needs to be reformed, there was considerable opposition to doing away with it altogether, even within Kenny’s own Fine Gael Party.
Many fumed at the suddenness of the announcement and Kenny’s failure to go through the normal process of discussing policies.
Fine Gael Senator John Paul Phelan said he holds “a very different view” from that expressed by his party leader. Phelan added that there will have to be a “full and frank exchange of views” at the next parliamentary party meeting.
Kenny, however, was adamant. He told RTE, “This mind’s not for changing.”