LABOUR’S John Whelan trumped Fianna Fail’s long serving Donie Cassidy to become Laois-Offaly’s new Senator last week in a tight Seanad election. Mr Whelan was elected on the Labour panel following a marathon count, which coming out ahead of Cassidy by 87,410 to 76,540. Elsewhere, Fine Gael’s Martin Phelan was unsuccessful on the Agricultural panel.
Whelan was one of three candidates on the Labour panel among a field of 21 candidates overall, vying for 11 Seanad seats. He received 66 first preferences (enumerates as 66,000 on Seanad counts) leaving him in fourth place on first preferences. The count concluded in the small hours of last Thursday morning.
He was elected on the 17th count. “I attracted transfers from right across the board. Transfers on the ninth and eleventh counts proved invaluable. On paper it did not look good early on. It was a very crowded field and there were many experienced and long serving Fine Gael and Fianna Fail people involved.
“On John Hanafin’s (FF) elimination I received two transfers and on Geraldine Feeney’s on the 17th I got one, which effectively secured the seat. I received very strong support in Laois-Offaly. Cllrs took the view that Laois-Offaly needed a voice in the Seanad, and I am very grateful for that.”
Whelan’s road to the Seanad followed a strong general election showing, Labour’s best in the constituency for many years. “It was never my intention to contest the Seanad. “In fact, I was initially sceptical about it. However, after achieving a final tally of 9,026 votes in the general election I did feel that it would be remiss of me to walk away and leave it there. It would amount to a betrayal of all the people who voted, and for those who canvassed for me. I felt honour bound to run, after my strong platform and respectful mandate. Plus, the Party wanted me to run. On consideration it was the right thing to do.
“Getting the nomination was a crucial endorsement. Fifteen Labour candidates ultimately contested the Seanad election, eight came from outside the party. All seven nominees were elected. On the canvass we were very courteously received and people acknowledged what we had achieved in a short space of time. I reproduced the general election count on the canvass card which was a huge help. The Naked Election documentary (which aired on RTE soon after the election) was also a great calling card.”
The new Senator identified a trilogy of issues which he wants to address. “Firstly, I want to perform politically, productively and progressively in the Seanad. If it is to be the last Seanad, then it is important that it distinguishes itself. I intend to hit the ground running and work hard.
“I have a common sense approach which I think will be an asset. Look at where expert opinion has got us. I never went to college, I started work in the Leinster Express when I was 17. I have gone through the university of life and I have practical experience.
“The issues I campaigned in the general election have not gone away. Mortgage stress and default is a powder keg ready to explode, a social time bomb. It is an issue that needs government intervention in a tangible way. The stress and fear of losing your home, is worse than that of losing your job. Tied into this are the unfinished housing estates up and down the country, at a time when housing lists continue to soar.
“Unemployment and emigration is something I thought we had seen the last of. Every family I know has kids gone. It is out of sheer necessity, it is not an adventure. It is breaking up homes and families, and we are losing our best and brightest. Suicide is something that also needs to be addressed. The county coroners in Laois and Offaly have highlighted the high rates in this area. People have had enough tea and sympathy on this issue, and they now want action.
“Politically, I want to champion and lead the revival of the Labour Party in Laois-Offaly. There is a great deal of goodwill out there and we are getting new members every day. The party must have the infrastructure, and must be active in communities on an ongoing basis. I want to make sure Laois-Offaly is not left out of the loop.”
As to the future of the Seanad, and now been a member of an institution which many feel has past its sell by date, Senator Whelan us upfront. “People, including some of my own family members, have said to me - is it not hypocrisy to run for the Seanad, after proposing to abolish it?
“My own view is that the Seanad has been scapegoated for the many failures of the political system. It has done itself no favours either. At this juncture I see no public appetite for the retention of the upper house.
“People are sick to the teeth of politics and politicians. If a referendum was held in the morning I believe it would gone. However, getting rid of the Seanad will not be the panacea to all our problems. Root and branch political reform is needed, and from the top down. This should be across the board, and incorporate the entire public sector and state and semi-state bodies.
“This Seanad will sit for the entire term of this government, and this is worth bearing in mind. This is the case even if it was abolished next week. My own view is that we should have a referendum in two to three years time. In the meantime, we should let it go and do its job, and then await final judgment. Yes, it is on notice. It is the disconnect from the people, that has damned it, its seeming lack of relevance that has so outraged public opinion.
“I want to thank my canvassing team and all those who worked for me over the past few months, particularly my Director of Elections Margaret Gujit-Lalor.