IT was a minute to midnight on July 8, 2011, when I realised what democracy truly meant, what it stood for, and what it could deliver.
Standing under the clock tower in the middle of a roundabout, on one of the few Tarmacadam roads in the whole of South Sudan, I counted down to independence.
In a crowd of thousands, together we watched the clock, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and an almighty roar of freedom, peace, and joy echoed around the dark dusty streets of Juba.
It was now July 9, 2011, and I was standing in the capital city of the world’s youngest nation-state, South Sudan.
Forever etched in my memory will be the smiles and hugs from countless South Sudanese and the utter sense of honour to be there witnessing the birth of a new country — their country. I lived in Sudan and South Sudan from 2009 until 2012 working on landmine clearance, bomb disposal, education, health, and civil society engagement programmes, and whilst many other foreign aid workers came and left every few months, I stayed for three years.
Why? You may ask. The answer is simple, I’m a humanitarian.
I have always been compelled to roll up my sleeves and get involved when I saw others not being treated fairly. As a teenager, following the Omagh bombing in 1998, I organised for girls from Catholic and Protestant secondary schools in Omagh to come stay with us in Cork, to join our school for a week, and tell us about life in Northern Ireland.
That was my first real exposure to a realisation that I have carried with me since - how lucky you can be by virtue of where and when you are born. Without realising it at the time, I was already a humanitarian.
I went on to study a degree in Government in University College Cork (UCC), and a masters from Queens University Belfast in Human Rights Law. I felt a draw to be on the ground and serve and support the most vulnerable people in areas of the world most in need of help.
So I proceeded to spend the next decade working for the United Nations and various NGO’s on projects such as making crisis-affected communities safer, delivering education and healthcare programmes, and rolling out child protection, women's rights, and refugee support in places like South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Lebanon.
Eventually I realised that being a ‘humanitarian’ wasn’t about working overseas, but rather it was about incorporating humanitarian values and principles regardless of where you are, and what you do for a living. Ireland called to me, and I decided that I wanted to use my skills and experience to create positive change here, at home.
I returned in 2017 to take up a role delivering the new €17 million student services building, the Hub, in UCC. Hired as a project manager for change, I used my position in UCC to advocate for accessibility, inclusion and sustainability. Coming home has not been without difficulty, as many returned Irish emigrants will understand. I saw Ireland in a different way. I saw an Ireland that was speeding ahead after the recession, and simultaneously an Ireland that was leaving many people behind.
In a country of such wealth and prosperity I ask myself questions like, why are there more than 10,000 people without a home tonight? Of this 10,000, one in three are children and nearly half are under the age of 24. The homeless crisis in Ireland cuts deep into core of our society. Our housing system is broken, and it’s time we increase the provision of public and affordable housing. When our society consists of many hardworking people in their late 30s, some with children, forced to live with their parents, then our society isn’t just.
Beyond the housing crisis, other essential services seem to be failing those who most need them. We need to increase direct funding and access to education, we need affordable accessible childcare, we need to end pay discrimination, we need safe accessible abortion services for women across Ireland, we need community based healthcare, we need to treat all people with respect including those seeking asylum in our country, and we need to protect our environment and promote sustainable travel.
We need people fighting for action, people who will stand up for the public good, people who will equality proof legislation, people who are looking out for marginalised groups, people who want an Ireland that cares for us all.
With the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is increasingly clear that we need humanitarian professionals in our Oireachtas, people who are well-versed in emergency management and who are experienced in making decisions in tough situations.
While the Seanad cannot stop legislation, it can halt it, and give time for more public debate and civil society engagement on issues. The Seanad was established with a view to offering independent oversight on legislation with the public good in mind, but the Seanad does itself no favours in gaining public respect and support with its current arrangement.
The Seanad narrowly escaped abolition in the 2013 referendum, however the Upper House is renowned as being ‘elitist’ and ‘undemocratic’.
There are sixty seats in the Seanad. Three seats are elected by the graduates of the NUI, and another three seats elected by the graduates of Trinity College Dublin. Eleven seats are filled by the Taoiseach’s nominations, and the remaining 43 seats are filled from panels and are elected by Councillors, TDs, and Senators. Therefore, six seats are elected by an electorate of 160,000 people, while the other 54 seats are elected by an electorate of around 1,000 people.
In 2015 the Working Group on Seanad Reform published a report to revitalise the Seanad, making it more democratic by extending franchise to all citizens. The recommendations from this report are still to be implemented. It is paramount that one of the first items on the agenda of the 26 th Seanad is its own reform. It must be transformed into a democratic and representative institution, one that holds the trust and respect of our public.
Ironically, the Seanad university panel elections are the only elections in which eligible Irish emigrants are extended a vote. During the 2011 referendum for self determination in South Sudan, all South Sudanese emigrants were able to vote, while Irish emigrants are not afforded the right to determine the Irish political landscape that they return to, except for the Seanad.
As a humanitarian professional, I have learned that democracy differs all around the world, but people are the same.
Most people want the same things, they want a safe home, they want access to healthcare, they want a decent standard of living, they want education for their children, they want to be treated with respect.
I put myself forward for the NUI Seanad Election, not because I want a political career, but because I am a humanitarian; who wants to be part of a new kind of Ireland - and Ireland that is kind to us all and one where empathy infuses all of our decision-making.
More than half of the candidates running in the NUI Seanad election reside in Dublin and I believe that we need more regional voices representing us in our Seanad. As one of only three candidates on the ballot paper who are living in Cork, and with a nearly twenty-year gap since the last NUI graduate from UCC was elected to the Seanad, I would be honoured to bring a voice from Cork and Munster to the Seanad.
As a person of action, a passionate lifelong social justice activist, and an internationally experienced humanitarian professional, I will speak for equality, for diversity, for inclusion, for integrity, for compassion, and most importantly, for you. If you think my values speak to yours, then please consider giving me your #1 vote or highest preference in the NUI Seanad Election.
Michelle Healy has spent a decade fighting for disenfranchised communities and rolling out multi-million euro programmes with the United Nations and International NGOs in crisis affected countries across Africa and the Middle East. She returned to Ireland in 2017 to lead on the development of the new Hub Building in University College Cork, and she currently sits on the UCC Board of Governors.
She wants to bring that experience to the Seanad as she runs as an independent candidate in the 2020 NUI Seanad Election. Twitter: @MichelleHealy_1