WHY would you bother to run for the Seanad, a TD’s graveyard, a receptacle for retired ideas, a relic of old Ireland?
These are indeed legitimate questions, which number among those I have been asked in recent weeks since putting my name in the hat for the upcoming election, on the National University of Ireland Graduates’ Panel.
Those recent weeks have been framed in something of a political inertia in this country in which the problems and difficulties experienced by people seem to have evaporated from the minds of our leaders as a lame-duck acting government limps on until a new one is formed. There doesn’t seem to be any great rush to get this done.
For my own part, I was not in a position to run in that General Election. A hectic year as Lord Mayor followed by a local election and a return to work at Cork ETB meant I hadn’t the time, energy or financial resources to enter that fray. I decided that if I were to go again in a national election (having contested the previous two Dail elections), the Seanad might be a better fit this time around.
I could have travelled the vocational route as a sitting councillor or the NUI route: I opted for the latter due to work and time constraints. This conduit will yield six seats in the 33 rd Senate but represents a very difficult avenue to navigate as — bizarrely — there are only three seats nationally for a mix of universities and colleges including UCC, UCD, NUIG, Maynooth, NCAD, Royal College of Surgeons et al. Trinity College, Dublin has three seats in its own right. There are some high-flyers on the ticket, including the President’s daughter, a prominent TD who lost her seat and a former Attorney General and party leader.
Over 110,000 graduates are entitled to vote… approximately a third will exercise that right via a postal ballot. An archaic system of registration means that many votes will be lost through old addresses, the lack of an updated register since June 2019 and the passing of voters whose names remain on the list.
So, in that context, the first answer to the ‘why bother question’ is the over-arching need to reform the second house of our bicameral parliament which has more or less stayed the same since 1937. Obviously, the country and its population has transformed since then so we do need a complete overhaul of what could be an effective second house of legislative scrutiny.
Despite the fact an all-party report was published in 2018, with recommendations for a regeneration, zero action has happened... the holding nature of the senate for failed Dail candidates or those who lost their seats is likened by some to turkeys not voting for Christmas and a reason why sitting TDs do not want change.
One obvious answer is to open up the Seanad to direct voting… an interesting reply I heard to that during the campaign was that ‘one Dail is bad enough’! So, improving the access to voting via the current channels might be the best option. If these various panels are to remain, they should reflect the changed nature of Irish society while the graduates’ panel should include all graduates, from institutes of technology, further education and training centres, etc. Why should it be that only city and county councilors vote in senators on the vocational panels (Administration, Agricultural, Cultural and Educational, Industrial and Commercial, Labour)? As a sitting councillor and graduate I have six votes when others have none… that can’t be fair.
The reform document in 2018 suggested the Seanad should comprise the following: 11 senators be appointed by the Taoiseach, 15 senators be elected by TDs, Senators, County and City Councillors, 34 senators be directly elected from five vocational panels, and another including graduates of all universities.
This would certainly improve things, but I’m not entirely certain why the Taoiseach should nominate 11 and why Trinity College should still have three seats to itself: the NUI panel should maintain its six seats but be extended to universities, institutes and colleges for a much broader mandate.
Apart from this reform — which I would see as a key obligation of new senators — there are other policy issues that I am interested in progressing in the areas of education, health and of course housing. Having worked to try and bridge educational and social disadvantage for well over a decade, in my day jobs working in primary and secondary schools and indeed as a local councillor, I know the everyday issues that affect individuals and families and believe those making key decisions must be immersed in those too. Operating in a bubble, surrounded by advisors, hasn’t worked well for our leaders to date.
Yet, there is no point in me saying ‘I’ll do this’ or ‘I’ll do that’ as a senator on substantive policy issues because the vast majority of that comes via the directly elected Dail…a strong second house, however — in the context of a Dail mix that will be far from straightforward) — with progressive men and women would be a positive in addressing the challenges that face people.
This is likely to be my last election, certainly my last national one. If it happens, it happens. If it does not, I will continue my work as a Youth Officer with Cork ETB, as a Cork City Councillor and as someone who remains an active volunteer in my community and city. Nothing to lose.