Novices offer independent expertise as TCD Seanad candidates
Dementia activist, barrister, entrepreneur, climate action campaigner among hopefuls
There are 16 candidates on the Trinity Seanad panel. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
When she started university as a mature student of 43, Brennan became the first member of her family to go to third level and graduated with her younger son.
A former drama teacher and Fair City actor, she also worked in insurance. Now 53, she is co-director of the dementia research programme in Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and research assistant professor of Trinity’s School of Psychology.
One of the 16 candidates on the Trinity Seanad panel, she describes herself as issue-driven and her expertise is in population ageing, neuro-rehabilitation strategy and brain health, and dementia.
Referring to the “insidious ageism” in Ireland, one of her big concerns is around the human rights of vulnerable older people with dementia, in nursing homes and hospitals.
With personal knowledge through her own late mother’s experience of dementia, she cites abuses such as “sedating older patients for no other reason than that they are walking up and down corridors”.
Her other major concerns include “excellent” public health strategies sitting on Government shelves.
She reels them off. A lot of work was invested over six years in the Government’s positive ageing strategy before it was shelved in 2013. The national dementia strategy “got off the starting blocks” and action was taken on a few of the proposals.
Then there is the neuro-rehabilitation strategy which was shelved in 2011 and funding is squeezed because it is not directly and specifically allocated.
Someone with a brain injury needs immediate rehabilitation to repair and save valuable cognitive function but can spend months “in an acute hospital before they go to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire”, by which time much cognitive function is permanently lost. “In the NHS (in the UK) you are provided with a case manager and rehabilitation immediately.”
Dr Brennan said she has picked the issues and strategies that were “practical, viable and could make a difference. They are ready to go but just need a voice to scream at the Government” about their implementation.
For him, the “major loss of business experience in the Seanad” was a motivating factor in his decision to run.
Chairman of the board of Trinity College business school, he points to the retirement of Senator Feargal Quinn, founder of Superquinn and the end of the term of office of Taoiseach’s nominee and businesswoman Mary Ann O’Brien, founder of Lily O’Brien’s Chocolates.
He also highlights the power of the Seanad to introduce legislation, citing the 17 Bills introduced in 21 years in the Upper House by Senator Quinn, who nominated the Trinity candidate for the election. “The Seanad has the power to shine a light on issues,” he says. As for reform, “I like the idea of having a Seanad of people with real expertise and experience in specific areas, whether that’s business or education or the medical area”.
A former investment banker, he set up a telecoms company in Ireland that was subsequently bought by Verizon and he now runs Powerscourt Investments, which invests in start-up companies in Ireland, often in high tech areas.
Proud of his work on Trinity’s €70 million new business school, which will open in 2018, he believes there is a need for the State to focus on “home-grown entrepreneurs and enterprise” and give them the same prominence as the multinational firms.
He had been “badgering politicians for years from the sidelines, but I felt it was time for me to put my money where my mouth is” and push climate action. Director of Friends of the Earth, it is a natural “area of special interest” for him.
And the Oireachtas last year passed Ireland’s first piece of legislation on climate change. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act had been eight years in the making. One of the highlights is that the Seanad will have equal billing with the Dáil. The four ministers responsible in this area – environment, agriculture, energy and transport – will be obliged to report progress on reaching targets to the Seanad as well as the Dáil.
He said that while a number of politicians were very interested in climate action, there was a need for a voice in the Seanad on this issue as he pointed to Ireland’s poor record in meeting climate targets, ahead of the formal signing in New York on Friday by 142 countries of the Cop21 global climate summit agreement.
He wonders if acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny will be there. Ireland will sign the agreement, whether on Friday or an another date, but the New York meeting aims to highlight its importance, he says.
The barrister believes there is a need for “genuine independent voices campaigning for those whose rights are not being implemented”. She is a candidate for the second time, having run in 2011 while still a student and campaigning mainly through social media.
“There is a lot of talk about reform but everyone seems to forget the principal role of the Seanad is to monitor and scrutinise legislation and initiate Bills.” The Seanad is not meant to be a “mirror” of the Dáil, she stresses.
She cites the example of senator Dan Neville of Fine Gael, who in the early 1980s, initiated the legislation to decriminalise suicide. “That was a huge step forward.”
Not aligned to any political party, she is frustrated by the actions of political parties to back affiliated candidates for the Upper House. And she says that while it is well and good for people to have policies in finance, the Seanad cannot be effective in this area because it does not have the power to change money Bills.
nOutgoing Senators Ivana Bacik, Seán Barrett and David Norris are also running, as are carer, journalist, academic and retired army captain Tom Clonan; lecturer Kevin Cunningham; communications officer Edward Davitt; IT consultant Eoin Meehan; Senator Averil Power; director of youth services William Priestley; president of TCD students’ union Lynn Ruane; professor of health systems Anthony Staines; musician, formerly RTÉ producer, Ethna Tinney