Big issues: Reform/career move? Our new Senators’ priorities
The new Seanad is unlike any of its predecessors. Seven political first-timers explain how they ended up in the chamber and how they hope to make a difference
Grace O’Sullivan: “I have never been elected previously to any political position so it is brand new territory for me.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Catherine Ardagh: “I grew up in a family where you always had people knocking on our door.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Fintan Warfield: “I joined Sinn Féin when I was 16. My mum and dad would have been Labour.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Neale Richmond: “Reform [of the Seanad] is not my big thing. I am more interested in following up national issues.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Lynn Ruane: “I suppose I have been politicised from very young but didn’t realise that’s what that was.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Alice Mary Higgins: “I want to see some more civil society engagement but I really want to see the Seanad reform Bill moved through.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Frances Black: “It was suggested last year by a friend of mine who said: ‘You’d be great in the Seanad’.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Much like the 32nd Dáil, still wrestling with how to manage itself weeks into a politically novel existence, the 25th Seanad is quite unsure what type of a beast it is. The Upper House is of a different make up to anytime in its history.
Like in the Dáil, the number of Independents in the Seanad is greater than ever before. The Government party, Fine Gael, is dependent on the acquiescence or support from the main Opposition party, Fianna Fáil.
It is likely some Government Bills will be stymied and Opposition Bills passed. Although the Fine Gael-Labour government finished the last Seanad in a minority situation, a handful of opposition senators could usually be relied upon to vote with the Coalition or to absent themselves during votes. That will no longer be the case.
Even though the Upper House sat this week, its only business was the election of a Cathaoirleach. This is the usual practice at the outset of a new Seanad. There were lengthy speeches, some comically self-important, often from those who have sat longest in the Upper House.
Yet there is a widespread appetite, at least in public statements from politicians, for Seanad reform.
A referendum during the last Dáil on abolishing the Seanad saw the Upper House spared by the electorate, after which a cross-party consensus on reform emerged.
Dr Maurice Manning, chancellor of the National University of Ireland (NUI) and former TD and Fine Gael leader in the Seanad, conducted a report for the last government on how reform could be implemented.
One of its main findings was that all Irish citizens should be allowed vote in Seanad elections, widening its current franchise from TDs, senators and councillors, as well as graduates of the NUI and Trinity College. A widened franchise, including emigrants and Northern Ireland residents, would elect 30 of the 60 senators.
A further 13 members would be elected by the incoming Dáil and county councillors, while six would be elected by third-level graduates. The Taoiseach would continue to appoint 11 members.
The recently agreed Programme for Government said “significant reform of the Seanad itself is now long overdue”, and made “implementation of the Manning Report” a “priority”.
Many of the current crop of Senators say they want reform and see the Manning Report as a base from which to start. There is, however, an acknowledgment that change in Leinster House takes some time, meaning the current mechanics of the Seanad will apply for some time.
But the composition of the new Seanad will force a new of way of doing business and these new Senators have ideas about how that could be done.
Grace O’Sullivan: ‘The Seanad system is absolutely undemocratic’
Activist Grace O’Sullivan is the first elected Green Party Senator. She was part of the crew of the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace ship bombed by the French secret service in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1985. She previously stood as the Green Party MEP candidate for Ireland South in the 2014 European elections.
“I have never been elected previously to any political position so it is brand new territory for me. I became a member of the Green Party in order to run for the European elections.
“Entering the political realm wasn’t easy. I have a life of experience as an environmental and social campaigner but also as a mother, as a divorcee. I brought up my three children on my own and my oldest daughter is special needs. So I thought: ‘be brave, stand up, get to the table and do what you can’.
“To create a new political, social and environmental situation here in Ireland, people have to stand up and enter the political realm.
“The [Seanad] system as it currently is absolutely undemocratic. When I was out campaigning councillors and TDs and senators, I was honest and clear about that. In terms of graduates – institutes of technologies and universities – they should all be entitled to a vote. Citizens of Ireland should be entitled to a vote in the Seanad.”
Is the Seanad a stepping stone to the Dáil? “Not necessarily. My life’s philosophy is step by step, day by day, so I am just going to do my best for the moment.”
Fintan Warfield: ‘I will bring forward a Bill on reducing voting age’
Fintan Warfield is a former Sinn Féin mayor of South Dublin County Council, to which he was elected in 2014. Aged 24, he is the youngest member of the Oireachtas.
“I joined Sinn Féin when I was 16. My mum and dad would have been Labour. I was looking for something a bit radical. I would have been interested in [running for office] soon after joining. I was out leafleting for [Sinn Féin councillor] Daithí Doolan on the mid-term before the Leaving Cert.
“I would have been politicised by LBGT issues but also songs. I play traditional music. Although I never came out in school, I think that would have politicised me, having been in the closet.
“The mayor’s office offered the opportunity to prioritise a number of issues, and I was probably better at that than the constituency grind. As a result, I prioritised the Seanad: a space [to take on] issues, free from constituency work.
“The role as mayor allowed me take on marriage equality, it allowed me prioritise homeless and young people as well.
“ The first legislation I am going to bring forward is a Bill on [reducing] the voting age to 16 for local and European elections. It’s a constitutional amendment for the general election but legislation just has to change for local and European elections. It’s achievable for 2019.
“I’m under no illusion that we are going to have to work within the framework that’s there. Reform comes slow.” Catherine Ardagh: ‘I hope this time reform actually happens’
Catherine Ardagh narrowly lost out on a Dáil seat in Dublin South Central, and previously served on Dublin City Council. She is a daughter of Fianna Fáil TD Seán Ardagh, who died recently. Micheál Martin has appointed her Fianna Fáil leader in the Seanad.
“I am a solicitor by profession. My dad would have even said stick with the practice.
“He was like: ‘You’re mad, you’ve a lovely business there, keep it going’. Politics is my priority but I will try and keep them both going.
“I grew up in a family where you always had people knocking on our door and you sort of come to like people and helping them with problems. I’ve been doing that since I was kid. Especially in Dublin South Central with all the inequality, you see it on every door.
“I have been reading through previous debates, back to 1993. At that time, on their first day they were discussing the reform of the Seanad with even more vigour than might be discussed today. I am hoping this time it actually happens.
“Micheál did a good thing with the three Independent candidates [as part of a deal with Enda Kenny] to show that’s what the forum should be like.
“I would love to see myself in the Dáil. People ask why you are in the Seanad but the Seanad gives me a great opportunity to scrutinise legislation, to put issues before the floor, to get them to the chamber.” Frances Black: ‘Objectives – addiction, homelessness, community’
Singer Frances Black won a seat as an Independent candidate on the Industrial and Commercial panel. She qualified as an addiction counsellor following her own struggles with alcoholism.
“I set up an organisation back in 2009, called the Rise Foundation, to support family members who have a loved one with an alcohol, drug or gambling problem. That got me into the political arena, because you are now trying to advocate for families. I found it a little bit frustrating.
“It was suggested last year by a friend of mine who said: ‘You’d be great in the Seanad’. And then my husband said it to me, too. That was kind of the seed, and the fact that we need to up the ante on mental health, addiction issues, services and homelessness. Those are issues I am passionate about.
“I didn’t think I would get in. In fairness to the Independents, I thought I’d get around 20 but I actually got around 35, maybe 40 Independent votes. And then of course you have the AAA, People Before Profit, Sinn Féin.
“Seanad reform is something I am certainly interested in but my main objectives are addiction, mental health, homelessness and community sector.
“I don’t see myself running for the Dáil but I don’t know. At this moment in time, I don’t really have any interest.
“I would like to think that I could make change when I am in the Seanad, that I could influence people to make change. I’ll work really hard and I won’t let people down who voted for me.” Neale Richmond: ‘Is the Seanad a career springboard? Yeah’
Neale Richmond is a 33-year-old Fine Gael senator. Based in Ballinteer. He previously served on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.
“I was first elected to the council in 2009, re-elected in 2014 and prior to that I worked as a staffer for both Gay Mitchell and Olivia Mitchell here and in Brussels.
“[To the Seanad] I am going to bring a real idea of my generation, and what’s affecting us. The difficulty of getting on the housing market, getting sustainable jobs and the fact that half my friends live abroad.
“It’s going to be an interesting Fine Gael group. But we are going to very much a minority so it’s not going to be Government-versus-Opposition as much in the Seanad this time.
“Reform [of the Seanad] is not my big thing. I am more interested in following up national issues and issues that are apparent to my generation and my area.
“However, the fact that the people have voted to keep the Seanad [makes it] incumbent on us to look to improve it.
“I really want to run for the Dáil at the next general election.” Is the Seanad a springboard? “Yeah, let’s be honest. It is.” Alice Mary Higgins: ‘The Seanad is going to be the most exciting place’
Alice Mary Higgins is leaving her position as policy and campaigns officer with the National Women’s Council of Ireland to take up her Seanad seat on the National University of Ireland panel. She is the daughter of the president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins.
“My background is having worked in civil society over the last 20 years and been a campaigner since very young. But I have also worked with national organisations who really have a national mandate, such as Older and Bolder campaigning on age equality, and the National Women’s Council.
“I would also have a background in international development. I see that I am bringing a national and international civil society experience.
“I want to see some more civil society engagement but I really want to see the Seanad reform Bill moved through.
“For now, I am very excited to serve in the Seanad and very excited to serve in what will be a new Seanad going into the next election if we do have that reform.
“The Seanad, when it’s reformed, is going to be the most exciting place to be.”
Lynn Ruane: ‘The main thing I am driving is education’
The outgoing president of Trinity College students’ union took the third seat on the Trinity Seanad panel. Ruane, a single mother, won a place at the university through its access programme, having dropped out of school at 15, and has campaigned on access to education.
“I suppose I have been politicised from very young but didn’t realise that’s what that was. I would have been quite active as a child in standing up against different things I saw that were wrong.
“I started developing addiction programmes when I was 18 in Killinarden. I developed a programme for young heroin users.
“Around 2011, when I started to see the devastation austerity was having on the communities I was working in, I realised I didn’t have the power or the language or the know-how to defend them, so I decided to go back into education.
“From there, I ran for president of the union. Student politics wasn’t something I was overly interested in but then I saw there was room to pursue the kind of stuff I cared about. I focused very much on national issues and education.
“When I looked at the structure of the Seanad, I felt there was room to be active as well as being in the chamber scrutinising legislation.
“The main thing I am driving – even though I would be involved in Repeal the Eighth, in childcare issues, in all of those things – is education. Education can have a positive effect on all the other areas I have been active in.”