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Kathy Sheridan: It’s going to take a lot more than Hazel Chu to shake up the Seanad

Could Trinity’s electorate be inspired to shock the Government into action?

Name the two Senators whose resignations triggered the byelections in April. Now name the two who were elected by a landslide to replace them. Name the panels to which they were elected. Give the number and composition of the electorate. And, for a bonus, can you name the parties to which the departed and newly elected Senators belong? Anyone?

If your answer is “haven’t a clue”, “are you joking?” and “don’t be silly”, join the club. When the Seanad was threatened with abolition in the 2013 referendum, fewer than four in 10 bothered to vote. It survived by a squeak mainly on the presumption of swift reform.

Eight years on Maria Byrne is elected to the Agricultural panel and Gerry Horkan to the Industrial and Commercial panel. They replace Michael D’Arcy who has left to become chief executive of the Irish Association of Investment Management and Elisha McCallion who resigned over a Covid grant repayment controversy. The total electorate is just 218 because to fill vocational panels in byelections, only Oireachtas members are allowed to vote yet somehow 15 and 16 votes are messed up on the respective panels.

As for the question about party affiliation, it was a trick: the House doesn’t recognise political party membership. The Seanad election is the only one with no political party names on the ballot papers. In the real world, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had a voting pact for the byelections and agreed to run one candidate in different panels. Byrne and Horkan won by landslides.


It's a fact that when people bring years of expertise, wit, wisdom and hard-won experience to a job, their contribution is worth more than people who don't

It’s hardly surprising that the Seanad has never inspired huge name recognition beyond a handful of members who would have carved a niche for themselves as experts and activists in any event. It’s both obligatory and true to say that there are fine, hardworking Seanad members who work conscientiously in the public service.

Yet the show rumbles on regardless in what David Norris once described as “an intensive care unit for those discarded from the Dáil or as a convenient launching pad for aspiring TDs”.

Either way it’s a charmed position, not least because the title of Senator confers an air of gravitas, privileges, sweet parking and membership of one of the most exclusive electoral clubs in the world. It pays a basic €69,474 plus travel and accommodation expenses plus public representational allowances (research, advertising, clinics, and so on) plus additional salaried allowances for roles such as Civil Engagement Group Leader.

And frankly, for the time servers it’s a whole lot easier and less time-consuming than being a TD.

A Senator’s worth

It’s a fact that when people bring years of expertise, wit, wisdom and hard-won experience to a job, their contribution is worth more than people who don’t. But the question is, who gets to decide on a Senator’s worth? Politicians.

In general elections 1,169 voters – TDs, councillors, outgoing Senators – elect 43 of the Senators. Another six are elected by graduates in the universities constituency, notoriously limited to the Dublin, Cork, Galway and Maynooth NUI universities which get three seats and to Trinity College, which gets another three, including the one recently vacated by Ivana Bacik.

No candidate was ever required to be a graduate of the university concerned or be connected to it in any way

This is where it gets lively. Hazel Chu ruffled feathers when she ran for the earlier Seanad byelection this year and then put her name forward for the Dublin Bay South byelection so it will stagger no one that the former Dublin lord mayor and Green party chairwoman is considering a Seanad run to replace Bacik.

Reform, at last?

But hold on. Isn’t that one of those irritating elections open only to graduates of certain universities, like Trinity in this case? Yes it is. And did Hazel Chu graduate from Trinity? No she did not (she went to UCD). Well, this is a pleasant surprise. So they’ve actually reformed something at last?

Don’t be ridiculous.

The rules haven’t changed. No candidate was ever required to be a graduate of the university concerned or be connected to it in any way.

Indeed – prepare to be astounded – a universities candidate is not required to be a graduate of anywhere. The 1937 Act has things to say about voters’ eligibility (must be an Irish citizen and graduate) but the only requirement of candidates for the universities constituency is that “every candidate at an election… shall be nominated in writing on a nomination paper subscribed by two registered electors of the constituency as proposer and seconder respectively and by eight other registered electors of the constituency as assenting to the nomination”.

On the evidence of a deeply unscientific straw poll, not a lot of people know this. That may be because this is Trinity’s first byelection in 42 years but the rules apply to any Seanad election in the universities constituency.

It suggests intriguing possibilities as candidates go. Less than a quarter of Trinity’s electorate voted in last year’s Seanad general election, which leaves about 50,000 who didn’t bother. Might they be inspired to shake things up, shock the Government into action at last?

The world awaits.