We need a reformed Seanad to help tackle the big issues

More than a few people have told me that the Sinn Fein surge in the General Election gave them the jitters. Their fear comes down to two things. They worry that Sinn Fein’s proposals to fix our housing, health and pensions problems could wreck the economy and cause longer-term misery and hardship for us all.

They also wonder who will be running the country. Would Mary Lou as Taoiseach really be in charge? Or would it be those people in Belfast? Would she be really the Taoiseach, or just a spokesperson?

It’s too soon to panic. Sinn Féin did not win a majority of seats in the Dáil. And they will also discover, sooner or later, that problems are hard to solve and people are hard to please.

In all likelihood, FF and FG will cobble together a Government for the next few years.

Revolutions don’t happen so easily. Let’s not forget that after the 2011 general election, Enda Kenny promised to deliver what he termed a ‘democratic revolution.’ Nine years later, people are only too aware that his promised ‘revolution’ failed to materialise.


Political commentator and author John Drennan characterised Enda’s failed ‘revolution’ as ‘The Great Betrayal.’ Although our national finances appear to have been restored, new and alarming concerns are emerging around how much of this is masked by an economy too dependent on the billions generated by volatile corporation tax receipts.

Farms and communities in rural Ireland face massive challenges. We have not made farming a viable career option for young people. (The Western Development Commission found that the number of people working in agriculture in Ireland has decreased by 41% in the past 20 years. )

Hospital waiting lists continue to grow. There are 411 fewer inpatient beds in Ireland’s hospitals today than a decade ago, despite a larger, older population. And there are 8,853 patients on Galway University Hospital In-Patient and Day Care waiting list. Approximately 42,683 patients are on the Galway University Hospital Outpatient waiting list.

Then there are the financial challenges confronting third-level students like those in NUIG and GMIT as rents spiral. There is deepening inequality of access for students from low and middle income families and some are forced to exit from college or university as costs become unsustainable.

But it is not a revolution we need to transform this situation. It’s a new political culture built on a shared sense of the common good, but also respect for different voices in politics. There was a lot of talk about change before, during and after the General Election. People voted for change, or so we’re told, but many did so without any real expectation of getting it.


Many still feel disenfranchised. Voices still go unheard. And those concerned with the individualistic direction of our culture continue to be dismissed.

We need to stop just talking about rights, and discuss how to build community and solve our social problems based on our responsibilities to each other.

For this to happen, we need much more freedom of speech in our country and an end to a culture of online abuse of those whose ideas differ from ours.

As a sitting senator for the National University of Ireland, I have tried to challenge the culture of groupthink that holds us back and I have questioned vested interests. I have proposed to reduce the exorbitant pay of ‘celebrity broadcasters’ in RTE in order to save taxpayers money and out of fairness to RTE’s lower-placed, but no less talented, people.

I have discovered that you can’t save the world from the Seanad but you can ensure that ideas that were all but overlooked in the Dáil are heard and considered.

But if we are going to get the solutions to our various problems, we need to look at our electoral system. The Seanad should be a means of getting people into politics who would not be likely to run locally for the Dáil. What TDs do is important, but their high level of commitment to local activity should be balanced by a Seanad composed of people from different backgrounds looking at the national picture.

The Seanad vote should be extended to the entire electorate through a national open-list system that would allow parties and other groups to field national lists and to take the proportion of seats that their percentage of the vote deserves.

In this way, the Seanad could fulfil its original aim of being a vehicle for the broadest possible cross-section of voices from Irish society, including those of minority views.

‘Seismic shifts’ do sometimes take place in politics, but the change we need comes from having a parliamentary system where all voices are heard and people come together to agree on practical solutions, instead of trying to get ‘one-up’ on the other side.

Rónán Mullen from Ahascragh is an Independent Senator for the National University of Ireland and a candidate for the NUI Panel in the Seanad Elections.


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