For all our progressive election laws, the Irish voting system still needs reform
22nd April 2019
By Niall Torris, UCD Students’ Union Graduate Officer 2017-2019
As final exams and thesis deadlines approach; modules, research, lecture notes, labs and all things in between are at the forefront of our minds. Honestly, there is little time for anything else and it can feel like any attention spent on matters outside of coursework amount to little more than procrastination. If you are in final year or completing a postgraduate degree these feelings are much greater as you look to cap off your course with as good an overall grade as possible. Now more than ever, your time is precious and many of you will be filling this time with study, organising J1s, postgraduate applications or looking to enter the workforce.
Even though it is probably the last thing on your mind, you will hear a lot about politics over the coming weeks. There is good reason for this, on 24 May Ireland will hold local elections, European elections and a national referendum to reduce the length of time a couple must live separately before they can get a divorce.
Globally, Ireland has some of the most inclusive voting laws as all residents, including non-EU citizens can register to vote in local elections. All you need is an Irish address and you can register to vote in these elections before 7 May.
For all our progressive election laws the Irish voting system still needs reform. There is little opportunity to get a postal vote and if you do qualify, it is difficult to get. There is only one Irish election where everyone automatically gets a postal vote, even if they live abroad, and bizarrely it is in one of Ireland's most exclusive elections for an even more exclusive government structure; Seanad Eireann. The Seanad is the upper house of the Irish Government and serves as a vital oversight to the Dáil. It also has the ability to create new bills and policies.
Anyone looking at how the members of Seanad Eireann are ‘elected’ would likely call it elitist and would be well justified in holding that opinion. Out of sixty senators, eleven are selected by an Taoiseach with no election, forty-three senators are nominated by various bodies, like trade unions, to run for specialist panels to represent their interests. These panels are Agriculture, Culture and Education, Administration, Industrial and Commercial, and Labour.
This leaves six senators who are elected by the graduates of Irish universities. Three senators are elected by Trinity graduates and three are elected by graduates of the National University of Ireland, of which UCD is a member. If you are a final year student or about to finish a postgraduate degree, you will soon be able to vote for these senators. So why bother?
Historically, the most progressive senators have been sat on university seats. In 1971, Mary Robinson used her seat in the Seanad to attempt to introduce the first bill to legalise contraception in Ireland. At the time all contraception, including condoms and the pill, were completely illegal. It did not pass but it brought a national conversation to the halls of government, starting a movement that benefitted the entire nation. When the current president Michael D. Higgins lost his seat as a TD in November 1982 due to his vocal opposition to the Eight Amendment, he was elected by NUI graduates to the Seanad, keeping his valuable and progressive voice in the Irish government. Similarly, since first becoming a senator 1987, David Norris has pushed for positive change in Irish society, particularly on LGBTQ+ rights.
Of about 400,000 odd people who could register to vote in the NUI panel election, only 109,000 are registered and just over 36,000 voted in the last NUI Seanad Panel. This means that just over 25% of graduates are registered to vote in these elections and only around 9% of those who could register casted their ballot. These numbers are extremely low and it is vital that we use our voices as graduates to keep the Seanad as progressive as possible and vote for candidates who do their best to use the seat to reform and progress the Seanad and to contribute positively to Irish society at large.
Currently your NUI senators are Alice-Mary Higgins, Michael McDowell and Ronan Mullen. Senator Higgins leads the Seanad Civic Engagement group which introduced progressive legislation including the Occupied Territories Bill which places significant restrictions on Ireland's activity with countries who illegally occupy foreign territories. Senators McDowell and Senator Higgins are pushing to reform the Seanad seeking for all senators to be elected to their panels by public vote. This is part of the Seanad Reform Bill published in 2018 which was drafted and published under the leadership of Senator McDowell. For his part, Senator Mullen has opposed both the Marriage Equality referendum and the recent referendum to repeal the Eight Amendment which sought to liberalise abortion laws in Ireland.
If you are a final year student or about to finish your postgraduate degree and you want to register for the Seanad, UCDSU will have registration events on in buildings on-campus where we will have the forms with us or you can drop down to the SU to get one. This leaves the easiest part (filling in the form) to you while leaving the awkward part (submitting it to NUI) to us.
It only takes two minutes to fill in the form, but the potential for change that your voice could bring is immense. It is our Seanad, it is our shared responsibility to use our vote to make it better. Let’s open up the Seanad and make it better for everyone.