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2 August 2007 Edition

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Interview : Sinn Féin Senator Pearse Doherty

Pearse Doherty with Sinn Féin TD’s and Councillors outside Leinster House on the day they voted in the Seanad election

Pearse Doherty with Sinn Féin TD’s and Councillors outside Leinster House on the day they voted in the Seanad election

A republican voice in the Seanad

Last week saw Councillor PEARSE DOHERTY elected as Sinn Féin’s first member of the 26 County Seanad, exceeding the quota of 89 to take 103 votes to top the poll on the Agriculture Panel. Here he talks to ELLA O’DWYER about his election and his intention to work towards the formation of a more representative and relevant parliamentary forum.

Firstly congratulations Pearse on becoming Sinn Féin’s first senator. It’s a great lift for the party.
Yes. Without a doubt. Securing a Seanad seat has in no small way addressed the disapointment we received at the general election, particularly the loss of Seán Crowe as a TD. Our numbers in the Oireachtas are back up to five so it goes a long way towards addressing that setback. Also it gives the party a lift nationally. I’ve been inundated with well-wishers congratulating me – councillors, party members and supporters from all over the country.

What do you think of the Seanad as an institution?
Some of those elected to the Seanad play to their own party councillors in the interests of re-election rather than working to benefit the national constituency – the people of this island – the wider picture. That’s where Sinn Féin comes in. Our party is represented on every elected political body on the island. It’s known for instance that some Senators actually send Christmas presents to councillors – things like pens, DVDs or the like. I won’t be doing that, [laughs] I intend to work for the whole constituency of Ireland, not just Donegal.

So you’ll be the sole Sinn Féin voice on the Seanad
I won’t have been the first to enter an Oireachtas forum alone in that Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin went into Leinster House on his own in 1997. I will be joining a strong Sinn Féin team so I will have a lot of support. I’ll learn from our Oireachtas team as I go along so it’s not as daunting a challenge as that faced by Caoimhghín back back then.  We don’t yet know what way the Seanad will be configured but we’re hoping that we will be in a position to form a Technical Group which would allow me more speaking time and to put forward the republican agenda in the Seanad.  It’s clear now that the Government will be in the majority in the Seanad so there will be a need for the opposition parties to work together.

The Seanad is supposed to have a scrutiny role doesn’t it?
Yes it does. We will have the opportunity to amend legislation that comes before the Seanad and to debate legislation. Some legislation will actually start in the Seanad and we’ll have the opportunity to propose Private Members Bills, to raise motions for debate and to question Ministers.

So the Seanad is not completely ineffectual?
The Seanad is an important body and we in Sinn Féin intend to use that and every available forum to hold the government to account every single day and to work with others to address the various crises that arise in this country, particularly in the area of health, regional development and the economic challenges Ireland will be facing in the future. Being elected on the Agricultural Panel doesn’t exclude us from working on other issues. Once you’re elected to the Seanad it doesn’t matter what panel you were elected onto.  Again a lot depends on the final configuration of the Seanad – co-operation will be important.

Who gets to vote in the Seanad elections?
Members of the Seanad are selected by three different methods. The Taoiseach directly nominates 11 members, National University of Ireland (NUI) and Trinity College graduates elect six Seanad members between them, and Councillors and incoming TDs elect 43 members.

That’s not very representative is it?
No it’s not. For instance a lot of graduates have been excluded simply on the basis that they gained their degrees from institutions other that Trinity or NUI. Furthermore the right to vote should not be dependent on whether you have a degree or not.
The process as it stands is very elitist and excludes a vast number of people. Sinn Féin will be pushing for reform in this area in that we believe that the right to vote should be open to all Irish citizens and it should also be open to Irish emigrants to vote via the various Irish embassies around the world. We also believe that anyone resident in this country for over five years should be able to vote.
As things stand the system distances the public from the workings of the Seanad. Even the count procedures for Seanad elections is bizarre  – very hard to understand and entirely different from the count at council or Dáil level. Very few people in the room at the count understand the procedures involved. At the count on Monday a lawyer was present along with the Returning Officer because the count process is so complicated.
All these factors make the public’s grasp of the affairs of the Seanad very disjointed. I topped the poll with 103 votes. Each vote is regarded as amounting to to 1,000 votes so it was 103,000. Four candidates were very low in the count so they counted every, single second preference they received. It’s complex. We would want to see a Seanad elected directly by the people with community and voluntary groups being allowed to nominate people.

So you will be leaving your council seat?
Yes and already three names have been put forward as replacements – three women in their 20s who are willing to accept the co-option, or perhaps go forward as a second candidate in the next Local Government elections. So this too is an important development.

Were you surprised when you took the seat?
Well we always knew that with 58 Sinn Féin councillors we’d have to go into negotiation with others and that was left in the hands of our Director of Elections Joan O’Connor and our Whip in the Dáil Aengus Ó Snodaigh and they put a lot of time and work into that task and with great success.

So will you stand for the Dáil in the next general election?
We see the Seanad seat as a great stepping-stone towards taking a Dáil seat and of course the experience I gain over the next five years will be of great benefit to me if I manage to take a Dáil seat at the next general elections.

Are you looking forward to the next five years?
Yes, I’m very proud to have been selected by the party as the Seanad candidate and I take the challenge facing me very seriously. I have a responsibility to promote the republican project in the Seanad and I, along with our strong Oireachtas team will be holding the government to account all the way. There is a learning curve but I look forward to the challenge. This will be the first time a republican voice will be heard in the Seanad and people shouldn’t take that lightly.

An Phoblacht Magazine

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