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Lise Hand: A thought-provoking and frank Seanad – without the senators

IT was an interesting and thought-provoking few hours in the Seanad (yes, ye all read that correctly). There was no shouting or shape-throwing, no point-scoring, no statements windier than the Conor Pass in a hurricane or questions more endless than austerity budgets.

The 45 individuals in the comfy seats in the Upper House chamber sat quietly, listened courteously, spoke fluently and posed direct questions.

They weren't senators, of course.

Yesterday, the Seanad hosted the inaugural 'Young Senators Day', and for over two hours it was taken over by 45 transition- year students from around the country, all winning entrants in a national essay competition.

The first hour was taken up with an Order of Business, whereby 30 of the students put questions to the leader and deputy leader of the House, Maurice Cummins and Ivana Bacik, on a range of issues from the economy to bullying to the environment – it was telling that nine of the questions were on emigration, given that if the current grim statistics persist, some of the bright young sparks in the room yesterday are destined to end up seeking work in far-off places.

The questions from the students were direct – such as, "What is the Government going to do to give young people an incentive to stay in Ireland?" – however, the answers from the two senators were light on facts and figures, concentrating more on the sort of vague positivity which the Taoiseach chucks about like confetti at a wedding.

Speaking on emigration, Senator Maurice Cummins said: "I know that many people feel that their country has let them down, that their politicians let them down and that Irish society and bankers certainly let them down, and what we owe to all those people, those citizens, is our absolute determination and unwavering commitment to fix this country and make it a better place to live in, to work in, to raise a family in and to grow old in," he said.

Indeed, but fine words butter no parsnips – especially with an audience who most likely keep in touch with at least one family member via Skype these days.

But in fairness, Maurice, Ivana and Cathaoirleach Paddy Bourke did their utmost to make their guests feel at home in the Seanad.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn arrived to hear 10 students read aloud their winning essays, divided into two topics, 'Do you think the Leaving Cert prepares you for life?' and 'The challenges facing Ireland and does your future lie here?'

And in truth Ruairi probably gained more enlightenment from the contributions than he did from facing fractious teachers at last month's conferences.

Brian McDermott, from Strokestown, was polite, but angry, and echoed sentiments all-too familiar when he spoke of his own future. "A reason why I feel my future is not in my country is because of the gulf in classes. I see people who have worked all of their lives paying taxes into their country. Yet because of the mistakes of petulant politicians and brainless bankers, they now have no jobs," he said.

Unlike many of the denizens of the Oireachtas, these young folk are at the sharp end of the recession, watching the daily struggle of their families on farms in small towns around the country.

'Young Senators Day' was a new wheeze dreamed up by Senator Susan O'Keeffe, and it's planned to make it an annual event.

But alas this may be tricky if the Seanad is given six of the best by the electorate when the referendum rolls around.

Irish Independent