Saturday 25 May 2019

College apartheid continues, 40 years after we voted for change

The University Panel election system is the nearest thing to pocket boroughs we still have

TRINITY: Graduates can vote
TRINITY: Graduates can vote

Gay Mitchell

Few residents of north, west and inner-city Dublin, and similar communities throughout the country, will get to attend NUI or Trinity College Dublin. If you live in Dublin 4, 6, or Dublin South County and some parts of North Dublin, you are many times more likely to go to university than residents of other postal districts. The majority of those who do live in the better-off areas will attend UCD or Trinity. A similar bias exists throughout the country.

Those who do graduate from Trinity and NUI get the opportunity to elect between them six members of Seanad Eireann. The effect of this is as bad as apartheid in other parts of the world. Laws will continue to be disproportionately made by the better off. It is time to end this outrage.

Before the 1832 Reform Act, there was no uniform basis for the parliamentary franchise in the then United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. Pocket boroughs, that is control of certain constituencies by the influential was, until then, common practice. Almost 200 years later, the University Panel election system as constituted is the nearest thing to pocket boroughs we still have.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution has now been repealed. The new amendment will be legislated for with breath-taking speed. Next year will mark the 40th year since the passing of the Seventh Amendment. This allows for universities and other institutions of higher education, in addition to the graduates of the NUI and the University of Dublin (TCD), to vote in the election of senators.

There are now more than one million people in Ireland between the ages of 20 and 65 who have a third-level qualification. Only a fraction of those have graduated from NUI or Trinity. Yet, graduates from third-level institutions other than NUI and TCD have been denied the vote in Seanad elections because the Oireachtas has failed to legislate for the decision of the people almost four decades ago.

This electoral apartheid would be unworthy of an authoritarian state. That it has been allowed to continue for almost 40 years after the people voted for change in a referendum is an appalling failure of government.

The Universities Act 1997 redefined the nature of the NUI. To the three constituent colleges of UCD, UCC and UCG were added a number of teacher training and medical training colleges, and Maynooth.

The predecessor of the NUI was the Queen's University of Ireland, established by Royal Charter. The allocation of six seats, three each to the NUI and TCD, has its origins in this historic establishment, and the need to ensure an openness to both Catholic and Protestant representation. Most of the NUI students were Catholic, TCD was a Protestant stronghold. Indeed, the Catholic Church would not allow its members to attend Trinity, save in exceptional circumstances. These patterns of education are a thing of the past. The country has moved on. There are now as many Catholics as Protestants at TCD but the old regime, and the old-boy and girl network, continues.

Why are the graduates of such institutions as DCU, DIT, and Regional Technological Institutes, denied a say in the election of senators? We are about to have a new technological university, none of its graduates will have a vote in Senate elections if amending legislation is not introduced.

There should be one six-seat constituency for all third-level graduates. As a citizen of the State, I accept the decision of the people not to abolish Seanad Eireann but we were promised significant reforms. This is one reform that is almost 40 years overdue.

The excuse offered by those who are content with the existing discriminatory system is that there would be difficulty drawing up a broader third level Register of Electors. Why? The very business of politics is to find solutions to problems. This is not rocket science. If it were, we could find a well- qualified scientist in, for example, DIT, DCU or WIT to find a solution.

Every graduate of a third-level institute in Ireland should be allowed to indicate on the Dail register that he/she is a graduate. The letter (S) could then be placed on the register after their name to indicate an entitlement to vote in Seanad elections - just as the letters (E and L) indicate rights to vote in European and Local Elections for different categories of residents. For those living abroad, a central register could be maintained.

To prevent abuse, provision could be made for random annual audit of, say, 10pc of those registered, with penalties provided for those who deliberately misrepresent their entitlement.

The Institute of Public Administration could easily draw up a list of qualifying third-level institutions whose graduates would be entitled to register.

Seanad Eireann makes laws jointly with Dail Eireann. Joint Oireachtas committees are made up of members from both houses. A senator who assiduously attends can be as influential as a Dail deputy. We would never dare elect TDs on such a discriminatory basis. Why should we allow it for senators?

We live in a democracy. The people spoke almost 40 years ago. There can be no more excuses, it is time to end this injustice.

There will be a Seanad election within two years. This abuse of democracy must be ended before that election comes.

Gay Mitchell is a former Fine Gael TD and MEP.

Sunday Independent

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