UL graduate Tomás Henegan celebrates Supreme Court win but hopes it is the start of further reform in Seanad Éireann.
A University of Limerick (UL) graduate has won a Supreme Court case granting further voting rights in Seanad Éireann.
Until March this year only National University of Ireland and Trinity College graduates had the right to vote in Senator elections.
Former criminal justice and journalism student Tomás Heneghan’s win saw rights granted to University of Limerick graduates to be added to the pool. The change must take place before 2025, yet Tomás hopes his achievement will spark further reform: “Can they [Irish government] realistically turn around to the public and say we’re going to extend the Seanad franchise to more graduates but we’re not going to give anyone else a vote?”
Tomás first noticed the issue while studying for his undergraduate in 2013, during the referendum to abolish the Seanad. “It was while I was campaigning for that that I realised that there was this weird gap there between all of the colleges and then Trinity and NUI,” he said.
Upon graduating, Tomás felt he “didn’t have the thing that other graduates had” and described watching eligible graduates on social media getting on the register to vote in the Seanad.
“I’m a graduate but I can’t [vote],” he remembered thinking.
“That was really frustrating,” he said, relaying the experience of watching graduates and those who didn’t go to university asking, “why don’t I have a vote?”
Within Seanad Éireann, also known as the Senate, legislation proposed by government is debated. Members, known as senators, have the authority make amendments to Government Bills that have been passed by the lower house and delay, however not stop, the bill becoming a law.
It consists of sixty members; eleven of whom are elected by the Taoiseach (Ireland’s Prime Minister), forty-three elected from panels with vocational interests and the remaining six by university graduates.
“It was originally set up to have independent voices,” Tomás explained, a place where “careful and considerate” discussions among experts could take place.
“It’s meant to have that deeper level of knowledge and engagement and I think that can actually be achieved if the majority of the Seanad are elected by the people, the general public.”
Asked on his motivation to make the change, Tomás had one word: “stubbornness.”
He recalled the “constant churn” of politicians saying, “we need to fix this” yet remembered “no one was actually doing anything.”
Initially, Tomás did not think his case would reach the Supreme Court but more “push against an open door” and “put pressure on the government to take action.”
“That isn’t what happened,” he beamed.
He opened the case in 2019 and recalled the frustration that it “wasn’t moving” and then his “devastating” loss in the High Court. Tomás did not dream that four years after opening the case, it would rule in his favour.
“I had been checking the courts website every day, religiously checking it at 5pm every day for months since October last year when the case was first heard in the Supreme Court.”
Tomás, revealing that his achievement has still “not quite sunk in yet” compared it to a three-legged stool; he wants to see more for Seanad Éireann and hopes this will spark reform.
“I was going for the two legs, to kick them out from under the stool but one would be enough if it meant that the stool fell over.
“This in my mind is the one, it’s forced the stool to fall over now the government have to come along and fix it.”
“I would like to see a place where it’s [Seanad Éireann] not just dominated by political parties.”
“Starting out back in 2019 I wanted everyone to have a vote and I thought maybe I could get there.” “It’s not actually everyone yet,” he said.