Writes Maeve O’Sullivan, Deputy News Editor
Deputy News Editor Maeve O’Sullivan recently spoke to Michelle Healy, an independent candidate in the upcoming NUI 2020 Seanad elections. Ms Healy comes from Bishopstown, Cork and is a graduate of UCC.
- Firstly, why is it you are running for this position?
I am a humanitarian, through and through.
Some people might associate humanitarianism with my former professional life, working with the United Nations across conflict affected areas of Africa and the Middle East. But I was a humanitarian long before I ever got off the plane at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi in 2007 to start my job with UNICEF.
My absolute passion and mission in life is to make the world a fairer, better, safer, kinder, more equitable place for others. This started in my teenage years, when my first real job was being a lifeguard and when I spent my spare time volunteering with charities. I left Ireland to work overseas as a professional humanitarian, and I eventually realised that my skills and experience could be put to use, at home, in my own country.
I returned in 2017 to take up a role delivering the new €17 million student services building, the Hub, in UCC. Hired as a project manager for change, I used my position in UCC to advocate for accessibility, inclusion and sustainability.
Coming home has not been without difficulty, as many returned Irish emigrants will understand. I saw Ireland in a different way. I saw an Ireland that was speeding ahead after the recession, and simultaneously an Ireland that was leaving many people behind.
In a country of such wealth and prosperity I ask myself questions like: Why are there more than 10,000 people without a home tonight? Why are people being treated on trollies in our healthcare system? Why can’t people earning decent salaries get mortgages? Why are students struggling to pay for university? Why are people still being treated differently in our country because of their gender, sexual orientation, disability, or ethnic status? Why are women still unable to access abortion services in parts of Ireland? Why are people terrified to cycle in our towns and cities?
We need people fighting for action, people who will stand up for the public good, people who will equality proof legislation, people who are looking out for marginalised groups, people who want an Ireland that cares for us all. This is why I am running.
- Who do you believe you are representing in the Seanad?
Representing the needs of the education sector are core to the role of an Senator elected via the NUI panel, in my opinion. However just because my constituency are graduates of certain universities, I believe I have the responsibility to represent many more than that. I am representing a new modern Ireland, an Ireland that cares for us all, an Ireland with compassionate representatives at the helm.
I am doing this for the seven year old girl I met recently, who goes to the same primary school that I went to, and who was so excited to meet a women from her school who was running for election; I am doing this for the woman who looked about my age and was standing in Paul Street in town two weeks ago in tears because she would be homeless that night; I am doing this for the student who confided to the UCC Confessions twitter account that they can’t afford housing and that financial burden they are putting on their parents is crippling them, and is making them to consider dropping out of UCC; I am doing this for the health care staff who try every day to deliver quality of care to patients sitting on trolleys; I am doing this for the people who have to change their loved ones of the floors of dirty bathrooms because there are no appropriate changing facilities; I am doing this for the asylum seekers who came from countries that I myself know and have lived in, who came to Ireland wanting a better life and who are living in fear of deportation in unacceptable direct provision centres; I am doing this for people who would love to cycle to school and work, but are terrified to do so; I am doing this for your children and for your grandchildren, because I want us to pass on a sustainable Ireland to the generations that will
These are some of the people that I will represent if I am elected to the Seanad.
- Are there any experiences that have prepared you for this role?
My life has encompassed two key elements, enacting real positive social change and giving a voice to those without one. As a teenager, following the Omagh bombing in 1998, I organised for girls from Catholic and Protestant secondary schools in Omagh to come stay with us in Cork, to join our school for a week, and tell us about life in Northern Ireland.
That was my first real exposure to a realisation that I have carried with me since – how lucky you can be by virtue of where and when you are born. Without realising it at the time, I was already a humanitarian.
I went on to study a degree in Government in University College Cork (UCC) where my drive for social activism was truly ignited by my involvement on the UCC Students Union as Projects and Campaigns Officer. After UCC I went on to study for a masters from Queens University Belfast in Human Rights Law, before launching into my international humanitarian life.
With 15 years professional experience working with United Nations agencies, international NGOs across Africa and the Middle East, and experience in the higher education system in Ireland, I can bring a unique different perspective to our Oireachtas.
I would probably be one of the few members of the Oireachtas with substantial experience in international cooperation and emergency management, something I believe Ireland will need in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic.
I have outlined some of my key previous experiences below that show how my proven experience in delivering change; Led on the development and opening of the new multi-million Euro sustainable and inclusive Hub building in UCC. Secured and rolled-out 100 million Euros worth of funding for large complex humanitarian aid and development programmes with the UN and International NGOs across Africa and the Middle East. Rolled-out civil society engagement, health, and protection programmes in partnership with the new Government of South Sudan. Set up a relocation project in partnership with UNHCR in Lebanon, ensuring that Syrian refugees were safely relocated to Canada. Drafted successful legislation in the New York State Assembly supporting rights for undocumented workers, primarily Irish immigrants to the US.
- The right to vote for the Seanad is for NUI graduates only, what is your stance on this? Should this rule be revised?
The Seanad narrowly escaped abolition in the 2013 referendum, however the Upper House is renowned as being ‘elitist’ and ‘undemocratic’. There are sixty seats in the Seanad. Three seats are elected by the graduates of the NUI, and another three seats elected by the graduates of Trinity College Dublin. Eleven seats are filled by the Taoiseach’s nominations, and the remaining 43 seats are filled from panels and are elected by Councillors, TDs, and Senators. Therefore, six seats are elected by an electorate of 160,000 people, while the other 54 seats are elected by an electorate of around 1,000 people.
In 2015 the Working Group on Seanad Reform published a report to revitalise the Seanad, making it more democratic by extending franchise to all citizens. The recommendations from this report are still to be implemented.
It is paramount that one of the first items on the agenda of the 26th Seanad is its own reform. It must be transformed into a democratic and representative institution, one that holds the trust and respect of our public.
- Housing for students in UCC, and many students across the country is going through turbulent times. UCC have recently announced a 3% increase on accommodation, to which we have responded with #OccupytheQuad movement. Is such increase on students justifiable?
The pressures across Irish society currently are impacting students and their families across the board. Rents are increasing across Cork, both in the private rental market, and in UCC Campus Accommodation. Students and their families are already impacted by rising capitation fees and student charges, along with rising rental costs.
These financial pressures not only are mentally distressing for students, they could contribute to current and potential students reassessing the affordability of university. I believe we need to open up access to third level education for all, particularly for students who require financial support.
The #OccupytheQuad movement has been an incredible response by the students of UCC. They are highlighting the issue in a respectful way and I have spent a few evenings on the Quad sitting by the campfire discussing these issues with the students there, including the SU.
The university sector is now receiving 40% less direct government funding in 2020 compared to ten years ago. This compounds the situation, when universities may have to prioritise different student supports and services.
Having a strong voice for education and housing in the Seanad is of vital importance, and as a member of our Governing Body, I am in a unique position to bring the voices and experiences of UCC, and other third level institutions, to the Seanad. I will be advocating for a rent freeze for residential rents, and this will include rents for students.
The UCC Express team would like to wish Michelle the best of luck with her campaign and the upcoming election.