No matter what way you slice the University of Dublin Seanad constituency – more commonly known as the Trinity panel – it seems to represent the very essence of elitism.
To have suffrage, you must have graduated from the country’s most elite university. Trinity’s groundbreaking attempts to widen access notwithstanding, its graduates are disproportionately privately educated, and demonstrably less likely to have come from lower socio-economic backgrounds than those from other universities.
It is also peculiar. That the graduates of a single university have a constituency unto themselves – granting them the right to elect three members of a national parliament – is surely one of the more idiosyncratic features of an electoral system anywhere in the world.
In a theoretical and egalitarian sense, the Trinity panel thus seems quite hard to defend.
By amalgamating the Trinity and National University of Ireland panels and forming one large six-seat constituency, proposals contained within the new Seanad reform report would, at least, see the whole thing get a little bit less peculiar.
But to treat the Trinity panel as merely a peculiar, elitist anachronism only vitiates its most redeeming qualities.
For one thing, it has been home to some of Ireland’s most transformational figures. Think of the boisterous David Norris who, let’s remind ourselves, would not have been elected in any other constituency in 1987. One year later, he stood luminously against his own country at the European Court of Human Rights, demanding the decriminalisation of his own existence.
Think of Mary Robinson, who, in addition to revitalising the presidency, spent decades in the Seanad campaigning for the rights of women, burnishing her place at the table of Ireland’s most trailblazing figures long before she had stepped foot in Áras an Uachtaráin.
The list goes on. As this Editorial Board has pointed out before, the repeal of the eighth amendment may not have happened without Ivana Bacik. Owen Sheehy-Skeffington used the Trinity panel to rail against authoritarianism and corporal punishment. And Lynn Ruane, who does not exactly epitomise the notion of an elitist Trinity graduate, is already making waves.
And so: peculiar and elitist it may be, those contemplating altering the status quo should at least consider the fact that the Trinity panel has inarguably been a force for good in Ireland.