In Focus
Feb 14, 2022

Hugo MacNeill: Using Networking for Good

The former rugby player is running on a three-pronged platform of economy, north-south relations and disability advocacy.

Emer MoreauEditor
Alex Connolly for The University Times

Hugo MacNeill is a well-connected man. From using his rugby contacts to organise a friendly between Ireland and the Barbarians as a demonstration of peace during the Troubles, to helping students with disabilities secure employment, the former rugby player and Goldman Sachs boss has a track record of using his network for good causes.

Throwing his hat in the Seanad ring for a second time, MacNeill is pitching himself to voters as a long-time advocate for inclusion and co-operation. His campaign centres around three main pillars: building a sustainable economy, building positive relationships on the island of Ireland and empowering young people with intellectual disabilities. In an interview with The University Times, he speaks at length about the latter two, remarking that he’s now at the stage of wanting to vouch for these causes “not just some of the time, but all of the time”.

Working in the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, he says he has seen firsthand a model for change: “At the moment, less than one per cent of our fellow citizens with intellectual disabilities go to third level education. Only six per cent of them get permanent employment. That’s wrong. We have to change this – we can change this.”


The centre “went from four business partners back in 2016. Now we have 40. It’s just phenomenal … what needs to happen now is to share the Trinity model with other third-level institutions around the country”.

At the moment, less than one per cent of our fellow citizens with intellectual disabilities go to third level education. Only six per cent of them get permanent employment. That’s wrong

As Chair of the British-Irish Association, MacNeill has worked on north-south relations for several decades. But he now notes the delicateness of the situation thanks to Brexit and conversations around a united Ireland: “[In] the first two paragraphs of the Good Friday Agreement, they talk about the need for tolerance and reconciliation … if you wanted to change the constitutional position, you have to have the tolerance and reconciliation happening.”

“Especially with what’s been going on in the last few years, British-Irish relations as bad as they’ve ever been. North South relations are terrible”, he says candidly. “There’s a lot of lack of confidence in unionism. They really understand that the rest of the UK does not care as much as they would like [them] to care.”

But, for all the problems across the border, he is emphatic that the positive attributes of Northern Ireland and its people need more recognition. “There’s a lot of young people in the middle of this who don’t want to be defined … these are great characters who don’t want to be aligned. They want rights – they want gender rights, they want sexuality rights, they want health rights, they want opportunity of jobs. They don’t want to be defined in this binary way.”

Beyond advocacy, MacNeill is best known in some circles for his decision not to travel to South Africa with the Irish rugby team in 1981 due to the ongoing boycott over apartheid. With questions of human rights abuses in China and Qatar ahead of the Winter Olympics and World Cup taking place in those respective countries this year, should athletes stage similar conscientious objections?

He ponders: “Can we keep politics out of sport? I mean, going back to South Africa, there was a number of people who did put that argument to me. But, he adds, “this was something that I had some control over, just as somebody who decides whether they want to go to Qatar or not [does]”.

“A lot of the Black leaders were saying: ‘Don’t come, we’re more familiar with the regime than anybody else’”, he recalls. “Some of these are less clear cut. I mean, are there people, you know, the people in Qatar saying ‘don’t come’? Maybe they’re scared to do that. … [but] I was responding to a specific ask from the black leaders.”

We should look at the wide range of alternatives for funding universities, but always guided by the point that it shouldn’t be something that dissuades somebody from going to college

But on access to universities themselves, he returns to the point of inclusion: no one should be dissuaded from going to college “because of money”, he says. He ponders whether some graduates “over their lifetime or over the future would be able to [or] in a position to pay back” their fees, but doesn’t characterise this as a graduate tax. “I think what we need to do when we come through the pandemic is to look at where we are, what should come through the state.”

He points to the rapid rise of philanthropy as a funding stream for universities: “That’s been very impressive. And what Trinity has achieved under Paddy Prendergast and others is fantastic. So I think it needs to be looked at, the whole question of university funding. And we [should] look at the wide range of alternatives, but always guided by the point that it shouldn’t be something that dissuades somebody from going to college.”

Less clear is his stance on the controversial Higher Education Authority Bill: “I haven’t come to a view on it, I need to do that. Frankly, I need to do more work and thinking around it.”

Given that elections for the university panels usually take place during the anticlimax that follows a Dáil election, one wonders if this time there will be more scrutiny of the problems with the Seanad makeup – namely, why graduates of a handful of Ireland’s universities get an additional vote in the Oireachtas. MacNeill says he wouldn’t support abolishing the two university panels, pointing to the track record of past and present Senators in them. “I can absolutely understand when people say we may need to change it, and maybe, maybe it will be changed. But just at this moment, with so many other things going on and emerging from COVID and that, is now the time for radical changes?”

I think university panels and the quality of the Senators has actually been exactly the kind of people you would like to see in an upper house

“There’s this space in the Seanad for different panels, but I think university panels and the quality of the Senators has actually been exactly the kind of people you would like to see in an upper house.”

Speaking on the political issues of the day, MacNeill appears to take inspiration from his wife, Dún Laoghaire TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, who he says takes the approach of “I’ll never object to planning for housing”. He ponders the introduction of rent caps or freezes, questioning whether they would increase housing supply. If not, “what’s the effect of that? you look at the rates and the increases, but I think it comes back to: is it going to cut off supply? … I don’t come from any particular sort of angle on that. But I think the key thing has to be always: how do we get the supply of housing and the supply of affordable housing up? And is there a bigger role for the state in that? Absolutely.”

He refers to his wife once again when asked about another pressing issue in Ireland: violence against women. Carroll MacNeill is a recent victim of harassment, including being sent sexually explicit material by text.

The candidate is adamant that early intervention is crucial: “It’s got to go into schooling, it’s got to be in the school system.”

“I think men have a huge responsibility in this as well. In actually cutting out stuff that’s inappropriate, not tolerat[ing] stuff that’s inappropriate.”

“I’m very angry at it, as I say, as a husband of somebody who’s been abused verbally”, he says. But he insists that action cannot wait until “it’s someone you know”. “I’ve always had this attitude.”

When he’s my age, where’s this planet going to be? … I don’t think we’ve made enough progress on climate change

On climate action, he also relates back to personal experience. He recalls watching David Attenborough with his six-year-old son and wondering: “When he’s my age, where’s this planet going to be?”

“So I think the time is now … I don’t think we’ve made enough progress”, he says. “This is going to be the defining issue of the next 10 or 20 years. And if we’re not serious about it, and if that means cutting back, because that means changing aspects of the way you live, so be it.”

He returns to the climate when summing up his reasons for running: “I have a history in business and credibility in business, but we need to be advocating that everything gets looked through the prism of sustainability as well.”

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