In Focus
Feb 21, 2022

Patricia McKenna is Determined to Address the ‘Echo Chambers’ in Ireland

The former MEP is frustrated with the lack of reform of the Upper House, which was promised when the electorate voted not to abolish it in 2013.

Maebh GallagherStaff Writer

Patricia McKenna is determined to dissolve the “echo chambers” and reform the Seanad from within. While the former MEP was involved in the campaign to retain the Seanad, when the electorate was asked to vote on whether it should be abolished, she believes that, “it’s very important as an assessor of what the Dáil is proposing, and that’s not working.”

In an interview with The University Times, McKenna expresses her frustration with the lack of reform since the referendum was held to abolish the Seanad. “All the people who said there was a problem with it have done nothing about it since it was retained.” She believes one of the main reasons it’s not working is due to how the seats are filled, describing the current franchise as “grossly unfair” and lacking inclusivity. For one, she says, “we need to include all third-level graduates in the voting system for the university seats”.

But she also acknowledges the need to represent those who have not had the opportunity to continue to third-level education. “The Seanad should be an effective scrutiniser of legislation coming out of the Dáil and we need to have those people represented.” With regards to the 11 Senators appointed by the Taoiseach, McKenna said: “there is no democratic accountability.”


She also takes issue with the fact that the majority of seats are voted on solely by current councillors and TDs. This, she believes, is “pure horse trading, under the table by the political parties, dividing up the spoils”. Instead, she advocates for a list system to be introduced which would allow the public to vote in the Seanad elections.

All the people who said there was a problem with the Seanad have done nothing about it since it was retained

The candidate, a former member of the Green Party, continues that Seanad is not effective in its current form because its members are “too tightly connected to the political parties that are in the Dáil”.

“It’s unsustainable, it’s unaccountable, it’s undemocratic, and it really needs to be reformed … We [had] a huge campaign on the referendum and yet despite that nothing has been done.”

McKenna quit the Greens in 2009 due to her discontent with the party: “I lost complete confidence and I felt very disillusioned.”

Running for the Seanad for the first time, she reiterates that “I am fed up with the echo chambers. We have nothing except people debating with those they agree with and in my opinion this is the key issue we have to address”.

McKenna has a history of standing up to the government and fighting for reform. She is well known for her opposition to nuclear power and US-led military action. In 1995, she took a case against the government, known as the McKenna case, accusing the government of abusing taxpayers’ money by using it to push one side in the referendum on divorce.

We have nothing except people debating with those they agree with

McKenna was actually on the government’s side in the referendum, but disagreed with the way they approached it. “I favoured the introduction of divorce but I did not favour that you could exclude those who disagreed with the proposal.”

“Despite that, we still have this unbalanced debate”, McKenna continues. “It’s a really important issue for me and always has been, all my life.”

“We cannot as a society claim to be democratic if we exclude those we disagree with”, she says. “Sometimes there can be very positive contributions from the other side.”

“I think that the government, the political establishment and the media have a huge amount to answer for in relation to the kind of debate that the public are allowed to hear”, she adds. “It’s almost like this is the news that we want you to hear.”

Another issue that McKenna is passionate about is demilitarisation and the peaceful resolution of international disputes. She describes this as a “historic issue” as it has been important to her throughout her whole career.

We cannot as a society claim to be democratic if we exclude those we disagree with

“I am extremely concerned at what is going on at the moment in relation to the moves by the European Union to further militarise the EU”, she says. Speaking about EU common defence, she says: “There’s no real debate on this in the Dáil. It suits the political parties to just brush it to one side and then, with a nod and a wink, they’ll agree to it.”

“I think this is wrong”, she says. “I don’t think we should be spending huge amounts of money on war machines and we should be looking for peaceful resolutions.”

She notes concerns over Russian-American tensions and asked: “In the 21st century, have we still not learned how to negotiate and come to peaceful resolutions to disputes?”

She adds that equality, human rights and fundamental freedoms have always been important issues for her. “When I was involved in politics I was at the fore on those issues.”

“I was probably championing gay rights long before it was popular in Ireland”, she said.
“When I was first elected, one of my first things was to launch the gay pride week.”

With regards to women’s rights McKenna says: “It’s regrettable that despite all the talk about women’s rights, we still haven’t achieved equality.” Comparing Ireland with Scandinavia, she laments: “We’re a long way off from other countries.”

I was probably championing gay rights long before it was popular in Ireland

“We do have to look at how we involve women in politics and in all sectors of society.”

On disability rights, she says: “I think the progress that has been made has actually gone back a little bit in recent years … there’s not the same urgency in relation to disability rights.”

“We still don’t see people with disabilities in every walk of life and employment.”

Speaking on education, specifically the Higher Education Authority Bill and Trinity’s controversial exception, McKenna says: “You have to look at fairness and balance and you have to ensure that everybody is treated equally.”

“You can’t decide that certain sectors of society or education are treated differently”, she added. “We need to ensure that our society is inclusive and that includes our educational system.”

In regard to access to education for disadvantaged communities, McKenna notes that despite the government’s investment in primary and secondary education, many people from disadvantaged areas are not proceeding to third level education.

“In a way it’s a wasted investment,” she says. “A huge amount of people are falling through the cracks.”

“Those people will feel not even just disadvantaged but also to a certain extent, self-conscious in going to third-level education. That’s why a lot of them are dropping out, despite the money.”

Turning to PhD students, McKenna expresses that doing a PhD has become elitist due to the expense. She notes her own desire to study a PhD, but said she was deterred by the cost. “Only people who can really afford it are able to do it,” she says. “So it does exclude quite a large section of the population.”

With regards to the housing crisis, McKenna says: “I would like to see a reform of the planning system … I am not happy with the strategic housing development application … It was only supposed to be an emergency procedure but has been used constantly since it was introduced.”

McKenna believes that the legislation on the strategic housing development should be repealed: “It’s being abused by developers.”

On the subject of climate change, McKenna appears reluctant to focus too narrowly on Ireland, favouring a global approach. However, she acknowledges that “Ireland has a huge way to go. While some progress has been made, it’s lagging way behind”.

“The talk is great, but the proof is in the pudding and at the moment it’s not cooked.”

Correction: February 23rd, 2022
An earlier headline of this article incorrectly stated that Patricia McKenna wants to address the “echo chamber” in the Seanad. In fact, she said she wants to address echo chambers in Irish society.

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