Seanad elections: Ivana Bacik has “unfinished business”

Ivana Bacik talks Seanad reform, the Labour Party, and ensuring there is no “row back” on the progress achieved in recent referenda

The career path of Ivana Bacik closely resembles that of two former Presidents of Ireland, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. Bacik is the Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity, a role previously held by Robinson and McAleese and, like Robinson before her, she is currently a Senator for the University of Dublin constituency, comprised of Trinity graduates. Despite the similarities, she laughs off a suggestion that she might one day be interested in a bid for the Presidency: “Yes that’s something that people have said to me but no I’m not interested. What I always say when people make that comparison is that my name isn’t Mary and therefore I’m not in that boat.”

Bacik was first elected to the Seanad in 2007 and since then has passed a record number of Private Members Bills, five in total with a sixth pending. She proposed legislation which, for the first time, deemed Female Genital Mutilation a specific offence, as well as bills to prohibit discrimination against LGBT teachers and hospital workers and to provide collective bargaining rights to vulnerable self-employed workers such as freelance journalists, actors and musicians.

“I have a good track record of achieving change as a legislator”, she says, something she will return to throughout the interview. When another candidate in the race is mentioned she immediately states: “I’m not standing against any other candidate, I’m just standing on my own record and what I stand for, that’s the first thing. I don’t seek to argue against anyone else, that is not my style of politics.”

Bacik is seeking reelection because she says she has “unfinished business” in terms of her legislative work. She recites an extensive list of ongoing projects and plans she would like to start, giving the sense that if she isn’t returned to office it would be a frustration to her more than anything else.

“In particular I want to get my gender pay gap bill through. That is at an advanced stage. I want to work on the three year review of the abortion legislation to make sure we don’t see any roll-back of women’s pro-choice rights and also to see an improvement. I want to see, for example, the abolition of the three day waiting period and the introduction of safe access zones and then I have other legislation also pending on issues other than women’s rights. I have another bill on citizenship rights for children born in Ireland whose parents are non-nationals. I want to see that go through.”

She continues: “I want to work on some legislation I’ve been developing on reproductive leave. It’s actually a very pressing issue for a number of people, it’s leave to have recognition in the work place for people who have suffered a miscarriage or a still-birth.”

“Well you know all of us were responsible.”

Bacik first entered politics through Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), where she rose to the position of President but left the role early when she defied a mandate on which candidate to vote for at a Union of Students in Ireland (USI) conference. The lesson she has taken from her time in TCDSU is clearly an inclination to stand up to College. Asked if she sees part of her role as representing Trinity as an institution, she states: “It depends. I came into politics through the students’ union and took on the College in a number of ways…I don’t seek to represent the interests of the institution but there are times when I would defend the institution, for example, against any attempt by government to restrict academic freedom.”

Bacik has been a staple of Labour Party politics for over two decades and now finds herself at the centre of a party in decline. Labour suffered their worst ever general election result in February and as the party’s Director of Elections, Bacik takes some personal responsibility. “Well you know all of us were responsible, all of us in the party. I take responsibility as director, absolutely it was a very disappointing election for Labour.”

She adds that she finds it “very sad to see the party of the trade union movement and the socialist and social democratic movement brought to such a low status”, but takes hope from the fact that the party is currently entering into a leadership contest, which she thinks will help “rejuvenate the party”. Bacik is backing Aodhán Ó Ríordáin for the leadership, standing against Alan Kelly.

In the recent referenda on abortion and same-sex marriage, Bacik played a signifcant role. She was on the executive of the Together for Yes campaign in the successful referendum to repeal the eighth amendment and was a member of the Lawyers for Yes Equality campaign during the Marriage Equality Referendum in 2015. Bacik says there is still much to fight for to achieve further social change in Ireland, but is also focused on working to ensure that there isn’t a “row back” on progress already achieved. “Recent developments in the US show us that we can’t be complacent. Just because we succeeded in repealing the eighth amendment in 2018 doesn’t mean that nothing can ever change. We have to be careful about that.”

Bacik states that there are “some clear outstanding issues that we need to work on”. She cites a need for legislation to enshrine citizenship rights for children born in Ireland to parents who are non-nationals, a need for action on the system of direct provision, which she says needs a “radical revision”, as well as the decriminalisation of drugs.

Bacik also references her record on environmental issues. She believes that “the future for politics in Ireland should be a red-green future. That’s my preference for political direction, an alliance between Labour and left-wing parties and the Greens.”

“I think everyone recognises that the current system has to change.”

“I’ve been very involved in the green movement for a very long time. I was on the founding board of Friends of the Earth Ireland, and when I was first elected in 2007 the first Private Members Bill I brought forward was a climate change bill seeking to impose carbon emissions limits and I’m glad then that we have now got formal legislation in place from the last government, a Labour government, but clearly more needs to be done to ensure that we stick within our targets and ensure that we have more developed environmental policies.”

The issue of Seanad reform is one which any candidate running is bound to face questions on, with many describing the current system as elitist and unfair. Bacik doesn’t disagree, stating “it is unfair” and is in favour of reforming Ireland’s upper house. “I think everyone recognises that the current system has to change,” she says. She draws attention to the power of the Taoiseach to nominate senators as “the most unfair in the sense that it is the furthest from any sort of democratic mandate”, but has also pushed for change in the way that the university seats operate, advocating for the franchise to be extended to graduates of universities other than Trinity and the NUIs.

Despite the Seanad’s flaws, Bacik says she recognises certain benefits to the current system. “The reality is that we’ve seen some really positive aspects of the nominees who have done some important things and we’ve seen nominees which have, for example, nominated Northern Irish communities, nominees representing disability rights, and rights of the diaspora.”

When we speak there are still four weeks left of the campaign. While she feels it has been going well, Bacik admits that Seanad elections are difficult to predict. “One never knows, the election for the university seats is always unexpected. You never really know what will happen, you can’t really judge the mood of the electorate in the way that you can in a constituency election, so we’ll just keep working hard on it.”

Finn Purdy

Finn Purdy is the current Deputy Editor of Trinity News. He is a Junior Sophister English Studies student, and a former News Editor and Assistant News Editor.