Joseph O’Gorman was heavily involved in Trinity society life as a student and, more than three decades since his graduation, that hasn’t changed. O’Gorman has worked with the Central Societies Committee (CSC) for over 30 years, assisting behind the scenes with the running of societies as Strategic Development Officer. “It’s all very calm,” he tells me across a table in the Eliz Room of House Six, the centre of society life in Trinity. Peering through thick, angular, dark-rimmed glasses, he says: “But very occasionally you’ll have an ‘oh my god what happened’ moment. An airline cancels a flight and suddenly you’ve got one of the societies stuck in Croatia or wherever and there’s panic.” It’s clear that O’Gorman thrives off of being the calm and measured individual steading the boat behind the scenes. Now, O’Gorman is hoping to take this approach to a bigger stage, by representing the University of Dublin constituency in the Seanad.
Reflecting on his work across Trinity, including as an Assistant Junior Dean, Director of Trinity’s Authenticity Tours and in the CSC, O’Gorman says his roles have involved a “let’s stop now, let’s have a think about what we’re doing, let’s not rush in” approach. He believes his experience as an advice-giver and organiser makes him “a natural match” for the Seanad. “I think the debate within the Seanad can be a useful mechanism for stopping people rushing into doing silly things or doing things that, actually, the ramifications of them are not fully realised at time of implementation. And also it’s an opportunity to ask the question ‘can we do what is being suggested?’. It’s all very well to have marvellous policies. Can we implement them?” Exploring the feasibility and logistics of long term plans is “the kind of thing I do,” he says, wanting to bring the “kind of thing that I do into an area where that’s kind of thing that should be done”. One of 10 candidates vying for University of Dublin’s three Seanad seats, O’Gorman faces stiff competition, but he believes that he’s up for the challenge.
Seanad reform has been long debated and long promised, with an implementation plan for Seanad changes published in December 2018 and little movement since. Politicians and senators are divided on the issue of whether, or how, the upper house should be reformed, although O’Gorman is in favour of at least some alterations. He has suggested that several of the Seanad seats currently chosen by the Taoiseach could instead form a third higher level education constituency representing third level students who didn’t attend Trinity or an NUI university, with the rest of those seats voted on by the general public. Asked about the opinion held by some that the Seanad is elitist, O’Gorman emphatically states that such people are “idiots”. Using an analogy of sports players, he says: “If Ireland were to go out and win at soccer, the country goes wild, does it not? They are people who are paid for their skill. My standing in the stands shouting ‘yay’ or whatever has got nothing to do with me and yet I feel somehow elevated of the work of those people on the soccer pitch…There’s nothing wrong with being good at something. There’s something fundamentally wrong about trying to make everyone as bad at something as everyone else.” Defending the existence of the university constituencies, O’Gorman argues the Seanad is becoming increasingly inclusive as more people attend university. “The actual cohort of people who can vote is growing, not diminishing,” he says.
O’Gorman lists higher education as a priority for him should he be elected. “It’s massively underfunded. It’s also the case that no one knows what it’s for,” he says. He believes that the government places too much emphasis on higher education as a means to stimulate the economy at the neglect of benefits to the “social good, which are immeasurable and actually have an impact upon the ways people live their life”. He speaks of the “bureaucratisation and the imposition of false metrics on the system” of higher education due to political and economic factors. On the involvement of the State in higher education though, O’Gorman believes that the State “fundamentally, in funding higher education in the broadest sense, has a right to expect to know what is going on”. He adds that, at the same time, society has a right to question the State’s involvement in higher education. How third level education should be approached is, he thinks, “a question that can be asked in the Senate”.
The public support of the arts is one of O’Gorman’s central priorities. “It has huge social benefits for people and I think the impact it could have on the mental health of the county in general and individuals in particular,” is enormous, he says. “I think it could vastly improve the quality of life.” Musing on the importance of the arts, O’Gorman says that although we don’t have a right to happiness per say, “what we do have a fundamental rightette, a quasi-right, the proto-right of contentment. That the world should not crush in upon the individual but rather that the world should respect that individual.” He believes that art can equip people with “the necessary means of dealing with the world” and therefore he intends to promote the “the good of the ‘pointless’” should he be elected to the upper house.
Supporting small businesses is also a particular interest of O’Gorman’s, who says that the country cannot be “entirely dependent on huge multinationals”. He’s critical of the approach of governments in fostering small and medium sized businesses, saying that the government does not offer enough support to fledgling businesses. “Entrepreneurship does not thrive on the soil of ‘no’,” he says, suggesting that the State needs to be more lenient on newly-established businesses to allow them to thrive. He floats the possibility of granting businesses a PRSI holiday and certain tax breaks for the first couple years of their existence to “help get them off the ground”. He’s critical of a bureaucracy that favours big businesses over smaller Irish enterprises, asking: “If you can do it for Google, why the hell can’t you do it Bob…who is running a bookstore in a small town or a coffee shop in a small town?”. Jabbing a finger emphatically on the table next to him, he adds: “If the state is not willing to take a chance on its people, who is going to take the chance on its people?”
O’Gorman established his own business, Authenticity Tours, which is the only company allowed to run tours on Trinity’s campus. Students and visitors will be familiar with the wooden stand at Front Arch, manned by undergraduates in long, brown, scholarly robes. The experience of founding the business gave him an understanding of “the challenges facing smaller businesses”, he wrote on his website, and the business has proved to be quite lucrative since its inception. The Times recently reported that O’Gorman’s company was awarded the sole contract to give tours of campus without an invitation to tender being put out, which would have allowed other companies to bid for the contract. O’Gorman has given himself and his partner around €1.3 million of the company’s profits in the last four years, the newspaper reported. Our interview took place before the business’ accounts were published, and O’Gorman’s response to my later email about the contract simply said that “it is company policy not to comment upon commercially sensitive information”. To the Times, however, he defended the large sums, saying that funds generated by Authenticity Tours are paid over “in large part” to Trinity and in part retained by the company, and as as O’Gorman and his partner are the “only shareholders and only directors, such distributed monies come to us however they are distributed”. He has not commented on Trinity not putting the contract out for tender.
While O’Gorman fields uncomfortable questions relating to his tours company, he still has a Seanad campaign to run. When asked about what the biggest long term issues facing the country, he answers “transport, housing and “the economic division between the capital and rural Ireland”. “We keep talking about the recovery – go down to the country and you’re not seeing any recovery,” he says. Discussing these challenges, O’Gorman takes a big picture approach, not wanting to consider one issue without considering the others as they “all go hand in hand”. Although he believes that tackling Ireland’s housing crisis is necessary, building more affordable houses “in a situation where the transport links are already growing is not going to help anyone”. He goes farther, questioning the practicality of Ireland’s political parties’ promises to build more homes when the country’s construction industry lacks workers. During the Celtic Tiger, many non-Irish nationals came here and worked in the construction industry, but O’Gorman is sceptical about this approach working this time around. “Where do we house the people who are building the houses from outside of Ireland?” He laments that many of these low-paid workers would have to live in the countryside and undertake a “horrendous commute” to urban areas for work. “It’s an enormous mess,” he says. Developing the country’s transport links is essential to improving people’s quality of life, particularly for young people from rural Ireland, he believes. As it stands, young rural people move from the country to the city only to “stuck in traffic for two hours to get from one side of town to the other”. O’Gorman asks, “is that a life?”.
“I’m not going to pretend I have the answers,” O’Gorman says, but he believes that Seanad can help to provide them. Having spent over 30 years making decisions behind the scenes in Trinity, he’s eager to take on a new challenge.