In November 2015, now-Senator Lynn Ruane was halfway through her term as Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) President. Her time in the role came just before the release of the Cassells report, a government-commissioned report detailing three options for the future of higher education funding, one of which suggested the introduction of a student loans system to Ireland. Before its release, Ruane proposed a motion to TCDSU Council – which was narrowly defeated – that the union should oppose student loans, describing that loans would “block education”. Interviewing Ruane, I recount the event to her and note the stance against loans that she took over four years ago. Ruane anticipates my question before I ask it. “Still the same?” she laughs. The answer’s a firm yes.
Ruane, who successfully ran for the Seanad in 2016 during her final months as TCDSU President, is vying for another term as a Senator in the upcoming Seanad elections. Ruane came to Trinity through the Trinity Access Programme (TAP) to study Political Science, Philosophy, Economics and Sociology (PPES) as a mature student. From Tallaght, she became a single mother when she was 15 and left school early, proceeding to take courses studying addiction. As a Senator, she’s worked on issues around education, the repeal of the eighth amendment, addiction, fossil fuel divestment, and disability rights.
Throughout the interview, Ruane emphasises the importance of access to education – it’s clear it’s an issue she holds close to her heart. One of her priorities is to “take Trinity College into communities across the country”. She explains how, since being elected a Senator in 2016, she has accrued new kinds of capital that have amplified her voice, and her desire to use that capital to help others. She talks about meeting with young people in communities where higher education, and especially Trinity, would not be a norm. Discussing higher education, she outlines the importance of “publicly funded education” in ensuring that barriers to education are minimised.
When I ask Ruane what sets her apart from the other candidates – she is one of ten making a bid for a seat on the Seanad’s Trinity panel, including fellow incumbents David Norris and Ivana Bacik – she doesn’t shy away from giving a straightforward answer. “Everyone has issues they care about, and everyone is hard-working,” she notes first, but she feels she brings a fresh perspective and an “alternative voice” to what is usually heard in the Seanad. She details her work with community groups and how she has included them in the legislative process. “It’s a whole different way of working,” Ruane says, sounding heartfelt, and describes herself as “outside the bubble” of traditional politics. She talks about the importance of having that “bridge” between communities and legislation and ensuring that politics is inclusive, and arrives at the confident statement: “I’m good at my job.” To sit down and look through 538 pieces of legislation – the number of legislative amendments Ruane has participated in – is “no easy task”, she says, but it’s just one of the accomplishments she cites as proving her effectiveness in the role.
The appeal of the Seanad for Ruane, rather than a body like the Dáil, is what she identifies as its effectiveness in making tangible change. “You can get more done with 60 people in a room than 160.” The Seanad’s position in Ireland’s political system has come under question in recent years, with a 2013 referendum to abolish the Seanad failing by only a narrow margin. Many perceive it to be an institution that is quite separate to ordinary people. Ruane attributes the perception that the Seanad is elitist to the disconnect between politicians and underrepresented communities. “I have six votes, and my mam has none,” Ruane says, painting a picture of an unequal system. She stresses the importance of making sure politics is “not monopolised” and that underrepresented groups deserve to have their voices heard at every level of politics.
In 2018, Ruane was vocal in her opposition to Trinity’s proposed introduction of a €450 flat fee for supplemental exams. She tweeted her support for student protestors in the Take Back Trinity movement, writing: “Students can’t be used to balance budgets & most vulnerable students must be protected. Solidarity with @tcdsu & all demonstrating students. #TakeBackTrinity.” Now, students are protesting against rent hikes in college accommodations around Ireland, with the prospect of a rent strike floated. When I ask Ruane whether she would take a stance on the rent protests, she says she would. “It comes back again to access.” The cost of housing, she says, is a barrier to higher education. She emphasises again the need for “fully funded education”. She identifies the improvement that could be made by government departments working together to solve the housing crisis for students, such as the Department of Housing and the Department of Education, describing it as ridiculous that departments would work in isolation on areas where their remits intersect.
If re-elected, one of Ruane’s planned initiatives is to work towards an autism-friendly society by improving access to public and private services for individuals with autism. “The world can be a difficult place to navigate for an autistic person,” Ruane details. “Modern societies, especially its infrastructure, are so often designed without the input of people with a different set of needs.” Her plan includes advocating for the enactment of at Autism Empowerment Act that would allow for a National Autism Strategy and amplify the voices of autistic people, and push for inclusive education that would offer improved supports for autistic students in all schools. Ruane mentions how ordinary tasks, such as taking a bus, can pose difficulties for those on the autism spectrum due to “overwhelming” elements, and that she would work to see that “public and private services are developed and delivered while cognisant of the needs of autistic citizens”.
As we wrap up, I ask Ruane to choose one thing she is most proud of out of the work she has done in the Seanad over the last four years. She doesn’t need much time to think about it. She identifies her work on the Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill 2018, which passed the second stage in the Seanad in February. She says she’s particularly proud of the multi-party support rallied for the bill, which passed its second stage with unanimous support. The bill offers a “real second chance” and “pathway to rehabilitation” for former offenders. Ruane outlines that it both seeks to reduce recidivism, and hence the prison population, and offer meaningful rehabilitation, particularly in the area of employment. The bill is important in itself, but the way she talks about its implementation seems to reflect her wider approach to the role. “I don’t want the theatrics,” Ruane says. She wants legislation that actually effects change instead.