Seanad elections: Hugo MacNeill on investment banking, rugby and higher education

Hugo MacNeill talks to Trinity News about his candidacy in the Dublin University constituency

Hugo MacNeill is an independent candidate for the Seanad in the Dublin University constituency. Born in 1958, he attended Blackrock College where his rugby career began. MacNeill obtained an undergraduate degree in Economic and Social Studies from Trinity in 1981 and then went on to study in Oxford. He is a first-time candidate for the Seanad, having recently resigned from Goldman Sachs. MacNeill lists his campaign priorities as Northern Ireland; International Relations; Education, in particular equal access to education for people with intellectual disabilities; Sustainability; Sports and Culture.

He is also a former international rugby player for Ireland, in 1981, refusing to play rugby for Ireland in apartheid South Africa. MacNeill is currently the chairperson of the British Irish Association and served as the chairperson of the the Irish Funds and the charity GOAL. In an interview with the Trinity Alumni Service, MacNeill noted that lectures he received from fellow candidate, David Norris, were among his strongest memories from his time as an undergraduate at Trinity.

MacNeill is basing his campaign primarily on his work with the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities (TCPID). He told Trinity News that this work has been a “big reason” in his decision to run. TCPID is a legacy of the Special Olympics and MacNeill enthusiastically remarks to Trinity News that “it is one of the best things I have ever come across.” He argues that the project works to “challenge previously held assumptions that people with intellectual disabilities could never attend third-level education.” One of the main goals of TCPID is to ensure that those who complete the course find employment afterwards. MacNeill sees this as “absolutely crucial” for graduates.

MacNeill talks about how the project has transformed the lives of many people and it is easy to see that he is hugely passionate about TCPID. He is proud that TCPID has progressed from originally having three company partners for graduates, to 30 today. MacNeill also describes TCPID as “cost saving for the state, it gets people out of expensive care programmes and into the workforce.” He says the potential for the programme to be rolled out nationwide was a “great motivator” in putting himself forward for the Seanad. MacNeill says that “Trinity students should be enormously proud of this programme.” Asked about what he would do to promote TCPID if elected, MacNeill says that he would push for “equal rights for students with intellectual disabilities, as well as equal funding.” He stresses the need to make businesses aware of the programme and encourage them to consider employing TCPID graduates.

On the topic of Seanad reforms, MacNeill says “it would be right” to extend voting rights to all university graduates, arguing that it would increase the sense of the Seanad’s legitimacy. On the question of whether the Dublin University constituency should be abolished and merged with other universities, MacNeill says that “it has served us well. But, I think the overriding principle is that the Seanad has to be made more egalitarian” and would support “whatever the best method is for doing that.” Trinity News discussed with MacNeill the fact that those who graduated last year are unable to vote in the Seanad election as the new register comes into effect on the June 1. Asked if a supplement to the register should be introduced in order to prevent this from happening in the future he says “I don’t know if it’s logistically possible,” and stresses how the early general election caused this predicament. He admits “I know a lot of people who wanted to vote for me and who can’t because they’re not registered.” He also states that he is pleased to see current Trinity students take an interest in the Seanad elections.

MacNeill has recently resigned from his role as Managing Director of Investment Banking in Ireland with the investment bank Goldman Sachs to run for the Seanad, telling Trinity News “anytime you run for public office you have to leave the company.” The bank has come under some criticism in Ireland, with The Irish Times reporting in October 2018 that “Goldman ‘vulture funds’ collect €465m from distressed Irish loans.” The bank also served as an advisor to the state during the financial crisis. MacNeill was involved in initial public offerings with Goldman Sachs for Aer Lingus and Eircom.

Trinity News asked MacNeill about the Provost’s controversial op-ed which appeared in The Irish Times on Tuesday March 3. The op-ed defended Trinity’s decision to increase rents for student accommodation, arguing that it was necessary to do so in order to increase supply. MacNeill says “I realise it’s a big strain for students, it’s a big worry for students.” But says that “the Provost is right. The key is to increase supply.” He sees subsidies for student accommodation positively “because of the benefits students provide to the economy,” but also states that there are other demands for government spending, like health. MacNeill was asked by Trinity News about what some students see as an increasing commercialisation of Trinity. Discussions about occupying the Book of Kells exhibition during the study period last summer to protest the exhibition being open whilst student library facilities were shut encapsulate this sentiment amongst students. MacNeill says he is “unfamiliar with the issues.” But says that “universities need to be able to demonstrate that they can raise funding as well, mostly to promote their aims of educating students. The question is balance.”

MacNeill’s wife, Dr Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, was elected as a Fine Gael TD for Dún Laoghaire last month. In light of this, Trinity News asked MacNeill to confirm that he was running as an independent candidate. He says that he “has never been a member of a political party” and also emphasises that his role as chairperson of the British Irish Association requires that he works with all parties. Therefore, he says, it is “very important for me not to be affiliated with a party.” He says he is “passionate about North-South relations” and that this is another motivator in his decision to run for the Seanad.

As a final note, MacNeill adds that he “loved being a sports ambassador for Trinity” and that he is “particularly focused on the development of women’s sports.” He says that he is a big supporter of the 2020 Campaign for Women’s Sports, which hopes to see 20% more women participating in female sport, 20% more spectators at women’s events and 20% more media coverage of women’s sporting events. He also states that he will continue working with TCPID regardless of the outcome of the election.

Comhall Fanning

Comhall Fanning is a Deputy Features Editor for Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister German and Sociology student.