Seanad elections: Tom Clonan on “25 years fighting for the rights of others”

Retired army captain, lecturer and security analyst Tom Clonan discusses his plans for the Seanad

Tom Clonan has a long, impressive and varied career. Having graduated from Trinity in 1987, he joined the army and moved up the ranks, eventually retiring as captain. Since, he’s taken on a number of roles, including as a lecturer in journalism and public affairs at DIT, a security analyst for the Irish Times, and an outspoken advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. Clonan has, in his own words, spent “25 years of fighting for the rights of others” within these roles. Now, he wants to take his passion for justice to another arena- the Seanad, as a senator for the University of Dublin constituency.

When I ask Clonan why he’s running for a seat in the Seanad over the phone one afternoon, he becomes frustrated, even angry, as he discusses the hardships his family and many other families with children with disabilities have had to face. His 18-year-old son Eoghan suffers from a rare neuromuscular disease and the government’s lack of support for children and adults with disabilities like Eoghan’s, who is wheelchair bound and legally blind, clearly enrages Clonan. When he ran for the Seanad in 2016, he protested that services such as physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy were not being adequately provided. Clonan and his family had to fight for many of the supports, like SNAs, large textbooks, a wheelchair and operations, that Eoghan received. Four years later and Clonan believes the “meagre” services offered have “deteriorated” even further, leaving many families in distress. An “absolute constitutional guarantee” to healthcare, which would mean the HSE could never be privatised, should be voted on by the public, he believes. If elected a senator, Clonan wants to use his megaphone to demand more healthcare funding and better services for people with disabilities. “I’m not running for myself. I’m running for other people,” he says.

It was partly his desire to fight for justice that led Clonan to join the Irish Defense Forces after graduation. Reflecting on the recession and the Troubles both gripping Ireland at the time, Clonan describes a country in which one was “afraid to look over one’s shoulder”.  He says: “I believed if I joined as an officer I could do something to help.” Aside from his desire to help ease the tension of the period, Clonan had an “adventurous spirit” and the army awarded him opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible through any other profession.  This taste for adventure, though, led Clonan into dangerous circumstances. As a peacekeeper for the UN, Clonan was deployed to Lebanon during a period of extreme violence by Israel against Hezbollah and he witnessed overwhelming suffering. “Thousands and thousands of attacks” were levied, he says, and “hundreds of innocent people were butched”. In one area Clonan was stationed in, Qana, 117 people were killed in a single day, he says. He has said that, as a consequence of his deployment, he understands the “sordid” nature of conflict and war and the fear of the millions of refugees fleeing war and climate change across the Middle East and North Africa.  “I believe that war is the most sordid and appalling expression of foreign policy,” he says, and is committed to protecting Irish neutrality.

Clonan’s family has a strong history of public service. His father was a guard and other relatives had been in the army, but his grandmother was his biggest inspiration. As a  young woman, she was radicalised by the Easter Rising and shortly after joined Cumann na mBan and the South Dublin Brigade of the Irish Republican Army, while teaching in Ireland’s first gaelscoil. Clonan describes her as a “feminist, a great multitasker, a freedom fighter and arsonist”. She helped raise him until he was 10, when she passed. His grandmother was a “big influence” on him and imbued him with feminist principles, he says. Growing up with a belief in gender equality led Clonan to undertake a PhD in gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment and the sexual assault of soldiers within the Defence Forces. His findings led to an independent government inquiry which, in 2003, vindicated his findings and recommendations. Subject to “character assassination” from some senior officers, Clonan was cited by Amnesty as the subject of “whistleblower reprisal” in the aftermath of his findings. His recommendations were taken on board, however. The army was “forced to implement my findings,” he says. “I was one person who stood up decades before #MeToo,” he states, arguing that his “proven track record of taking on a very, very powerful organisation” and speaking out against injustices qualifies him for a position in the upper house.

A lecturer of journalism, political communication, public affairs and research methodology in DIT, Clonan says: “I believe very, very strongly in the proper funding of our third level system. That’s the direction we need to be moving.” He’s opposed to the introduction of fees for students. “I benefited from free third level access,” he says, noting that he was born and raised in Finglas, a disadvantaged area of north County Dublin. Clonan says he “couldn’t believe going through Front Arch” on his first day in Trinity, and believes every prospective undergraduate should be afforded that opportunity. Our universities  have made a great contribution to the economic recovery, he says, as well as tackling the social issues of our day, and deserve to be “properly publicly funded”.

The Seanad would provide Clonan with “a much better platform” to raise issues he cares about, he believes. The upper house can act as a “watchdog” for the Dail, he says, referencing the harm that many people in Ireland have faced due to government decisions, particularly around housing and healthcare. He describes “a horrific rental trap” many graduates have found themselves stuck in, meaning that young people face “a challenge to be able to self-actualise” if they have to live with the anxiety of being unable to keep a roof over their head. He wants a right to housing enshrined in the Irish constitution to protect people from homelessness. Ireland is the worst country in western Europe to have a disability, he also notes. “That is unacceptable.” He’d like to see these issues brought to the Senate, along with children’s rights and mental health issues. He also touches on discrimination faced by minority groups, like travelers and people identifying as LGBTI. “As a country we have to champion and promote diversity,” he says. “I see it as absolutely essential.” At the moment, only University of Dublin constituents – that is, graduates of Trinity – can vote for Clonan to help address these issues. The current system is “elitist”, he believes, and he supports “universal suffrage” with regards to the upper house.

University of Dublin graduates have only a couple more days to post their ballots, with polls closing at 11am on Tuesday March 31. Referencing the fairly low number of Trinity graduates who have voted so far, Clonan says: “I would encourage everyone who can vote, to vote.”

Aisling Grace

Aisling Grace was the Editor-in-Chief of the 66th Volume of Trinity News. She was also formerly Online Editor and Deputy News Editor.