Sarah Jane Hennelly , independent candidate for Limerick City, is one of the newcomers to national-level politics in the city in the eve of the upcoming general election. She recently took some time to chat with Soapbox about policy, political parties, economic development and all things electoral.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I’m a 27 year old public health researcher at the University of Limerick Medical School. I am originally from Castlebar in County Mayo, living in Limerick city for 10 years now. I had been spending time in Limerick since I was young, my older sister studied Fashion in LSAD and my brother in Shannon College of Hotel and Catering Management. We all loved the city. In the 70’s, my uncle was a guard in the old Henry Street when he was killed on duty at the age of 23. My Dad always felt there was something bringing us back here, there’s something about it for him that we all gravitated here so between all the graduations and happy events we’ve had here it’s very special to all of us. I remember visiting UL when my younger brother was playing in the Kennedy Cup and I was in awe of it. I had never seen anything like it, coming from a rural place as I did, I couldn’t believe it was just a place to study and not a city! I always knew it was where I wanted to be and to this day I feel incredibly lucky to be part of it.
With little access to formal political education during secondary school, I chose to study a degree in politics and public administration in UL to feed my fascination with politics and social issues and who makes the decisions in this country. During my degree I became acutely aware of the influence and presence that the European Union had in our own national politics and with that I applied to continue to do a masters in European Politics and Law, again in UL. I was always involved in student politics in some way and upon completing my studies; I ran and won a student election for the role of Postgraduate Student Union President. That was a life changing year for me; giving me the chance to test myself in areas I felt I was strong such as communication and leadership. Although this year affirmed that I still wanted to be involved in politics in some way, I really wanted to start working towards becoming a political advisor. I set out to pursue further research in the area of mental health and health policy and service provision in Ireland and to use my background in policy to assess the environment under which our health system operates and how we could make it more efficient and accessible. I was successful in getting a post as a research assistant in the UL Medical School working with a Professor of General Practice with a specific interest in youth mental health which allowed me to develop expertise this area.
In January 2014 during my time as a research assistant, I made the decision to stand in the Local Elections for Limerick City East as an independent candidate. Although this wasn’t the path I had considered to take in politics, I felt an incredible amount of frustration at the culture around political representation at the time. I place this role very highly within a society, yet everyone I knew voiced incredibly cynicism and hostility towards it. Most people see it as a way in which unscrupulous people attain power at the cost of others. Others see it as unimportant and having no bearing on them or their lives. That, to me, is a huge problem because deference allows a system to go unchecked and become corrupted. This culture, and rightly so, has come about from years of rhetoric, broken promises and egotistical self-serving politics. People believe that once someone gets involved in politics and becomes elected, they are corrupted and different from everyone else. I place the role of an elected representative very highly and I wanted to prove to others that it can be done with integrity and professionalism. I don’t think there’s any other way in which we can change people’s views of politics unless more people get involved who people can trust and believe in. I remember watching people like Tony Benn, Jim Kemmy and today women like Elizabeth Warren and understanding the power and inspiration a role like that can give back to people.
Although this was a local election, I wanted also to use my knowledge to inform people on the doors, any questions they had to answer them if I could, and hopefully then help to reinstate some engagement with politics. It was a life-changing experience, and to have met some of the people I did along the way I will always be grateful for. In the end, I was eliminated on the final count, having received 467 first preference votes. When considering it was my first time out and my limited resources, I was extremely proud of the result as well as being disappointed not to have gotten across the line. However, I believe that it was not meant for me and feel perhaps I would have been largely powerless in local government and should I have been elected, I would have missed the opportunity to stand in this coming general election. A real missed opportunity in my opinion, as I believe it will be a truly formative one.
In terms of my professional career to-date, I have been working on various projects in the areas of General Practice, Mental Health, Health information systems and Public health with the UL Graduate Entry Medical School. I also worked as office manager with a community-based mental health service in the city called MyMind. This allowed me to work with people again and get a practical understanding of the issues facing mental health services and service-users. I spend a lot of my free time working with community and voluntary groups; I was on the committee for the inaugural year of the Limerick Spring Festival of Politics and Ideas and the Pay It Forward Festival of Kindness this year, two brilliant initiatives seeking to promote community and self-empowerment.
As a newcomer to national level politics, what do you personally bring to the table?
On the whole, the level of national representation for people under the age of 30 is extremely low- out of 166 TD’s there are only 3 under 30. I believe this is one of the reasons that we see so little change in our politics. This country has seen the emigration of over ¼ of a million people between the ages of 18 and 25 since 2011/12, unemployment rates of almost 50% for this age group, if you look across workforces- nurses and teachers qualified this year will take huge hits to their salary if compared to previous graduates from say, 11/12. These issues are unique to this cohort but they have widespread and long ranging effects on the development of our society. Our national policy reflects a country that doesn’t value these people as much as those gone before, as much as it says it doesn’t value single-parents, SNA’s or people struggling with mental health issues. I believe in an equal society and a government which protects the vulnerable. I believe in a progressive taxation system where those who can pay do, and those who can’t won’t.
Although young, I believe I would be a highly effective representative for Limerick. Personally, the protection and the promotion of young people within our public policy and explicitly within our society is something I am extremely passionate about but I don’t think it should make me exclusively a ‘young’ candidate. Throughout my life I have strived to find work or a career where I can work with and help others. I have strived to develop my understanding of our communities and our societies.
My knowledge, background and experience will allow me to understand legislation and policy put to me on a daily basis, make considered decisions quickly and relay this information to others clearly. I am a strong communicator and have a good ability to read and react to situations accurately. I am driven to prove to people that politics is all about them and you can be proud of the people who represent you. I don’t see this as a popularity contest, though lots argue that it is. I see it as an opportunity for me to prove to others that I am capable and able to fulfil this role, that I have the attributes necessary to do it, and that young people have an incredible amount to offer our society.
From a policy perspective, what can your supporters expect should your campaign be successful?
I have been working with others to refine my key policy areas but these are some key areas. I am always open to suggestions and ideas. The issue of childcare is incredibly important- we have a most expensive childcare in the world and our levels and quality of training for childcare workers is repeatedly overlooked. Reform and increased investment in this area is something many opposition and independent TDs are already fighting for and I support them in that mission. The fact is that in the long-term it is a cost saving measure, preventing educational and social issues for children into the future. I would like to see a policy which seeks to make childcare tax deductible and to create a more flexible system where parents who wish to stay at home are supported.
Unemployment in Limerick is one of the highest in the country, and most notably for young people. This is both long-term and short-term and research shows that this in turn has a negative impact on people’s mental health and well-being. We have the highest rates of suicide in the country, and there is a significant body of evidence to show that your ability to access meaningful employment and to engage socially with others affects your mental health. In terms of addressing our systemic unemployment; I believe we need to remove the bulk of jobbridge schemes and replace them with a suite of apprenticeship options such a dual-apprenticeship which can be accessed by anyone regardless of your level of education. Dual apprenticeships are where new or existing companies work closely with third-levels to skill people in the type of work they do. This has a two-fold benefit; it makes the employee indispensable and therefore increases the likelihood of retention of companies within the city. This has worked in Germany for a long time, we can do it here too; and we just need more creativity and flexibility in this area.
We have the highest student population of any Irish city per capita yet almost 80% of graduates leave Limerick once finished studying. This is again unique to Limerick because as of yet we cannot provide them with meaningful work. We do, however, how very low rental rate, low cost of living and so many social and cultural outlets. Our biggest barrier is creating work. I believe that again, bringing together companies and groups and the third-level institutions we can work to create a more desirable environment not only for graduates but for employers and visitors alike.
During the boom times, Limerick City Centre was the only city centre to see a decrease in its dwelling population. Although there is a multiplicity of ways in which we can address this, one genuine way we can commit to high quality urban development is shifting our focus to promote better integration of urban heritage conservation into strategies of socio-economic development. We need more sympathetic consideration of our urban heritage in our city’s planning in the framework of an urban and architectural restoration project in Limerick city. In terms of urban planning, a focus on areas of heritage sensitivity that require careful attention to planning, design and implementation of development projects is needed; for example the Market Quarter and Nicholas Street. This would enhance our uniqueness, our own city’s beauty. Any city can build another shopping centre but you cannot replicate a place like the Milk Market. Cities like Maastricht did exactly this, and have seen huge increases in tourism and dwelling populations. We can do it too and again there are a lot of people in the city already advocating for this.
Within this city, we have the people and the resources to tackle key issues facing us. I don’t think we need to look beyond ourselves to get the solutions. Limerick has gone through so much and overcome it, and now we are an example to others as to how to do this. I believe we are ready to take it to the next level and face head-on our own issues in our own unique way. The amount of creativity, pride and commitment in this city is unlike any other. With the right leadership, not just in Limerick but nationally; one that is willing to take risks and capitalise on our own strengths, we will be set to become the most exciting and innovative city in the country.
In part two Sarah Jane discusses the political status quo in Limerick, economic policies, and new party formation in Ireland.
Jimi is the editor-in-chief of Soapbox. You can email him here