From MLA hopeful to Seanad

Niall-O-Donnghaile-3When Belfast’s youngest ever former Lord Mayor Niall Ó Donnghaile submitted his nomination papers to challenge for a seat at Stormont in his native constituency of East Belfast he had no idea that a few months later he would be presenting himself as his party’s northern voice in Ireland’s Seanad Éireann.

Fighting a dual election on either side of the border, Ó Donnghaile admits that he would have had to do a bit of “soul-searching” had he been successful on both fronts, however, as it turned out he missed out on the MLA opportunity clearing the way for him to enter government in the south.

Asked if he fully understood the complicated election process that has seen him become one of a team of seven Sinn Féin representatives taking a seat within an institution that only three years ago the party campaigned to abolish, he said: “The short answer is no and that’s an honest answer. I was elected on to the administrative panel, which is a panel set aside for people who have held a position in public or elected life and my electoral base was every local government councillor in the south, as well as outgoing senators and current TDs. With the increase in our party’s mandate at the last council elections, we were confident we would have enough support to get a representative elected via that panel.

“I would be telling lies if I said it was as intense a process as elections that I have done previously. Never the less, you are still going through the rigmarole, still hoping and relying that people elect you in a secret vote. I got a lot of encouragement in well wishes not just from within the party but from across all the parties and different houses of government. A lot of emails coming my way said that they were impressed with my CV and would consider me for the position. In the end, no matter what format we got elected all of our roles will end up being the same. We are here to scrutinise legislation, initiate our own legislation and we are there to speak up on broader issues of concern.”


Ó Donnghaile has set out his stall, making extending the vote for the Irish Presidential election to Irish citizens in the north and the Irish diaspora but he is illusive on where his allegiances would have lied had he been forced to choose between Stormont and Leinster House.

“In the first instance, as a republican, it threw up a very immediate issue for me. Isn’t it a mad situation where you have to run for two separate institutions? The legislation actually allows for both, if you are elected you could take up both. Obviously our party take a position against double jobbing I’m hoping that the process will initiate people to think about it and think in the broader nationalist context.

“Even as unique as the Seanad is, it’s still a great privilege to be representing people and for people to be entrusting their vote in you. If that (election on both fronts) had of presented itself, I would have done a lot of soul searching. It was made very clear to me from the party leadership down that this was a serious project. That they don’t view the Seanad the way other parties have historically, as a reward for service. The people have indicated that they want to see Seanad reform, which they want to see it more democratised. We already have a motion down to establish a committee on the reform of the Seanad because it is outdated, it isn’t very democratic or representative but never the less there is a role for it to play in holding the government to account.”

Despite originally campaigning to abolish the Seanad in the build up to the 2013 referendum, Sinn Féin’s numbers give it group status in arguably the most powerful upper house in recent decades. Currently Fine Gael has 19 Senators, while Fianna Fáil has 14 in the 60 seat house but with harmony within the “political agreement”, which helped form the Fine Gael led minority government, under scrutiny, Sinn Féin and a range of independents are set to cause upsets to the current government.

The new make-up, Ó Donnghaile believes, makes his political ambitions more achievable. “It is achievable. There is a clear momentum towards enfranchising the Irish citizen. The President of Ireland is a symbolic position on which Irish people in their entirety should have the right to vote,” he said. At the forefront of his determination is also his firm belief that he is bringing a way of doing politics that is unfamiliar to the upper house. “I don’t think the Seanad has covered itself in glory in terms of political activism,” he added. “That’s what I am about, I am a political activist. There are many great parliamentarians and people who have passed through the Seanad but I want to utilise the platform for issues of economic progress, equality and ultimately for the reunification of the country. That’s the bedrock of my politics and I think speaking to the broader nationalist family, not just Sinn Féin supporters, they too see the symbolism and the importance of having a voice in the Oireachtas with a northern focus. Whether it’s from the broader nationalist family or from the unionist people that want to engage on northern issues and recognise the important role of the Irish government then I am here to engage and work on their behalf.”

For the time being Ó Donnghaile will split his time between Dublin and Belfast but what does the future hold for the former Belfast City councillor. “I’m not one for political ambition as such,” he admitted. “I have a stake in the long-­term future of Belfast and still see a key role in helping the development of the city because of the work I have done as Lord Mayor and on Belfast City Council. I loved being Lord Mayor and it’s a job I would have loved to have spent longer at but my ideal role would be as TD for East Belfast. My core ambition would be to be in Dáil Éireann representing people, who would hopefully elect me for that institution.”

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