What I Stand For: Independent Senator and Election 2016 Candidate Katherine Zappone 6 years ago

What I Stand For: Independent Senator and Election 2016 Candidate Katherine Zappone

For the 2016 General Election, we believe every voter should have as much information at their disposal as possible. For this reason, we’ve decided to profile female candidates from across the country. Not just because they are women, but because each participant has a story to tell in her own right.

Senator Katherine Zappone is no stranger to Irish politics. Having previously acted as CEO for the National Women’s Council, she was later appointed as Senator by Enda Kenny upon the recommendation of then Tanaiste Eammon Gilmore on May 20th 2011, before becoming a lead campaigner in the 2015 Marriage Referendum.

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Having worked in developing and supporting education and opportunity in her local area for 30 years, Katherine is now running as an Independent candidate in Dublin South West.

From the housing crisis to severe disability cuts, here Katherine shares her motivation for creating an equal Ireland…

First, tell us a little bit about yourself…

Well I came to Ireland in the early 80s, with my (at that stage what we considered ourselves) life partner Ann Louise Gilligan. We met each other in Boston College when we started our doctorates in education together. And then soon after we arrived, we basically decided to work together to see if we could put together an educational project – especially for people in West Tallaght. We had recently moved close to West Tallaght and with a group of women we did set that up. Again, it was the early 80s and it was called The Shanty at the time, which is our home.

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And over the course of the next 15 years, we renovated a set of garages at the back of our home, which became our education and training centre. We raised monies and we went on to build a purpose built community education and enterprise centre in West Tallaght, in Jobstown. Again, about 15 years ago. So, I’ve been living in and working with the constituency for the past 30 years, especially the wider Tallaght community – offering education and training, giving people the opportunity to take second chances to where we now offer those full degrees too. And in those 15 years, 15,000 people have been educated and trained.

Actually, I was out canvassing at a school in Fettercairn in West Tallaght and there we have located what we call a fledgling centre – which is an early education and care centre, and we’ve set up eight of those across Tallaght too.

So that was the work I was doing in my constituency as an educator over the year, and I also became the CEO of the National Women’s Council, I spent 10 years on the Irish Human Rights Commission – so I was an equality and human rights activist as well.

And then of course, in the last couple of years I’ve been a Senator, an Independent Senator in the Seanad, and was one of the leaders of the Marriage Equality Campaign.

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That’s a little bit of what I’ve been doing.

What’s your opinion on introducing a gender quota? Do you think it has the potential to create a more balanced government?

I hope that it will. I was very much in favour of the legislation for gender quotas. I would’ve argued then in the Seanad and again in my role as Chief Executive of the Women’s Council we need more women’s voices in our parliaments. We need more women sitting around the cabinet table. Many, many years have passed and we weren’t getting that greater percentage moving upwards in terms for women, so I think it was necessary and helpful to put in place a temporary gender quota. To raise the bar, to get more women into the parliament – I think it’s important for people to understand that the gender quota is simply a law that says political parties have to field at least 30 percent of candidates as women, otherwise they will lose some of their state funding.

It’s just a quota to get the candidates a little more even. Every citizen is free to vote for a man or a woman when it comes to the ballot box, so it’s not something that imposes that obligation on them.

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How do you think women are perceived in Irish politics?

I think they’re perceived very positively. Well that’s certainly been my experience. I’m not sure either if it’s a generational thing. Young people tend to think, ‘of course, why not? Women politicians, women business people’. Yet, in my own experience in the last seven months of campaigning, a lot of men have responded positively.

They’re very aware of the work that I’ve done. They want to see another woman in the parliament, especially one that’s representing their constituency. I haven’t experienced any negative reaction in light of my gender at all. If anything, it’s been the absolute opposite.

How are you different from the TDs who were elected to the last Dáil?

Well, from this constituency, there hasn’t been a women in the last 15 years in the Dublin West area representing the people. That’s a pretty outrageous statistic. Since the forties, there’s only been one woman. So I think absolutely that this constituency would like to put a woman in the Dáil.

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But apart from that I think I’m probably one of the few politicians running that has a 30 year track record of working in and with the people but also has the five years’ experience of working in the Oireachtas and the Seanad. I’m not a career politician, and I think that distinguishes me further. I think the fact that I’ve spent so much of my life working in civil society, NGO sector, the community education sector means that I’m not as used to the political culture and the waves of the political system that I think needs such reform.

I can bring my freshness to it, as I combine my experience of working in the community and the last few years in the Seanad. But the fact that I do have both, I have experience of law-making but also the experience of working with other independents and cross party.

Often to bring about change, such as the marriage bill or the gender recognition bill or even the gender quota bill, it’s important for politicians to work across parties in order to get that change. I have that experience of researching, negotiating and working with other parties to make effective change. That’s how our political system works.

Knowing Ireland has traditionally voted by political parties, why did you decide to run as an Independent?

I believe that certainly at this point in Irish politics, that it is the way to best represent directly the voices of the people of this constituency. Without having to go through a party political machine, even in the formation of policies and priorities and if I was in the Dáil, I have the freedom to work on priorities without being constrained or voting in line with a party whip. I am there purely to be a voice of the people.

With my experience as an independent Senator, I drafted and wrote four bills, and I didn’t do it within the context of a background of backroom research of a political party.

Instead I reached out to those people whose lives were being impacted by the fact that we didn’t have a good enough law serving them, e.g. in the gender recognition bill I wrote, or in the last bill I wrote which was housing. I reached out to Focus Ireland, Simon Community, and the Landlord Association in the construction of that bill.

I’m freer to debate and find solutions and answers for those who are really living with the reality of a gap in the law, in order to create better law. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to continue to do in the Dáil.

You worked closely with the ‘Yes’ campaign during the 2015 Marriage Referendum. Do you think this gave you an advantage into the public’s current satisfaction levels with the government?

It assisted in terms of creating a national profile in terms of being a leader in the ‘Yes Equality’ campaign, and for many people, it reinforced their awareness of me. It was myself and my partner Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan who took the case, called Cal Case at the time, in early 2000. Really, we were against the Irish state because they wouldn’t recognise our Canadian marriage that really prompted the whole debate around whether gay or lesbian couples should be allowed to marry in the Irish Republic.

So, I guess I already had a profile there, but this just consolidated it. The other thing too is that we did have another very critical and important referendum, which was the Seanad Referendum about two years after I entered the Seanad, and I was a leader of that campaign too.

I had quite a national profile in that, working alongside Senator Feargal Quinn, another independent senator working on a bill for Seanad Reform, which we saw as an opportunity for political reform. We know this ultimately helped the Irish public vote, ultimately, in order to retain the Seanad.

So yes, I think the ‘Yes Equality’ campaign has helped in terms of maintaining a national profile. It’s important for people to go to the ballot box to think about what kind of changes have people brought about, what is their character like, have they followed through on their promises?

I think I have done that. I’ve delivered change, followed through on my promises, but it’s important to look at a candidate and see what do they want to do to deliver change in the future?

I’d love to champion equality, opportunity and fairness – offering solutions to the housing crisis, ensuring we have more public investment in affordable childcare and access to education. Those are all areas I’ve worked on in the community already.

There’s a new wave of Irish youth voters – how do you think this will affect the general election this Friday?

It would be fantastic if they’d all come out again. I know in my own experience with ‘Yes Equality’ and again my own campaign that I’ve worked with many volunteers – many of which are ‘youth’.

What I’d really hope is that having experienced that a vote can make a difference for not just the people, but the reputation of a country, that they will go out and make their vote count.

The youth voted in favour of a new Ireland that marriage equality represents, and as one of the leaders of the campaign I’d hope the youth might vote for me, understanding the effect and my work in helping make such a change and my desire to do that again on a number of fronts.

What in your opinion is the biggest issue facing Irish voters in the 2016 General Election?

In Dublin South West is one of the biggest constituencies that stretches right across from Tallaght West to Templeogue and Rathfarnham, so there’s a huge diversity of social class and background.

But even in the breadth of that diversity the prime issues that people are talking to me about is the housing crisis.

Whether it’s that people can no longer afford the rent, or that they can afford the rent but then they have nothing left afterwards to save to put towards a house, or the number of women who have stood out with me in the cold, snow and rain talking about their fears of becoming homeless over the next couple of months. It’s a huge issue.

The rent crisis, the uncertainty, the issues around social houses and homelessness – it’s closely followed by access to good, affordable childcare and then there’s the cuts to the disability service.

There’s a huge number of children who want and need to be assessed who have a learning disability or are autistic, that there just isn’t the facilities or even the people to do the assessments available in the area.

There’s no public psychologist in Dublin South West, and we’ve just lost one of our last speech and language therapists but the government is trying to make up for it by sub-contacting these professionals into the area, which is just outrageous.

But that all feeds into the bigger issue of the two-tier health system, the waiting lists as well as the crisis in our emergency rooms.

If you had one piece of advice for voters, what would it be?

My main piece of advice is to please go out and vote. Your vote can bring about change. Many people I have met on the doorstep are so disenchanted with where the government has brought Ireland. So go out and vote, and vote for change. I’m a woman that’s standing because I believe I can make that change.