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Laura Harmon, Seanad election candidate

Thursday, 7th April, 2016 1:01am

Laura Harmon is a former Union of Students in Ireland (USI) president and a 2016 Seanad election hopeful, and aluminus of Cork’s own UCC.

I caught up with Laura after an Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) meeting in Cork and before she had to attend the Teachers Union of Ireland’s (TUI) annual congress in Killarney, a two day event.

Education then is still a core issue on Laura’s agenda. “Yes, of course it is,” Laura says. “We need to start investing more in bringing people equally from primary all the way to fourth level education. There needs to be more focus in pre-schooling our children. I want to look at religious discrimination and inequality in the school system.

“On the other end of the spectrum, third level fees in Ireland are the highest in the EU after the UK. Our brightest are now going to Scotland and Denmark to study for free. With the cost of living and accommodation the way it is, it becomes more of an incentive to leave or to not further your education at all.”

When it comes to equality in education, Laura is no stranger. The UCC alumnus was made a board member of the Health Executive Authority last year as Equality and Citizenship Officer due the success of her marriage equality campaign ahead of the momentous 2015 referendum.

According to Laura, her very appointment as president reminds her of the gender equality still prevalent in Ireland. “I was the USI president for 2014/2015; my tenure marked 20 years since the last USI female president. Isn’t that just crazy when half of the student body is female?”

On 2 April 2014 Laura was elected USI president by landslide. Laura had previously been Equality Officer at the USI and her drive and expertise ensured her spot during the historic vote.

“As the USI President of 2015, I had the once in a lifetime opportunity of having the marriage equality referendum during my time in office. We campaigned hard and managed to register 30,000 new voters. I believe it is now more important than ever before that young people, especially women, get involved in politics to help improve our democracy and to campaign for progressive change in our country. The marriage equality referendum showed this.”

Laura also worked with Labour from September 2015 to the 2016 general election as an equality officer during the campaign. She had the opportunity to work on the issues she wanted such as repealing the eighth amendment.

Asked whether she can see real change in inequality in Ireland, the fairness advocate said: “I’m an openly gay woman myself and it was a real honour to be elected to represent Northern Irish and Irish students. That’s a massive constituency of 300,000 students who supported me.”

Coming out was a big moment for Laura. “I had known since I was 13 maybe, but it was one of those things – you internalise homophobia. It took me a while to come to come out; it’s unfortunate you have to go to college to find the right environment to feel comfortable.”

But it was through her own experience that she could empathise with others. “Having experienced inequalities first hand growing up, I believe there should be more support in schools for mental health and equality. I suppose I became politicised in UCC. I joined the LGBT society there and I can’t thank them enough for opening my eyes to other inequalities in the world and in our society.”

“I want to be a senator who represents the views of modern Ireland,” Laura says. “The main reason I’m running is to be a new voice, a fresh perspective - something which is lacking at the moment. I want to change that.”

Laura Harmon was educated in Ballyvourney through Irish and is an advocate of the language and Irish heritage, culture and arts. She also believes there is a lack of education on the environment in the Dáil.

“I’m the only Seanad candidate to highlight the environment in my manifesto. It’s rarely brought up in the Oireachtas. There’s a lack of education and plenty misinformation when it comes to the environment and its issues.

“The implications of climate change are all over the news and coming knocking on our doors; droughts gave way to the crisis in Syria which led to the migrations of people. This Government is not even showing an effort to make its emissions target.”

Laura’s first attempt at change will come with the very office she hopes to get elected to. “One policy I want to look at is voting rights at the moment for university panel in the Seanad,” Laura says. “I would like to look at extending the Seanad vote to all graduates; there’s nothing against it as it stands. There was a referendum in 1979 to decide whether changes could be made to the university panel system. It passed, but nothing was ever done or enacted since.

“I would also like to look at citizens abroad. As it stands there are problems with the voter registration system. I’m an advocate of the online system. It’s practical and would increase voter turnout, not to mention retaining the opinions of the brightest minds who had to leave Ireland after university. In the UK, graduates abroad can vote online using their national insurance number.

“There could be a rolling register throughout the year. We should be making it easier for people to vote, not more difficult. At the moment, to vote in the upcoming Seanad elections you have to have registered for it in February of 2015. There are so many people telling me they were sure they were registered but in fact they missed the deadline which was over a year ago.”

Name: Laura Harmon

Age: 29

Lives: Ballyvourney

Family: Sisters Michelle, Andrea, Rachel and Celine and parents Mary and Ted.

Pets: Four cats and a dog

Favourite thing about Cork: How approachable everyone is

Least favourite thing about Cork: It’s not the real capital

One thing you would change about Cork: More investment in tourism around county

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