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Seanad Debate FactCheck: Did David Norris really once get 1,000,000 retweets?

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck was paying close attention to TV3′s Seanad debate last night. Here’s who told the truth, and who lied.

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Updated: 10.09 pm

LAST NIGHT SAW some high-profile figures go head-to-head in TV3′s Trinity College Seanad debate.

Averil Power, David Norris and Ivana Bacik took part, along with 10 others vying for three places in the upper house, and appealing for the votes of Trinity graduates.

We had the red pen out, and put a selection of claims made to the test.

Remember, if you see a dodgy claim somewhere, email factcheck@thejournal.ie.

Let’s start with the basics – what does the Seanad do, and how much do members get paid?

‘A very well-paid part-time job’

bacik Senator Ivana Bacik Source: TV3

Claim: Senators are paid around €60,000 a year – Ivana Bacik
Verdict: Mostly TRUE

What was said:

Host Matt Cooper asked the sitting Labour Senator “What’s the pay for the job?” She answered: “It’s about €60,000 a year.”

The Facts

The current salary for a Seanad member is actually €65,000 (so Bacik wasn’t far off, but I suppose that depends on the definition of “about”).

The Leader and Deputy Leader of the house earn a bonus of €15,255 and €5,989 respectively, and party whips, party leaders in the Seanad, and joint Oireachtas committee chairpersons also get bonuses of between €792 and €5,989.

As it happens, Bacik herself is Deputy Leader of the Seanad, and so is eligible for €5,989 on top of her salary of €65,000.

She also claimed that the Seanad sits for “two and a half days” per week. This is also Mostly TRUE.

Senators typically convene after lunch on a Tuesday until around 7pm, and sit from around 10.30am to 7pm on a Wednesday, and 10.30am to about 3pm on a Thursday.

They do often debate specific legislation or private members’ bills later on Wednesday and Thursday, but the typical week of sittings is roughly 20 hours.

On top of this, some Senators who are joint Oireachtas committee members are obliged to attend those meetings.

In 2014, the Seanad sat on 103 occasions, for a total of 594 hours (5.8 hours per session), as opposed to the Dáil, which had 124 sittings over 977 hours (7.8 hours per session).

Matt Cooper concluded: “That’s a very well-paid part-time job, isn’t it?”

CV Time

tv3seanad Source: TV3

Let’s keep this brief and rate some of the candidates’ claims about their experience, background and accomplishments.

Seán Barrett:

  • “I’ve introduced eight bills.”
  • TRUE. We had originally only been able to find five bills introduced by Senator Barrett, although we noted that we were open to correction on this point. After this article was published, the Senator’s staff contacted us to clarify that he did, in fact, introduce eight bills. They are listed here.
  • In three instances, Senator Barrett introduced bills with the help of two other Senators, which accounts for our original error.

Sabina Brennan:

  • “I have a degree in psychology, and a PhD from Trinity College…”
  • TRUE. Dr Brennan – who, as Matt Cooper alluded to, once played Tess Halpin on Fair City – switched careers entirely, getting a BA in psychology from NUI Maynooth in 2007.
  • Then, as listed on her official TCD profile, she got a PhD at Trinity in 2010 with a thesis entitled “Neurocognitive and Electrophysiological Indices of Cognitive Performance in Ageing.”

David Norris:

davidnorris Senator David Norris Source: TV3

  • “On one occasion, one of my tweets was repeated [sic] a million times, it was the most effective use of Twitter during the entire referendum campaign…”
  • FALSE (but he almost certainly misspoke).

One million retweets would rank among the three most widely shared tweets in history, so this claim is clearly entirely false.

What we assume Senator Norris was alluding to was this tweet on 3 October 2013, which Jennifer Hyland of Edelman Digital later wrote in the Sunday Business Post was “the most retweeted tweet” in the PR firm’s audit of the 2013 Seanad Referendum campaign.

Averil Power:

  • “I got an [adoption] bill through the Senate…and then it was sanctioned by the Dáil Health committee two weeks before the general election, so it’s half way through.”
  • Half-TRUE. Power co-sponsored an adoption bill (with Fidelma Healy-Eames and Jillian van Turnhout), in 2014, which was indeed passed by the Seanad.

But the adoption bill taken up before the election was not the one that originated in the Seanad – it was a separate government bill published last July, which Power “cautiously welcomed” at the time.

  • “I published a national action plan on youth mental health…”
  • TRUE. It was Fianna Fáil’s plan, before Power defected from the party, and you can find it here.

Education

lynnruane Lynn Ruane Source: TV3

Claim: The USC cut was greater than the entire third-level education budget – Lynn Ruane
Verdict: FALSE

What was said: ”If you look at the last budget,…there was more money spent on one single tax cut, with the USC, than was funded into third-level in its entirety.”

The Facts

According to the Department of Public Expenditure’s estimates for 2016, the budget for higher education is €1.51 billion, and was €1.52 billion in 2015.

According to October’s budget (page A.5), the cost to the exchequer of the USC cut would be €772 million for the whole of 2016, which is clearly substantially less.

On the other hand, the cost of abolishing the USC (which Fine Gael proposes to do eventually) is estimated by Michael Noonan to be €3.7 billion in one year.

Claim: We have the second-highest university fees in Western Europe – Anthony Staines
Verdict: TRUE

What was said: “We have the highest university fees in Western Europe, apart from the UK.”

The Facts

anthonystaines Professor Anthony Staines Source: TV3

We’re not sure what Professor Staines’ source is for the claim, but according to a very recent study by the EACEA, the European Commission’s Education and Culture Agency, he is absolutely right.

That report measured tuition fees across Europe for the 2014-2015 academic year, and found that Ireland ranked second, after the UK.

Here, undergraduates typically pay a €3,000 “student contribution” (€2,750 at the time of the report), and Masters-level students pay, on average, €6,000 in fees.

While the UK is split into four regimes (Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England), undergraduates there typically pay between €4,655 and €10,742 – with the notable exception of Scotland, where students from Scotland and the rest of the EU (including Ireland but excluding the rest of the UK), do not pay fees.

Masters-level fees vary quite a bit from institution to institution in the UK, but according to the EU Commission report, the average fees there (€5,051) are actually slightly lower than those in Ireland, which are €6,000.

Claim: There are no university fees in Germany – Eoin Meehan
Verdict: Almost entirely TRUE

What was said: “You don’t pay fees in Germany to go to college” – Eoin Meehan

The Facts

eoinmeehan Eoin Meehan Source: TV3

According to the same EACEA report, German law was changed in 2007 to allow regional governments (Lander) to introduce college fees.

However, the practice faded away in the intervening years, and as of the most recent academic year, there are absolutely no university tuition fees, although most regions do charge “low administrative fees.”

Claim: The cost of the bailout was 10 times annual spending on primary and secondary education – Seán Barrett
Verdict: Almost entirely TRUE

What was said:

The €64 billion we had to pay to bail out banks…is 10 times the annual expenditure on primary and secondary education combined, and it’s 43 times the €1.5 billion we spend on higher education.

The Facts:

seanbarrett Senator Seán Barrett Source: TV3

According to the Department of Public Expenditure’s estimates, the average yearly spending on primary and secondary education was €6,171,973,000 between 2011 and 2016.

So the €64 billion bailout is almost 10.37 times that amount. If you take spending for just 2016 (€6.28 billion), the bailout was worth 10.19 times more.

If we round the figures, the first part of Barrett’s claim is TRUE.

Average spending on higher education for 2011-2016 was €1,549,172,000. The bailout was therefore 41.3 times this amount.

Higher education expenditure in 2016 alone was €1.51 billion – 42.2 times less than the €64 billion bailout, so this part of Barrett’s claim slightly overstates the reality.

And finally, one of the more interesting pieces of information deployed last night.

Claim: Switzerland had 12 referendums in the last two years – Eithne Tinney
Verdict: FALSE – she actually understates the reality, which was 18.

What was said:

In Switzerland I think they had four referendums last year, and the year before they had eight. They have no difficulty going to the people on all kinds of things.

The Facts

eithnetinney Eithne Tinney Source: TV3

Tinney is wrong on the numbers here, but the reality actually gives more support to her argument in favour of referendums.

According to the official website of the Swiss federal government, there were six referendums in 2015 (not four), and 12 in 2014 (not eight).

And Tinney is right to say they were on “all kinds of things” – banning convicted paedophiles from working with children, immigration, taxation, public health insurance, gun control, among other issues.

Interestingly, all of these came from “popular initiatives” – proposals brought to a referendum under Swiss law, after gaining 100,000 signatures. So it wasn’t so much a case of “going to the people”, as coming from the people.

Originally published: 7.43 pm

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

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Dan MacGuill

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