Winter Newsletter December 2022

Dear Friends,

This newsletter comes at a time when people in Ireland and across the world are navigating many interconnected challenges.In Ireland, the increases in cost of living have deepened existing inequalities in our society and highlighted underinvestment in public housing and public services.

Globally, conflict has layered further difficulties on top of an accelerating climate crisis. Following four years of drought, the Horn of Africa is facing a devastating famine. This is not just a tragedy, it is an injustice. Africa as a continent produces less than 4% of global carbon emissions, yet billions there are now at risk from the rise in global temperatures.

Seanad 100 and Seanad Reform

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of Seanad Éireann and there have been many events to mark the occasion and reflect upon the Seanad’s contribution to public life in Ireland, particularly its track record as a platform for minority voices and a driver of major social change. One focus for me has been the need to reform the Seanad electoral franchise so that all citizens have the right to vote for their Senators and help shape the next 100 years. If you would like to know more about Seanad 100 or even arrange a visit, please do get in touch with my office!

Senator Higgins calls on Irish Government to step up on climate justice ahead of COP27

At the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action this week, ahead of COP27, the Committee heard powerful testimony from NGO's and activists working for climate justice ahead. The Committee were reminded of the stark reality by activist Elizabeth Wathuti who told us that "We are witnessing devastating Loss & Damage right now. From the devastating flooding across West and Central Africa; to the prolonged drought across the horn of Africa that has seen five consecutive rainy seasons fail."

NGOs highlighted the need for a number of policy measures to ensure that principles of climate justice are reflected in our global effort. A proper loss and damage facility, Ireland following Denmark's lead and beginning to make loss and damage payments as an individual country, proper climate finance and a fossil-fuel non-proliferation treaty are some of the key policy measures we were told are fundamental to climate justice.

When officials from the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications came in, I specifically, asked them to ensure Ireland's support for a loss and damage facility for Global South countries and begin making payments as an individual country, I sought clarification that both loss and damage and climate finance measures would be additional to existing aid commitments and pushed for information on how Ireland intends to meet the 30% by 2030 methane pledge made at COP26.

I also sought a commitment that Ireland would support the inclusion of human rights in negotiated texts and a commitment that Ireland would sign the Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action.

Those who are already suffering the worst effects of the climate crisis and who have done the least to cause it, have been consistently let down by wealthy countries. Ireland must fight for climate justice at COP27.

Civil Engagement Group motion on poverty passes the Seanad

Yesterday in the Seanad, a motion on poverty and social exclusion introduced by my Civil Engagement Group colleague Senator Lynn Ruane passed unanimously. I was delighted to co-sponsor this motion, as it not only highlights the real and unnecessary poverty and exclusion felt by many across society but lays out concrete measures the State could take to begin to address poverty seriously.  

The motion acknowledged that in 2021, 11.6% of the population of Ireland, or 581,334 people, were living in poverty, of which 163,936 were children and also highlighted that the State has failed to achieve its target of reducing consistent poverty to 2% or less by 2020, and that previous targets in this regard have not been met on a consistent basis. It also acknowledges the closing down of the Combat Poverty Agency in 2009 as a regressive step.

In the course of the debate, my colleagues Senator Ruane and Senator Eileen Flynn made powerful speeches informed by lived experience and drove home the fact that to be in poverty is, in and of itself, very costly -- poverty imposes significant psychological, emotional and social costs on individuals, families and communities. 

The motion lays out a number of progressive steps which Government should take to effectively fight the root causes of poverty in our society. These measures include: re-establishing an independent Combat Poverty Agency, or a similar independent statutory body, which is empowered and resourced to develop long-term anti-poverty strategies, carry out important research, and lead the Government’s anti-poverty response; supporting and resourcing ongoing independent research based on the Minimum Essential Standards of Living (MESL) and applying the learnings from this research in an ongoing analysis of policies relating to welfare payments and the development of a living wage; and carrying out research on the potential introduction of a Universal Basic Income for certain groups, in particular care leavers.

If you would like to read the debate, you can view it here: Poverty and Social Exclusion: Motion – Seanad Éireann (26th Seanad) – Wednesday, 19 Oct 2022 – Houses of the Oireachtas. Our Group will be following up with the Government on these measures and advocating for their implementation.

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins joins launch of Irish Neutrality League on World Day of Peace

“Our voice for peace is precious, it’s something the public values, it’s something that makes a difference in the world.” 

Today, on World Day of Peace, I was glad to join with others from across the Oireachtas to formally launch the Irish Neutrality League (INL), a campaign which calls on the Irish Government to assert Ireland’s neutrality positively on the world stage, to be a voice for peace, promote human rights, to promote international law and oppose war and militarisation.  

Ireland has been and can be a really strong voice on international law, including where there are terrible breaches of international law as we’ve seen with Russian’s illegal invasion and occupation of Ukraine or indeed breaches of international law that may have to be tried in the future as war crimes. 

Our credibility as champions of international law is greatly strengthened by our status as a neutral nation, and willingness to promote these same principles everywhere in the world wherever those laws are being breached without fear or favour.

Government needs to act on concerns on Higher Education Authority Bill

The Higher Education Authority Bill will have a major impact on staff, students & society. I proposed over 100 amendments. Following strong criticism of use of guillotine at Committee stage, Report stage has been adjourned, meaning there is still chance to improve crucial aspects of Bill.

One of the key issues I raised was the importance of trade union representation from both professional & academic staff on governance boards as well as proper national strategies to challenge the serious problem of precarious low paid work within academia.

The proposed definition of student union in the Bill is not fit for purpose & based around recognition from Minister or governing authority rather then electoral mandate from students. Students union representatives from right across country have made it clear this needs to be fixed!

The Bill will give huge amount of power & discretion to Minister, including requirement for higher education institutions to comply with future policy docs of Government. Bill must be amended to ensure appropriate independence, transparency & autonomy for both HEA & individual institutions.

Another core aspect we sought to address was embedding equality, equity, access and participation into the legislation and creating legal requirements that both HEA & individual institutions policies are furthering & empowering access to & equity in our higher education system.

The Bill continues the practice of focusing entirely on private research & not looking to public/blue skies research or public-public partnerships for research. To address issues like climate, inequality and sustainable development we need a robust public research system

The references to sustainability & environment in the Bill are woefully outdated & inadequate, coming from a 1987 pre-Rio definition of “environmental development”. I sought to include the definition based on the SDGs with acknowledgement of historical responsibility & climate justice.

Following pressure from Senators, the debate has adjourned till September & there is time for Minister Harris to work constructively with us as legislators & with stakeholders to address these & other issues. The HEA Bill will underpin higher education for years to come, we need to get it right!