Newsletter August 2023

With my Civil Engagement Group colleagues Senators
Frances Black, Eileen Flynn and Lynn Ruane
With my Civil Engagement Group colleagues Senators Frances Black, Eileen Flynn and Lynn Ruane

Dear Friends,

Welcome to my latest newsletter. Through my work in recent months, I have sought to place social and environmental care at the heart of political decision making.

I have introduced new legislation to replace the current narrow commercial mandates of both Coillte and Bord na Móna with a mandate for nature. I have pushed for progressive change which delivers a just and sustainable transition in areas including cultural and archaeological heritage, energy and economic policy and gender equality. I have continued to champion decent work and successfully brought a motion to the Seanad on precarious work in higher education.

As the Government runs out of road on its continued obstruction of meaningful Seanadreform, I am fighting for reform which is true to the spirit of the 1979 and 2013 referendums by giving every citizen a vote. As part of a wider commitment to political reform, I have been appointed to the new Seanad Select Committee on Scrutiny of Draft EU-related Statutory Instruments. This Committee will play a key role in scrutinising how Ireland is implementing EU legislation. It is really important to drive active engagement and accountability around EU law and international policy more broadly. It continues to be an honour to serve as your NUI Senator. To get involved or learn more about any aspect of my work please visit my website or contact my office!

Warm regards,
Alice-Mary Higgins

A New ‘Mandate for Nature’

With nature and our climate under growing pressure, it is increasingly clear that the urgent action needed cannot be achieved through “business as usual”. This spring I brought a transformative new Bill to the Seanad which would replace the outdated last-century mandates of Coillte and Bord na Móna, which currently have a very narrow commercial focus, with a powerful new “mandate for nature”.

These two organisations are responsible for a significant amount of the lands, bogs, waters and soils across our country, with Coillte controlling 7% of land in the Irish state and Bord na Móna responsible for 1%. Managing that land in a way that genuinely prioritises and delivers for biodiversity and climate action would be a major step forward. My Climate Action and Biodiversity (Mandates of Certain Organisations) Bill 2023, which has successfully passed the second stage in the Seanad, would insert Climate and Biodiversity into the core mandates of each company, creating duties around the protection and restoration of bogs and native woodlands while also introducing obligations around the public interest and just transition for workers and communities. 

While public sector bodies are subject to the Public Sector Climate Action obligation, a law which requires a 51% reduction in emissions by 2030, semistate companies like Coillte and Bord na Móna are not. That is why making direct legislative changes to their core missions and mandates is so important. The Bill reflects recommendations of the Citizen’s Assembly on Biodiversity and commitments in the Programme for Government and has drawn strong support from the Environmental Pillar, Swan Ireland and other NGOs.

We don’t have time for incremental change and small pilot projects. Showing ambitious leadership in how state land is used is the best way to drive and accelerate the transformation we need. A strong new EU Nature Restoration Law will also have a positive role to play. I will be bringing my mandate for nature Bill back to the Seanad next January for Committee Stage.

Protecting Our Shared Heritage

Ireland’s historic, archaeological and cultural heritage is deeply woven into our individual and collective identities on this island. Before the summer I proposed some significant amendments to strengthen the Historic and Archaeological Heritage Bill and I was glad that, following our debate in the Seanad, Minister Malcolm Noonan agreed to introduce a number of the changes I suggested.

The changes included that, when identifying new additions to the Register of Monuments, it is not only archaeological heritage but also ‘cultural heritage and community value’ that are considered. This reflects the meaningful connection particular communities often have with specific sites. The Minister also committed to protecting and strengthening public access and constructively engaging with local authorities and development plans. Crucially the Bill will now include an explicit reference to international treaties such as the Valetta Convention, which I highlighted as both “a discussion of our collective memory and a product of our collective learning in relation to how we engage and properly support historic and archaeological heritage across Europe”.

Domestic Violence Leave and Remote Working

The new Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2023 has introduced pay for those on leave from work as a result of domestic violence and set out some rights for employees to request flexible working arrangements or remote working arrangements.

While I was disappointed that the Government did not accept my amendment to automatically set the rate of pay for those taking Domestic Violence Leave at 100% of their usual pay, I did succeed in removing language which could have used “the state of the economy” to justify reduced rates of Domestic Violence Leave Pay and I also strengthened the voice of domestic violence services within the legislation. The expert opinion of “victim services organisations” must now be considered when the Minister sets the rates of pay and those experts, like Women’s Aid, highlighted that any change in a paycheck could increase the vulnerability of those in a situation of coercive control. I am glad that the Minister has now listened to myself, other Senators and those NGOs and has set the rate at 100% of normal pay. Tackling domestic violence isn’t about a “balancing of interests” but about fundamental rights.

Unfortunately, other aspects of the Act dealing with flexible and remote working arrangements, fell short of the ambition needed. Framing flexible and remote work as a reluctant concession to employees rather than what I described as “a transformative moment to ask how the world of work could be redesigned to fit better into life and society”. I highlighted the unhelpful restrictions on employees requesting flexible work during their first 6 months in a job and pushed for a widening of the right to request flexible working in care situations, to include grandparents.

Mother and Baby Homes Survivors Deserve Better

The Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme Bill is the legislation which will introduce a financial compensation scheme for those who spent time in Mother and Baby Homes. I submitted over 30 amendments to the Bill, which excludes many survivors of these institutions and represents another injustice faced by survivors.

Over many hours of debate in the Seanad chamber, I fought against cruel exclusions in the Bill. The legislation denies payments to those who spent less than 6 months in an institution as children despite what we know about the importance of any child’s first 6 months and the evidence of real harm experienced by very young children in these homes, including the high infant mortality rates.

The scheme also denies women who spent less than 6 months in an institution access to an enhanced medical card, failing to recognise the psychological and physical health impacts which may occur in a very short space of time including during labour itself. For example, the Report of the Confidential Committee to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes includes reports of the deliberate denial of pain relief during childbirth.

I argued for all survivors to be made eligible for both payments and supports in the Bill and also called for specific measures recognising additional abuse such as racial discrimination.

I have consistently opposed the inclusion of a requirement for survivors who accept a payment to sign a waiver in respect of other legal action against the State. The UN has highlighted that such waivers go against best practice.

I also highlighted that, since the payment Scheme only compensates survivors for time spent in the institution and does not recognise additional harms experienced such as forced family separation, racial discrimination or vaccination trials, the waiver must not prevent survivors taking legal action in respect of these additional harms.

Precarious Work in Higher Education

In May, I successfully brought a motion through the Seanad, supported by my fellow NUI Senators, calling for action to tackle insecure and deteriorating working conditions in Irish universities and third-level institutions.

Proposing the motion, I spoke about how a “ladder of progression” where people might expect to move forward in their university careers had been replaced by “a slippery slope where conditions are deteriorating”. Insecure contracts are being increasingly used at every level with 11,200 lecturers in universities and higher education institutions employed on temporary or casual contracts. Many lecturers are on 9-month contracts and are forced to sign for welfare support in summer months with no guarantee of employment the following September. Others are employed on an even worse ‘if and when’ hourly basis. PhD workers also face low pay and additional challenges as they are not recognised as employees and receive no PRSI credits, cutting them off from key social benefits like maternity or paternity leave or indeed a future pension. 

As I highlighted previously when launching a key TASC report on “Living with Uncertainty”, these kinds of insecure working conditions are not only damaging to individuals, limiting their ability to secure housing or plan their lives, they also have a profoundly negative impact on students, on the quality of research and teaching, on the reputation and credibility of institutions and ultimately on society. 

My successful Seanad motion was strongly supported by the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), the Irish Precarity Network and the Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation. It called on the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to work with stakeholders, including unions, to meaningfully tackle precarious work, create viable career pathways, give proper recognition to PhD workers and revise or remove the Employment Control Frameworks which restrict universities ability to hire permanent staff. The motion also recognised higher education as “a public good”, one which requires and rewards investment and has a vital contribution to make to our shared future.

Environment, Energy, Economics

Over the past year, as part of my work on the Climate Committee and the Finance Committee, I have been pushing for ambitious and sustainable economic policies which reflect the transformation needed to address the climate and biodiversity crisis. This includes pressing for a progressive windfall tax, price controls on energy companies and proper action on Climate Finance including delivery of Loss and Damage funding.

I have long called for an exit from the toxic Energy Charter Treaty and strongly opposed any moves towards Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). I have called for Ireland to support the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is both economically and environmentally irresponsible to lock ourselves into any further fossil fuel investment. In my engagement with the energy regulator at the Climate Committee, I have pushed for strong demand reduction measures to reduce the unacceptable burden data centres are placing on carbon emissions, our national grid and households.

At European Parliamentary Week in March, I pushed for reform of EU Fiscal Rules which would avoid the mistakes made under austerity and allow and support investment in public services, housing, climate action, just transition and social cohesion.

International Day Against Racism

On 21st March, International Day Against Racism, I was honoured to host a special briefing from a number of organisations working to challenge racism and build a more inclusive Ireland. These included AkiDwa, the International Network Against Racism Ireland, Black and Irish, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, the Irish Traveller Movement and the Mixed-Race Irish Association.

The groups spoke about the lived experience of individual and institutional racism and emphasised the importance of the long overdue National Action Plan Against Racism which must tackle systemic racism in areas from childcare to criminal justice. My Civil Engagement Group colleague Senator Eileen Flynn also spoke powerfully how racism can limit possibilities and participation in society.

At a time when some are actively trying to sow fear and hatred and create artificial divisions that damage our communities and our shared social fabric, it is more important than ever to work together to build a truly inclusive Ireland where everyone’s rights are respected and people are treated equally and with dignity.

Peace Heroines

The Peace Heroines exhibit marked the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement by recognising women who played a crucial role. Ireland’s neutrality and our record on peacebuilding and disarmament is key to our international reputation and has allowed us to make a powerful and effective contribution to peace, humanitarian relief and human rights across the world.

Momentum for Seanad Reform

Since I was first elected in 2016, I have continually pressed for Seanad Reform, despite the repeated Government blocking of Seanad reform proposals put forward by myself and other Senators. A recent very welcome Supreme Court ruling found that the failure of successive Governments to legislate for the 1979 referendum on expanding the University franchise is unacceptable and action must urgently be taken.

A minimalist approach to legislating on this issue would not be true to the spirit of either the 1979 or 2013 referendums. The public need and deserve Seanad reform that is ambitious and comprehensive.

I was a member of the cross-party Seanad Reform Implementation Group in the last Oireachtas that produced legislation that would extend the university franchise and ensure every citizen over 18 has the right to vote in Seanad elections. When the Government refused to act on those proposals, myself and other Senators put the reform proposals forward as the ‘Seanad Bill 2020’.

Tomás Heneghan, who is to be commended for successfully taking the court case, has been clear that he hopes “the Oireachtas now acts speedily to ensure that the democratic right to vote in Seanad elections is extended to all, regardless of educational or socio-economic background” and that the Seanad Bill must be progressed without further delay and obfuscation from government.

The Government also failed to include Seanad elections in the mandate of the new Electoral Commission. A glaring omission which my recent Electoral Reform Bill attempted to address. Unfortunately, the Bill, which also called on the Commission to examine voting at 16, was opposed by the Minister. However, momentum for reform continues to grow, and the Supreme Court ruling means the Government have run out of road for evasions and delays.

A Pivotal Moment for the SDGs

In July, Ireland presented our Voluntary National Review (VNR) to the UN outlining our actions on each Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to the UN. In September, world leaders will gather in New York to discuss progress on the SDGs and Ireland will co-facilitate negotiations on an important new political declaration.

Our National Review includes a chapter from the Oireachtas All-Party Group on the SDGs which I chair along with Deputy Marc O’Cathasaigh. We call for the integration of the SDGs into Ireland’s budgetary framework this year and annual reports from each Government Department on specific SDG targets. Oireachtas Committees play an important role in that accountability, and it was good to see many Committees holding special sessions on the SDGs this spring.

The SDGs offer a powerful vision and blueprint for how we can better live together in our shared places and on our shared planet. Local authorities in Ireland have a central role to play in promoting that place-based approach to the SDGs and more action and resources are needed to embed the very practical targets under each goal in local communities.

Internationally, we need more solidarity to support developing countries to achieve the SDGs, and Ireland should start by paying our fair share of the climate funding promised under SDG 13. It is vital that the meeting and declaration of world leaders next September is about ambition not excuses and puts the world back on track to achieve the SDGs by the 2030 deadline.

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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!