Senator Alice-Mary Higgins leads the charge against controversial trade agreement in the Seanad

Independent Senator Alice-Mary Higgins is bringing a motion before the Seanad this Wednesday in an attempt to stop the Irish Government signing up, later this month, to “provisional application” of the controversial free-trade agreement between the EU and Canada, known as CETA (The Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement).   

Senator Higgins’s motion will be the first opportunity for debate on CETA and it comes at close to the last minute as the Government intends to sign this agreement at the next meeting of the Council of Ministers on October 19th. The motion is receiving strong support from both Sinn Fein and Labour as well as many independents, including members of Senator Higgins’s own Civil Engagement Group.

CETA is sometimes known as the ‘Canadian TTIP’,   because of its similarity to the better known TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) between the US and the EU, which now seems almost certain to fall following huge pressure from unions, environmental and health groups and citizens on both sides of the Atlantic.1

Both are part of a ‘new generation’ of trade deals, radically different from previous trade agreements, notably in their introduction of special powers for corporations to sue governments and influence public regulation. 

Senator Higgins stated “Make no mistake, this is not business as usual. CETA has been described the EU trade commissioner, Cecelia Malmstrom, as “the most ambitious trade agreement that the EU has ever concluded”.  It is an absolute game changer with the potential to affect our public services, environment and policy decisions in a way we have not seen before.” 2

Senator Higgins has previously argued in the Seanad that provisional application of the agreement would be unconstitutional under article 29.5.2 which states that “the state shall not be bound by any international agreement involving a charge upon public funds unless the Speaking in terms of the agreement shall have been approved by Dáil Éireann”.  

Speaking in the Seanad at that time she said, “Let us be clear in that CETA will involve a charge on public funds. It would bring into effect for the first time in Ireland investor-state dispute settlement courts, which could allow corporations to sue the State for the potential loss, not only of present profits, but of future ones. In other countries where such courts already operate, many of the settlements sought have run into billions in national currency. The ultimate blank cheque.” 

Speaking about this week’s motion, Senator Higgins noted “There is a worrying lack of agreement and clarity about what ‘provisional application’ actually means and I don’t believe the Government are in a position to assure the public that it will not open Ireland up to investor state dispute settlements and corporate claims.”

“The European Court of Justice is currently examining the EU-Singapore free trade agreement (another new generation deal) and will produce a ruling in 2017. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mary Mitchell-O’Connor has acknowledged that “the outcome of this case will impact on the scope of provisional application in the case of CETA.” So effectively, the Government are planning to sign up to ‘provisional application’ in October and find out what it means the following spring. This is reckless behaviour.”

Other concerns which Senator Higgins highlights in her motion include the lack of appropriate impact assessment, the fact that the ‘precautionary principle’, a keystone of European regulatory practice is not mentioned even once in CETA’s 1,598 pages,  and the absence of public consultation.

Continuing, Senator Higgins noted “There has been widespread opposition to both CETA and TTIP across Europe, with many concerned about the ramifications of the agreements on workers’ rights, environmental, health and food standards. In Ireland, a recent poll commissioned by the civil society group Uplift showed that 74% of Irish people across all regions and income brackets want a referendum to be held on both TTIP and CETA with 81% of farmers describing themselves as ‘concerned’3.   It shows an extraordinary disregard for such concern that the Government would plough ahead with ‘provisional application’ without either public or Oireachtas consultation.  There are also concerns that the ‘provisional application’ process might even bypass the European Parliament which has previously expressed strong concerns.” 

Some of the strongest opposition to CETA has come from local level with Clare County Council, Cork City Council and Dublin County Council all declaring themselves “CETA/TTIP free zones”. Other vocal opposition to CETA has come from Friends of the Earth, Comhlámh, Trocaire, small food producers and chefs and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions4.  ICTU will be hosting their own briefing on CETA in advance of this week’s motion.

Concluding, Senator Higgins stated “I am calling on all Senators to support this motion and I hope that we can give the Government a mandate to step back and reconsider its current approach on this important issue.”

Notes to Editor

1 “In Michigan, Hillary Clinton Promises To Oppose TPP As President”: Presidential Candidate Hilary Clinton, former a champion of the new generation trade deals, has now changed her view, stating recently, in Michigan , that “it is true that too often past  trade deals have been sold to the American people with rosy scenarios which failed to pan out. Those promises now ring hollow”.



4 NO DEAL: Why Unions Oppose TTIP & CETA Briefing on the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) & Canada Europe Trade Agreement (CETA)

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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.