Summer Newsletter 2018

Alice Mary Higgins
Alice Mary Higgins

Dear Friends,

Welcome to my latest newsletter. Over the last year, I have worked to bring care, creativity, and longterm thinking into the heart of policy making. Here you can read about the impact of my work as an Independent Senator and leader of the Civil Engagement Group in the Seanad.

I have driven debate and meaningful change in areas like data protection, domestic violence, gender equality, environmental sustainability and human rights. In many of these areas, I have secured important legislative amendments, both with and without government cooperation.

Like others in my group, I engage actively with civil society to bring diverse insight and expertise into the shaping of public policy.

On the Social Protection Committee, I have continued to fight for a fair pension system, access to secondchance education and better supports for lone parents.

As an NUI Senator, I remain committed to improving quality and equality within third-level education, pressing for greater public investment to support access for all, gender equality, secure employment and an increase in frontier research.

To learn more about any aspect of my legislative or campaigning work or to get involved yourself, please do visit my website and follow me or contact me via social media, email or phone!

IN DEPTH: Protecting Our Private Data

This past year, data protection issues have been high on the agenda and I have been a leader in this debate at Irish and European level. I have made important links with other national and international parliamentarians in a bid to implement strong and appropriate data privacy regulations that empower citizens rather than allow them to be treated as targets or products.

In November 2017, I was invited to address the World Forum for Democracy at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, along with other international data experts. I spoke about the importance of regulations to protect the privacy of individuals and the integrity of electoral processes. This July I have been asked to address a conference of US State Attornies General on how they can strengthen data protection.

As the Data Protection Bill passed through the Oireachtas, I pinpointed a number of loopholes, which fell short of the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards. In March, I submitted over 30 amendments at committee and report stage and succeeded in winning important changes.

These included vital improvements around ‘the right to be forgotten’ and child protection, including a ban on profiling children for advertising purposes. I also strengthened Ministerial accountability and persuaded the Government to reverse their plan to exempt public bodies from fines. Public bodies who break the rules will now face fines of up to €1 million. However, concerns remain around exemptions for political parties and candidates, which I fear might be exploited by third parties or dubious political consultancies.

Since the Cambridge Analytica exposé, there has been increasing international concern around data-harvesting, micro-targeting and the unregulated and often unaccountable sphere of online political advertising. I have consistently called for the introduction of legislation to regulate such advertising in Ireland, as is already the case for print and broadcast media. 

I also pressed for more immediate action in advance of the recent referendum, initiating a cross-party open letter calling on Facebook to accelerate the roll-out of new online transparency features for political advertising in Ireland and linking with US legislators to increase pressure on the other side of the Atlantic. The Transparent Referendum Initiative was invaluable in tracking the scale of such advertising. 

In the absence of proper accountability, I called on all social media platforms to stop selling unregulated online political ads, stating: “Facebook acknowledges there is a problem… the least they can do is stop digging… while they get their house in order.” 

Shortly afterwards, Facebook banned all overseas referendum ads on its platform and a few days later Google paused referendum advertising across all their platforms, including YouTube. 

However, self-regulation is not enough and I will continue to work with others in the Oireachtas on legislation to regulate online political advertising in future elections and referendums and the introduction of a long-overdue Electoral Commission.

New Protections for Victims of Domestic Violence

This year saw important laws on domestic violence introduced. As leader of the Civil Engagement Group, I am particularly proud of the part we played in achieving significant amendments to that bill, including the introduction of a new offence of “coercive and controlling behaviour”.

I worked with Ministers, NGOs and other Senators to deliver these important new protections. Other key changes include a wider definition of intimate relationship and treatment of such a relationship as an aggravating factor rather than an excuse when sentencing. Ireland should now ratify the Istanbul Convention on gender-based and domestic violence and properly fund Rape Crisis Centres and other frontline and advocacy organisations.

“Controlling and coercive behaviour should and will be regarded as a criminal offence.”

Fairer Pensions for All

I advocated for a fairer state pension system, that properly recognises care, in my previous roles working with Older and Bolder and the National Women’s Council of Ireland. 

I continue to work closely with NGOs in championing this issue and last year I was happy to launch important research from Age Action “Towards a Fair State Pension for Women Pensioners”. As a member of the Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, I ensured pension injustice was high on the agenda and last year we produced a robust report calling for system reform and reversal of the 2012 cuts, which reduced many women’s pensions by up to €35 a week. I also called for a special Seanad debate on this and other gender and equality aspects of Budget 2018.

Under political and public pressure combined, the Government took an important step forward by announcing that they would introduce proper care credits and roll-out a Total Contribution Approach (TCA) early for some women. 

However, there is still a danger that when TCA is introduced for everyone in 2020, the Department might change the longsignalled target of 30 years contributions to a requirement for 40 years. It is really important that they’re not allowed to shift the goalposts in this way and I strongly encourage everyone to take part in the public consultation taking place this summer.

For the survey, go to: www.welfare.ie/consultations

International Human Rights

I am proud to be a co-sponsor and supporter of Senator Frances Black’s Control of Economic Activities (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018. This bill has just passed second stage in the Seanad and seeks to prohibit the import and sale of goods, services and natural resources from illegal settlements and occupied territories.

Such settlements are illegal under both international and Irish law and result in human rights violations on the ground. The clearest current example is the Israeli occupation and expansion of settlements in the Palestinian ‘West Bank’. Despite their illegality, Ireland economically supports such settlements when we allow trade in their goods. This bill would change that. Ireland can and should show leadership at EU level, by implementing a ban in line with international law while alsosending a message of hope and solidarity.

Another area where human rights are under serious threat is immigration. I have spoken out against the shift to a militarized rather than a humanitarian response in the Mediterranean, I also co-sponsored a family reunification bill which would provide a safe and legal route for direct dependents of recognised refugees. This has passed all stages in the Seanad.

#Vótáil100 – one hundred years of women’s votes

2018 is an important year for women’s equality. I’m delighted to be one of the coordinators of Vótáil 100, a cross-party Oireachtas initiative to mark 100 years since Irish women won the right to vote and run in parliamentary elections.

This is a chance to both celebrate and challenge, and I have spoken at a number of events exploring both the past and future of women’s participation in public life, including a fascinating conference at NUI Maynooth. 

One true highlight was our co-hosting of Díospóireacht na nÓg in April, which saw 32 Transition Year students from across Ireland come into the Seanad chamber and powerfully debate the work still to be done for women’s equality.

“The students in the Seanad today represent a new generation of passionate young women who will turn the struggle for equality into the sea-change society needs.”

For more information on future Vótáil 100 events, go to: www.oireachtas.ie/votail100

Referendum Reflections

Having first marched for repeal as a teenager in 1992 and as an early member of the Repeal the 8th coalition, I felt both pride and relief when the Irish people voted so decisively for compassion and care in the May referendum.

For 35 years, the 8th amendment has harmed women and perpetuated a culture of silence and shame. When I campaigned with Together for Yes groups in many parts of Dublin and across Ireland, from Galway and Clare to Roscommon and Leitrim, I was struck by the importance of conversation. Particularly the many women who came forward, both publicly and privately to share their lived experiences and the often difficult decisions they had to take, often alone and in fear.

We know now that we can reach out and talk to each other, replacing silence with support. The result not only showed that the Irish people trust women, it will also help restore women’s trust in the state; trust that they will be safe, that they will be equal, and that they will be heard. It is now up to us in the Oireachtas to move on the mandate given to us by the people and to pass legislation as quickly as possible.

Supporting Lone-Parent Families

Families are the backbone of this country, yet one-parent families in Ireland have historically been mistreated and continue to experience deprivation and poverty at much higher rates than other families, sometimes forced to make impossible choices around basics like food or heating.

I was proud to play a driving role in the “Report on the Position of Lone Parents in Ireland”, produced last year by the Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Our 30 recommendations included the lifting of blocks to education, improvements to the Jobseekers Transitional payment and a higher Qualified Child Allowance. I also called for, and led, a special Seanad debate on this topic.

While a number of our recommendations were successfully reflected in last year’s Budget, I will be pressing for more in Budget 2019. I will also be reminding the Government of its commitment to gender and equality proofing of Budget 2019. I was happy to see the Committee for Budgetary Scrutiny produce a report on this issue and I hope some of them might join with me in calling for the publication of an Equality Statement on Budget Day, as is done in Scotland.

A Step-Change Towards Seanad Reform?

I am deeply committed to greater democracy in our Seanad. On my first day in office I co-sponsored a Seanad Reform Bill to implement the Manning Report and, I have continued to press the Government for action ever since then. 

We have finally seen some movement with the establishment of a Seanad Reform Implementation Group, tasked with charting a path for delivery of the Manning Recommendations, including a vote for every citizen over 18 years.

As a member of this group I will be fighting to ensure progress is made this year. 

I have also been part of some other interesting initiatives to drive political reform, and was happy to speak at the Innovation in Politics Seminar at DCU in May and at the European Youth Forum future of politics event in Brussels.

“I am always conscious that as Senators... we are here on a promise of reform and we need to deliver that.”
December 2017, Seanad Chamber

Sustainable Development

In the autumn I will be introducing a bill which seeks to bring social and environmental considerations to the fore in all major public procurement contracts including those for the National Development Plan. I remain committed to protecting the environment and placing Ireland on a path of sustainable development.

I was honoured to launch NUIGalway’s innovative sustainability strategy which could make it one of the greenest, healthiest, smartest campuses in the world. I also welcome NUIGalway’s divestment from fossil fuels and look forward to stewarding Thomas Pringle’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill through the Seanad this autumn.

Joining beekeepers, bird and nature enthusiasts outside Leinster House in May 2018 to oppose the Heritage Bill. While we did win some amendments, this bill remains deeply flawed and will damage wildlife habitats.

Workers’ Rights Matter

In April, I was asked to contribute to and launch “Living with Uncertainty”a TASC report on the increasingly insecure working conditions for both the employed and selfemployed. Some sectors have used the recession as an opportunity to shift the employment landscape and erode workers’ rights, with negative consequences for families and society. I have been an active and consistent champion of legislation to tackle these issues and deliver decent work on secure contracts.

I also believe that trade unions have an important role to play. For that reason, I have been strongly pursuing the restoration of tax relief on trade union subscriptions, raising the issue during Seanad debates on Public Service Pay and the Finance Bill.

The tax relief on trade union subscriptions was abolished as an austerity measure during the recession, when many workers most needed protection for their wages and conditions. Meanwhile, tax relief for membership of a professional body, such as IBEC and ISME, was maintained. This created unnecessary division and imbalance. I will renew my efforts to reverse this inequity in Budget 2019 to ensure Trade Union membership is recognised and supported as a public good.

Peace, Neutrality and Disarmament

Like many others I have been concerned about the international rise in militarisation and the reduced emphasis on peace and diplomacy. I also believe that Ireland, as a neutral nation, could do more to help reverse that trend, rather than following it. 

Last December, Ireland chose to opt-in to a new EU military pact on Permanent Structured Cooperation on Security and Defence (PESCO), which could significantly undermine our traditional neutrality. PESCO does not mention peace or peacebuilding anywhere in its founding document. It does, however, call for a massive increase in military spending. Most of this money will not be directed to much needed improvements in pay or conditions but will instead go towards big contracts and a European Defence Fund, which offers little accountability. Ireland’s neutrality and freedom from the military industrial lobby historically allowed it to play an important role in disarmament, driving Nuclear Non-Proliferation and delivering a global ban on cluster bombs. These are our true strengths within the multilateral system.

Rather than following a slippery slope towards ever deeper militarisation or a possible European Army, I believe Ireland should build on our record as respected UN peacekeepers and honest brokers. We should be beacons for peacebuilding and diplomacy within Europe and the wider world. In order to promote that approach, a number of TDs and Senators have now come together to form a new Oireachtas Group on Neutrality, Peace and Disarmament, which I have agreed to chair.

In Brief

Launching the latest TASC report in April demonstrating the social implications of precarious work, including in-work poverty and escalating inequality. 

Participating in the UCD Women in Leadership conference in February 2018

Speaking at the UCD women in leadership conference in February with Grainne Healy, Dr Aideen Hayden Martina Fitzgerald and Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC

Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing at an event co-hosted by the Simon Community and Senator Coletter Kelleher.

With Minister David Stanton, presenting women from the Mosney Direct Provision Centre with certificates during a visit to Leinster House which I was delighted to host in May 2018.  

Welcoming the launch of the Budgetary Oversight Committee’s report on Gender Budgeting, with Deputy Colm Brophy and Eilis Ni Chathnia from the National Women’s Council of Ireland. At the report launch I renewed my call for the publication of an equality statement alongside Budget 2019 and for Budget 2019 to be gender proofed. 

I was delighted to open the women’s suffrage conference organised by the Social Sciences Institute of NUI Maynooth in May 2018 marking the 100th anniversary of votes for women in Ireland. With Professor Linda Connolly and colleagues from the Institute.

I was pleased to see the International Protection (Family Reunification) Bill pass through the Seanad last year and defeat the Government in November 2017. The Bill seeks to undo the unintended consequences of the International Protection Act 2015, which narrowed the definition of “family” – for refugees only - to a spouse and children under 18 years. This has led to devastating consequences, with families forcibly separated. The bill is due for Committee stage debate in the Dáil in the coming months.

Download Summer Newsletter 2018 (pdf)

Photography Credit - Damien Eagers INM

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