Winter Newsletter December 2022

At Shaping Europe event
At Shaping Europe event

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.

Climate justice requires wealthier countries to step up and deliver their fair share of both emission reductions and funding for the global south. Currently Ireland falls short on both, although the establishment of a loss and damage fund at COP 27 is a positive step.

On a national and an international level, we must of course take the immediate actions necessary to tackle emergencies and support the most vulnerable, but we should also get better at tackling the underlying causes, developing policies that meet need while also challenging greed.

Crucially, we need to keep imagining and demanding new and better ways of living together. Internationally the Sustainable Development Goals are more relevant than ever as a blueprint for better joined up policies and my Seanad and Committee work continues to be inspired and shaped by the many communities and individuals across Ireland who are driving transformative action in areas from gender equality and disability rights, to social justice and biodiversity.

It continues to be my honour to serve as your NUI Senator in Seanad Éireann.

Warm regards,
Alice-Mary Higgins

Seanad 100 and Electoral Reform

As we mark 100 years of the Seanad and explore its history of platforming minority voices and pressing for social change with a series of interesting events, exhibitions and educational resources,  I have continued to focus on the reforms needed to ensure everyone gets a vote and the chance to shape the Seanad’s future.

While the long overdue establishment of an Electoral Commission is welcome, it is disappointing that despite many promises over recent years, the Electoral Reform Act did nothing to deliver Seanad reform and failed to reflect the recommendations put forward by myself and others on the Seanad Reform Implementation Group.

The Government rejected our amendments to give the Electoral Commission a mandate on Seanad reform and also blocked our attempts to address problems with the ambiguous definition of political purpose.

Despite these setbacks, I will continue to work for Seanad reform and widen the Seanad franchise. I also encourage all those who are currently entitled to a vote to claim it. NUI graduates who aren’t on the existing NUI Seanad register have until next February to claim their vote at and be included in the 2023-2024 register.

If you would like to the visit the Seanad 100 exhibitions at the Oireachtas please get in touch. 

Climate and Energy

For many years, climate scientists calling for a move from fossil fuels to renewables have faced obstruction and delays from decision makers reluctant to upset established industry interests. It was frustrating to see the EU Taxonomy, designed to direct much needed investment into renewables, undermined by the absurd inclusion of gas and nuclear.

Over recent months, it has become painfully clear that as well as being dangerous and damaging from an environmental perspective, gas is also politically and financially volatile. While the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine had a huge impact, stockmarkets and energy companies have also exploited the situation for profit.

There is need for a coordinated political response rooted in ethics and equality and an understanding that the energy crisis sits inside an intensifying climate crisis and any solutions must tackle both.

From a human rights perspective, as we rightly end dependence on Russian fuels, we should not replace them with gas from occupied territories or blood coal from Columbia and we must also guard against any new entry point for fracked gas.

I pressed Minister Ryan to support EU proposals to stop gas prices from automatically raising renewable electricity prices and apply windfall taxes to massive energy profits. I was glad the Government eventually introduced a windfall tax at national level however more regulation of prices is needed.

While there may be short-term relief from the Government contribution to energy bills, we also need to challenge the hikes in standing charges, from both an energy poverty and environmental perspective.

We need to prioritise genuinely renewable energy like solar and wind and accelerate retrofitting of social housing and public buildings. I have also highlighted the danger of escalating demand for energy from large corporate energy users. Over the last five years, electricity demand in Ireland has increased by 9% compared to an EU average of 0%. Data Centre demand increased by 265%.

Government policy decisions about energy and environment must be driven by the public good and not corporate pressure. The IPCC has identified the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), which allows fossil fuel companies sue countries, as a serious obstacle to achieving climate targets. Since then, Spain, Poland, France, the Netherlands and Slovenia have all decided to leave the ECT. Ireland should exit the ECT too and we should also avoid exposing ourselves to further corporate courts through any reckless ratification of CETA.

At CETA protest in Dublin, 2016

Supreme Court Ruling Puts Brakes on Dangerous Investor Courts

One of my very first actions in 2016 as a new Senator was to bring a motion to the Seanad highlighting the danger of the proposed inclusion of investor courts in the EU-Canada trade agreement CETA. These investor courts allow corporations to sue states when they believe a state’s policies or regulations have a negative impact on their current or future profits.

While the trade aspects of CETA have been provisionally applied for many years, the dangerous investor court component, has, largely thanks to the advocacy from a wide range of civil society and some principled politicians, never yet been ratified.

I strongly welcome the recent Supreme Court ruling on the case successfully taken by Deputy Patrick Costello which determined the ratification of the investor court system in CETA as proposed by the Government would be unconstitutional and compromise judicial sovereignty in Ireland. In his ruling, Mr Justice Gerard Hogan stated the case “may yet be regarded as among the most important which this court has been required to hear and determine its 100-year history.”

The Supreme Court ruling should be a wake-up call to the Government on their failure to properly consider the legal implications of investor courts, let alone the huge risks they would pose to society, economy, the environment and good public policy.

Online Safety and Media Regulation

The Online Safety and Media Regulation (OSMR) Bill is a significant piece of legislation which creates a new regulatory framework for all online and broadcast media platforms. Following thirty hours of debate in the Seanad, I was glad to win over a dozen important changes and improvements. These included a commitment to at least one Online Safety Commissioner within the new Media Commission along with a duty to have regard to the safety of children and both human rights and equality when carrying out its functions.

Importantly, the Minister accepted changes which give the Commission the power to prohibit or restrict advertisements for infant or follow-on formula. Ireland has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and the World Health Organisation has been deeply critical of the aggressive online advertising strategies used to promote formula.

There is a need for far more practical supports for mothers who wish to breastfeed but we also need to ensure public health messages do not have to compete with the massive advertising budgets of profit seeking corporations. We strengthened references to the regulation of gambling, although I was disappointed that measures to tackle the advertising of weapons to young people were not included.

The EU Audio Visual Directive which the Irish law transposes, is not just about regulation, it is also about inclusion and the European principle of “the exception culturale”, where everyone has a right to culture. I was delighted Minister Martin accepted my request to include specific recognition of the importance of inclusive cultural participation in the mandate for the new Commission. I also strengthened climate and sustainability, ensuring programmes on biodiversity will now be eligible for European Works Scheme funding.

As there are concerns about risk of overreach in some aspects of the Bill, I secured amendments to improve transparency, including a requirement to publish reports on the operation of online safety codes and also publish the rules around investigations by authorised officers, who will have far-reaching powers of entry, inspection and seizure. The Minister also agreed to strengthen data protection measures in the Bill. I was glad that Minister Catherine Martin engaged constructively in the legislative process and accepted many of our amendments and I will continue to advocate for further improvements in this area.

With student leaders before the HEA bill debate in the Seanad

Higher Education Authority Act

Over recent months, I have engaged widely with students, academics and institutions around the new Higher Education Authority Act. In the Seanad, I proposed amendments to improve governance, tackle precarious working conditions and support academic independence, excellence and diversity. I succeeded in winning important amendments to ensure student union representation on the board of higher education governing authorities. The initial wording did not give this guarantee and would have been a regressive step from existing legislation.

However, other concerns remain unaddressed, including the requirement for governing authorities to “monitor compliance with and implement…policies of the Government or a Government Minister”. This wide and ambiguous wording risks overreach and unfortunately the Minister did not accept my amendments to ensure any such policies were backed up by statutory provisions or HEA Board approval.

I will continue to advocate on all the issues raised during these debates and when the Government’s new research legislation comes before the Seanad I will be pushing for a focus on public research for the public good and development of public-public research partnerships.

Protecting Ireland’s Native Honeybee

I was happy to co-sign Senator Martin’s ‘Protection of the Native Irish Honeybee Bill’ which would ban importation of non-native bees who endanger Ireland’s native honey bee, Apis mellifera mellifera.

I have been a committed advocate for our pollinators and their habitat since the 2016 Seanad debates on the Heritage Bill where I fought to protect Irish hedgerows, recognising the importance of these vital ecosystems for wildlife, biodiversity and horticulture.

Thankfully there is now greater awareness of the need to protect, monitor and expand Ireland’s network of hedgerows but this must be accompanied by protection and recognition for the pollinators themselves.

Landmark Loss and Damage Fund

At this year’s COP 27 UN Climate talks, developing countries demanded recognition and payment for the Loss and Damage they have suffered due to the actions of wealthier countries. As a long-time advocate for climate justice, I was glad when in the last days of the climate talks, agreement was secured to establish a Loss and Damage fund. The details of how the fund will operate are however still being negotiated and will be important. Ireland played an active role in this discussion to date and should advocate for an approach based on strong climate justice principles. Particular credit is due to Denmark as the first European country to acknowledge their share of the historic and moral responsibility for climate change and commit to loss and damage funding.

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

Neutrality, Peace and Human Rights

On World Day of Peace, I helped launch the new Irish Neutrality League. Ireland’s neutrality has made us a more powerful and credible voice on peace, human rights, international law,humanitarian support and disarmament. We were the first country to sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and I was there when we negotiated the Global Ban on Cluster Munitions. That legacy should not be undermined by Government participation in military trade fairs. 

The UN Charter and subsequent architecture of human rights and international law sought to save future generations from “the scourge of war”. Neutral countries like Ireland can help protect this politics of principle against a slide back towards big powers and patronage. A serious consistent approach to human rights law everywhere, leadership on humanitarian support and understanding of the long deep work of peacebuilding are important and necessary global contributions. 

To read the Irish Neutrality League shared statement visit

More For Our Money

My ‘Quality in Public Procurement’ will be debated at Report Stage in December and having engaged constructively with Minister Ossian Smyth and many other stakeholders, I am hopeful it will pass and continue to the Dáil.

The Bill has won strong support from groups and individuals with first-hand experience of Ireland’s public procurement process and those who recognise the importance of ethical, sustainable procurement in a circular economy.

Over €19 billion was spent on public procurement in 2021 and my Bill would require public bodies to consider both quality and price when spending public money or provide an explanation as to why not. In other words, “Think about quality or explain why you’re not thinking about quality”.

As I stated during previous debates, “This is about a culture shift. The procurement model needs improving. We cannot put inertia and convenience over the purpose we should all have, which is getting the best genuinely advantageous value from how we spend our public money by ensuring it delivers for us in terms of quality.”

Finance Committee

On the Oireachtas Committee on Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, I have championed progressive policies on tax and public investment, transparency and ethics in public life and better financial regulation.

Our committee has given constructive input on EU economic governance and challenged banks on plans to go cashless and close branches. New topics I will be bringing to our work programme over the coming months include climate finance and the risks associated with cryptocurrency.

Launch of the Gender Equality Committee report on Constitutional Reform

Gender Equality Committee

As a long-time advocate for equality, I am very glad to serve on the special Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality, established to consider the 45 important recommendations made by the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality and identify the actions needed to implement them. These important recommendations cover areas such as care, leadership, social protection, gender-based violence and workplace conditions, including the right to collective bargaining. They also include important recommendations for changes to Articles 40 and 41 of the Constitution.

In June, the Committee published an interim report calling for a referendum next year to reflect these proposed reforms – including replacing Article 41.2 on women’s role “in the home” with a gender-neutral recognition of the value of care and an obligation for the State to take reasonable measures to support that care.

The Committee has also supported the Citizens’ proposals to widen the reference to family in Article 41 so that it is not just limited to married families, as the current language excludes many families, including the 25% of families headed by lone parents.

Over the last year, our committee has met with academics, government ministers and officials, civil society organisations and those with lived experiences of the issues. In December, we will publish a final report outlining the steps we believe the Government should take to implement all 45 of the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations along with timelines for action as women have already been waiting too long for progress in many of these areas!

Reproductive Healthcare and Rights

As co-sponsor of the Safe Access to Termination of Pregnancy Services Bill, which Senator Paul Gavan brought to the Seanad with the support of Together for Safety, I was glad to see the Government respond by publishing their own legislation on this important issue. Nobody should face harassment or intimidation while accessing or providing reproductive healthcare. I have also been happy to support Deputy Ivana Bacik’s progressive legislation on reproductive leave for workers.

In May, I joined the Oireachtas Health Committee discussions on the new National Maternity Hospital. I believe the current plan is a bad deal for women and a bad deal for the public and highlighted that the lack of a proper exit clause for the State represents a huge hostage to fortune. I, like many others, was disappointed by the refusal of the Government to take on board legitimate concerns and fear that the failure to secure full public ownership of our new national maternity hospital could condemn future generations to ongoing power struggles over board control and contract clauses.

The Future of Europe

The Conference on the Future of Europe, which concluded last May, was a year-long project bringing together hundreds of citizens from different EU countries, along with representatives of different EU institutions, 108 MEPS and 108 national parliamentarians. I was honoured to be one of the four parliamentarians from Ireland to participate in this important process.

The conference began with thematic discussions in citizens’ panels, similar to Ireland’s Citizens’ Assemblies. There was also an online portal, where individuals and groups shared their ideas. The conference then set up working groups across each of the key themes.

As a member of the Working Group on Values, Rights and Rule of Law, I was glad to contribute to citizens final recommendations calling for less corporate abuse of media power, better wages, welfare, health and public services and crucially, a long overdue legal strengthening of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, making its important social, workplace, environmental and political rights “universally applicable and enforceable”.

On climate and the environment, citizens in many different working groups emphasised the need to move away from ‘business as usual’ and towards just transition and sustainability.

This requires changes on agriculture, supply chains, the circular economy, public transport and an urgent shift from fossil fuels to renewables.

There were some themes which proved more controversial however. There was disagreement around different approaches to democratic reform and unfortunately, when it came to the crucial theme of ‘EU In The World’, thoughtful and nuanced proposals from citizens were overridden by a military emphasis which did not reflect the original recommendations. I was particularly unhappy that the blunt language in these new sections did not include appropriate recognition of the existence of neutral countries such as Ireland.

Overall, I was moved to see how many citizens from different countries and circumstances genuinely care about the same things and share a common desire to make Europe a better, more equal and sustainable place for all to live. It was also interesting to see how many of the concerns and priorities highlighted by Social and Environmental NGOs and Trade Unions for many years are strongly shared by citizens, showing decision makers should listen more to those groups and less to corporate lobbyists.

It was frustrating however that some of those in powerful positions chose to focus less on values and rights than on EU economic dominance and military strength. In the months since the Conference, I have spoken at events with the European Youth Forum, the Economic and Social Platform, the Institute for International and European Affairs (IIEA) and others. It is now up to all of us to take the conversation forward and work for a more progressive, equal, sustainable, inclusive and peaceful Europe and a shared planetary future. 

With my CEG colleagues Senators Frances Black, Lynn Ruane and Eileen Flynn

The Seanad Civil Engagement Group

I am proud to lead the Civil Engagement Group in Seanad Éireann. Myself, Senator Lynn Ruane, Senator Frances Black and Senator Eileen Flynn are a group of progressive independent Senators with backgrounds in civil society and a shared commitment to social, economic and environmental justice. 

In addition to pushing forward innovative legislation in areas from the Occupied Territories Bill to a ban on abusive Non Disclosure Agreements, we also work together on key policy initiatives such as our recent successful motion calling for the restoration of an independent Combat Poverty Agency.

More Stories