Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

2:30 pm

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Cathaoirleach. It is to be hoped I will have finished before he comes back. This Seanad has been remarkable in terms of what it has achieved. I look to all Members of the House when I say this. It has been a Seanad in which no group has had a majority. I often say it is a space in which, therefore, acts of persuasion have had to take place. We have each brought our ideas forward, but have had to engage with and talk to each other. Nobody, whether a Government, Opposition, Independent, Labour Party, Sinn Féin or other Senator, has been able to execute change without engaging with and persuading others. We have achieved change. The Seanad is not simply a space in which a light is shone and voices are raised, as has historically been the case for so many years on issues of equality, the environment, housing, human rights, health, peace, decent work, international solidarity and a rights-based approach.My colleagues in the Civil Engagement group have championed, in particular, on issues such as disability, Traveller rights, drug reform and migration. The Seanad is not simply a space to highlight and bring debates and to frame, often in a positive and constructive way together, the debates on those issues, it is also a space where real legislative work has happened. The Seanad has been an incredibly important instrument of legislation. We have had amendments passed. The Civil Engagement group has had more than 52 amendments passed. Collectively, we have passed amendments on very important legislation. We have challenged, interrogated, scrutinised and amended legislation on issues such as data protection and wildlife and heritage. As mentioned by Senator Conway Walsh, it was collective collaboration across this House that made coercive control an offence in terms of domestic violence, which we had been told was not possible but we made possible. That is a huge legacy of which we should be proud. In terms of Bills, in the previous Oireachtas four Private Members' Bills were brought forward and enacted. In this Oireachtas, ten Private Members' Bills, three of which came from the Seanad, were enacted and became part of the collective space of laws we make together as a State. To those who say policy is a complicated matter, in end it is the simplest thing in the world because it is a set of decisions about how we live together. It is about each of us bringing our best thinking and the voices and experiences of others in civil society and in our communities into the making of those decisions. We need Seanad reform so that more people can have a say in those debates and the legislative work that we do. It is great regret that given the mandate in 1979 - more than 40 years ago now - for the expansion of the university franchise and the huge mandate in 2013 for reform, we have not had Seanad reform, and it is not for the want of trying and effort on the part of people such as Senators McDowell, Warfield and Ó Donnghaile and former Senator Grace O'Sullivan. We have pressed for it. It must be delivered. People care about the work of the Seanad and they should have a voice in it.

I will conclude with some remarks in regard to the Civil Engagement group and our work. I am incredibly proud of the group, the members of which came together as newly elected Senators. Not one of us had served previously. We made an ambitious decision to try to do things a little bit differently and to try to work together as five Independents and one Green Party member. Each of us has brought different life experience but common passion in terms of civil society and the vision that we have for society. We have sought to support each other. I have learned immense amounts from my colleagues, including a philosophical perspective from Senator Dolan. I was proud to work with the former Senator, Grace O'Sullivan, on marine issues such as microbeads and on vacant sites and with Senator Kelleher on the issues affecting the most marginalised groups in society, including those seeking reunification, migrants and the Traveller groups. She has placed those issues at the centre, not just as matters that should not be forgotten but rather matters that must be recognised at the centre of a collective State and a State for all. Senator Ruane and I have so often backed and worked with each other on different issues. It has been brilliant to do the detective work on legislation with her from the point of view of who benefits, who is being served, could it serve better and what could happen that would make a change. Some of the little changes that we, collectively, have made to legislation will matter in the lived experience of people across Ireland.

I am thankful and proud to have had the opportunity to serve in this Seanad. I will run again on the NUI panel and I hope that I will be returned to this House. The Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories Bill) is an international model now, which I hope will become law in the next Oireachtas but will happen in other parts of the world because legislatures internationally are looking to that model. I could list all of the Civil Engagement group Bills.They included the Community Participation (Disability) (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2019, the Electoral (Civil Society Freedom) (Amendment) Bill 2019, the Public Authorities and Utility Undertakings (Contract Preparation and Award Criteria) Bill 2019, Senator Fintan Warfield's Prohibition of Conversion Therapies Bill 2018, the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018, the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017, the Controlled Drugs and Harm Reduction Bill 2017, the Derelict and Vacant Sites Bill 2017, amendments to the Microbeads (Prohibition) Bill 2019, the Seanad Bill 2016, which we sponsored on our very first day in the Seanad and which aimed to deliver Seanad reform, and the Adult Safeguarding Bill 2017. There has been a huge amount of work. I hope we can take it forward, and if not, I hope that others in this Chamber will take it forward in the future. I would like to finish by thanking my staff again, my friends and my family for their love, wisdom and support. I thank my partner in life, Mr. Ken Dempsey. I have learned a lot from all of those mentioned. I hope I will get the opportunity to work with them again, either in this Chamber or in the wider process of social transformation in the decade ahead.

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