Address by Dr. Mary Robinson

24th November 2012

On behalf of the Independent group of Taoiseach’s nominees, I warmly welcome Dr. Robinson back to Seanad Éireann and congratulate her on her truly formidable career to date. I thank her so much for her inspiration. She has clearly articulated and illustrated to us the tremendous role she has played as a human rights activist. I commend her particularly for her steadfast and committed work in the fields of human rights, justice and equality, both in Ireland and internationally. In 1999, when she was United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, she articulated her understanding of the aim of human rights as follows:

To push beyond standard-setting and asserting human rights to make those standards a living reality for people everywhere … to move beyond the design and drawing-board phase, to move beyond thinking and talking about the foundation stones, to laying those foundation stones, inch by inch, together.

She was true to this understanding of human rights long before her appointment as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. During her 20 years as a Senator she was a human rights activist in the truest sense. She was never afraid to engage with difficult and controversial issues. Her vocal opposition and active campaigning on different issues have been instrumental in shaping the Ireland we, as Irish women, live in today. In her campaign to eliminate discrimination against women she was a key player in improving the living reality for women in Irish society. Many of the present generation of Irish women entering into employment in the Civil Service are blissfully unaware that until as recently as 1973 they would have been legally obliged to leave their employment upon marriage. It is equally difficult to comprehend that it was not until 1975 that women were deemed eligible for jury service.

There have undeniably been advances in the promotion of gender equality in recent years. However, considering the fact that there have been only 86 female Senators since the first Seanad, as Dr. Robinson said, there is room for improvement. To share my own memories, almost 20 years ago I attended a training course of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in Mexico on the diversity of women in our cultures and how we could achieve leadership. At the time Dr. Robinson was President of Ireland and I can tell her she clearly inspired so many women from around the world, both at the time and afterwards. In fact, I admire her because she has never deviated from her principles, irrespective of the high level political positions she has held. Like my colleagues, I would be interested to hear her opinions. If she were a Member of the 24th Seanad, on what issues would she focus?

As the outgoing chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, I have been campaigning for many years to strengthen children’s rights in the Constitution. In 1976 Dr. Robinson was, in fact, the first public representative to recognise the need to insert some changes in the Constitution to safeguard the welfare of children. During the Seanad debate on the Adoption Bill 1976 she expressed her disappointment that a constitutional amendment on adoption would only paper over some of the defects and consequently fail to deliver a broad-based reform of the law in line with the charter on children’s rights. While it is beyond disappointing that in the subsequent 35 years we have not managed to ensure children’s rights are upheld in the Constitution, we have arrived at a unique juncture at which there is consensus across the Houses on the need to strengthen children’s rights in the Constitution and we have an assurance from the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, that a referendum will be held in 2012. This action is necessary to positively change the living reality for children in Ireland. I ask Dr. Robinson for any advice she might give us on how we can get over the line in this referendum.

I wonder whether Dr. Robinson would share with us her thinking on how best to implement and breathe life into the human rights recommendations made to Ireland during the universal periodic review in Geneva in October.

Human Rights in Ireland – Guest Post: Van Turnhout on Criminalising the Purchase of Sex

21st November 2011

 

We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Senator Jillian Van Turnhout on the efforts of the Independent Group in the Seanad to criminalise the purchase of sex.

On 12 October 2012, the Independent Group of Senators tabled a motion in Seanad Éireann to criminalise the purchase of sex in Ireland in order to curb prostitution and trafficking. The impetus for the motion was twofold. First, recognition that demand for prostitution in Ireland is intrinsically linked to increased cases of woman and girls being trafficked into and around Ireland for sexual exploitation. Second, recognition that trafficking for sexual exploitation is a modern form of slavery, an egregious human rights abuse and a violation of international law.

Having given my consideration to a number of arguments against criminalising the purchase of sex in Ireland, I find myself unconvinced by them. One argument contends that criminalising the purchase of sex violates a sex worker’s right to exercise self-determination over their own body. I must respectfully disagree. It is my belief that when we peel away the complex layers of how and why women, and to a lesser extent men and boys, sell their bodies for the sexual gratification of others, it is clear that the path into prostitution did not start with the simple exercise of their right to self-determination over their body. Indeed, research indicates that a significant number of women end up in prostitution as a result of poverty, debt, homelessness, addiction, or having been groomed by a partner, family member or friend. Many will have experienced serious abuse or neglect in childhood or early adulthood.

I believe that the inherent coercion, whether the result of violence or economic hardship, and the exploitative nature of the sex industry, which in Ireland alone is estimated to be worth €250 million each year, renders free and informed consent to prostitution all but impossible. Furthermore, for those who argue in defence of prostitution on the basis of consent, I would ask these people to be mindful that the age identified internationally for entry into prostitution is 14, an age at which consent cannot be given.

The Turn Off the Red Light Campaign (TORL) to end prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland has done tremendous work in this area. Most TORL members are civil society groups and NGOs that have direct experience of the devastating effects prostitution can have on women, children and men involved in its practice. These devastating effects are physical, such as sexually transmitted infections, injuries sustained as the result of beatings and rapes, gynaecological difficulties owing to multiple terminations, and many other health complications relating to prostitution. There are also mental and emotional injuries, deeply embedded in the psyche of sex workers and victims of trafficking, which they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. As devastating as these effects are for adults, the impact is almost unimaginable for children and child victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. I am particularly concerned about the vulnerability of homeless and separated children in Ireland to prostitution and trafficking.

Focus Ireland has estimated that as many as 1,500 children are homeless in Ireland each year. 800 of them are unaccompanied, and a quarter of these are under the age of 12. Inadequate resourcing in this area, coupled with an insufficient number of places for children in safe, sheltered accommodation, is said to be forcing some children to resort to prostitution to survive. An increase in substance abuse amongst homeless youths, particularly males, has also seen increased recourse to prostitution. There is evidence to suggest that boys as young as 13 are involved in prostitution in Dublin City. Cognisant of the link between youth homelessness and child prostitution, and in addition to the introduction of the legislation called for in our Seanad motion, I believe that the Government needs to breathe life into its pledge to address the issue of existing homelessness, with a specific focus on youth homelessness, by reviewing and updating the existing Homeless Strategy.

Separated children or unaccompanied minors are defined as being under 18 years of age, separated from both of their parents or their legal/customary primary caregiver, and outside their country of origin. Separated children are an extremely vulnerable group owing to their unaccompanied status. Many have experienced war and violence, and some have been trafficked into Ireland for sexual exploitation. There have been a number of improvements in the situation for separated children in Ireland under the Ryan Report Implementation Plan, particularly in relation to accommodation arrangements. Measures are also being taken to tackle false family reunifications through the use of DNA identification.

Nevertheless, instances of children going missing from care are of deep and ongoing concern. Minister of State for Disability, Equality and Mental Health, Kathleen Lynch TD informed the Seanad debate that there are 16 cases of children missing in Ireland still outstanding in 2010 alone, and 11 of those are unaccompanied minors. There is strong anecdotal evidence that a number of these children could have been trafficked into prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation. In September 2011, the Children’s Rights Alliance submitted to the Department of Justice and Equality’s Anti-Human Trafficking Unit collated case studies of suspected and confirmed child victims of trafficking in Ireland. The case studies paint a dreadful picture of exploitation and include:

A 15 year old Somali rescued from a brothel in 2006 after being trafficked into Ireland; a 16 year old Nigerian girl who arrived to Ireland as a separated child in 2009 and was enticed out of HSE residential care by a man who later got her involved in prostitution; and a 16 year old girl from Burundi, held captive in a house in Co. Louth and abused. She had been taken from her village in Africa at the age of 12 and introduced into sex slavery in different countries before being trafficked to Ireland for more sexual exploitation. I have also heard dreadful accounts by an NGO, which were subsequently documented, of Eastern European girls as young as 14 being trafficked to Ireland, brutally and systematically raped over a number of days to “break them in,” before being shipped off to various brothels around the country.

These are just a few examples, but I fear they represent just the tip of the iceberg. This is an intolerable situation. The sex industry in Ireland is extremely lucrative. Children continue to be victims of prostitution and trafficking because it is good business for organised criminals and traffickers.

After much research into the issue, I firmly believe that legislation is needed. I was very disappointed that our motion did not succeed on 12 October. Instead, the Government proposed a six-month timeframe in which to hold a considered public debate before the issue is revisited. I look forward to this renewed debate. As Leader of the Independent Group of Senators, I have extended a number of invitations to the Turn Off the Blue Light Campaign, a sex worker led association campaigning against calls to criminalise the purchase of sex in Ireland, to come and discuss their concerns with the authors of the motion. They have indicated that they will do so after completion of a survey they are currently undertaking with sex workers.

Readers may be interested in following the debate as it unfolded in the Seanad;

http://www.kildarestreet.com/sendebates/?id=2011-10-12.192.0

 

Article link: http://www.humanrights.ie/index.php/2011/11/21/guest-post-van-turnhout-on-criminalising-the-purchase-of-sex/

Order of Business, 16 November 2011

16th November 2011

I echo the congratulations to the Irish team, which has given us all a boost. Perhaps we would like to skip over the budget and get straight to the European matches. Unfortunately, we cannot.

I have concerns at the kite flying that is happening. Vulnerable hard-pressed families are reading headlines every day and wondering what will happen. We should all be careful with our comments.

I echo what Senator Bacik said about St. Patrick’s Institution and seeking a debate in the House. It is of extreme concern and a gross violation of our human rights record. For the sake of the children in vulnerable situations we need to act as soon as possible.

Today, I raise the issue of transition year students. Most of us are aware of the transition year programme which promotes the personal, social, vocational and educational development of students and prepares them for their role as autonomous, participative and responsible members of society.

Recently, I received an application from a transition year student to work for one week in Leinster House as part of the work experience programme. I was informed that this is not possible. What better way to achieve these goals than by allowing young people to experience a working environment through one of the work experience programmes offered by most schools that conduct the transition year programme? The Houses of the Oireachtas lacks any dedicated structure to facilitate students who wish to experience the working life of the Parliament. Work experience is available for second level students with members of parliament in the European Parliament and the British Houses of Parliament. Why can we not do it here? Even closer to home, Dublin City Council offers second level work experience.

This experience is extremely valuable, would give students an insight into our work and would help them understand what we are doing here. I call on the Leader and the House to examine ways in which the Seanad could put in place a one week programme once a year to provide transition year students with an opportunity to listen to some of our key debates and a chance to partially shadow a Senator. The programme could be open to a lottery and provide to a limited number of transition year students an opportunity to see what we do. I ask that this be given serious consideration and I would be happy to give any support and assistance I can.

Alcohol Pricing – Motion

16th November 2011

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and welcome her stated commitments on this issue. I also thank the Fine Gael Members, in particular Senators Noone and Colm Burke, for tabling this Private Members’ motion. It addresses the issue of alcohol related harm. This is not a pro or anti-alcohol discussion but pertains to alcohol related harm. It is estimated that the cost to the State in 2007 was approximately €3.7 billion which, if translated into the cost per taxpayer, is €3,318. Moreover, the profound societal ramifications of the harmful use of alcohol in Ireland makes it imperative this problem be tackled in a determined, concerted and swift fashion.

The motion as tabled correctly recognises that alcohol related crimes have risen in the past decade. This is supported by recent analysis from the Garda PULSE system, which recorded a 30% increase in alcohol related crimes between 2003 and 2007. It also showed the total number of offences among minors increased in the observed period by a staggering 54%. According to the same data, the 18 to 24 year group was responsible for two fifths of offences, while figures for those under 18 constitute 17% of offences, which is a matter of concern to me. As for the issue of harmful use of alcohol during pregnancy, it has a proven association with impaired foetal brain development, impaired intellectual development and cognitive and behavioural dysfunctions that can restrict educational attainment and stifle future development in life.

As previous Members have stated, the harmful use of alcohol can result in substantial economic costs or in the cost of labour market productivity. It has been suggested that absenteeism has cost Irish businesses €1.5 billion per year. A recent survey by IBEC found that alcohol was blamed by employers as the primary reason for 4% and 1% of short-term absences from work by their male and female employees, respectively. In respect of the health and health care cost implications, alcohol liver disease rates and deaths have almost trebled between 1995 and 2007. Among the 15 to 34 year age group, the rate of deaths from alcohol liver disease has increased by 247%. Seven out of ten men and four out of ten women who drink do so in a manner that is damaging to their health. Moreover, a total of 10% of general inpatient costs, 14% of psychiatric hospital costs, 7% of GP costs and up to 30% of emergency health care costs are alcohol related. Each night in Ireland, 2,000 hospital beds are occupied for alcohol related reasons.

I refer to the issue of children and the indirect impact of alcohol, as well as its direct impact. According to the recent report launched by the Minister of State, entitled Hidden Realities: Children’s Exposure to Risk from Parental Drinking in Ireland, 587,000 children are regularly exposed to risk from parental hazardous drinking. The harmful use of alcohol in the home is associated with increased incidences of verbal and physical abuse, witness to violence, neglect, isolation and insecurity. The exposure of children to risk from parental alcohol problems is amplified by the significant burden children bear, such as a care role reversal and keeping secret the problem, which has a great cost to the child concerned in respect of school and developmental life.
I thank Fine Gael for incorporating the proposals that were put forward by Senator Crown and myself in our amendment, which I appreciate. I would like the programme to be added for the following reason. The latest HSE alcohol awareness campaign, for example, speaks of the weekly standard drinks allowance, which is 14 units for adult women and 21 for adult men, and advises that one standard drink is equivalent to 10 g of pure alcohol. My understanding is that the standard drink measurement will be reconverted back to grams across the board, so I propose this amendment to pre-empt this change.

With regard to below cost selling, I thank Fine Gael for adding the words “and very cheaply”. This is a specific pricing strategy. It is important to note that “very cheap alcohol” is a term that is preferred by quite a number of organisations, such as Alcohol Action Ireland, Barnardos, Focus Ireland, No Name clubs, Rape Crisis Network Ireland, the Ballymun Local Drugs Task Force, the Irish Cancer Society, the Irish Heart Foundation, the Irish Medical Organisation, the ISPCC, the National Youth Council of Ireland and the North West Alcohol Forum. It is also supported by the Vintners Federation of Ireland. I welcome the amendment and the harmony we have reached.

The reason I had a difficulty with the term “below cost selling” is that there is no agreed definition of how to calculate and define cost pricing. It still allows alcohol to be sold very cheaply, given that the unit cost can be varied by the retailer depending on a number of factors. It is not clear that, if a below cost selling plan was put in place, it would be sufficient to reduce alcohol consumption and, therefore, would not necessarily have the desired impact. There are also difficulties in monitoring, compliance and securing convictions for below cost selling. In fact, if one looks back, this was one of the key reasons behind the repeal of the groceries order in 2006. Finally, the price is not linked to the strength of the drink as it does not relate to the number of units or grams of alcohol the drink contains. I appreciate the addition of the words “and very cheaply”, which will address my concerns and will achieve what I believe is everybody’s intention in this motion.

What has been said by all speakers is important. This is not just one measurement which looks at pricing. We need to look at culture as well as the enforcement of our current laws. There are many laws in place that can be enforced in regard to drink driving and many other issues. We must look at advertising and marketing, including social marketing. I was shocked to see that when my nephews are on YouTube and Facebook, they get very different advertisements to the ones I get. Twelve year olds are regularly seeing drinks advertising on their screens whereas I do not get these on my screen, which tells us something about who these products are being marketed at. It is also about protecting children who are indirectly impacted by alcohol. As noted in the motion, pricing is an issue in this regard.

In the cause of harmony in the House, I thank Members for working together. This is good for the Seanad. It should be a first step in addressing the harmful effects of alcohol and the price it has for us in Ireland.

Order of Business, 15 November 2011

15th November 2011

I also wish to address the infrastructure and capital investment plan, which I believe needs to be debated in this House. In line with the questions put forward by Senator Bacik, I also wish to raise the question of St. Patrick’s Institution. As Senator Bacik has stated, the Government has committed in the programme for Government to end the practice of sending children to the aforementioned institution and has put forward the new national children’s detention facility on the Oberstown campus in Lusk as a solution to the unacceptable and untenable position that obtains at present. For example, in 2010, 221 children aged between 16 and 17 were committed to adult prisons, of whom 219 were boys who were committed to St. Patrick’s Institution. On average, that facility has 40 boys in detention.

In response to a Dáil question on 20 September last on the plans to proceed with the development of the first phase of the said project, the Minister of Justice and Equality stated the Office of Public Works was “in the process of preparing the required tender documentation for the project” and that the Government’s decision on funding, approval for which is required before tendering for the construction phase, would be informed by the outcome of the Government’s capital expenditure review. Unfortunately, when this review was published, it was silent on what would happen.

Therefore, given that development of the Oberstown project is now the responsibility of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, I ask that the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, come into the House to clarify the position, to outline her plans on how to proceed with the project as a matter of urgency, to confirm whether one can expect the project to be completed by mid-2013, as was the commitment given by the then Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in December 2009, and to address formally the concerns expressed by the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, in her press release this morning.

Community and Voluntary Sector – Statements, Questions and Answers

9th November 2011

I wholeheartedly agree with what Senator Zappone said and will not duplicate it. I cite the exemplar, which I believe goes across the board, of the scheme to support national organisations in the community and voluntary sector. We all appreciate that we are in a time of cuts. However, to try to meet the shortfall created by those cuts, organisations are approaching many Departments or statutory agencies such as the HSE. This year far more organisations received grants from this scheme, which disproportionately affected those national organisations for which this is the sole or core funding they receive from the State. That needs to be reviewed within the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and also in the wider scheme of funding community and voluntary organisations.

In the Dáil on 16 June the Minister highlighted the need to eliminate duplication, with which I agree. However, we also need to be careful about the gaping holes being created by the funding crisis as we force organisations to move from place to place looking to fill that vacuum of a non-consistent funding policy. We have an opportunity to put in the building blocks consistent with the vision we want for the country in the years ahead. A few years ago the previous Government in a very courageous move dropped the €1,000 early child-care supplement and introduced the free pre-school year. It considered impact and outcomes for children. It was universal with no top-up facility and has a 98% uptake rate. It saves money for the State and has improved outcomes for children. Those are the types of initiatives we should consider for this sector.

Election of President Michael D. Higgins

8th November 2012

Along with my colleagues in the Independent group extend warm congratulations to the President elect, Mr. Michael D. Higgins, known affectionately throughout Ireland as Michael D. No doubt, he is inspired by his love of poetry, the arts and the Irish language. Michael D. Higgins was an innovative and visionary Minister for the Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. He has been a consistent champion of human rights and social justice and equality in Ireland and internationally. Michael D. Higgins is currently adjunct professor of the Irish Centre for Human Rights in Galway and along with the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Attorney General is a past student of NUI Galway. He has spoken of the importance of inter-generational solidarity and of the important role young people will play in his Presidency as he works to shape Ireland’s future. He has also indicated his intention to focus on young people on the margins of society, in particular those in institutional care and to visit normally closed institutions.

I believe these are excellent signals for his Presidential term. I wish him the best in his well deserved role as Uachtarán na hÉireann.

Statement on Paying Anglo IBRC Bondholders by Senators Zappone, Van Turnhout and Mac Conghail

Statement by Senators Katherine Zappone, Jillian van Turnhout and Fiach MacConghail Paying Anglo (IBRC) Bondholders

Today is a judgment day. The government’s judgment call to repay the €715 million bond to senior unsecured and unguaranteed bondholders at the Anglo Irish Bank has been made with undue haste. As Independent Senators we call on the government to delay its decision to re-pay this bond until there has been a full public debate, inclusive of answers to the following questions:

1. Anglo Irish Bank issued this bond on 2 November 2006 and since that time Anglo’s bonds have been traded on the open market for as little as 50 cent on the euro. Some of the investors in this bond, therefore, bought when they were heavily discounted and no doubt will make a huge profit when the bond is redeemed at full value. Furthermore, we don’t know who the actual bondholders are.

Prior to re-payment Irish taxpayers deserve answers to the following questions: who are these bondholders? Why should we repay full value to them, which, in effect, amounts to rewarding speculative investment in an unsustainable property market?

2. While the Irish government did attempt to re-structure this particular bank debt it has been unsuccessful, largely due to the fact that the ECB insists on no bank ‘default’ whatever the circumstance. In effect, the ECB is asking ordinary Irish workers and citizens to bear the full burden of the mistakes that were made by international financial markets. Some of these mistakes, however, are at least partly attributable to following deregulation and liberalization policies that were advocated by the ECB and the IMF and these policies provided significant benefits to the financial sector. The circumstance with regard to this bond is that a bank that is being wound down holds it and some of the bank’s actions are the subject of investigation.

Prior to re-payment Irish taxpayers deserve an answer to the following question: Is there no circumstance whereby it is right and proper for a Government that is part of the European Union to take a decision to discount or write-down bank debt?

3. The Irish Government is currently attempting to re-negotiate repayment of the €31 billion promissory note to Anglo Irish bank. Figures provided by the Minister for Finance in response to a PQ show that the cost of the promissory note will ultimately be €74.63 billion by the time it is paid off in 2031. This includes the capital repayments, the interest payments to Anglo and the cost of servicing the state’s debt in borrowing this sum. If the Government is successful in re-negotiating repayment for a longer period of time, say for example thirty or forty years, the cost to the Irish taxpayer will be considerably less than the €74.63 billion.

Prior to re-payment of Anglo bond due now Irish taxpayers deserve an answer to the following question: Can the Irish government defer payment of the Anglo bond until it secures agreement with the ECB on a longer timeframe to re-pay the promissory note?

4. Hundreds of Irish citizens have been in direct communication with us as public representatives, arguing that they should have a say in how the finances of this country are spent, and that they do not give their consent for payment of the Anglo bond. Rather, they ask: ‘why not use this money to make this year’s budget a less harsh affair for us?’

We think that Irish citizens and taxpayers deserve a full debate of these issues prior to re-payment of the Anglo bond as it is Irish taxpayers money that will be used to pay this debt. Citizenship participation should be considered an integral part of Government strategy to bring about long-term sustainability of the Irish economy.

2 November 2011 Ends.

Notes to Editor: As of 15:30 this afternoon we have been unable to receive confirmation from either the Government or from the IBRC that the cheque has been issued.

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”