Address to Seanad Éireann by Ms Margareta Wahlström

Wednesday, 29th May 2013

I join with my colleagues in warmly welcoming Ms Margareta Wahlström to the House. I also welcome Mr. Gay Mitchell, with whom we had an excellent exchange on development issues in the House earlier this year. The work of Ms Wahlström as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, particularly with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and her role as the Secretary-General’s special response co-ordinator during the initial phase of the international reaction to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and her current role, which has brought her to the House today, as well as all of the work she has done in the past 30 years, show to us the expertise she has and the honour it is for us that she is addressing the House.

When we see the aftermath of events such as the 2004 tsunami, the Christchurch earthquake or, most recently, the Oklahoma tornado, we here in Ireland often feel quite insulated from the effects of such dangers because of our geographical position. However, reflecting on the work of the United Nations international strategy for disaster reduction, it is clear that in many ways this is a false sense of security which belies our ever-increasing levels of global interconnectedness, which, while bringing countless benefits, also increases our sensitivity to the effects of events originating far beyond our borders.

Several colleagues have raised the very important human consequences of such disasters. Specifically, I was struck by how a disaster can undermine long-term competitiveness and sustainability, not only at the epicentre of the disaster but also in those areas with which it shares economic ties. For example, in preparing for this contribution, I was very interested to read a report by Ms Wahlström’s organisation entitled “Shared Risk to Shared Value: The Business Case for Disaster Risk Reduction”, and I advise my colleagues that it is well worth a read. An example in the report cites how damage to one maker of microchips in Japan resulted in 150,000 fewer cars being manufactured in the United States. When one microchip manufacturer is damaged, that is the effect it has across the world. As another example, we saw in the wake of the floods in Thailand that global GDP fell by 3%. In an open economy such as ours, this is something with which we must be concerned or, as the report more succinctly states, we must be aware that disaster risk does not stop at the factory gate.

I am mindful that disasters disproportionately affect lower-income countries, communities and households, and those who benefit least from the wealth created owing to economic globalisation. I would be interested to hear Ms Wahlström’s opinion on the social justice aspects of reduction programmes and, specifically, how business interests can be used as a vector and whether she believes increasing business sensitivity towards investing in risk-prepared nations will encourage governments to become more risk aware. What does Ms Wahlström believe we can do at a national level to maintain the stability of our supply chain, which is an issue we need to consider?

In looking ahead to 2015 and the renegotiation of a new risk reduction framework, what does Ms Wahlström feel will be the key elements in which we, as a Seanad and as an Irish nation, can play a role when supporting this awareness and ensuring the plan will be fit for purpose?

Order of Business, 13 November 2012

I congratulate the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, his Department, the permanent missions of Ireland to the United Nations in Geneva and New York, and everyone else involved in Ireland’s successful bid to secure a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It will be an interesting three years and I look forward to Ireland’s renewed focus on the implementation of the Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review recommendations now that we have member status.

With very warm wishes I say “well done” to everyone involved in the successful passage of the referendum on children’s rights, especially to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. This is a gratifying time for me personally and professionally.

I have campaigned for many years for this referendum and I anticipated the margin to be much more narrow as this is a difficult issue involving profound social change. Much comparison has been taking place in the media with previous referendums and I note this referendum pertained to social change. As this was a major difference from previous referendums, it is difficult to make comparisons. I believe this referendum will be transformative and the full extent of its impact is not yet known. A case will appear before the Supreme Court in ten or 20 years’ time, after which people will know that on Saturday, 10 November 2012, they made a difference.

However, I also urge caution in dismissing the “No” vote. I spoke at many meetings throughout the country and some of that “No” vote reflected a real fear of the social services and this is something to which Members must listen. One cannot simply dismiss the “No” vote by suggesting they all were anti-government. People have had negative experiences, in the current period or previously as children or as family or friends. Consequently, the Leader should facilitate the appearance in the House of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs at the earliest opportunity to discuss in particular the report of the task force on the child and family support agency, which was published in July. I believe Members must play a role in shaping that new agency and they should address the fears people have raised.

In addition, Members also could discuss the fifth report of the special rapporteur on child protection and the Ryan report implementation plan, on which a three-year progress report was published earlier today. I also ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to introduce the adoption Bill to this House first. This issue is intricate and some of the relevant concerns were raised ensuring the debate. I believe this legislation will require timely and well thought-out debate.

Finally, I ask the Leader to schedule a debate in a timely manner after the Supreme Court judgment is given on 11 December. As the date on which the Supreme Court will give its detailed judgment is known, Members should have a timely debate to discuss the full implications.

Order of Business, 21 March 2012

I welcome the adoption by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last Thursday of the report of the working group on Ireland’s universal periodic review, UPR. During the review on 6 October last, UN member states made 127 recommendations to Ireland concerning our human rights record. As the Leader knows, I noted on the Order of Business before that the Government immediately accepted 26 recommendations, was unable to support 15 and undertook to further examine 50. On Thursday’s adoption, His Excellency, the permanent representative to the United Nations, Gerard Corr, announced that of the 50 pending recommendations, the Government has fully accepted 29, partially accepted one and was unable to accept four. In total, Ireland has made a commitment before our UN peers to implement either fully or partially 108 of the 127 recommendations.

I applaud Ireland’s civil society organisations for their valuable and committed engagement to the UPR process and commend their representatives who spoke so eloquently at the adoption of the working group report. I welcome the permanent representative’s announcement that he will publish a voluntary interim progress report on implementation in October 2013.

As this first cycle of the UPR comes to a close, the process does not end. We now embark upon the second, and the most important, cycle, the implementation of the recommendations. For that reason, I call on the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, to provide the House with information on how the Government is planning to implement the recommendations and the structures that will be put in place at national level to ensure effective implementation. The House has a role to play in monitoring and ensuring Ireland upholds its UN obligations.

In light of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill debate in the House last week, the commitment made by the Minister, Deputy Hogan, and the vote that took place, will the Leader call on the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to bring in a system of vouched expenses for the party leaders’ allowance without delay?

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.

The Lancet

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