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.