- 29 Mar 20
As the Seanad elections loom large, Senator Alice-Mary Higgins is running again for a seat on the National University of Ireland panel. Here, she talks about her life-long devotion to the causes of justice and equality – and explains what she loves about Ireland.
Senator Alice-Mary Higgins has always been an activist. Principles of justice and equality are at the heart of everything she does. They are the passions she wears on her sleeve, in her role as a Senator, representing graduates of the National University of Ireland.
The term of the Senate ends automatically, within 90 days of the dissolution of the Dáil. With the 25th Seanad having wrapped up its deliberations last week, the campaign for re-election to the second house is now nearing its conclusion. It is a good time to speak to Alice-Mary. She is running for election again – and every vote counts, not least when the opposition includes right wingers like the highly reactionary Ronan Mullen, and former member of the Progressive Democrats, Michael McDowell (who were the other two NUI senators in the 25th Seanad).
Alice-Mary has been highly active since she became a Senator, leading the Civil Engagement Group – a Technical Group in the Seanad that also includes Lynn Ruane and Frances Black among its members – which is committed to bringing the voice of civil society into the chamber.
“Politics is about the decisions we make about how we should live together,” she asserts.
And as everyone must be hyper-aware right now, these decisions do really matter.
An Activist Household
Alice Mary Higgins has been passionate about social justice and equality issues since as early as the 1980’s. She remembers the turning points that sparked a fire inside her to fight for gender equality in particular.
“There were a number of key moments,” she recalls. “One was that the X-case happened in 1992, which started when I was 16. That was another teenager who was at the heart of that case, and so I was very conscious of the human rights issues involved.
“The other thing was a friend of mine in Galway Youth Theatre was taking part in the very first rehearsed reading of Eclipsed by Patricia Burke Brogan. This was the first time that the Magdalen Laundries had been spoken about, really, and it was the very first time that I was hearing about the experience of women in the Magdalen laundries. Those two things became intertwined for me.”
Through the 1980s, a series of scandals had put equality issues – and the many ways in which women were routinely discriminated against in Ireland – into sharp focus. But the X-case was the first moment when the strangle-hold of the Roman Catholic Church was effectively challenged on the issue of abortion, inspiring as it did a Referendum on the right to travel for an abortion – which was duly passed in November 1992.
“It wasn’t just feeling passionate about these issues,” Alice-Mary recalls. “It was more than that: I felt appalled that the State’s relationship with women of my age had been so bad, in both of these terrible ways.”
As the daughter of President Michael D. Higgins – who wrote for Hot Press through the 1980s and became Minister for the Arts in January 1993 – and one of the founders of the Focus Theatre, Sabina Coyne, Alice-Mary saw first-hand the importance of activism.
“My family was always involved in campaigning,” she says. “My mother was very involved in the arts. For me, politics and the arts have always been part of a continuum. It was brilliant being part of an activist household, one where you always had that sense of love for, and responsibility to, your fellow human-beings.”
Entering the World of Politics
After doing her Leaving Cert, Alice-Mary Higgins moved to Dublin to study English and Philosophy at University College Dublin. That degree was followed by an MPhil in Theatre and Culture Studies at Trinity College and a Fulbright MA in sociology at the New School, in New York.
With those wide-ranging qualifications under her belt, she spent 15 years working for NGOs on issues like equality and environmental protection. Currently the Campaigns and Policy Officer at the National Women’s Council, she is also a Board member of the European Women’s Lobby. Eventually, however, she realised that she needed to get to a place where she could help to drive change directly.
“I’d be asking politicians to take-up issues and put them on the agenda,” she says. "But there comes a point when you go, you know what, I don't want to be bringing issues in and presenting them to others to act on: I want to be there, to actually catch the bounce of the ball and take it forward.”
She ran for election to the Seanad in 2016, and duly became the first woman to be elected on the NUI panel in 35 years – and just the third ever to be elected on the panel.
The political process is often long and gruelling, including hours and hours of debates that can sometimes be long-winded and frustrating. But she has made her presence felt in a really meaningful way, using her position in the Seanad to drive important amendments to bills that have been passed by the Dáil.
“It's an amazing feeling being able to make changes,” she says. “I’ve counted up around 50 changes in law that I've managed to win, over the last four years. Some of them are little things like re-homing plans for greyhounds. It's small, but it really matters for greyhounds. Then, some of them are really big, like securing that there would be million-Euro fines for public bodies that breach individuals' data protection rights.”
She also has an abiding interest in nature and the environment.
“I got to talk about bees, in August last year, fattening their little round bodies for the winter, and I loved that,” she laughs. “Even though the Wildlife Bill and the Heritage Bill involved long, gruelling nine-hour debates, the point was that it was really nice to get to talk about bees, and birds, and creatures and to be able to do something practical to assist in the preservation of biodiversity and of the natural world.”
Environmental activism is of crucial importance right now. She sees the involvement of young activists in the intertwined issues of climate change and biodiversity, as a beacon of change in a shift towards more inclusive political action.
“It’s really amazing seeing younger activists getting involved,” she says. “It’s an international movement – and what’s really brilliant is that these children are talking to each other, so they’re not going to be fobbed off.”
She sees the rise of protests, climate strikes and even the surprising results in the General Election as all part of a positive cultural shift.
“There is a big movement,” she says, “not just in Ireland, but in many parts of the world, that people realise now the very big challenges we're facing. These are collective challenges, they need collective solutions. I think that the public understand, in a way, that maybe the outgoing government didn't, that we can't all simply be individuals, floating separately and trying to look after ourselves. There is an understanding that we are connected.”
Alice-Mary was speaking in advance of the Covid-19 crisis – which has underlined that sentiment even more powerfully.
“Countries have to work together in order to tackle climate change,” she says. “But also, people now see that things like housing and health are collective concerns.”
Higgins acknowledges that huge strides have been made within Irish society, on issues like gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights and environmental protections. But that, she says, is just the start.
“The world is changing,” she asserts. “Business as usual? I don’t think so. It’s not simply that we don’t want it. It’s not going to happen. We are looking at major changes in the next decade.”
The Time To Vote Is Now
Behind all the politics, and the long-term push for legislative change, Alice-Mary Higgins is also driven by an overwhelming love for her country.
“I really do love Ireland,” she says, with a tone so excited you can practically hear her smiling. “I always I find myself getting gushy about these things.”
The stunning landscapes of thee place she calls home make it unlike anywhere else in the world, she observes.
“The Aran Islands are still the best,” she says. “I know that everybody goes there, but to be on a cliff in the west of Ireland is to be kind of perched on the edge of the universe. It's wonderful.
“I love the Flaggy Shore in Clare. Walking over the landscape in the Burren is incredible. It's not about the view at the end. That's the great thing about walking on the limestone paving, every step is interesting, like little tiny worlds in between each crag.”
Having lived in the cultural capitals of Galway and Dublin, she’s gotten to know both cities intimately. Each has a special appeal, rooted in the people and their unique stories.
“There’s an imaginative kind of playfulness that you get here,” she says of the memorable conversations she’s had with loved ones and strangers. “With the west, I love the long, rambling kind of tangential stories. And what I love about Dublin is the fast, speedy wit. I think they're the best hecklers. That storytelling capacity, the ways of approaching stories that catch you off guard, are amazing.”
The great storytellers of Dublin – James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan and Roddy Doyle among them – have left their imprint on the city. Specialty shops and bookstores emphasise the cultural significance of poets and authors.
“I always bring people to Sweny’s Pharmacy, the Joycian chemist shop, near the corner of Merrion Square,” Alice-Mary says. "In Ulysses, when Bloom buys lemon soap for Molly, it’s in Sweny's. A group of real Joyce fans took that space over. They do Finnegan’s Wake reading groups and lunches – it takes them about eight months to a year to get through the book. It's tiny, but it's a place for real fans: it's not just a tourist product.”
She also encourages everyone who visits Dublin to go to a play.
“Dublin has one of the best theatre scenes in the whole world — and I lived in New York and London,” she insists.
In Galway, creativity and the arts are woven through the streets.
“There’s something unique about the street creativity we have with the markets,” she says. “I just love that idea of an active, vibrant street life. The fact that Galway is really into street theatre is amazing.”
Higgins remarks on how interconnected Irish culture is, even in smaller towns. It’s a special ingredient that makes the island feel bigger than the limits of its geography.
“I just love the sense of internationalism in Ireland now,” she says. “Even people in a small and local place feel a connection with the world. It’s amazing.”
All told, Alice-Mary Higgins offers a vital, compelling and progressive voice in Seanad Éireann. We desperately need passionate, independent campaigners like her in the Seanad.
If you are a graduate of the National University of Ireland – which includes the constituent colleges UCD, UCC, NUI Galway and Maynooth University – the time to have your say is now, by voting for Alice-Mary Higgins.