I have always campaigned for human rights and civil liberties. In 1989-90, as President of Trinity Students’ Union, I was taken to court along with fellow SU officers. We were threatened with prison by anti-abortion activists, in an important case that paved the way for legal change to legalise the provision of information on abortion to women with crisis pregnancies.
Since then, for many years I have been involved in a range of different rights campaigns; on anti-racism, on women’s rights, on trade union rights, on LGBT rights and disability rights; and on equality and social justice.
Because of my work as a legal academic and practitioner in the criminal law field, I have also been very involved in issues around education and criminal justice. Some years ago I worked with the Trinity Access Programme to extend scholarships in Law to students from targeted disadvantaged schools – a scheme now taken up College-wide.
There is a view abroad that the liberal agenda has been achieved – but there is still so much to be done. Since my election in 2007 and re-election in 2011, I have tried to use the Seanad as a launching pad for a new radical social agenda.
As a Senator, I have campaigned on issues such as LGBT marriage rights, childcare rights, abortion rights, paid paternity leave, educational equality, criminal justice reforms, environmental changes. I have also spoken in the Seanad to call for the separation of church and state, the extension of multi-denominational schooling; and for the introduction of paid paternity leave so that fathers could take time off work to help look after new babies.
In my capacity as a member of the Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, I have worked hard on a range of campaigns such as these.
Among the initiatives I have taken as a Senator are:
A Climate Protection Bill in 2007 which I drafted with Friends of the Earth Ireland, and which was backed by a whole range of environmental and development NGOs.
A Bill to prohibit Female Genital Mutilation, which was accepted by the Government in 2010 and became law finally in 2012.
A Bill to give legal status to wedding ceremonies conducted by Humanist celebrants, which was accepted by Government and became law in 2013.
A Bill to amend the Civil Registration Act to remove the prohibition on marriage for same-sex couples – published but not yet debated.
A Bill to amend section 37 of the Employment Equality Act and prevent discrimination by religious-run schools and hospitals against LGBT employees – debated in the Seanad in March 2013 and passed second stage.
A Report on Penal Reform which I wrote for the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, published in 2013, which made radical proposals for change to the penal system and which received wide cross-party support.
And extensive work on the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015.
Almost 30 years ago, I was threatened with prison by SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children). It was September 1989. I was president of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), and SPUC were seeking to imprison our four TCDSU sabbatical officers for providing information on abortion in our students’ union handbooks during Freshers’ Week.
A few years previously, the 1983 Eighth Amendment had been passed, equating the lives of “mother” and “unborn”.
That Seanad Éireann: