Since the Civil Engagement Group’s foundation in May 2016, all of the Senators have made it their mission to make the voice of civil society heard in the Oireachtas.
Bunreacht na hÉireann envisions an upper house where a certain number of the Senators are elected “having knowledge and practical experience of” a number of particular areas of interest:
- National Language and Culture, Literature, Art, Education and such professional interests as may be defined by law for the purpose of this panel;
- Agriculture and allied interests, and Fisheries;
- Labour, whether organised or unorganised;
- Industry and Commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture;
- Public Administration and social services, including voluntary social activities.
In practice, while Senators are nominated by well-known bodies organised and recognised to do so under those categories, never has any group of Senators sought explicitly to represent the specific expertise and interests of the people working day in and day out in such organisations.
Speaking on the formation of the Civil Engagement Group, Senator Alice-Mary Higgins said; “We saw a natural alliance form, based on shared experience of working within civil society, activism and social movements. There was also common ground around a more inclusive and transformative approach to policy-making, with a stronger focus on equality.”
Senator Frances Black also highlighted that; “While the members of our group are new to political office, we bring to the table a proven commitment to social advocacy. Often the most vulnerable in society are the least heard. We each want to change that and by working together, we can, I believe, have a greater impact and shine a light on sometimes invisible issues.”
In May 2019 the group tabled legislation to support the voices of community and advocacy groups whose voices were being inadvertently silenced through application of the Electoral Act, limiting their ability to advocate through the political processes of the Oireachtas and through referendum campaigns.
In the three years since the group’s formation, they have championed the voice of civil society through, among others:
- Legislative proposals directly (Private Members’ Business) and indirectly (amendments to government legislation);
- Holding government to account and putting issues on the political agenda through membership in Joint Oireachtas committees;
- Bringing together alliances of like-minded parliamentarians at home through All-Party Oireachtas Groups;
- Promoting international cooperation and inspiration through the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and other global forums.