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Alice-Mary Higgins: a social campaigner since childhood

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More than once in the course of her interview with the Galway City Tribune, Alice-Mary Higgins, who is running for Seanad Éireann on the NUI panel, apologises for leaping from topic to topic.

It’s just that there are many issues on which she feels strongly – and she leaps with agility.

Alice-Mary’s understanding of a broad range of subjects is impressive, and it’s difficult to imagine it being otherwise. The oldest child of President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina, she has been campaigning on social issues since childhood. The one she cut her teeth on was the 1995 divorce referendum, when she was 19, she says. That, and the first Gulf War.

Alice-Mary’s career path saw her join Trócaire, working on policy and advocacy in the areas of climate change, food security and peace building. She also worked successfully on the Older and Bolder campaigns to defend the State Pension and to protect home care. She was a co-ordinator with Comhlamh, an anti-racism project, and currently is Policy Co-ordinator for the National Women’s Council of Ireland.

That’s just for starters, as Alice-Mary’s CV in the area of social development and advocacy is a long one. At present she’s on unpaid leave from the Women’s Council, having decided at Christmas to pursue one of three NUI seats in next month’s Seanad elections. There are 30 candidates, but she’s campaigning hard and has some heavyweight backers, including Catriona Crowe of the National Archives, and retired UCD lecturer and women’s rights campaigner, Ailbhe Smyth, as well as NUIG’s Head of Law, Professor Donncha O’Connell.

“I’m conscious that I have stepped out of one sphere and into another,” says Alice-Mary on a visit to Galway where she’s mixing campaigning with the opportunity to catch up with friends.

On another level, though, this campaign is “a continuum of the work I have been doing; an attempt to take it onto a different level”, she adds.

With the Women’s Council, Alice-Mary has addressed various Oireachtas committees, which has given her a sense of what these cross-party groups, made up of TDs and Senators can achieve.

They are calmer arenas that the Dáil chamber and offer a place where “civil society can get legislation initiated”.

Alice-Mary has spoken on the issue of gender pay gap and worked on the Low Pay Commission Bill, which she describes as “good, but I wanted it to have a stronger mandate so that we could look at work poverty and the gender pay gap”.

She lists off statistics to show how this gap is increasing, not decreasing and how women’s pensions are also often lower than men’s.

Tackling low-paid work is something she feels strongly about, as are ‘If-and-when contracts’ (similar to zero-hour contracts). She has addressed the Oireachtas Jobs committee on that that issue.

The Seanad would present her with an opportunity to bring her experiences from civil society – including the Older and Bolder pension campaign, and campaigns on women’s issues, to a wider forum.

As a Senator, she could also “invite others in as witnesses and to draw on their expertise to ensure the legislation that’s passed is working on the ground”, she says.

It would be impossible interview Alice-Mary without asking if she has Dáil ambitions.

The Labour seat in Galway West, which was hard-won and held by her father over several elections, was lost just a month ago when his successor, the sitting incumbent, Derek Nolan, was defeated.

Alice-Mary might seem to many to be a potential successor to Michael D, but she dismisses that. Her life so far has involved “working with national groups and drawing mandates from national organisations. I know and am familiar with that cross-cutting mandate, which is national rather than local”.

Local issues, such as the state of Galway’s hospitals, do interest her, but her experience and skills are at national level.

For instance, she says, she has worked with unemployed young people in Dublin and in rural towns, so she knows the common and different issues faced by these people.

“The work I have done has allowed me to knit different experiences from different parts of the country. And regional representation is important but so are other forums, so I have no plans to run for the Dáil. I don’t intend to.”

The Seanad has powers and “we’ve seen what can be done when you have Senators who have a vision and who use it as a different space”.

Alice-Mary, however, does have an issue with the fact that its electorate is so restricted.

“There are a lot of people who want to support me and can’t,” she says, because voting is confined to registered graduates of UCD, UCC, NUI Maynooth and NUI Galway.

Seanad reform is on her agenda, and she’d like to see universal suffrage, explaining that this would be possible via legislation rather than a referendum.

“There are already good proposals that could be implemented by legislation, from people such as Senator Feargal Quinn, Maurice Manning, Katherine Zappone (now a TD) and John Crown.”

Alice-Mary graduated from UCD in Philosophy and English, followed by an MPhil in Theatre at Trinity – one of her essays was on ‘The Woman in the Bed in Irish Theatre’. Then she got a Fulbright Scholarship to New York where she studied social research, while living in an arts collective.

Back at home, she worked with Artists Against Racism, where gradually the work became less about arts and more about legislation, she says.

But the arts have been integral to her life since childhood.

“When you grow up in Galway and are engaged in politics, you learn that arts and politics are interwoven, Galway always had that perspective.”

One of the most memorable moments of her life was as a teenager in 1992 when she attended the rehearsed readings and first production of Eclipsed, which first put the spotlight on Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries. The readings were done by young friends in Galway Youth Theatre and the production was staged by Punchbag Theatre in a disused garage at Spanish Parade.

“That was the first time I had heard about the Magdalen Laundries – through the arts it emerged into public consciousness.”

The State’s Direct Provision policy for asylum seekers is a successor to those institutions, and again, it’s been artists who have led the campaign against it, she says.

There are many more issues on which she feels strongly – equality for women, proper childcare, home-care, inter-generational solidarity and community services.

“Our economy is only sustainable on the back of care. We need to recognise that and plan for it, using demographics and percentages. While everyone’s individual circumstance is different, some things are so predictable.”

Given her experience with Trócaire, Alice-Mary feels deeply about climate change and suggests that the Seanad is “a place where responsible debates on climate change could take place”.

And she wants the State to factor in climate change when awarding public contracts. Money isn’t the only issue, she says, “social, environmental and employment criteria” should also be attached.

It’s difficult to imagine Alice-Mary having ‘down time’ but she does. Swimming in the sea is relaxing, as is dancing – “I love dancing” – and going to theatre. Her mother, Sabina, an actress, has been a big influence in this regard.

Family is important to her, but her parents cannot be involved in this campaign, and aren’t, she says.

“What I’ve learned through my life is in me, what I started in Galway with my family, but the separation is very clear and I’m very conscious of those boundaries.

“I think I’ve made my own path in the world. I’m not following anybody.”

She has a core campaign staff of “seven or eight”, all volunteers, and is meeting goodwill and interest on the campaign.

“I am lucky in that I am drawing support from all the parts of my past, all the different chapters.”

More information at

AliceMaryHiggins.ie

Connacht Tribune

Anger over sudden arrival of housing agency in Tuam

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An agency that provides accommodation for homeless people has been labelled ‘a disaster for tenancy management’ with claims that the people they house are often at the heart of anti-social behaviour.

Tuam Municipal District chairman, Cllr Donagh Killilea, has now demanded a meeting with those involved in the Peter McVerry Trust who are in the process of occupying eleven residential units in the centre of the town.

Cllr Killilea claimed that the same charity was responsible for housing families at two other locations in Tuam – and that these have been regularly visited by the Gardaí on foot of allegations of unruly behaviour.

Cllr Killilea claimed that the charity does not monitor the behaviour of the tenants and added that they do not have an ongoing presence at these locations.

The Peter McVerry Trust is mainly a housing and homeless charity who have secured the eleven vacant units – a mix of recently refurbished one-bedroom and two-bedroom units – just off Shop Street in Tuam.

Trust CEO Pat Doyle said that he was disappointed by Cllr Killilea’s comments and stressed that all nominations for their units in Galway are put forward by Galway County Council.

He clarified that the Trust has one other property in Tuam, not two, but said that they are aware of concerns in relation to this property and are actively working to find a solution.

Some of new eleven units are overlooking a car park alongside a major supermarket and a number of other business premises.

Cllr Killilea claimed that their other property was regularly visited by members of the Gardaí as a result of disturbances.

“They are a disaster for tenancy management and these eleven units have been sprung on the people of Tuam. There was no consultation with residents or the business community on Shop Street,” he said.

“There are people not happy about this and it is time that we met with the Peter McVerry Trust to see who are being housed there and if they have been vetted,” the Fianna Fail councillor added.

According to Cllr Pete Roche (FG), he was ‘surprised and shocked’ by the move. He appreciated what the Trust does for people on the housing list but asked if they accepted responsibility for the actions of the tenants who occupy these properties.

“If the tenants become unruly, then it comes back to us as a Council. We do have an obligation to those on the housing waiting list but there are some who are there because of their past history.

“Of course, the majority are genuine cases, but there has to be a proper vetting process in place. The last thing we need is for the occupants to become unruly which will have an impact on everyone around them,” Cllr Roche added.

Director of Services, Derek Pender said that he would bring these concerns to the Director of Housing with Galway County Council, Liam Hanrahan.

In a statement to this newspaper, Mr Doyle said that the Trust had worked with Galway County Council since early 2020 to secure housing pathways for people impacted by homelessness.

“We are working extremely hard to secure as many homes as possible to reduce the number of homeless people in the county,” he said.

He said that in November 2020, they made a presentation to Galway County Council’s Strategic Policy Committee.

“At this meeting we set out our plans and listed key target areas for delivery that were identified in consultation with the Council, areas such as Athenry, Loughrea, Ballinasloe, Tuam and so on.

“To that end we are delighted to be able to secure eleven additional units in Tuam this week which will help reduce the homeless numbers in Galway and adds to the homes we have secured to date in Oranmore, Loughrea, Athenry and Ballinasloe.

“Peter McVerry Trust has regular meetings and provides regular updates to the Council executive on our housing pipeline, which are subject to their support and approval, and working in tandem with them to identify areas housing need.

“We were surprised and somewhat disappointed to learn of the comments made by Councillor Killilea, particularly as he had not made direct contact with us make prior to the meeting or his media interviews to discuss any concerns he may have about the tenants we are supporting in Tuam.

“In relation to the specific case he referenced in the media, Peter McVerry Trust cannot comment on individual cases except to say all nominations to units in Galway have previously and in the future are put forward to us by Galway County Council. It is our job to support these individual cases.

“We have been aware of concerns in relation to the property in Tuam and are actively working to find a solution.

“As late as October 8, we met with the Director of Housing in Galway County Council and the first item we raised was the Tuam case. We put forward a proposal for resolution and this was accepted by the Council. That solution will be implemented at the earliest opportunity,” he added.

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Connacht Tribune

Turning music into a fine art

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A Connemara artist who used her time in lockdown to put her work on social media – in an effort to garner a wider fanbase – has had 25 of her most vibrant pieces put to music…by a virtual band which got together in the pandemic and has only released work online.

The collaboration between Aoife Dowd from Carna and Galway retro-rockers The Opacas has so far garnered 100 views on YouTube. But the band’s Pat Boyle says their sincere hope is that Aoife gets sales from the artistic collusion, which features a piano version of their summer single ‘Outta Time’.

“It’s played by keyboardist Peter Tobin and his laid-back jazz rendition

itself perfectly to showcasing Aoife’s work. We have used piano versions of our songs to showcase other painters and photographers in the past. Peter is a well-known musician in Galway and his piano versions are lovely so we wanted to use them to promote other artists.”

Aoife, who now lives in Oughterard with husband Noel Joyce and children, Cayden (10) and Holly (6), works as an art teacher in Scoil Phobail Mhic Dara Secondary school in Carna.

The 45-year-old paints in her spare time. The daughter of Carna artist Maureen Dowd and local businessman and builder Jackie Dowd, she began her creative studies in The Grennan Mill Craft School, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, later going on to receive am honours degree and Hdip from the Limerick School of Art and Design.

“My artwork would probably be described as vibrant and impressionistic. I paint mostly landscapes in oil, I like to use strong and bright colours said as I love the energy they convey,” she reveals.

She draws her inspiration from the ever-changing moods, colours, light and vibrancy of the landscape in Connemara.

“I hope to capture more than just a scene in my work, but to draw the viewer in through a vibrant use of colour and textures. I want to create a sense of wonder, spirit and curiosity.”

She has had some successful exhibitions but this was not possible in the 18 months of lockdown, so she began to make use of Instagram and twitter to share her artwork.

“This led to lots of interest in my work and questions about a website. This is something I have always thought of setting up, so lockdown just motivated me to get it done. It has been going really well so far. Fine art prints and special commissions of portraits and landscapes have been popular.”

The Opacas are Galway musicians Steve Talbot, Peter Tobin and Pat Boyle, joined by Leeds based guitarist Mark Rayner.

“We are dedicated to making fun music and videos which they hope make people smile. The Opacas came about during the first Covid-19 lockdown when all venues for live performance were shut down. We released our first single in September 2020.

“The Opacas collaborate with local artists, theatre groups and musicians in creating music and videos which we publish on YouTube and social media.”

The band have released acoustic piano versions of their previous releases on YouTube and have showcased the work of painters Jin Yong, Patrick Kinneally and Emma Cownie. They have also showcased the work of photographers Chaosheng Zhang and Rebecca Harris.

Their video for ‘Outta Time’ features Lego creations at various Galway landmarks. A previous video was filmed around hotspots of Kinvara.

All Opacas videos can be found on YouTube or on www.Opacas.com. Aoife’s art can be viewed and purchased on www.aoifedowdartist.com.

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Connacht Tribune

Connemara roads branded a ‘death trap’

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Connemara roads ‘are a death trap’ and a real disincentive for anyone to invest in the region, a local councillor has warned.
Cllr Pádraig Mac an Iomaire (FG) said at a Connemara Area Council meeting that on parts of the main R336 coast road, two trucks couldn’t pass and yet no progress was being made with the upgrade of the route.
“This road is a death trap and is part of a huge problem across Connemara where the roads are in a very bad state.
“We’re being told we have to wait for the decision on the ring road around Galway city but many of us can’t see that happening. In the meantime, our roads are just being left behind.
“The question has to be asked – who will invest in Connemara with the current state of our roads?” said Cllr Mac an Iomaire.
Cllr Eileen Mannion (FG), said that the delay in upgrading the R336 road was causing a lot of hardship and suffering in Connemara.
She appealed to people not to appeal any decision on the R336 when it would eventually get the go-ahead for an upgrade.
Cllr Tom Welby (Ind.) said that ‘something had to happen’ with the R336 in terms of its upgrade.
He said he was aware that there would be a problem in relation to some houses along the route but added: “that you can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg.”
According to Cllr Tomás Ó Curraoin, some of the driving on the Connemara roads ‘was suicidal’ with no patience being shown. “Someone will be killed,” he said.
Cllr Daithí Ó Cualáin (FF) said that the R336 was one of the busiest national roads in the region, but its upgrade was continuously being put back until a decision was made on the Galway city ring road.
“We’re ending up losing jobs and industry because we don’t have the roads infrastructure in place. We hear of continuing delays on any decision on the ring road [Galway city] – I would like to hear the view of the Green Party councillor [Alastair McKinstry] on the issue,” said Cllr Ó Cualáin.
Cllr McKinstry said that he agreed with the need for repairs and an upgrade of the R336, but this needed to be done on the basis of long-term planning. “The road is not up to scratch for all users,” he said.
Connemara Area Cathaoirleach, Cllr Seamus Walsh (FF) said that some of the driving on so-called rat-runs on Connemara roads – including the Furbo area – was ‘absolutely crazy’.
“I would advise parents not to let their children on bicycles to and from school. There’s no place to walk on those roads, not to mind cycling – it’s just not safe,” said Cllr Walsh.
Area Engineer, Damien Mitchell, said that the Council staff were as frustrated as the councillors in terms of progress being made on the R336.
He said that a decision from An Bord Pleanála on the Galway City Ring Road was due by November 19 next and while there were frustrations with such delays [ring road], it was important to get it all done properly.
“As regards the R336, we have gone to the Department on a number of occasions on this issue. We’re told that we will be starting from a clean slate so as regards traffic counts there’s no point in doing those until the project moves on,” said Mr Mitchell.
■ The R336 83km (c. 50 miles) road links Galway city to the N59 route at Leenane, via Barna, Spiddal, Inverin, Cashla, Screebe and Maam Cross.

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