This week, Senators Rónán Mullen and Sharon Keogan introduced several amendments to the Government’s draconian ‘Safe Access Zones’ Bill 2023, which were debated in the Seanad on Tuesday. 

The amendments introduced by the pro-life senators included: a provision to ensure that freedom of speech and debate are protected on campuses in higher education institutions; a provision that would allows GPs to opt-out from having their practice automatically designated as a ‘safe access zone’; an amendment to prevent the law from criminalising marches and protests unwittingly carried out in the vicinity of a zone, such as the annual March for Life which passes through Dublin; a provision which would allow silent prayer to be protected; and a provision which would exempt places of worship from the scope of the law. 

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly attended the debate but refused to engage with the points raised by both senators. Instead he accused Senator Mullen of having “insulted every woman in Ireland” by suggesting that there was a lack of independent evidence to prove there is a widespread problem with intimidatory pro-life protests (aside from unsubstantiated evidence provided by lobbying groups such as the ‘Together for Safety’ group which viewed the debate from the gallery). 

Senator Mullen was substantially correct, as several hospital groups including the UL Hospitals Group and the CUMH have issued statements which acknowledged they have not received any complaints from patients, their partners or staff regarding “protests” of this nature. 

Minister Donnelly claimed the Bill would not in its current form shut down open and free debate on campus, or otherwise commit an offence inadvertently, because “that is the point of the Garda warning.” However, he did not engage with how this effectively stymies some sorts of activity such as debate and how it creates a chilling effect. Minister Donnelly went on to claim the Bill would allow people to “stand on the bridge on the N11 if you want. No problem. You can stand there and you can wave your placards around to your heart’s content”. This hardly counts for providing much space to open dialogue and debate, and it is a poor reflection on the Minister’s views on people’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression. 

The debate was adjourned at 5.45pm. Very few senators engaged with the content of the amendments, just like Minister Donnelly who obfuscated and spoke at length about Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalene Laundries, and other matters.