The Wheel's Annual Lecture 2015: Speech by President Michael D. Higgins

‘Being Realistic as to the tasks of achieving change ...’

President Michael D. Higgins
at The Wheel’s Annual Conference

Wednesday, 13th May, 2015

 

 

Ladies and Gentlemen 

Is mór an pléisiúr dom a bheith anseo anocht chun dara léacht bhliantúil an Wheel a thabhairt. Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a chur in iúl do Dheirdre Garvey agus do stiúrthóirí an Wheel as ucht a gcuireadh dom bheith libh, agus libhse ar fad as ucht na fíorchaoin fáilte sin.

[It is a great pleasure to be here this evening to deliver the second annual Wheel lecture. May I thank Deirdre Garvey and the Directors of The Wheel for their invitation to join you, and all of you for that warm welcome.]

The contribution of The Wheel to Irish society has been a valuable and significant one. The Wheel is, of course, founded on the vision and great compassion of the late Mary Redmond. I know that Deirdre Garvey will speak about Mary in more detail later this evening. However, before I address the main topic of my speech, may I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Mary, who always gave so generously of her skills and professionalism in pursuit of a fairer and more equal society. I came to know Mary through her involvement with the Irish Hospice Foundation and, like all those who were privileged to have known her, remember her with great admiration and respect.
Her loss to Irish society is immeasurable.

Bhí áthas orm gur ghlac an Wheel páirt i dTionscnamh Eitice Uachtarán na hÉireann. Tá mé thar a bheith buíoch daoibh as ucht na naoi mórthéamaí a d'eascair ó na tríocha 'People's Conversation' a sheoladh chugam. Seard a theastaigh ó na saoránaigh lenar labhair sibh ná:

[I was delighted that the Wheel participated and continued with the themes of the President of Ireland Ethics Initiative. I am really grateful for your sending me the nine major themes that have emerged from your thirty People’s Conversations. The citizens you consulted sought :]

  1.  A political system that does not become detached from the concerns and experiences of citizens
  2. Reform of government and administration to involve citizens in making decisions
  3. An education system that helps people to be active citizens who are informed about their rights
  4. A voice for citizens outside of elections
  5. A return to the language of ‘citizen’ instead of ‘customer’ ‘taxpayer’ or ‘client’
  6. A basic ‘contract’ between citizens and the State which will provide a common understanding of the rights enjoyed by citizens and a level of responsibility, openness and fairness in their dealings with the state
  7. A society that values activism, community organisation and collective effort
  8. A model of citizenship in Ireland that takes into account our role as global citizens and provides opportunities to influence decisions taken at international level
  9. The opportunity for all people to be active citizens regardless of their status.

Téamaí dúshlánach iad seo, agus leagann siad amach clár oibre fiúntach le forbairt agus le dul i ngleic leis.

[These themes provide a great challenge, and a most worthwhile agenda, to pursue and develop.]

But it requires a real change in consciousness, institutional thinking and indeed as I will emphasise, a new contemporary form of literacy.

As a society, we have of course recently faced a time of great challenge, a time which has called for an interrogation of the values by which we live together as we set about the work of transition from a society which was not the best version of ourselves to one which is grounded in a more ethical version of our Irishness. We must not assume, of course, that widespread support for an ethical society now exists, and that it is there for the calling upon into existence. There is no clear evidence that equality is a major popular demand, or that there is a groundswell of support for a version of the State that might introduce it. Since the 1908s, the redistributive state has lost support as ever more ground was conceded to an extreme individualism grounded in a hegemonic version of the market without limit – even into areas of social vulnerability.

Fundamental to the process of interrogation of values are indeed questions of governance and the related questions which we may ask in this decade of commemoration as to whether, in our political independence, we have lived up to the ideals articulated during the formation of the Irish Republic, but I suggest that that way is an insufficient question.

"The contribution of The Wheel to Irish society has been a valuable and significant one..."

Then too we must remember at the founding moment of our independence we did not fall from a society that was equal. It was, and is, a new challenge to create such a society. The Ireland from which the Revival emerged was one where the remnants of a rural catastrophe brought about by famine and emigration were transformed into landholders. That transition described by Professor Joe Lee was one where, before the famine, the fields gave way to families. After the families gave way to fields as the stone walls outlined the new property, the desire for which might become insatiable. New classes would emerge, the agricultural labourers might have been decimated but deep divisions would emerge. In the cities the tenements would continue until the Fifties.

 

At the very heart of republicanism lies the principle of participative citizenship, and the right of all citizens to be represented and to have their voice heard. It is a concept based on an understanding of the State as a shared responsibility, rather than an abstract entity. A true republic must be built on principles and policies which recognise the common welfare, and which place the ideas of community and public at the centre, rejecting the limitations of a narrow individualistic concept of citizenship.

We cannot, I suggest, use even an appropriate ethical set of commemorations as a substitute for engaging with topics that must engage us now. To do that would be an exercise in bad faith and evasion.

There can be no doubt that a major cause of our recent economic crisis was a failure to question, to scrutinise and to challenge the highly individualised projects of accumulation, and self-centred ideals of consumption, which over time had come to be substituted for models of public welfare shared in the public space and enjoyed in the public world. An unrestrained competition has seen the extension of the space of the market to the centre of public policy on matters far beyond economic goods and appropriate areas of competitive choice.

As members of a society which has been affected more than most by the global financial crisis, Irish people have been led to an abrupt realisation that the challenge of living together in a way that permits a flourishing of human capability and a cohesive society cannot be met, indeed is contradicted, by an uncritical confusion of what constitutes the essential needs of citizens with what might be described as consumer wants of an insatiable kind, and the reliance on the market for the satisfaction of both.

The challenge is to achieve a capacity to debate and seek a version of the State that meets our demands as a Republic and a deepening of democracy. We must not despair, even if at present, that capacity at so many institutional levels is not so much in evidence. There is no clear evidence in Irish, or indeed European thinking, that collective welfare is replacing the aggregation of individual property and aspiration.

The need for a discourse that would encompass and examine all the connections between economy, society and the State was obvious and urgent, and this was what motivated me in November 2013 to launch the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, which was designed to stimulate discussion across all sectors of Irish society on the challenges of living together ethically, and I knew that there would be a reaction that was negative as well as the widespread support the initiative drew.

It commenced with an invitation to Irish third level institutions to embrace the challenge of discussing the principles and values by which we might wish to live together as a society, in the wake of a crisis that starkly required us to interrogate our vision of social bonds and human relations, and our conceptions of “prosperity” and “the good life”.

The Ethics Initiative continued with my proposal that it be brought to civil society organisations as an overall frame, as a debate, above all as an opportunity for critical and fresh thinking, contributing to harnessing and supporting the profusion of positive initiatives that exist in Irish society. It was, is, and will be, important to realise the road we share together as it were, in pilgrimage, but pilgrims with a diversity of circumstance.

Across Ireland, there are now many conversations underway; conversations that question our values and our assumptions, and explore the means by which we might transform our society and the world around us. Some of these conversations have focussed on specific dimensions of human life such as work, gender and the relations between different parts of our planet.

The conversation which was launched by The Wheel almost a year ago, ‘the People’s Conversation’, has focussed on many dimensions of the concept of citizenship. In reading the reports of the progress to date, I see that ‘the People’s Conversation’ has developed into a dynamic dialogue, engaging the imagination and the energy of citizens from across Ireland; people who have come together to envision a new version of citizenship, and to explore a new set of principles by which we might live ethically as a society.

It is a discourse that has seized the opportunity to recognise the importance of each individual member of our community, and of our own duty and responsibility to seek to play a role in the creation of a fair and equitable society, one in which all citizens have the opportunity to flourish. I believe that this conception of the participative citizen, who is active in a community of citizens and who is empowered to participate and flourish, is a powerful idea that can be especially resonant at this moment in our history.

Citizenship is more than about rights, it is about belonging; of being ‘at home’ in one’s world without fear.

Over the coming year, we will all reflect on the idealism of the words and vision, and the legacy and meaning, of 1916 and of the Proclamation.

There will be much discussion about the political and social significance of the events of that revolution. My suggestion is that the Proclamation is an exceptional document, and the better for it. It is not a description of what was available but a vision as to what might be. We must, I suggest, take the opportunity to consider in a new way the ideals which inspired those men and women, test them, retrieve them, the courage, the utopianism, add to them, make our own new vision for a coming generation that might experience a real independence, independence from fear and insecurity. Central to their thinking was the idea of a republican citizenship which would be inclusive and grounded in equality. The theme of equality was not automatically to survive within the theme of nationalism as invoked or delivered or indeed in the institutional arrangements of independence which followed the foundation of an independent State.

The themes which are materialising from ‘the Peoples’ Conversation’ demonstrate that the aspirations of the Proclamation of 1916 continue to pose difficult questions to the Ireland of today. The reports from the various events hosted under ‘the People’s Conversation’ speak of widespread disquiet at a political system perceived as disconnected from the everyday concerns and needs of its citizens; of a desire for a better quality of engagement and participation by all citizens, including the respecting of a citizenship floor of basic rights; and of an urgent need to achieve a language of deliberative and participatory citizenship, ensuring that all members of society are respected as active participants in that society, and are not relegated to the role of passive ‘clients’ or ‘customers of services’ their main purpose being to serve a de-peopled economy.

Some fundamental questions that must be addressed when considering the challenge of citizenship are: how we define the community of citizens, and how do we achieve participation by citizens.

How do we achieve a State that is inclusive, innovative, and creative while still responsive to the needs and best ethical aspirations of citizens?

I believe that as we engage with the important task of ethically remembering 1916, we must acknowledge and address the limitations of a conception of republic or of citizenship based on any form of exclusive nationalism. Just as the founding fathers of the Irish Republic faced the challenge of inclusivity of difference, in our time we too face the question as to how a society which aspires to be a democratic republic will view and accommodate alternative communities and identities. For instance, present-day Ireland prides itself on having become more cosmopolitan and more multicultural in recent years. We must ask ourselves, however, if we have fully engaged with the challenges and complexities of becoming an increasingly diverse society. The literature on ethics asks us to test ourselves on how we relate to ‘the stranger’ within our community and ‘the stranger’ who arrives in anticipation of our hospitality.

There can be no doubt that in the Ireland of the future, for example, we will be judged with reference to how our policies and practices responded to the plight of those who sought refuge here. We will be judged on how we treat and make judgements on those who present themselves at our borders as strangers in difficulty, on how we respond to their stories as they seek our protection, and on the respect we afford them in the legal and administrative processes we oversee. Did we do so, it will be asked, with empathy and compassion; did we offer such people justice, as is our obligation?

While there are international obligations laid down in law regarding the protection of refugees, different national cultures reveal their strengths and weaknesses in how these are interpreted and executed in practice. Beyond the minimum standards of international law, ethical societies cannot remain passive or unmoved when confronted with urgent human need and the plight of those fleeing conflict and oppression, as all of us in Europe are at the present moment.

We do not need to be told that the exclusion from full participation in society and political community – however temporary it may be – is a profoundly debilitating experience, and a rejection of the fundamental principles of democracy and republicanism.

German philosopher Hannah Arendt in a text entitled “We Refugees” powerfully described the fate of refugees as that of human beings who, unprotected by any specific political convention, suffer from the plight of being nothing but human beings. What Arendt pinpoints in this text is the deadlock arising from the entanglement between the rights of man and those of the citizen: in the nation-State system, the so-called ‘inalienable’ rights of man cease to be protected as soon as they are decoupled from the rights of the citizens of a State, leading to this tragic paradox that the figure who should have embodied the rights of man par excellence – the refugee – constitutes instead the radical crisis of this concept.

In this context, the moral question of how we treat “the other”, “the stranger”, as arrival or minority within our community, must be a central concern, not only for government, but for all sections of society – and for all citizens. We have not done well in recent years in such areas as what we call ‘direct provision’. We have not allowed some fundamental discretions that are essential for dignity, particularly for women, and mothers.

The arrival on these shores of people who are fleeing war and persecution, the movement of workers and families who are escaping destitution and poverty are global issues, in the addressing of which Ireland has a moral duty to play its part, and I am sure it will have public support in doing so, through our role in the international community, and in our laws, policies and practices at the national level. Of course this issue is one that is inextricably linked to the process of commemoration itself, given the particular Irish historical experience of involuntary migration and exile.

The conversations reported by The Wheel have has also recognised the critical issue of educating our people to be active and informed participative citizens if we, as a society, are to achieve a truly ethical and active citizenship. If we are to become a true Republic, based on the sovereignty of the people, it is vital that we ensure that members of our society are equipped with the skills to question and challenge decisions made by individuals and institutions in positions of power and authority, ensuring such decisions are ethical, based on fairness and not on any privilege derived from wealth. The challenge, which is both a global and a European one, as well as an Irish one, is as to how we can live sustainably, in a way that recognises our interdependency on a fragile planet. We must also recognise that distributing income may not be achievable by existing forms of work as currently defined. The great challenge is not as to how we might all participate in infinite consumption but as to how we might live together free from fear, how we might flourish.

I have said before, in many speeches over the last three years, that the society we so dearly wish for will not take shape unless we acknowledge the need for an education of character and desires, the need to encourage and support critical reflection and a more holistic approach to knowledge. Specifically, there would surely be considerable merit in introducing the teaching of philosophy in our schools, which could facilitate the fostering of an ethical consciousness in our fellow citizens; a consciousness that will enable citizens to think more critically and to challenge the inevitability of that which is too often presented as given and unchangeable.

Such ability is even more important nowadays, when the masses of citizens are deemed by some to be too economically illiterate to understand, or have a say on, complex fiscal matters. Then, too, when an occasional speech of mine is described as ‘from the high moral ground’ I realise that is really a rejection of engagement in new thinking – a perhaps lazy but in reality a defence of a status quo that I suggest has delivered exclusion, and misery too.

We are now moving slowly towards a reform of economic recovery, within our accepted models of economy and society, one that is measured by a set of indicators whose usefulness is now being questioned in so many countries of the world. We remain challenged, however, by the social questions – how to build a society that is free from fear and that offers all citizens an opportunity to flourish, a recovery which will bring with it new challenges. It is critical that the recovery from what we have recently experienced, does not become a resuscitation of that which collapsed with such disastrous consequences for citizens, a simple return to ‘business as usual’, as some may like us to do. The crisis we have recently experienced was not solely an economic one, but also a social and cultural one which left us in no doubt that Ireland was in need of a more fundamental transformation. It is a transformation that must extend democracy and initiate changes in our political structures, our institutions, our language, our way of dealing with each other, and in our consciousness. Such a programme requires intellectual work and moral courage. It also needs a commitment to dialogical thought. The patience to listen to the assumptions of the other, is essential.

The version of Ireland which prevailed in our recent past must now be regarded as over, and rejected as sufficient for the achieving of a real Republic, and if we must remain alert to the dangers of returning to that inadequate and unworthy version of ourselves, we must set about as those organisations affiliated to The Wheel do, of envisaging the best of ourselves in conditions of purposeful achievement and the joy that flows from it.
What is crucial now is that we construct and support the intellectual space and the public space to produce the new ideas, new policies and new solutions required for the Republic of the future.

Initiatives such as ‘the People’s Conversation’ continue to play an increasingly vital role as we pursue together our advocacy in achieving an inclusive economy. The People’s Conversations provide an opportunity for diverse groups to come together and explore and examine our social contracts and political paradigms. Bit by bit, in a mosaic of efforts, the big task of change is being undertaken. I sincerely believe that these conversations will not only deepen and broaden the discussion on what kind of country we want to live in, but will also help deliver a new vision for the Ireland of the future, a future built on an inclusive citizenship, a creative society, and a real Republic.

 

ends