Wednesday, September 07, 2011

SPEECH BY MICHAEL D HIGGINS - Tuesday 6th September


Labour Party Nominated Presidential Candidate

Tuesday, 6th September 2011







I am greatly appreciative of the opportunity to address you here to-day on the theme of the Programme for Government’s commitment to establish a Constitutional Convention.

I am also greatly honoured to be here before you in my capacity as President of this great democratic Party, and as the Labour Party-nominated candidate for the Office of President of Ireland. I thank you for nominating me. I can tell you that the campaign, which has already brought me to 24 of the 26 counties, is drawing a very positive public response.

Significance of the Presidential Election:

I believe, very strongly that the forthcoming Presidential Election is a great opportunity for the onwards and upwards success of the Labour Party, and the continuing and future political success of every one of us in this room. If elected President of Ireland for the next 7 years, please be assured that I will seek to represent this country with Courage, Integrity and Vision and that the style of representation, will draw on a political consciousness that is influenced by so much of what we have inherited together and what we have shared in achievements and challenges in the long history of our party, while also, of course, remembering that as President, “I will dedicate my abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland”, or as it is put in Irish, “mo lándícheall a dhéanamh ar son leasa is fónaimh, mhuintir na hÉireann”. By having an active and energetic presidential campaign, I suggest we can leave the Party well placed to make significant inroads in the Local Elections in 2014.

This, of course, leads me to conclude that it is in the best interests of all of us in this room to become actively involved in the Campaign over the short period of some 7 weeks that remain. The critical starting point is my need to retain all of the sizeable Labour Vote from the General Election last February. Therefore, I and our Director of Elections, Deputy Joe Costello, really need your full support as we traverse the State for the second time in the coming weeks, and we need you to mobilise all the elements of the Party – Labour Women; Labour Youth; Lawyers for Labour, and LGBT Labour – to ensure a historic victory for our Party on 27 October next.

The Constitutional Convention:

Turning now to the theme of this Labour Party Away-Day – the Constitutional Convention – I believe that on the eve of the 75th anniversary of Bunreacht na hÉireann it is appropriate that Labour has taken the lead in calling for such a reflection as will produce Constitutional amendments appropriate for our times and the ethical and social challenges that face us and immediate future generations.

Regular attendees at our Party’s Annual Conferences or at the Tom Johnson Summer Schools over many years will not be surprised to learn that I believe that we have yet to engage in the task of establishing what I would describe as a real Republic. The distinguished academic, Peter Mair, whose untimely death took place recently, reinforced my own views on this when, at this year’s MacGill Summer School, he observed that; “We have never respected our State. We have never had a sense of belonging to our State. If anything we see the State as the enemy, as an oppressor.”

The distinguished writer, John McGahern, held a similar view. He believed that it was a great loss to the Irish people that they had been forced to make a crude choice between the demands of the family and the demands of the State when, in fact, they needed both. John McGahern felt that too often in Ireland the family was set up not as the basis of society but as an alternative to the social itself.

In recent decades this deteriorated further into a radical individualism that aggressively defined the worth of citizens in terms of their attributed wealth or possessions. The consequences have not only been economic and social but have contributed to an ethical vacuum which threatens social cohesion and the institutions that have already lost trust among the public. We need to achieve a Republic by showing the link between community vision and the well-springs of the self. Religion once claimed to do that, and did for many people but too often it declined into as controlling moralism. Religion should express and explore the relationship between self, society and the infinite; too often in Ireland religion was relaced by moralism, which sought to regulate not our relationship with destiny or the spirit but simply with one another. In the process power replaced authority.

I have always felt that a Republic, that was defined simply in terms of territorial integrity, betrayed the social and inherent rights content of a Republic. The fact is that, after the War of Independence, there was an almost seamless institutional continuity which ran on from many of the British institutions, with not dissimilar degrees of privilege, patriarchy, and hierarchy. In effect, many of those who fought for independence, and who were inspired by the laudable ideals of the 1916 Proclamation, had their version of a Republic stolen from them. My own father was one of those people, and his experience of incarceration and exclusion from mainstream society in the 1920s has had a profound influence on my political values and ideals to this day.

It follows that I believe that we now urgently need to work together to create the foundations of a real Republic, based on the needs, aspirations, imagination and genius of all our people in their different ways. In a real Republic, the right to shelter; food security; education; a good and sustainable environment; and freedom from fear and insecurity from childhood to old age, must be the benchmarks. Indeed, I have long advocated this concept of a "citizenship floor", a minimum set of rights which are non-negotiable and must be provided for all citizens.

My very last speech in Dáil Éireann, entitled “Renewing The Promise Of A Real Republic”, represents a comprehensive overview of my long-held views on this subject. I am pleased to say that that speech has had a huge response, an intergenerational response, and I was particularly pleased at the dialogue it created with younger people. They were interested and excited by the project of making a Real Republic. I will be unceasing in my support for them and all other community organisations working for the change we need.

Given my long-held views on this subject, you can imagine my satisfaction when, in my own city of Galway, our then Leader and now Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore T.D, made a powerful speech at the Party Conference in April 2010 calling for such change under the inspiring title of One Ireland. I would like here to quote directly from that speech:

“But we need to go further.

We need, as a people, to consider and shape how we are going to order our affairs for the next two generations or more. What political institutions we will need in this new century. How they should be elected. To what extent they should be local or national. How they should relate to the civil service and the public service, and to Europe. How we can have effective regulation and law enforcement. How our democracy can develop and endure.

It is time, in my view, for a fundamental review of our constitution. There is much about the constitution that has served us well, but it is a document written in the 1930s for the 1930s. A time when one church was considered to have a special position, and women were considered to be second class citizens. And if we are to truly learn from the experience of the last ten years, then we need to look again, in a considered way, at the fundamental rules that bind us together.

Our constitution belongs to the people, not just to political institutions. So, this must be a people's process.

What I propose is a constitutional convention. A coming together of all strands of Irish society to redraw our Constitution.

The constitutional convention would include experts and specialists, but would also include individual citizens, randomly chosen to serve in much the same way that we choose juries.

Charged with the task of keeping what is best in our constitutional tradition, and to develop a new constitution, fitted to our times and our aspirations. Let us set ourselves the target to have it ready for the 100th anniversary of the 1916 rising, that seminal moment when our State was conceived”.

I warmly welcomed that intervention from Eamon Gilmore then, and I continue to welcome it now. The difference, of course, is that we are now in Government and we can now advance this proposal. In that regard, I was pleased to learn recently that Minister Brendan Howlin already has the matter well in hands and that the structure and timeframe for the proposed Convention will be set out in the coming Dáil term.

Under Brendan’s timeframe, the idea would be to have the Convention up and operational by the end of the first quarter of next year, and I salute his ambition in this regard.

Eligibility Criteria for the Office of President of Ireland:

There has, understandably, been an extensive amount of media and civil society commentary in recent weeks about the eligibility criteria for the Office of President of Ireland, as laid down in Article 12.1 through to Article 12.6 of the Constitution. These, for example, provide that a candidate must have reached his/her thirty fifth year of age, and that, unless a former or retiring President, he/she must be nominated by not less than 20 members of the Houses of the Oireachtas or by not less than 4 Local Authorities.

I am happy to make my own position clear on this subject. Firstly, I am against ageism in all its forms. I frankly do not see why the age limit for the President should not correspond with the age eligibility requirement for all other national elections which, after a Referendum in 1972, was reduced from 21 to 18 years of age. For those who, understandably, would be concerned that this age is too young for such a High Office, I would have great confidence in the wisdom of the electorate to ensure that their selected candidate for the Office of President will have sufficient experience to assume that mantle.

Secondly, I fully agree that the eligibility criteria pertaining to 20 Oireachtas members or 4 Local Authorities is too restrictive and, as such, serves to undermine the democratic structures which have underpinned the health and survival of our State since its inception. I am aware that previous Oireachtas scrutiny of this provision has suggested that the signatures of 10,000 or, alternatively, 20,000 citizens should be sufficient for candidature eligibility. These suggestions have not been adopted to date, largely because of fears of personation of signatures and consequent abuse of the system.

However, the Lisbon Treaty now allows for the calling of an EU-wide referendum if the signature of 1,000,000 EU citizens can be mobilised on a particular issue. I understand that a cross-Community agreement has now been reached on a secure internet registration system which would provide safeguards against the personation of signatures. It seems to me that this is a template that can and should be transferred to Ireland.

Such a template may also be useful in addressing the complex arrangements which are sometimes instanced as difficulties in introducing voting rights for Irish citizens abroad.

I believe, therefore, that the proposed, and imminent, Constitutional Convention should examine these new EU arrangements and come up with clear recommendations on how many secure signatures will be necessary, in order to enable the widest possible participation by citizens in elections for the Office of President of Ireland thereafter.

The Programme for this Government states that, once established, the Constitutional Convention will have a brief to report within 12 months. It has the potential, therefore, to establish the Real Republic to which I aspire in time for 2016. Under that scenario, Eamon Gilmore’s ambition to “set ourselves the target to have it ready for the 100th anniversary of the 1916 rising, that seminal moment when our State was conceived” can and should be achieved.

The System is Broken, and it Needs to be Fixed:

I imagine that there is not only support here in this gathering for a process of transformation in our politics, in our institutions, and in our practices, but I would be certain that there is also agreement that there is a real need for this Constitutional Convention.

We know from the banking scandals; from the regulatory regime which failed to control the banks; from the political structures of non-transparency and non-accountability operated by the previous two Governments; from the breakdown in child protection arrangements at the level of the Catholic Church but also, and even more worryingly, at the level of the State, that the system is broken and, therefore, that it needs to be fixed. A certain kind of Ireland is now over, and we are well rid of it. I believe that Labour, in full partnership within Government and through this Constitutional Convention, is uniquely placed to fix that system. I believe that we can make a powerful case for a rights-based approach to the economy, to our society, and to our political system, within a comprehensive theory of citizenship which can mobilise all that is best in our society by a recognition of our interdependency with each other.

When I refer to a rights-based approach to our affairs, and the need to enshrine those rights in a new Constitution for a Real Republic, I usually give examples. I instance as example my remarks to the Merriman Summer School in Lisdoonvarna only last week in addressing only one aspect of a rights-based approach – the protection and nurturing of our 1.1 million children and young people. I posited the view that it is past time to give real meaning to that powerful phrase from the 1916 Proclamation, a phrase which resonates for many Irish people ‘to cherish all the children of the nation equally”.

Indeed, the more I reflect on these issues, Colleagues, the more I believe that we should revert to the much bolder declaration about children which is contained in the Democratic Programme, adopted in January 1919, by the first Dáil, and drafted with the assistance of our own former party Leader, Tom Johnson. That Declaration made the firm statement that “it shall be the first duty (my emphasis) of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.”

There are many respects in which all that happened following the foundation of the State contradicted such an aim. Children were not equal in terms of freedom from hunger, housing, health, access to education, or indeed in access to institutionalized culture. The society that was inherited, and which was continued, was an unequal one. As we all know, society is still deeply unequal today.

I proffered the view at Merriman that to make such a change as would ‘cherish all of the children of the nation equally’, would require such a change in consciousness as would be deeply challenging to many of the assumptions which are central to Irish society. That is where some real work lies and where an inspirational Presidency based on the values I have mentioned can make a real difference.

In the past the primacy given to property values over the social aspirations of the 1937 Constitution created immense difficulties. These assumptions, largely linked to private property rights were invoked in the 1970s, for example to block my own efforts and the efforts of colleagues in regard to abolishing the concept of illegitimacy and the right to civil divorce, respectively. So, colleagues, we have an enormous challenge. If Constitutional changes can be achieved it must be backed up by concrete and prioritised legislation, as well as such changes in our administrative system as will facilitate the enlightened implementation of that legislation.

Presidential Nominations to the Constitutional Convention:

Having made that broad point, I think we will all here agree that it will be crucial for the success of the Constitutional Convention to ensure that it will include a wide representation of politicians, academics, lawyers and, most especially, civil society interests and individual citizens. I rely on the wisdom and canny insights of Brendan Howlin to ensure that this will be realised. However, if elected President, I would propose to maintain a close interest in the deliberations and outcome of the Convention and, indeed, I would be requesting the Government to consider accepting some nominations from me to the Convention.

In proposing this approach, I believe that it would be entirely consistent with the letter and spirit of Article 15.2 of the current Constitution which states that "The Oireachtas shall consist of the President and two Houses, viz. a House of Representatives to be called Dáil Éireann and a Senate to be called Seanad Éireann".

Presidency Seminars to Promote a Wider Discourse:

If elected President, I would also propose to hold a series of Presidential Seminars which would have the intention of promoting a wider discourse among a wider audience, and with a wider remit, than that envisaged for the Constitutional Convention.

I would hope to act as Patron of these Seminars, which would serve to stand back from the day-to-day dynamics of political and civic life and invite a wider discussion addressing such issues as our young people’s vision for Ireland, which would be the theme of the very first Seminar; the role of our diasporas in a new relationship with Ireland which would strengthen and deepen our social and cultural connections, and promote beneficial, stronger economic and business ties where appropriate, thus building on the traditional links which have served us so well. The seminars will also deal with how ethics can be restored and how trust can be re-built in to our political and economic structures.

This necessary discourse would attract a plurality of participants, inviting a wide cross-section of people into this important conversation, rather than relying on the sometimes narrow perspectives of established ‘experts’.

These seminars would, critically, encompass the views of the marginalised, the voices of migrants, perspectives from across Ireland as well as from Europe and the wider world, and would serve as an important vehicle for promoting the active citizenship, inter-generational solidarity, and re-building of trust which, I believe, are essential for Ireland’s future.

Vision for the Presidency based on Four Strands:

Very briefly, I would like here to recall for you what, precisely, my own vision for the Presidency is. That vision is based on four broad strands – a Real Republic in which Ireland can emerge from the radical individualism of the past to a radical inclusiveness, assisted by the Constitutional Convention and my own proposal for Presidency Seminars which I have just outlined; Inclusive Citizenship based on equality, respect, solidarity and participation, and promoting inter-generational and inter-community solidarity as a critical means to overcome our present difficulties; the Creative Society, in which the promotion of excellence in creativity in all aspects of Irish life, not only in the cultural area where its legacy is obvious but also in the promotion of Ireland’s Knowledge Economy and the creation of new jobs at the local, regional and national level, in such areas as film-making; audiovisual production; animation; model-making and digital effects; software and games development; and music recording.

In such area as crafts and design; the artisan food sector; grass-based agricultural production; the fusion of the arts with the sciences; and medical and other applications there are immense opportunities.

The fourth strand - Being Irish, in the World - is one in which I propose to strengthen and deepen all strands of our international reputation, be it through culture and the arts, our humanitarian work, or peacekeeping, and whereby I will be supportive of Irish business networks throughout the globe which would, over time, promote new employment projects in Ireland and provide greater access to international markets for Irish companies. I propose to commence this process by visiting the Irish in London this week.

These four strands are entirely relevant to Ireland’s circumstances at the present time. To give just one example of their relevance, I would point out that in the latest round of CAO applications, our students are showing a strong interest in courses dealing with computing, software, gaming, film, animation technology, model-making, design and digital effects.

Concluding Remarks – Promotion by Labour Parliamentarians and Councillors of Inter-Community and Intergenerational Solidarity:

Colleagues, while the important work on the Constitutional Convention is taking place, and while the essential political decisions are then being taken by our Government to place the elements of a new Constitution before the people, I believe that you, the elected members of the Parliamentary Party – together with our extensive network of Councillors whom I will be addressing separately in the Mansion House next weekend - have a pivotal role to play in the interim in devising new strategies to assist communities across Ireland in emerging from the economic and social difficulties which we are all now encountering. And I believe that the promotion, by us all, of inter-community and intergenerational solidarity will be central to this effort.

In my President’s Address to the Party Conference in Killarney in 2003, the title of my contribution was “Vision and Action will Shape Labour’s Future”. I believe that the same title is apposite to what I have to say to you in my concluding remarks here to-day. I believe that the Labour Party, through you all, can provide the Vision and the Action which will drive the changes which we now so urgently need in Irish society, at both the macro and the micro level.

To achieve that we, all of us, need to challenge conventional wisdoms and established procedures – to “look outside the box”, as it were - to see if there are better approaches and solutions that can assist Ireland in the shorter term. And believe me – there are better ways, and often quite simple ways, to improve Ireland’s fortunes.

At the macro level, I would cite the following examples:

Drawing inspiration from Joe Costello’s attempts, targeted at the Smithfield area of Dublin, we should all actively seek to identify and lobby for unused NAMA properties across the State as venues for vibrant community endeavours for the able and the disabled, and as centres of arts and cultural expression, enterprise and innovation; indeed, let us take considerable heart from the fact that, only last week, a former Ibis hotel in Dunkettle, Co. Cork, was opened as a new Gaelscoil for 240 pupils who had previously been housed in prefabs, thanks to local lobbying which led to a 10 year lease being negotiated by the Department of Education and Science;

A recent survey by Amárach Research found that only 41 per cent of people buy Irish goods and services as often as they can, and that this rises to 76 per cent when those who buy Irish “some of the time” are included; in a period of serious economic depression and high unemployment, this is simply not good enough and, as public representatives, we all of us should take every opportunity to influence public opinion to buy Irish;

The Tipperary Food producers network recently calculated that every €10 spent on local food products leads to an injection of €34 into the local economy and helps employ thousands of people around the country; we should be actively and repeatedly promoting the concept of shopping local;

In June, 70 business owners and entrepreneurs gathered in Tullamore for a day of workshops on the theme “Creating the New Midlands Economy”, as part of a bid to breathe life into job creation in the region; I salute the fact that those business people demonstrated a local pride and signalled a new energy and conviction to succeed, with an emphasis on the “new” economy for the region; we should be encouraging similar initiatives across the State;

Also in June, the Mayo Association held their annual meeting in their County; however, instead of having a once-off hooley to celebrate their origins – I hope they had that as well! - members of the Association toured the County to explore possibilities for investments in new enterprises which would create employment; we can have a role in strengthening County Associations and in ensuring linkages with branches across the globe to replicate the Mayo Association’s efforts;

The establishment of a new business support unit by the local authority, and the recent launch of a dedicated marketing initiative by “Invest Kilkenny”, is a further template deserving of active consideration elsewhere;

We should seek to promote the fusion of science and the arts which has come about by the designation of Dublin as Dublin City of Science 2012 and its hosting of the EuroScience Open Forum next July. This Forum is Europe’s largest scientific meeting, and it will attract more than 5,000 scientists, media and visitors, along with a lot more events which will take place throughout 2012; In preparation for these events, the arts and scientist communities have already come together to explore how, in equal partnership, both could contribute to make this designation one of the great successes for Ireland, and a full programme of combined attractions for the year is now being compiled; in case people think that this a marginal issue, can I point to the fact that, at the Edinburgh Festival last week, Eric Schmidt, Chief Executive of Google, stated that the UK has ceased to nurture its polymaths and expressed the strong opinion that there is an urgent need to bring arts and science together; in that lecture, he reminded us that, in the glory days of the industrial revolution, the two disciplines worked together and that "Lewis Carroll didn't just write one of the classic fairytales of all time. He was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford. James Clerk Maxwell was described by Einstein as among the best physicists since Newton – but he was also a published poet."

Drawing from the extensive experiences gained through the Northern Ireland Peace Process, there is scope to establish a World Centre for Conflict Resolution here in Ireland;

There is also significant potential, in drawing from our excellent international reputation for peace-keeping and humanitarian work, to establish a Centre of Excellence for the training of international officials for overseas missions;

Through a policy of assertive neutrality, we can devise new roles for our military which will enhance and replicate their excellent reputation in the international arena;

Finally, we need to highlight and nurture our distinctiveness as a nation on the extreme North-West of the European Continent, and there is nothing more distinctive than our beautiful and expressive language; our language is uniquely “of ourselves”; it is both a repository of national memory, connecting us with those who have passed before us, and it is a vibrant and unique resource for the imagining of future possibility and identity.

At the micro level, I believe that there is considerable scope for the cross-fertilisation of ideas and initiatives across Constituencies and Council/UDC boundary areas on issues such as:

There is enormous potential to establish a new anchor function for Shannon Airport – firstly, to develop as a global logistics centre for rapid-response humanitarian aid for victims of natural disasters, given its vast safe-storage possibilities and Ireland’s reputation for the production here of high-protein foodstuffs; secondly, to obtain US Custom Clearance facilities for the clearance of freight as well as of international passengers through the airport;thirdly, the establishment of a centre of Excellence for Aviation Education and Training; and fourthly, given the new and more convenient visa arrangements for tourists from China and India to visit Ireland, we should devise strategies to attract these visitors to the West of Ireland, via Shannon, from tourism hubs such as London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and Amsterdam, and highlighting Shannon’s sole capacity in the State to accommodate the A380 Super-Jumbo aircraft;

We should actively promote youth streams to more and more adult Arts Festivals across the country, as a fundamental input to the creation of the Creative Society; I am thinking here of the Éigse youth section of the recent Fleadh Ceoil in Cavan, the Galway Film Fleadh, and the welcome new dimension, SprÓg, for the first time this year, to add to Waterford’s annual Spraoi Festival;

A new collaboration in Limerick which has seen 40 trainees, mainly from its regeneration areas, participate in traditional boat-building workshops, with a plan to have a degree course accredited by the University of Middlesex up and running from 2010, points to further innovative possibilities;

We should encourage the concept of Fighting Words, the wonderful Centre founded by Roddy Doyle and Seán Love, which offers creative writing workshops to everyone from tiny junior infants, sixth years and non-school-going adults;

In the vital promotion of positive youth mental health , a programme being promoted by the Principal and teachers of Christ the King Girls School in South Douglas Road, Cork, could be replicated across the State; under the programme, social, personal and mental health is made part of the school curriculum and older students are trained to mentor younger students;

We should seek to improve our town and city streetscapes by replicating the Galway Space Invaders concept, comprising artists and graffiti specialists, who have turned empty shops into temporary galleries;

Cork’s English Market concept, with a sense of proportion of course, could be extended across other cities and towns so that home-grown-and-made produce and artefacts can be given maximum exposure and maximum economic return;

We should promote the concept of a garden in every school, building on the excellent Green Flag concept, to strengthen the bonds of our children with nature and improve their dietary mix and their state of health, with obvious implications for the cost of our Health Service as they grow into adulthood;

Unused rural public spaces should be identified as cycling tracks or for other community activities;

Irish-designer-collective stores, such as that recently opened in South William Street in Dublin, can be a template to maximise the economic return to our designers who have to compete with the major international retailers now dominating the Irish market;

We should lobby for the correct presentation of historic sights, with proper and attractive signage and weather-resistant information panels which will tell the story of each space attractively;

The wonderful template introduced by Sr. Bernadette Sweeney, Principal of St. Agnes’ Primary School in Crumlin, Dublin, could also be replicated across the State; she has empowered all the children in her school by providing them with musical instruments and a structured opportunity to perform in the 60-strong school orchestra and, critically, she has also involved the children’s parents in musical activities and in a Gospel Choir;

Similarly, we should press for the transfer to all third-level colleges across the State of the concept offered by theTrinity Access Programme in TCD, which continues to work with Primary Schools in disadvantaged areas under the Bookmarks initiative, whereby children are encouraged to create their own worlds by designing, writing and illustrating their own stories, but also to visit the College so that the concept of third level education is sewn in to their memories at an early age.

I will conclude if I may by quoting from the great patriot Thomas Davis, who very presciently once said that “This country of ours is no sand-bank thrown up by some caprice of earth. It is an ancient land, honoured in the archives of civilization, traceable into antiquity by its piety, its valour, and its sufferings. Every great European race has sent its stream to the river of the Irish mind”.

We should all remember these great qualities and characteristics of our country as we, together, face into the challenges of the future.