Tuesday 9 October 2012

"The homeland of social inclusion"?

In his first official visit to Northern Ireland, President Michael D Higgins spoke of the role of women in the Irish Trade Union movement. His remarks on 2 March 2012 in Belfast were visionary and fresh and suggest that the agenda of 2012/13 is as challenging as ever. His inspirational words (in the excerpt below) bear remembering as we debate constitutional issues and the role of individuals in a new Ireland.

"It is very understandable that people are hurt and dismayed by the economic crisis that shattered their lives. It demands a response. A huge price has been paid for the speculative period of unsustainable growth and false property led development in the first decade of this century. For those who promoted this bubble, personal wealth and material possessions became a dangerous obsession; at the level of society, ostentation replaced simplicity; and selfishness replaced selflessness. The sense of community, for which our island was so richly famous, was eroded as those who pursued aggressively individualistic goals had little time for collective endeavour, little interest in social solidarity and little capacity for ethical reflection. It is important too that the assumptions and the values  behind this false economy be exposed, be faced and be rejected as any version of the future we wish to create on this island.

We are emerging from a dark period in our economic history and we are certainly entitled  to curse that darkness. But we also need to light the candles of hope that will help us to navigate a path towards a better and fairer future. The tone of cynical fatalism that has dominated some of the public discourse in recent years will not serve us well for that journey ahead - it is markedly insufficient for the task of transformation we need. But surely the lesson of the peace process in Northern Ireland is that no problem, however its apparent intractability, is impervious to solution if we summon up the collective will, determination and ingenuity to address and resolve it.

We are at a crucial point of transition from one economic model that failed us all to another that has yet to be fully realised. We need to debate the nature and shape of that economy so that sustainability and social cohesion are given as much priority as efficiency and competitiveness. The perspective of women as citizens, in every sense of that term, must be allowed to inform that alternative version of economy and its connection with society. The media has an important role to play in ensuring that this debate takes place and that it occurs in a civil manner respecting the right of all points of view to offer their perspectives on the kind of economy and society they wish to bequeath to their children.

We are now also at a point, I suggest, when we need to refocus and reaffirm the values of active citizenship and a caring community. The view of the individual as being no more than a passive consumer of goods and services, and living in disaggregated isolation, is simply an unacceptable and very impoverishing thought. The idea of the citizen actively participating in a society in which he or she enjoys personal rights and discharges responsibilities in a shared community is a far more liberating and life-enhancing vision.

We must work together to reclaim a better version of Irishness than the recent one which has thankfully expired - where we put community solidarity and social cohesion above the demands of acquisitive individualism. Only then can we fully rebuild our personal lives and our communities. Only then will our island re-emerge as the homeland of social inclusion rather than social exclusion, as a place whose international reputation repudiates the appalling notion that "greed is good"."

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