Speech at a reception to mark the 20th Anniversary of The Wheel
Áras an Uachtaráin, Friday, 21st February, 2020
Tá an-áthas orm fíorchaoin fáilte a fhearadh romhaibh uilig chuig Áras an Uachtaráin agus glacadh le bhur gcuireadh bheith páirteach libh chun ceiliúradh a dhéanamh don 20 bliain d’obair díograiseach agus fiúntach atá déanta ag “The Wheel”. Mo bhuíochas mar Uachtarán na hÉireann as ucht na h-éachtanna ar fad atá bainte amach agaibh le linn na scóir bliain atá imithe, agus, ach go háirithe, ar son cosmhuintir ár dtír.
[It is a pleasure as President of Ireland to host an event today commemorating the 20th anniversary of the establishment of The Wheel, Ireland’s national association of community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises, all of which are making such a valuable contribution.]
May I thank Paul O’Sullivan, the Board of The Wheel, Deirdre Garvey, Sarah Monaghan and their colleagues for their work in helping us arrange this occasion.
I have had, over its 20 years, many interactions with The Wheel. Since I became President, I have had the opportunity of being made familiar with your work, including on the occasion when you participated in my Ethics Initiative, as well as subsequent work undertaken to develop a Sustainable Communities Toolkit in 2018, as well as, of course, the Participating People report published last year.
The Wheel is unique as an organisation in its role as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for the charity and non-profit sector, which numbers some 29,000 organisations countrywide, and employs 190,000 people. Drawing inspiration and empowerment from its members, you represent, you support and connect all those non-profit organisations, from the smallest community and voluntary groups to the largest charities and social enterprises who share the vision of creating an Ireland that is just and fairer.
The contribution of The Wheel to Irish society has thus been, and remains, a valuable and significant one, founded as it was on the vision and great compassion of the late Dr Mary Redmond who always gave so generously of her skills and professionalism in pursuit of a fairer and more equal society.
Volunteering, Community Engagement and Democratic Participation
In addition to acknowledging the important work of The Wheel as an organisation, I do want to thank all its 1,700 members of the community and voluntary sector that it represents. I would like to thank each and every one of you for your care, dedication and commitment to others.
Gabhaim buíochas libh go léir as ucht bhur gcuid cineáltas, comhbhá agus bhur ndúthracht chun teacht i gcabhair ar dhaoine eile. Tugann sibh deis do dhaoine apáirt iomlán a ghlacadh i saol an phobail, agus s’eard atá i fíor-Phoblacht ná Poblacht na rannpháirtíochta.
I believe that a real republic is one in which every person is encouraged and supported to participate fully, and where every person and community is treated with dignity and respect. The wider work of The Wheel and the organisations you represent offers citizens the opportunity to participate as citizens, actively engaging with their communities. This is so important in helping address the issues of social isolation and social exclusion.
The instinct to ‘belong’, to be part of the significant groups that affect one’s life is a vital part of being human. A society where the emphasis on being ‘separate from the rest’ is, I suggest, one in which not very many of us would wish to live. While it is not helpful to don rose-tinted glasses when speaking of Irish society throughout the ages, one aspect of our society and our living together which has been of immense value to our social fabric has been a willingness, indeed a propensity, for volunteering which has helped in many ways to foster a strong sense of community.
It is difficult to contemplate what our communities would be like without people investing their time and skills for the sake of others. The sports clubs, community groups, community shops, Tidy Towns, Men’s and Women’s Sheds, churches and schools, would not exist, could not operate without volunteering.
Some years ago, representatives from The Wheel came to Áras an Uachtaráin and presented me with a report about its “People’s Conversation” project, examining the barriers that stood in the way of actively participating in society in Ireland. The report arose from a project, funded by the Carnegie Trust, about citizen participation in the shaping of our society. This project has seen hundreds of people take part in engaged discussions about what needs to change to create a truly inclusive and participative Ireland.
May I say that the discussions I had subsequently with The Wheel in February 2016 were most fruitful, and your current focus on active citizenship and how citizens can proactively help to shape the society around them could not be more welcome. There is a real opportunity for civil society organisations to encourage and empower people to be active citizens by modelling democratic and transparent and accountable practice in their own day-to-day activities.
The best of volunteering, however, should never be seen as alternative or excuse for avoiding the changes needed to be made in the structure of society and in particular its reproduced inequalities.
Despite our exit from the economic crisis provoked by our poorly regulated banking system and the improvement in our economy, there are still too many people in Ireland struggling, with, for example, over 320,000 people living in consistent poverty at the end of 2017, the most recent year for which official statistics are available.
Many in our society have been left behind since the end of what is too politely called the ‘Great Recession’, experiencing little or no improvement to their living standards, opportunities for full participation, despite advances reported by macroeconomic indicators. This has to change.
The economy, in a society that defines itself as a Republic, has to be an economy embedded in social values, measured and judged by its performance for the welfare of citizens. Metrics judging the performance of the economy as an abstract, de-peopled entity are far short of what is a democratic evaluation of economic performance.
We need to work to make Ireland a fairer place to live, to work, to belong, one which envisages the economy as embedded in society; where caring for each other and our children, older people and people with disabilities is valued and supported; where individuals, families and communities can participate fully in work and society; and where a strong economy is an instrument of support for achieving the type of society in which we wish to live.
Such a society must have a form that, in terms of values governing the interaction among its citizens, is not reduced to any set of transactions structured in pure market response terms; must commence by acknowledging the dignity that our republic should afford as a participatory minimum to each and every citizen and those who have come to live in our society, treating each person with respect, recognising their inherent value and the value of their contribution, whatever form it takes.
Inequality is now recognised, even by the most conservative of commentators, as a major source of lost cohesion at a global level. The empirical evidence is there – more equal societies are healthier societies. The advances the world has made in reducing extreme poverty have slowed considerably in recent years. Eliminating extreme poverty is impossible without tackling inequality.
Within-country inequality has risen in many parts of the world. Thomas Piketty, to select just one notable contributor to the inequality discourse, has shown how, compared to 25 years ago, the average person today is far more likely to live in an economy with higher inequality.
Piketty has argued, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, how living with inequality is fundamentally and unavoidably a political choice. Governments that want to reduce gaps in income and wealth, and to improve the lives of their poorest, can do so through progressive, redistributive economic, fiscal and social policies that are based on principles of universalism, equality and fairness. A key point here is that wealth distribution, not just income, requires a policy focus.
Sustainable Development Goals
Since 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) specifically Goal 10 to reduce inequality within and among countries — have brought unprecedented attention to the inequality discourse. Charities, community and voluntary organisations and social enterprises have a critical role to play in helping Ireland to meet its commitments as signatories to the 2030 Agenda and the UN SDGs.
I commend The Wheel for being engaged in a number of projects to promote the SDGs, and for being a member of Coalition 2030, an alliance of over 60 civil society organisations working together to ensure Ireland keeps its promise to achieve the SDGs.
The commitments in the 2030 Agenda are, after all, collective commitments – this is where the strength of the UN lies – but our greatest challenge is in delivering the consciousness, the will, to realise that the damaging, dysfunctional connection with which we have lived between ecology, economy and society has brought us to the edge of a precipice. We need a paradigm shift in our thinking as to how we will combine ecology, economy, and society so as to provide for the greatest of human needs.
Austerity and Neoliberalism
Efforts are being made by innovative and exceptional scholars to dislodge the grip a failing paradigm has had on policy. After 40 years of mainstream economic commentary espousing with unfettered abandon the virtues of privatisation, deregulation and a lesser role for the State, we now appear to be on the cusp of a turning point in the political economy discourse thanks to the insightful contributions of scholars such as Professors Ian Gough, Mariana Mazzucato and Sylvia Walby.
The neoliberal austerity mantra invoked in order to restore growth, in its basic assumptions, suggests that what is needed is to reduce deficits by cutting public spending – a view that has been refuted by many scholars and by empirical evidence.
However, even in a revisionist atmosphere, while the need for empirically justified government investment is accepted, it is done so often with reluctance, and always with a nod to the hegemony of fiscal metrics.
An empirical basis exists, I repeat, demonstrating that expenditure in education, healthcare, research and technology are all key components of economic growth and should not be cut in times of economic adversity, a point articulated so well in Mariana Mazzucato’s ‘The Entrepreneurial State’.
The community and voluntary sector has of course suffered greatly from the most recent version of austerity policy, experiencing cuts in state funding which, in many cases, remain to be restored, the consequences of which are all too apparent.
Austerity policy, all over the European Union, undoubtedly resulted in a deepening of the experience of, as well as a widening of the exposure to, a range of attendant social ills – including increased unemployment, ever expanding precarious employment, particularly among the young, and rising child poverty. These consequences were a direct result of a protracted period of forced, constrained under-investment by the State, including under-investment in many of the sectors that you represent.
For over four decades now, the interventionist role of the state has been openly opposed by unregulated market politics, supported by theorists who reject social policy being given a priority in policy.
The prevailing neoliberal model which features markets without regulation, distorted trade and unrestricted globalisation, the priority of the price mechanism and the practice of commodification, speculative investment, and which results in rampant consumption, yawning inequality and destructive extraction of natural resources is, of course, unsustainable from economic, environmental and social standpoints.
Yet, to so much of this, publics have been, were and are indifferent and, thus, paid the price in their lives, schools, hospitals – all areas of the shared public world.
Even institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – organisations not known for being left-wing bastions, indeed with a legacy of appalling, imposed policies in developing economies – have in recent times slowly moved in their thinking on austerity as a strategic tool, from initial denial to now believing that it can be self-defeating.
It is a late awareness, the fruit of bad economics and a shallow scholarship, for Keynes had, after all, argued over 80 years ago that if governments cut spending during a downturn, a short-lived recession can become a fully-fledged depression, precisely what occurred in Ireland when the economic recession of 2008 turned into an economic depression in 2009, a contraction that lasted for almost five years.
Need for a New Paradigm
More than a decade after the financial crash, with the global economy and many individual OECD countries facing multiple crises, I believe that time is ripe for, indeed that circumstances demand, another such paradigm shift, as happened in the Keynesian movement.
The OECD’s New Growth Narrative report, ‘Beyond Growth: Towards a New Economic Approach’, supports this suggestion as to the need for a paradigm shift, stating:
“The frameworks and prescriptions which have dominated policymaking in recent decades are no longer able to generate the solutions to the problems and challenges we face today. We need a less incremental, more profound change”.
This is a modest ambition. Neo-Keynesian theory will not suffice. We need to do more. We have regressed to a point of multiple crises – political, social and ecological – that calls for the articulation of new models of co-existence, development and international co-operation if we are to avoid the consequences of what Ian Gough has called:
“a tragic contradiction between growth, climatic instability and egregious inequality”.
I believe that new paradigm is an eco-social model, based on steady-state economics, rather than the flawed concept of exponential growth. It is a model that is both ecologically and economically sustainable thanks to the hopefully positive role that technology and resource decoupling can contribute towards improving the productivity of our capital stock, our natural endowments.
In terms of our public discourse, if we are to achieve a paradigm shift, it will be necessary to combine the awareness, information and radicalism that is in the consciousness of climate activism, with the consciousness of egalitarianism and the programmes of inclusion activists and feminists.
As we live through this period in which we seek an exit from extreme individualism – during which the concept of society itself has been questioned and redefined narrowly and pejoratively, when the public sphere, the State’s assets, in so many countries, have been commodified – we must come together, merging consciousness of what being human means for ecology, human need, dignity, respect for sources of truth and consolation, reasoned and revealed.
We must combine and co-operate for the recovery of the public world and the common good with an embedded economy that facilitates a life sensitively lived for all, by entering into what Professor Hartmut Rosa describes as a “transformed relationship of resonance” – the process of responding, moving and being moved, affecting and being affected.
The context in which we are attempting to create the conditions for a paradigm shift are highly challenging. Regrettably, we live in a world that has in recent years moved away sharply from notions of solidarity and empathy and towards an aggressiveness sourced in extreme individualism that has borne the fruit of divisiveness and hate-filled rancour.
This context of being rendered mute, as Professor Rosa might put it, of living through a catastrophic loss of feeling, as Professor Ciarán Benson might put it, presents enormous challenges for those of us who believe in – and that to which many here have given their lives – the transformative powers of collectivity, solidarity, equality, social justice and human decency – all ideals at the heart of the Wheel’s endeavours.
We must recover our capacity for empathy. A deepening of democracy is now required, a democracy based on resonance and responsivity as the essence of the common good and the values that underpin it. This is the most effective action we can take to unshackle ourselves from the purveyors of a political economy founded on inequality and accumulation.
It is undeniable that poverty and inequality have fuelled and empowered the democratic crisis in which we find ourselves. Contemporary conflicts in Europe and elsewhere are sourced in alienation and those who manipulate it. Therefore, a paradigm shift that reduces these social ills will also contribute to the health of democracy.
Together we must now re-build solidarity within our society, demonstrate that we are capable of achieving, by our efforts and using the tools of the State, that the organised efforts of the non-profit sector are resourced sufficiently, so they are able, by sharing a discourse that is citizen-centred, to deliver the inclusive and sustainable outcomes we desire. The community and voluntary sector has always been so much more than simply the sum of its parts, and contributes greatly to the development of such a healthy, vibrant and caring society.
Guím gach rath ar The Wheel, agus a gcuid oibre chun Éire níos cothroime, níos córa a chruthú. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil libh thar ceann an t-iliomad daoine aonair, teaghlaigh agus pobail a bhfeabhsaíodh a saolta de réir bhur gcuid oibre.
[I wish the Wheel continued success in its endeavours to build a fairer and more just Ireland, and may I thank you on behalf of the countless individuals, families and communities whose lives you have transformed through your work.]
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.