Inaugural Speech by President Michael D. Higgins
St. Patrick’s Hall, Dublin Castle, 11 November, 2018
Níl aon onóir níos mó ná bheith tofa mar Uachtarán na hÉireann. Tuigim an cúram atá bronnta orm agus glacaim leis go húmhal ach le díogras. Seacht mbliain ó shin geall mé mo lán dhícheall a dheánamh ar son leasa is fónaimh muintir na hÉireann. Rinne me iarracht sin a dhéanamh i gcóiríocht uile.
Inniú glacaim leis na dualgaisí arís ach leis an fuinneamh agus an t-eolas breise atá faighte agam ón seirbhís atá tugtha agam mar Uachtarán. Gabhaim buíochas mór libh muintir na hÉireann uile agus is mór a cabhróidh sé liom, gach lá is oiche, sna blianta atá le teacht, an tacaíocht atá tugtha agaibh cheana dom fhéin agus Sidhbhín ó fud na tíre.
I want to thank you, the people of Ireland, for the honour you have again bestowed on me, an honour I accept with all the energy of mind and heart that is required for the trust your mandate has placed on me.
I do want to thank sincerely all those who, from their different political parties, traditions, movements of civil society and communities, who supported my nomination, campaigned on my behalf, and in particular those who put the stamp of their values on a campaign on my behalf that was inclusive, creative and authentic. Your support has been, and will remain, a source of the greatest encouragement.
I will, I have emphasised, be a President for all of the Irish people, wherever they may be and in whatever circumstances, those who supported me and those who were not among that number. Táim i ndáiríre nuair a deirim gur mian liom bheith i’m Uachtarán don phobal uile.
In offering a vision for the next seven years during the election I spoke of a real republic as being a life lived together, one where there is a commitment to equality, to strong sustainable communities, to the sharing of history and to shaping of the future together; recognising our vulnerabilities, drawing on and enhancing our individual and collective capacities.
Delivering this vision involves us all. It is a vision for which you have given a huge mandate. Over the next seven years we will be called upon to deliver tasks of mind and practice that will call for both an affirmation of shared values, and a transformation in assumptions, practice and institutions, if we are to adequately face the challenges that confront us and realise our shared potential.
Key to this is the achievement of a real participation, built on equality and empowerment. That requires a rigorous commitment to removing the many barriers to participation; recognising, strengthening and supporting the momentum and demand for equality, positive transformation and sustainability – a momentum that is already underway in so many of our communities.
We cannot afford to be complacent as to how we are living our lives and planning our future at local, national, European or global level. Inequalities are deepening and many of our people do not have the necessary securities of adequate housing, shelter, health, education, such securities and supports which would allow them to realise their rights and participate with equality.
Changing how our institutions interact with citizens is about so much more than negotiation around the allocation of scarce resources, it is about treating each person with respect, recognising their inherent value and the value of their contribution, whatever form it might take.
Policy, in all areas of our life needs an ongoing re-evaluation in terms of purpose, practice and participation. The institutional arrangements, and discourse of a previous century cannot be regarded as inevitably permanent or immutable. There must be a consideration as to their adequacy and appropriateness for new circumstances, new dreams and new concerns.
At a time when democratic discourse is too often undermined or diminished, our choice must be to actively extend and deepen democracy, to express it in wider forms and in new ways. We must encourage and deliver better, more meaningful, more equal, participation in decision-shaping, decision-making, decision-taking.
To adequately respond to our new circumstances, we must be open to a pluralism of ideas and practice, advocate for, and achieve an innovation that promotes inclusivity and is open to new structures and new ideas.
Ideas matter and history tells us that anti-intellectualism has been, and remains, the weapon of authoritarian and anti-democratic forces in so many parts of our shared, vulnerable planet.
Too often long-term thinking has been initiated, but then was stumbled over, or abandoned, in the face of short term pressures. Important discussions on questions such as the need for a social floor, on the significance of regionalism, on the importance of culture in communication, were too often let lapse with consequences for our people and the citizens of Europe in terms of lost opportunities for engagement and cohesion.
We face many challenges which go beyond borders, require cooperation at global level but affect, and can be affected, by the lives of every person in every local place.
Not only is the very existence of our planet in its bio-diversity threatened but we have not yet slowed the pace of that destruction. We live with ongoing violence against women which must be ended. We must confront and challenge any excuses offered for the denial of the irreducible rights, of women who make up, let us not forget, a majority of humanity on this planet. It is important that we recognize the rights and culture of indigenous peoples. It is also important that each person is free to express their sexuality, gender or relationship.
In some of these global challenges we face, science and technology can play a powerful role, but its use must be accountable and responsible. We must, for example, eliminate global hunger, but now do so in a way that meets the demands of sustainability.
Political vision, bravery and generosity are required for the making of the new urgent global conversation, commitment and action we must undertake together,
Yes, we have the benefit of the two great expressions of shared concern that the UN Paris Agreement on Responding to Climate Change, and the UN’s New York Agreement on Sustainable Development represent – agreements to which Irish diplomats made a distinguished contribution – but we now live with the reality that some of those nations who made those commitments are resiling from them.
The issues of inter-generational justice raised by this cannot be ignored. We need to start taking responsibility, sharing capacities.
Far from being abstract challenges, the consequences of neglect are already manifest. They can be seen in the damage to the natural world and the price being paid by the poorest people on our fragile planet, those least responsible for the perilous state to which inadequate and imbalanced models of development have brought us.
We need new models and innovative thinking based on deeper and better connections between economy, society, ecology and culture. Cohesion and participation must be recognized as both the ground and the fruit for that innovation.
The achievement of that necessary cohesion can be best underpinned by a deepening of democracy at national, regional and global level. That is surely one of our greatest challenges, and it must be achieved by the taking of account of diversity in culture, beliefs and capacity.
The task is not simply the repair of an old connection broken, but rather the making of new, urgent, global conversations and the turning of words into deeds at every level and in every sector. Those conversations are ones which I, as President, look forward to supporting.
The 2030 Agenda set out integrated goals and targets and the pledge of world leaders was that they would “Leave No One Behind”.
On UN End Poverty Day on 17th October 2015 I spoke on behalf of the Irish people, when I said:
“ ‘Leave No One Behind’ is a central principle of the Agenda 2030 Goals and we are, above all else, called upon to re-forge a commitment to the inherent and universal dignity of every member of the human family.”
The assumption of our responsibilities in these matters is one important part of the shared project of delivery of a Real Republic. A real republic requires a wide embrace, inclusive of all its members, in our case, all of our Irish from different generations including those who are abroad, and it must be generous in its reach. It is perhaps best expressed as an invitation to a shared public world where the common weal of humanity is accepted as one of the well-springs for transacting past, present and future.
The good news is that here in Ireland our rising generation of the young are interested in these issues. Tá fís nua faoí sheóil acu. They are moving past models of insatiable consumption and are forging different paths to personal and collective fulfilment, including a new vision of a shared culture, one that draws on tradition but is open to culture as a process, to diverse contemporary expression of the self and others in an enhanced public world.
They have rejected the undermining of democracy by xenophobia and hate in so many places and have replied by calling for the wider and deeper democracy, to which I have referred, for a real freedom that is inclusive. They have rejected cynicism, have chosen political engagement in the public world and have chosen to be agents of ethical change, to make the possibilities of hope a reality.
For example, our young people are asking, why is there an escalation in competing military arsenals with all the abuse and misuse of human, scientific and technological capacity that is involved, capacities and resources that should be directed towards supporting society and sustainability? They see a future as defined by ethics, philosophy and creativity as the kind of future to which science and technology should be called to assist.
At global level conflicts are growing, cohesion informed by even the most basic values of co-operation is being made fragile. It is in this context that Ireland’s voice is so important.
It will over the next seven years be necessary to reaffirm Ireland’s commitment to peace-building and multilateralism as defining marks of our foreign policy, and one of our greatest strengths. Our tradition of a diplomacy grounded in normative principles rather than the constraints of narrow interests, has served us well in the world.
Since we first joined the League of Nations – a centenary we will soon mark – and throughout our time in the United Nations, Ireland has won international respect through our work on peace-building, from disarmament to our leadership in addressing consequences of colonisation and the priority we have placed on humanitarian and human rights concerns.
We can, and must, be advocates for the inclusion of diverse peoples, traditions, and belief systems in a peaceful world assisted by strong multi-lateral institutions, themselves supported by a deeper global consciousness, one derived from the irreducible rights of human dignity. One where we can recognise the complexities of history while coming together to address common global challenges.
The work of ethical memory and the new tasks of imagination sit side by side. It was important, earlier on this special day, to privilege the duty of respectful memory, especially for all those descendants and relatives of those who lost their lives in the first of those two World Wars that marked the previous century; that First World War that cost so many of the lives of a young generation, and devastated families across Europe.
As we mark Armistice Day, which brought a partial end to that terrible war, there are contemporary questions that must not be avoided, what are the risks now we must ask, a century later, if we allow diplomacy and the negotiation of difference to be neglected in favour of a language of domination and weapons of war?
As to memory itself, one of the challenges we in Ireland will face in the next seven years will be our public, formal and scholarly remembering of important change-making, change-inducing, events which, while shared, were experienced differently, and are subject to competing constructions in the present.
As we come together for these tasks of addressing the What and How of what is to be remembered, let us recognise that what is involved is much more than the fixing of a story, or the reconciliation of competing versions or struggles to colonise collective memory. It is about our transacting of the past in such a way that any wrong, or perceived wrong, does not rob us of capacity in the present, or block our possibilities of a shared future ethically envisaged.
Above all, we must not re-open wounds, but yet we must get sufficiently close to acknowledge those scars that tell us of the depth of hurt experienced and the fragility of the healing achieved. Any false amnesia obscures rather than assists. However, choice of distance will be an important act of judgment, one that will decide what is an act of healing, what might constitute a needless provocation.
If we are generous as to narratives, respectful of complexity, the benefit can be in the acquiring of a capacity from such a release of an imaginative ethic of memory, as will enable us to fledge new arrows that together we can release towards a shared future.
Muintir na hÉireann, I have said that a real republic requires a wide embrace – generous, inclusive, moved by an empathy that sees difference or diversity not as sources of division but as a strengthening of our social fabric and potential sources of an ever-deeper richness in friendship, mutuality, possibility, recognising transcendent concerns and rooted in a shared humanity. Empathy can and must inform our relations with neighbours near and far.
One of our deepest and most complex relationships is that with our closest neighbour. When I visited the United Kingdom in 2014, I spoke of our nations as “Ar Scáth a Chéile” – living in each other’s shadow and shelter. This is something which will remain true, whatever political changes the near future might bring, and the Presidency can continue to play a crucial role in sustaining positive relationships between our peoples in challenging circumstances.
There is a power in placing empathy alongside participation, solidarity and creativity at the heart of policy and action.
These are values which, for example, will inform the three special initiatives I plan to deliver over the coming years. Participation and Transformation, Samhláiocht agus an Náisúin (Imagination and the Nation) and Shared Island, Shared Ireland.
Much as with those projects I initiated in my previous presidency – Being Young and Irish, The Ethics Initiative and Glaoch which continue to bear fruit, I believe that my three new initiatives will offer frame and forum for exciting discussion and transformative thinking.
Transformation and participation takes work, requires courage and determination. It is about how we engage and interact with each other, how we speak to each other in a way that is that is open yet respectful of difference.
These values are ones we may be able to recall from traditions, but if not, they must be brought into being, renewed. There are decencies that are lodged in the heart of our Irishness, when it is expressed at its best, are surely among our greatest resources.
Those decencies are the ones that urge us to spring to respond to each other’s vulnerabilities, to see the merit of enhancing each other’s capacities, of encountering and sharing care and love, of working together for common benefit in a public world that we share.
There are some contemporary cultural influences that may be dismissive of any responsibility towards the needs, opinions or experience of others, and there can, in too many parts of our shared discourse be too much emphasis on division and domination rather than reflection or understanding. These are tendencies we must not allow to take root. They, if unchecked, can undermine the warmth of our Irishness and stifle those decencies of the heart that have enhanced our lives, filled our imagination, and contributed so much to our reputation and experience.
It is important that we seek to reach always for the best of ourselves, and the best of what we might become, and that we allow that to guide our collective ambition for our country
During the course of this presidency, alongside those commemorations I spoke of earlier, we will also be marking some important moments of hope and idealism which, even in their recall, can be emancipatory. The time between the Election of 1918 and the War of Independence offered, for example, a space for idealistic anticipation of what freedom might yield, of how independence might be defined.
It was, for example, an honourable, wide and inclusive version of Republicanism that was reflected in the emancipatory and egalitarian language of The Democratic Programme of the First Dáil in January 1919.
Among the principles enunciated were that: -
“It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being 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.”
Let us celebrate the fact that we now can renew that idealism through new moments of vision-making, drawing on the power and imagination of an educated, intellectually curious people, a people who root their ethics not merely in reason but above all in the instincts of the heart. Let us celebrate that we have this capacity in our people and taking stock of our circumstances let us approach the next seven years with energy and enthusiasm, bringing ár lán dhícheall to our work of building together what may come to be seen as a Real and beautiful Republic of inclusivity, creativity, imagination, love and indeed joy, a joy that is shared, for that too is part of what it is to truly participate.
Muintir na hÉireann, I thank you again from my heart. This is your presidency and I will work for you and with you towards a future of equality, participation, inclusion, imagination, creativity, and sustainability. It is Together that we go forward.
As lámha a chéile a mhairimíd.
Arís, muintir na hÉireann buíochas ó’m chroi libh, is beir beannacht.