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Speech at a Reception to Celebrate May Day

Áras an Uachtaráin, Wednesday, 1st May, 2019

Tá míle fáilte romhaibh go léir ag Áras an Uachtaráin ar an lá speisialta seo, ar an lá a chuireann muid ceiliúradh ar bun i gcuimhne ról tábhachtach gluaiseachtaí lucht oibre ar fud na cruinne.

[You are all most welcome here today to Áras an Uachtaráin on this day special day, a day when we honour and commemorate the important role of organised labour movements across the globe.]

It is a time when we remember all those who have marched, fought for and stood in solidarity with their colleagues, with their fellow citizens, and with people all over the world who have struggled against inequality and against so many forms of exclusion.

It is inspiring and indeed a great source of hope in the best sense as I look around the room and see so many young people gathered here today who have already taken up, or are willing to take up, the baton, to face new challenges with the same commitment and courage as those who have given us as their legacy, the fine and generous tradition within democracy that is trade unionism. 

The promotion of a more inclusive society must be a cornerstone of any true democracy. A society that is truly equal is one that recognises the fundamental dignity of each and every member and the valuable contribution in so many diverse ways that we can all make in strengthening and supporting the society of which we are a part.

Today’s event is one that I hope will contribute in a meaningful way t0 the national conversation we need on how we can achieve an enhanced participation and transformation within Irish society – an occasion that I hope will ignite debate amongst you on the future shape of our workplaces and of the wider culture in which they will operate. As young people, your voice is critical to such debate. 

Your vision, your creative energy and your capacity to imagine a better world will be vital forces in navigating a way forward towards achieving a society that is ethical, just, respectful of all its members and genuinely entitled to claim the status of a democracy. A society that denies such values is neither inevitable or acceptable of being changed or replaced by the efforts of those who want democracy vindicated and deepened. It is a long journey, but one that your efforts can shorten for your fellow workers.

During my first term as President I established the ‘Being Young and Irish’ initiative to listen to the views, concerns and ideas of a new generation that would be critical to the crafting of a new Ireland. Those who participated emphasised the importance to them of such values as solidarity, equality, inclusion, pluralism, freedom of thought and expression. 
Building on that I went on to initiate the President’s Ethics Initiative as a deliberative process which could map out the issues that need to be addressed and the types of changes that need to occur in pursuance of that better Ireland.

We are now at a further and most important phase where ideas and concepts must be harnessed to real action if we are to bring about real transformation and if we are to construct, together, a society that will be inclusive, equal and shaped to accommodate and cherish all its citizens in all their circumstances and all their vulnerabilities.

Young people and their active participation will be integral to the writing of this next chapter of our nation’s story. Already there has been much reassuring evidence that there is, on this Island, a real will amongst young citizens to achieve equality and to become consciously involved in directing change both at home and across our wider global society.

Earlier this year Irish schoolchildren raised their voices in union with teenagers across the world to protest inaction on climate change, inspired by 15-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg who has now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Your work will require courage, something I feel you have in abundance. A few short days ago I joined many hundreds of other mourners at the funeral of twenty-nine-year-old Lyra McKee in Belfast. While mourning her tragic death we were also celebrating the life of a young woman whose legacy will be a profound one; a woman who, in the words of a friend, “embodied a future of finding commonality, enjoying difference in others”. What she has left as part of her legacy is the gift of courage.

Achieving equality must never be misunderstood as being about the creation of opportunities for the individual at the expense of collective and individual rights. That is the fundamental difference between a liberal and a republican version of rights. So often, it is those who are most vulnerable and marginalised who are excluded from discussion, participation and decision making, and denied the voice that will allow their needs to be recognised during the formation of social policies. Equal weight must be given to both the integrity of the individual and the integrity of the community. 

Your efforts are necessary in the face of a threatening tide of reactions, of a new version of extreme individualism that challenges collective welfare, that seeks to exploit and develop war among the poor and excluded. 

In recent years, countries across Europe have seen a rise in electoral support for political parties declaiming an extreme, exclusionary message. 

Refugees, immigrant communities and other minority groups are increasingly viewed as a threat to the rights of the majority and many achievements by those who have fought tirelessly for human rights are under threat by a new generation of extremists who view those universal rights as a threat to their own individual rights, which they demand be unregulated, free from any social obligation of a collective kind. They seek a limited role for the State, an ever more extended realm within which unacceptable market forces can flow. 

The freedom it proposes is a freedom from social responsibility, a freedom to exploit and accumulate without accountability.
Ethical societies can only grow from ethical communities, and ethical workplaces are a fundamental part of such communities. Unfortunately, the centrality of individualism of which I speak has, in recent years, had its own corrosive effect on our society. Many workers have been reduced to tradeable units of labour in workplaces which now shape themselves solely around the economic requirements and demands of the employer. Such workplaces refute the concept of “decent work” based on a holistic understanding of work as a source of personal dignity and freedom, family stability, prosperity in the community and democratic flourishing. 

The outward manifestations of this – the chronic job insecurity, the stretching of the working day beyond contracted and paid hours, the use of technology to erode the lines between work and home has insidiously and profoundly impoverished the lives of individuals, their families and the communities denied the participation and input of so many of their members.

What must concern us all in terms of its threat to democracy itself is what we have also witnessed across Europe in recent years, a slow but continuous decline in trade union membership, with many younger workers unaware that existing rights and such securities as there are were secured as a result of the many battles that unions have had to fight. The important benefits they have achieved did not fall from the sky. Those early trade unionists played a major role in building and securing democracy in their encouraging of debate and their offering of new visions and articulations in the pursuit of fairer and more just societies. 

Ireland’s tradition of trade unionism is a long and proud one, with great iconic moments such as the Great Lockout of 1913. Across the intervening decades generations of Irish workers have continued to fight to protect the interests of Ireland’s working men and women. So many of the benefits and rights that workers and their families enjoy today have been won through the time, energy and effort of the union leaders, union representatives and union members who have negotiated and, when necessary, taken action, often at personal cost, to ensure fairer and better workplaces and societies.

Is gné bhunúsach é ceardchumannachas de shochaí rannpháirteach, agus tá sé riachtanach go mbíodh na ceardchumainn láidir agus réabhlóideach. Inniu, casann muid oraibhse, glún úr oibrithe agus gníomhaithe, chun obair comhoibritheach a dhéanamh i gcoinne leithcheal i bhfoirmeacha éagsúla, sna hionad oibre, sa tsochaí agus ar fud an domhan.

[Trade Unionism is a vital component for a truly participative society, and it is imperative that trade unions be strong, progressive and revolutionary in their adapting to new conditions. Today we look to you, a new generation of workers and union activists, to continue to take collegiate action in fighting against discrimination in its many forms, in the workplace, in our society and in societies across the globe.] 

You are all here today because you are, as young people, activists who have already demonstrated your commitment to be drivers of change, being, as Raymond Williams put it – “Being the arrow, not the target”. 

By working to create more inclusive workplaces you have recognised that decent and inclusive rights bearing workplaces provide a strong base for the creation of decent societies but can only be achieved by those who have the moral courage, the well-informed views, and insight to work collectively for full equality and inclusion. 

You represent a wide range of unions and groups, across all sectors, that will be at the forefront of efforts to place human dignity and universal solidarity at the centre of our society. That is a challenge that will encompass the requirement to de-carbonise our economy, to halt and reverse the destruction of the natural world; the imperative to welcome all those who have come to our shores in search of safety, security and a better life; and the necessity for just and sustainable development. It is also a challenge that will determine whether our concept of work will grow and develop into a generous one that encompasses the individual, the family and the community. 

May I say how pleased I am that we have been joined by members of the Irish Second Level Students’ Union and take this opportunity to commend you for all you do to enable each and every student to reach their full potential and realise all of their possibilities. 

If we are to achieve the transformations that are now urgently required, and transformation is one of the pillars of my second term, we need the engagement of young citizens unafraid to question the status quo, to reject the easy option of ‘going with the flow’, to ask the difficult questions that will change the tenor of a discussion while also valuing the capacity to listen to alternative opinions. 

It is so important, therefore, that our younger generation leave formal education equipped with the skills to question and critique decisions made by individuals and institutions in positions of power and authority, ensuring such decisions are ethical and based on fairness. 

Our schools’ curricula reflect the kind of humanity our society seeks and nurtures. The introduction of philosophy into our Secondary Schools’ curriculum has been a most welcome development. May I also suggest, yet again as I have before, that fiscal and economic literacy would place citizens in a position to interrogate and examine all the connections between economy, society and the State – to understand how we must adapt our spaces and systems to ensure they enable and support inclusion. An inclusion test in domestic legislation and a poverty reduction test at home and abroad is a worthwhile aim.

So, on this May Day let us all commit together to play our part in removing the obstacles that stand between so many of our people and their full participation in society. 

Caithfimid ar fad oibriú as lámha a chéile chun sochaí a chruthú de réir riachtanais ár gcomhshaoránaigh, ag cuir in áireamh éagsúlacht a gcuid meoin agus a gcuid taithí.

[Let us resolve to craft and shape a society around the needs of all our fellow citizens in all their diversity of experiences and perspectives.]

The challenge of achieving decent work and all it entails will be one of the defining struggles of the coming decades that will unite workers in all generations and all over the world. 

All of you here today, are the future of the trade union movement, and you will be central to that defining struggle. I encourage you to use this occasion today in the Áras to form new bonds and connections between each other, to learn about the work being done by the different groups amongst you and to commit to working in solidarity to reclaim an understanding of work as the foundation for the achievement of other human rights and a strong base for a life of dignity, fulfilment and flourishing.

Finally, I would like to thank all those who have made today such a special experience and for enabling us to have such a celebratory occasion - 
Our entertainers – Fairplé – comprising Eoin Dignam (Fiddle Player) – from Meath, tutored by renowned fiddle player Antóin Mac Gabhann and studying a Masters degree at Trinity College; Alannah Thornburgh (Harp) – from Mayo – also performs with her band ‘Alfi’ recent winners of the Molloy Award at The Trip to Birmingham Tradfest 2018;
and Joanne Cusack (Button Accordionist) – from Swords, Co. Dublin currently researching for PhD on gender studies and Irish traditional music while lecturing at Maynooth University; the Civil Defence first-aiders, and of course the staff here at the Áras, who have all worked so hard to make today a success.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.