Media Library


Speech at the Social Justice Week, NUI Maynooth

Speech by President Michael D. Higgins at the Social Justice Week NUI Maynooth Monday, 13th October 2014

A dhaoine uaisle,

A mhaca léinn, a fhoirne acadúil, a chairde,

[Ladies and gentlemen,

Students, academic staff, friends,]

It is a great pleasure for me to be here at NUI Maynooth to open Social Justice Week 2014. Social Justice Week is an opportunity to consider the issues facing the global community from the perspective of justice and human rights, and an opportunity to reflect on our ethical relationship with those issues.

The schedule for this year’s Week contains a broad and stimulating calendar of events on many of the most pressing issues facing the contemporary world:

the threat of disease, including the current Ebola crisis in West Africa;
the impact of climate change and the growing problem of food security;
the position of migrants, including victims of human trafficking; and
the experience of war and displacement in Syria and in other regions.

This well-chosen programme communicates the scale of the many grave challenges facing humanity – challenges which pose profound ethical questions to our international bodies, to our states, and to us all as individuals.

At the international level, as an active and engaged member of the United Nations and other multilateral bodies, Ireland has always seen itself as having an important role in the international response to contemporary conflicts and disasters. Since joining the United Nations in 1955, Ireland has championed the vital role of the UN in the promotion and protection of human rights and in the promotion of peace. Over the intervening decades we have played a leading part in UN peace-keeping efforts, including the current deployment of Irish troops in the Golan Heights. We have also been at the forefront of international efforts in areas such as nuclear non-proliferation, development aid and humanitarian and emergency response missions.

Our commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights in our foreign policy has been recognised by our election, for the first time, to the UN Human Rights Council in November 2012. This was a major endorsement of Ireland’s international standing, and in particular, of our advocacy of human rights across the globe. This election reflected, too, the esteem in which Ireland is held as a UN member, as a champion of the values which underpin the UN, and as an independent voice in the multi-lateral community.

Among those issues to which Ireland has traditionally attached priority at the UN level has been the need to support those displaced by conflict and war. At the current moment, we are witnessing historical levels of displacement in several regions of Africa, in the Middle East and in parts of Asia. This is a difficult moment for diplomacy: the international community is facing painful questions about the failure by our institutions to prevent or resolve divisions that are leading to military conflicts.

In renewing the diplomatic efforts of the international community, we must ensure that the immediate needs of the victims of these conflicts are our first concern. The resulting movements of people require coordinated international responses and thus far, it is clear that the response has been inadequate.

As a country with a long history of emigration, often forced, I believe that Ireland can and should play a role in the international response to the various refugee crises unfolding in these regions. In addition to our diplomatic advocacy on these issues in New York and Geneva, the Irish Government also has already played a direct positive role through our own aid interventions in the affected areas. Irish Aid is rightly regarded as among the most progressive European aid programmes working in Africa and many of our funded projects engage directly with refugees and displaced persons through Irish NGOs such as GOAL, Trócaire and Concern who are working at the frontline of conflicts such as those in South Sudan and Somalia.

In November, I will be visiting Africa for the first time as President – I have been many times as a parliamentarian. My visit will coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of the Ethiopian Famine of 1984 and the broadcasting by BBC of shocking images of starvation which mobilised the largest ever public response to a humanitarian disaster. For many in the wealthy global North, those images of desperation represent the dominant image of Africa – victimised by failed governance, weak and dependant on aid and assistance.

Ireland’s progressive aid policy has been based on the objective of achieving food security in the region by strengthening structures for governance at the local level and on sustainable models of development. This work by Irish Aid and Irish aid agencies is continuing the legacy of Irish missionaries which stretches back over a century. As President of Ireland, I recognise the immense contribution of our aid agencies and aid workers; as well as the work of our peacekeeping missions in the region.

However, our responsibility does not exist only at the external level. We must also ensure that there is coherence and authenticity in how we relate our international policy to our domestic action.  In this context, the moral question of how we treat “the other”, “the stranger”, in our community must be a central concern, not only for  our agencies operating overseas, but for government at home and for all of us concerned with justice and human rights.

Just over a week ago, when I opened the new offices of the Irish Refugee Council and the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland, I made that connection between our duty to support displaced persons abroad and at home. The arrival on these shores of people who are fleeing war and persecution, the movement of workers and families who are escaping destitution and poverty are global issues, in the addressing of which Ireland has a moral duty to play its part, both through our role in the international community, and in our laws, policies and practices at the national level.

When we consider the message which you have attached to Social Justice Week 2014 – A Call to Action – I would suggest that, coupled with support for foreign policy, we must at the same time reflect on how these great issues impact on us at the national level and in our daily lives. By your participation in this Social Justice Week, each of you here is expressing your commitment to the cause of human rights. I know that many of you are also involved in the many NGOs and voluntary organisations which are so active in this university.

Trí bhur mbearta, tá sibh ag réaladh bhur ndíograise chun na dúshláin eiticiúila atá romhainn ar fad mar saoránaigh domhanda gníomhacha a fhreagairt.

[Through your actions, you are manifesting an enthusiasm for meeting the ethical challenges we all face as active global citizens.]

My first initiative as President of Ireland was “Being Young and Irish”, which involved a process of consultation with young Irish people about how they saw themselves as the creators of future Ireland. I was greatly heartened, though not surprised, to see at the end of that process the high priority afforded to international affairs and global justice by the young people who took part in “Being Young and Irish”. I was also encouraged to see that young people are determined to engage in public life and public debate – to reclaim the public space from those who would seek to reduce questions of economic and social policy to the level of technocratic administration.

In November of last year, I launched “The President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative”, with the aim of stimulating a national conversation about the values by which we wish our society to be defined. In the first phase of that Initiative, our universities, including Maynooth, are hosting a series of more than fifty seminars and events on subjects of ethical inquiry across all academic disciplines.

The academic community has a vital role to play in developing the new intellectual tools by which we will find resolutions to these great challenges of our time. We are all of us living with the consequences of failed economic models and flawed theories of development and progress. As we rebuild our economies and confront environmental degradation, unprecedented inequality and widespread disengagement with our democratic institutions, it is clear that new models of growth, sustainability and work are needed. It will be for the current generation of students and young academics to fashion those models.

In addition to this academic phase of my Ethics Initiative, a second phase of the Initiative is now underway, involving civil society, who also have a key part to play.  For example, as part of that phase of the Initiative, Dóchas – the umbrella body for our aid agencies – will be hosting a national process of reflection on Ireland’s relationship with development and the developing world, recognising that global justice is a key ethical issue for our people. At the same time, organisations such as the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, the Wheel, and the Congress of Trade Unions will also be undertaking their own processes of debate on ethical questions such as poverty, homelessness, international development, and the nature of work.

Again, this combination of the global and local reflects the need to marry the ethics of our international engagement to the ethics of our domestic policy – a need that is about more than an aspiration to consistency, but is grounded in the universality of human rights among all of the peoples of the planet.

In areas such as trade policy, environmental policy and agriculture policy, Ireland will face important questions in the years ahead about how we can ensure that our domestic policies match our international aspirations and hopes. Our migration policies also must confront this challenge of ensuring that respect for the migrant and the vulnerability of those who are displaced infuses how we act at home as well as what we do far from our own shores.

So I believe that the call of Social Justice Week is a practical invitation to students and staff of the university to reflect on Ireland’s place in the world and its relationship with other regions and societies; but also to meet the responsibilities each of us has as an educated and privileged person to engage with issues of justice and injustice in our academic work, in our public lives as active citizens, and in all of our daily economic and social actions.

Guím gach rath ar bhur léinn, ar bhur ngníomhaíochas, agus ar bhur saolta poiblí; agus táim ag súil leis an dul chun cinn a dhéanfaidh sibh a fheiceáil agus sibh ag obair chun Éire níos córa agus chun domhain níos córa a chruthú.

[I wish you well in your studies, in your activism, and in your public lives; and I look forward to witnessing the contribution that you will all make to building a more just Ireland and a more just world.]