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Speech by President Higgins at the Launch of the Presidency Seminar “Being Young and Irish”

Áras an Uachtaráin, 25th May 2012

I want to welcome you, most warmly, here to Áras an Uachtaráin today as we initiate a project that I outlined last November, at my inauguration. I said in my inauguration speech that as part of my Presidency I would host a number of Presidency seminars which would reflect and explore themes that were important to the shared life of the Irish people. The first of these seminars will focus on the theme of “Being Young and Irish.”

I also said on that occasion that we must together build a new citizenship for which we need a new discourse.

We must seek to build together an active, inclusive citizenship: based on participation, equality, respect for all and the flowering of creativity in all its forms. A confident people is our hope, a people at ease with itself, a people that grasps the deep meaning of the proverb ‘ní neart go cur le chéile’ – our strength lies in our common weal – our social solidarity.

Sin iad mór–théamaí na hUachtaránachta atá curtha romham agam, agus mé lán-dóchasach go bhfuilimid ar tháirseach ré nua d’Éireannaigh, sa bhaile agus i gcéin. Ré nua ina mbeidh bunluacha na cothroime agus an chirt, agus spiorad na cruthaíochta, faoi bhláth; poblacht, a mbeidh Éireannaigh de gach aicme agus traidisiún bródúil aisti.

That is the only true basis of a real solidarity. This new citizenship must be authentic; it must be an active and participative citizenship where the views of all sections of society are given appropriate space, attention and respect. We must aim for such a transformation as will lead to institutions of the state responding to such views by developing an alternative and responsible model of our society, economy, and the connection between them.

Our aim is an Ireland where citizenship is based on participation and rights, where the value of a citizen, as carrier of those rights, is respected. In the real Republic we aim for together, the concept of citizenship readily accepts the obligations and duties to each other that citizenship involves.

Our country is at time of great challenges. We must affirm to each other that in facing those challenges, we have the ability to transform ourselves and our country and create a new Ireland where young and old can live happy, fulfilled lives in a strong and vibrant society.

I am well aware that life at the moment is difficult for many people. I am aware of the sadness, disappointment and difficulties that flow from unemployment and emigration, the impact on so many lives of intolerance and discrimination, of mental ill health issues and of suicide, and I am aware of the pressure on services in responding to those needs. I realise that this is affecting you, your friends, your family and your community.

I have promised to use my Presidency to open up channels for discussion and debate on issues of importance to all of us now and into the future, to hear your hopes and dreams, and to work together to create a new vision, an aisling, for our country.

The transformation of Ireland needs the commitment and contribution of our young people. Now more than ever we need your energy, your ideas, your ideals, your creativity, your courage. Your country needs your passion, your innovation and your vision. This initiative that I am launching today, this discussion on the kind of country that we want to create, can contribute to that transformation we seek.

Today I am starting a discussion, and inviting you to join it. “Being Young and Irish” seeks to hear the voices of young Ireland – what life is like for you; what is going well, and not so well; what you would like to change and how you think this should happen.

Change is inevitable, and conscious involvement in directing change is empowering, and very different from drifting with change. “Being the arrow, not the target” means being active not passive.

Changing our country for the better in an inclusive and creative way is possible if we work together. We need young and old, people of all backgrounds, to join forces and support each other, to work together to transform Ireland, to create a kind of Irishness we can be proud of at home and abroad. We need you to come forward, share your vision and help us to build together a real republic that provides opportunities, hope and respect for all.  In doing this we can draw on the idealism of our past but also imagine our as yet unrealized possibilities – ár féidireachtaí gan teorainn.

This generation of young people came of age during one of the most rapid social and economic transformations Ireland has ever experienced. While some commentators point, correctly and positively, to the many opportunities that still exist for them, too many young people are suffering as a result of the contraction of our economy and the complex range of factors surrounding it. Young people are invited to envisage new forms of sustainable economies and of the connection between economy and society.

Many young people today are growing up in an atmosphere where at times hope and confidence are in short supply, and occasionally they may have been given a sense that their homeland and communities cannot offer them a good future. Again too, young people are all too often viewed as a problem. Their mental health, sexual health, alcohol and drugs and unemployment issues are all that is discussed about being young and Irish. The media can at times stereotype problem ‘youths’, and young people grow into a society where they feel and are given the impression that they are unwelcome and unloved.

In response to such stereotypes, to the insignificant attention and response given to them, many are left feeling frustrated, annoyed, angry, disillusioned, and sadly, apathetic. As people grow older and gain access to finance, power and opportunity, it is possible for such people who are taking decisions to feel removed from the reality of youth culture today. Many, otherwise well-meaning, adults can end up seeing such issues as affect young people through a limiting professional or distorting nostalgic lens rather than connecting with the empathy and compassion that is required to adequately address the feelings, the suffering of young people. They often too fail to see the potential and creative capacity that young people carry within them. 

If Ireland is to really transform itself then we must accept change – an institutional change which equates respect and participation. Einstein once said you cannot fix a problem with the same mindset that created it. Transformations may be difficult at times but they can also be liberating. They do however require our participation, our combined strengths and a unified drive drawing on imagination, dedication and effort.

It makes sense, therefore, that in exploring our possibility of a new dream, a new vision, a new aisling, that we would start with our young people. Young people are often our most vulnerable citizens – depending on our support, resources, and on occasional wisdom or advice –, but they are also the source of energy, the lifeblood of our communities now and into the future. With their fresh and original thinking they can offer us courageous and new ways of looking at things. They may present us with solutions that we would have never thought of – young people who, in their turn too, will age like us, and as they do so challenge us, energise us and impress us, who like them, were once young.

Young people in Ireland have inherited a recently bruised, battered and indebted nation, yet it is also one that has a legacy of facing immense challenges including achieving political independence. I am inviting young people to join a partnership of young and old, with each playing their role in transforming ourselves and our island. By listening to its young Irish, their stories and ideas, and by involving them, Ireland has the potential to transform our society in a profound and exciting way.

This initiative focused on young people, is thus part of the journey towards a transformed Ireland; an inclusive ‘real Republic’ in a creative society that celebrates participation, active citizenship and equality. I hope it will be helpful and empowering in encountering and hearing the experiences of being young and Irish, the challenges and fears, hopes and visions, and the solutions of young people for transforming Ireland.

The central goal is to engage young people as active and reflective citizens in contemporary Ireland and to recognise, affirm and encourage them as one of the sources of wisdom in solving core social, political, economic and cultural issues confronting Ireland. 

In particular, “Being Young and Irish” wishes to:

Open up channels of participation for young people and involve them in the national discussion and debate about what kind of country we now have, what form of republic we wish to create and how it can be achieved; 

Identify, promote and celebrate original, youth-led sensitive and realisable solutions to our present conditions and proposals for a better society in the future;

Hear from young people and seek their views on the difficulties young people from diverse backgrounds are experiencing, as young and Irish people today.

The “Being Young and Irish” consultation period will run from 25th May to 29th September 2012. During that period young people aged 17 – 26 are invited to contribute practical ideas and make suggestions for the improvement of Irish society through an online consultation process and/or face to face regional seminars.

Submissions, I suggest, for example, might address the following questions:

What is your vision for Ireland? 
What can you and other young people do to achieve this? 
What else needs to happen to make your proposals possible?

Submissions can be made in narrative form, through song, of course, sign language, or poetry – in the kind of form that suits you best to express your views. There will also be an opportunity to contribute views in a number of regional consultation workshops. You can find more details on the application process on how to attend the regional workshops and the consultation questions, by going to, or by consulting the printed materials available today.

I hope you will be part of this discussion, take an active part in the discourse, use this opportunity to share your vision, your struggles, and, most importantly, your solutions to overcoming the current difficulties and obstacles and achieve that Ireland of which we can all be proud at home and abroad.

Thank you.