Speech marking the 175th Anniversary of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul
Dublin Convention Centre, 13th April, 2019
Speech to be delivered by President Michael D. Higgins
Marking the 175th Anniversary of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul
Dublin Convention Centre, 13th April, 2019
Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le Kieran Stafford as ucht an fáilte agus a cuid focail flaithiúil, agus comhghairdeas ó chroí a dhéanamh libh ar ceiliúradh 175 bliain an Cumann Naomh Uinseann de Pól. Tá mé fíor-bhródúil a bheith anseo, agus is breá liom an deis seo a fháil labhairt leis an foireann, na hoibrithe deonacha, agus gach duine a bhfuil baint acu le Cumann Naomh Uinseann de Pól atá anseo linn inniu.
[May I begin by thanking Kieran Stafford for his generous words of welcome and by offering my warmest congratulations on the 175th anniversary of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Ireland. I am very honoured to be here and I welcome this opportunity to speak to the staff, volunteers and all those involved in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul who are here today.]
And above all, of having an opportunity to acknowledge the tremendous work the Society of St. Vincent de Paul does, week-in week-out, in supporting people, communities and disadvantaged groups all over Ireland.
With over 1,200 Conferences and 11,000 volunteers working in 8 regions, this is indeed an exceptional network of solidarity, compassion and care providing support to those in need.
I would like to pay tribute to each and every one of you for your dedication and your commitment to others. Volunteering in the special way you do with empathy and compassion is one of the greatest gifts a human being can bring to society and it is a gift that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has given to people in Ireland in a special way since it was first established in 1844.
St. Vincent de Paul is one of the largest voluntary charitable organisations in this country. The Society reaching out as it does to over 130,000 people each year. In the course of your history you have helped people in need in a range of circumstances that includes a Famine, a Civil War, a War of Independence, two World Wars, numerous economic recessions and in the ordinary challenges of weekly life. You do so in a way that gives primacy to the dignity of those who seek your help, offering assistance, advice and solidarity as well as practical and financial supports.
The aim of your philosophy is to empower and maintain the self-respect of those you support while assisting them towards long-term self-sufficiency. You achieve this by building relationships of friendship, trust enabled by the assurance of confidentiality, and of course without judgement. In doing so, you make a difference, each and every day.
The philosophy which you draw from is contained powerfully in the words of your founder Frederic Ozanam:
“Help honours, when to the bread that nourishes, it adds the visit that consoles, the advice that enlightens, the friendly shake of the hand that lifts up the sinking courage; when it treats the poor man with respect not only as an equal but as a superior, since he is suffering what perhaps we are incapable of suffering;”
Frederick Ozanam was a powerful spiritual figure who through an engagement with ethics and society has left as a legacy of the spirit and the heart, in the most practical way, an organisation that not only assists, but stands in solidarity with, the many people who use its services. Frederic Ozanam’s vision for society one must never forget was a radical and forward thinking one, and one that has been developed, expanded and adjusted to changing circumstances by the members over the years.
The Nobel Laureate, Economist Amartya Sen pushed to define equality, said it means for a citizen “participating fully in one’s society without shame”.
I believe that a real republic is one where every person is encouraged and supported to participate fully and where every person and community is treated with dignity and respect and this is so well reflected in the nature of your work with its focus on person-to-person contact. The liberal order may correctly speak of personal freedoms. In a republic more is sought – collective freedom from scarcity, or indeed deprivation of the basic necessities of a life lived with dignity.
How we meet and speak to each other does matter. We live at a time where more and more of our interactions with others are encountered in a digital space, be it laptops, tablets or phones. There is no denying the practical contribution of the digital world, particularly for those who are increasingly time poor and who may struggle to balance work and family commitments within a day that is never quite long enough. That is a positive contribution but it also brings challenges.
Despite all of the technological advances, human contact is something that defines us, be it through conversations, face to face interactions, simply taking the time to have a chat. When a person is at their lowest and may even be in despair, human contact is more important than ever.
Institutions who, in the past helped and in turn who were trusted and supported, need to bear the relationships that was involved and its importance in mind as they take decisions be it as to the forms of service or location.
No narrow logic of surplus achievement should defeat humanity itself or empathy.
I know that home visitation is at the core of your work and that is a core strength of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Your visiting people in their homes, your conversation with them, your listening to them, your being with them is precious. Most importantly, you give them often one of your precious resources – time. In doing so, you acknowledge them and their challenges, you recognise that they are important and you show them the respect they deserve as equals.
The wider and expanding work of the Society offers members the opportunity to engage with their communities, drawing on their diverse skills, helping to combat social isolation and social exclusion.
This includes public finance. The St. Vincent DePaul contribution to the budget debates has over the years been one of the more impressive in its detail and professionalism, as well as its ethical emphasis.
The resource and day-care centres; emergency homeless services and social housing; holiday centre and prison visitor centres and, of course, your network of shops, over 220 of them which are so familiar to Irish people, all provide opportunities for people to connect with each other and with their wider community. All of these services are made possible by you, the staff and volunteers of St. Vincent de Paul, and the people that support you and that you support.
I have seen this at first hand. When I visited Ozanam House Resource Centre not so far from here in Dublin’s North Inner City in December 2017, I could see that it was a space that impressively, and with genuine warmth, represented the diversity of the community and its myriad needs and interests, that it is a place where new possibilities are given an opportunity to flourish and grow; a place of welcome and warmth that reaches out to all members of the local community in order to bring about positive change at a local level.
There can be no doubt that there is a key role for voluntary organisations in tackling poverty and social exclusion, for example, by the very recognition of new forms of poverty, by identifying new solutions to the difficult problems we face as a society, through advocacy, and in contributing to the debate on the kind of society we should wish to achieve.
I hope that the SVP will continue to provide invaluable contributions to this debate as to the extent of universal provision, with insights learned from the many years of providing services to those most in need in our society, individuals and families, young and old.
Neart atá ag Cumann Naomh Uinseann de Pól ná go nascann sibh bhur gcuid oibre réadúil le fís atá agaibh den tsochaí. Mar sin, tá sibh ag cuidiú le forbairt beartais shóisialta agus an stáit leasa, ag aithint bearnaí sa chóras, ag lorg go líontar na bearnaí sin, ag freagairt na riachtanais, agus i dteannta sin ag cuir le chruth an córas féin. Dar liomsa is é aighneacht roimh-buiséid Cumann Naomh Uinseann de Pól ar ceann de na aighneachtaí is dea-ullmhaithe, bíonn an taighde iontu gan locht agus bíonn siad praiticiúil agus indéanta.
[It is one of the strengths of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that you connect your work on the ground with a wider vision for society. In so doing, you are making a valuable contribution to the development of social policy and the necessary role of the welfare state. By your helping to identify gaps in the system, your advocating for their removal, and above all, of course, responding to immediate need, but I doing this you are also helping to shape the system itself.
In your regarding it as inadequate to merely address the immediate effects of the challenges within our society,your organisation seeks to tackle the fundamental causes of why poverty can reproduce itself from one generation to another.
The St Vincent de Paul has a strong and well-developed awareness of the wider policy challenge, which is to build an inclusive society, where poverty is reduced, social participation is increased and human rights are enhanced.
There is nothing inevitable about gross inequalities, structural poverty or a society of glaring gaps between rich and poor that reproduces itself again and again.
Over the years the Society has shared that knowledge and experience it has gathered with governments, providing insight into the lived experiences of those in need, and working towards the development of policies to protect and support the most vulnerable in our society.
The dynamic and evolving nature of the Society’s work as it responds to the changing needs of Irish society is reflected in a particular way in the work that you do with young people. Earlier I mentioned the digital world and it is this digital world that is connecting our young people, introducing them to new ideas, empowering ethical insights, and encouraging them to give voice to such views. And we have seen the effects of this in Irish society, particularly in recent years, for example in their support for sustainability and an adequate response to climate change, global poverty, migration and human rights. The Young SVP development programme can be such a powerful tool to introduce young people to the concept of social justice and help them to identify and engage in positive, meaningful social action.
‘The meaning of freedom’ in a Republic, I stress again, is wider than any limited version of freedom that is based on Private Rights. Achieving a Republic requires freedom to be defined socially, taking the needs of citizens as a society into account.
It is important for us to encourage the next generation to develop their compassion and understanding for their fellow citizens, to learn how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and, most importantly, to welcome them with their energy and enthusiasm. They will be the next generation of volunteers, building on the work that you have done so far and continue to do.
Many people, individuals and families, face a myriad of both old and new challenges in today’s Ireland. Their lives are affected by low income and the effects of debt, unemployment, educational disadvantage, poor health, relationship breakdown, bereavement, addiction, violence, loneliness, disabilities, overwhelming caring responsibilities and other challenges.
Through your work, you, more than others, are all very aware of the pressure on families. You know at first hand the challenges people face in trying to cope with all the difficulties that poverty can bring, and in trying to achieve a decent standard of living for themselves and their families, and you know the supports they need to enable them to meet these challenges.
Despite the measures that may suggest an improvement in our economy, there are still too many people in Ireland struggling, too many living in consistent poverty, to many, even deepening inequalities from birth to death. This has to change.
We need to work to make Ireland a more equal place to live and to work; where caring for each other and our children, older people and people with disabilities is a core value and supported; where individuals, families and communities can participate fully in work and society; and where a strong economy helps to support the kind of society that we wish to live in.
This 175th anniversary of the establishment of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in Ireland provides a timely opportunity to reflect on what has been achieved; to learn the lessons from the past; and to embark on a conversation as to how the future will be shaped, a conversation that can lay the foundations for the kind of society that we all aspire to have.
Looking out at the people here at the Convention Centre today, I see people who listen, who care, who seek to understand without judgement, who recognise that any of us can fall on hard times, that none of us are immune to illness, sadness, difficult circumstances or feelings of hopelessness and despair.
That offers so much hope as to the society that we aspire to and can achieve and maintain in Ireland, one that is inclusive; one that is caring and compassionate; one that reaches out to those in need of assistance; one that values everyone in that society, regardless of age, gender, nationality or religion.
Mar fhocal scoir, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh arís as an cuireadh caoin a bheith anseo inniu, agus déanaim comhghairdeas libh go léir, agus le gach duine comhcheangailte leis an gCumann Naomh Uinseann de Pól as an obair tábhachtach, úimléideach agus luachmhar a rinneadh le 175 bliana anuas. Guíonn mé gach rath oraibh sa todhchaí, agus tá mé ag tnúth leis an obair riachtanach seo a leanúint le chéile, chun ár sprioc coiteann a bhaint amach, deireadh a chuir le bochtanas agus eisiamh sóisialta.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
[May I once again thank you for your kind invitation to be here today and I congratulate you and everyone associated with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on the important, meaningful and valued work over the last 175 years. I wish you well for the future and I look forward to continuing this vital work to achieve our shared goal of the eradication of poverty and social exclusion.
Thank you very much]