President launches final report of the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative

Lua 1st Fea, 2016 | 11:00
suíomh: Áras an Uachtaráin

Speech at the launch of ‘On the Importance of Ethics. A Report on the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative'

Áras an Uachtaráin, 1 February, 2016

This report is the culmination of what has been an exciting and enlivening process; an Initiative that has involved an attempt to make an intellectual journey into some of the most pressing and urgent questions facing Ireland at this time and to discover sources for a re-appraisal and a new beginning.

My own thinking was set out in a number of speeches referred to in the report.  There were eight key speeches:-


            1.         Towards an Ethical Economy - Ethics for All, Dublin City University - 11 September 2013

            2.         St. Vincent de Paul - 22 September 2014

            3.         Year of Development - 22 January 2015

            4.         Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and National Women's Council - 20 February 2015

            5.         The Edward Phelan Lecture on the Future of Work - 26 February 2015

            6.         National Seminar in Áras an Uachtaráin - 28 March 2015

            7.         The Wheel Annual Conference - 13 May 2015

            8.         Humanitarian Summit - 2 July 2015

The Initiative has, in addition, started so many discussions and debates at community and national level; urgent debates in which the public have shown an enthusiasm about how we might build in this country an inclusive republic, one in keeping with the idealism of the founders of the State.

Bhí níos mó ná  60 imeacht ar siúl mar chuid de Thionscnamh Eitice Úachtarán na hÉireann. Bhí institiúidí tríú leibhéal, eagraíochtaí neamhrialtasacha, agus pobail áitiúla i mbun reáchtála agus óstála na n-imeachtaí agus na dtionscnamh ar fud na tíre.  

[The President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative involved

(a)  over sixty events hosted in third level institutions,

(b)  events and projects run by non-governmental organisations, and (c)  events hosted and run in local communities all around the country.]

The report you have before you today conveys the scale and the richness of the wide range of activities run under the banner of the Initiative – and Chris McInerney of UL will speak in some more detail about some of those activities – but you will see accounts of international conferences, university lectures, workers’ campaigns and coffee-shop discussions.  The topics addressed ranged, for example, from what should be our response to global poverty to the failures in regulation and professional shortfalls of accounting and banking.

As is set out in the report, the Initiative was designed to stimulate discussion across all sectors of Irish society on the challenges of considering how we might live together ethically. It commenced with an invitation to Irish third level institutions to discuss and review, particularly in the light of recent institutional failures, the consequences of a decline in sources of authority and a public embracing of self above society, the principles and values by which we might wish to live together as a society.

The debate sought to involve community and non-governmental organisations and they responded generously and with enthusiasm – the Wheel, ICTU, the National Women’s Council, the Society of St Vincent De Paul and Dóchas – each of these organisations, with such wide affiliates,  explored in detail some of the key social issues facing the country in the wake of that crisis; questions such as what constitutes community solidarity, decent work, meaningful equality, what was the extent of and what reduces poverty and what would keep achieving global justice.

The debate broadened out to incorporate community conversations on how we could build, together, an ethical society.

During those conversations, new important themes emerged, and many significant problems and obstacles were identified; for example the necessity of restoring trust in public institutions;, the need to return to the language of ‘citizen’ instead of ‘customer’ ‘taxpayer’ or ‘client’;  and the consequences of returning to what I have referred to as a de-peopled version of the  economy as we move out of recession.  Again and again the importance of locating economic policy within a framework of social values that could create and sustain social cohesion came to the fore of discussions.

Tugtar le chéile torthaí roinnt mhaith de na comhráite agus an mhachnaimh sa Tuarascáil seo, baintear brí astu, cuirtear in iúl iad agus craobhscaoiltear iad do lucht éisteachta níos leithne. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh le Chris agus a chomhghleacaithe Kieran Keohane as Coláiste na hOllscoile, Corcaigh agus Ciarán Lynch as Institiúid Teicneolaíochta Luimnigh as a n-obair luachmhar agus eagarthóireacht á déanamh acu ar an tuarascáil deiridh seo. Táim cinnte de go n-aontóidh sibh go léir a bhí páirteach sa Tionscnamh go bhfuil sárobair déanta acu agus saibhreas agus raon an Tionscnaimh agus suntas a thorthaí á léiriú acu.

[This Report brings together and distills the fruits of much discourse and reflection, capturing and dispersing it to a wider audience. I want to thank Chris and his colleagues Kieran Keohane of UCC and    Ciaran Lynch of LIT for their valuable work in the editing of this final report.  I’m sure all of you who have been involved in the Initiative will agree that they have done an excellent job in reflecting the richness and range of the Initiative and the salience of its outcomes.]

A Report such as this, given its intention and process, was never intended to be considered as an end in itself. Words must not be separate from, or unconnected to, the actions necessary to effect real transformation.

So while I thank you all for coming here to Áras an Uachtaráin for the official launch of the report of the President’s Ethics Initiative, the further purpose of this morning’s event is to address the question ‘what must come next?’ 

I am happy to say that the report itself already points to a number of direct outcomes that will carry this work of reflection and debate forward. Initiatives are emerging in the universities and in society to continue the work of the Initiative and to stimulate a wider and deeper national conversation. For example, arising directly from the President’s Ethics Initiative has been the establishment of the    Centre for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Economy and Society which aims to create a structured academic programme dedicated to studying the moral underpinnings of economic and social life. This has the capacity to contribute to the restoration of pluralism in economic theory and adequacy in social policy.

The necessity to educate our young people to think critically, to question, and to look beyond the horizons of the familiar has been recognised by the forthcoming introduction of philosophy into the secondary school curriculum.

There is much intellectual work yet to be done. I hope that involvement in the President’s Ethics Initiative has perhaps re-introduced many subjects to each other, subjects such as philosophy and economic theory. But this Ethics Initiative and this report was never intended to be a purely academic exercise. Its messages are profoundly practical and profoundly political, and they must be seen in the context of a wider process of the necessary Transformation of Irish society.  If we are to build a better Ireland we must not only be clear on the obstacles to be overcome and the shape and institutional form that this better Ireland should take, but also on what actions we must all take for its construction.

When I was elected as President of Ireland in November 2011, Ireland was, as I have already said, in the depths of a great economic and social crisis. A series of profound failures – in banking, in regulation, in governance and in policy. This had prompted a great and understandable anger and sense of disillusionment among the Irish people. That was my starting point.

In my Inaugural Address, I set out an objective of beginning a process of discussion on the Transformation of Ireland from that moment of crisis and broken expectations to the Real and Inclusive Republic in which I believed, and in which I continue to believe, as so many believe, can represent the very best of our Irishness. 

During the first year of my Presidency I established the ‘Being Young and Irish’ initiative in order to listen to the views, concerns and vision of a generation that would be critical to the shaping of a new Ireland.  They emphasised such values as solidarity, equality, inclusion, pluralism, freedom of thought and expression.

As a second project, I commenced the President’s Ethics Initiative as a deliberative process which could mine into those deep-rooted issues identified as being central to the problems facing Irish society. I believe that the Ethics Initiative has succeeded in mapping out the issues that need to be addressed and the types of changes that need to occur – changes in governance, in regulation, in culture, in language, in discourse, and in education to name just some.

Now, as a new phase of transformative action must begin, Ireland is at a critical time.  On one hand, we can invoke the character of the Ireland we wish to create in a year during which we reflect and re-imagine the Republican ideals articulated a hundred years ago, invoking the values as expressed by the leaders of the Rising to create a country worthy of the title ‘Republic’.  At the same time, we have to acknowledge the international context of our action. A global development agenda has been finalised, a strategy for addressing climate change has been agreed, and we, along with our fellow global citizens, must bring a new roadmap into being for a sustainable future.

A Republic, by its very definition, cannot be a republic for some but not for others. It must be a place of inclusion and equality, where the full participation of all citizens is understood as a right, but also as a democratic duty.  Neither can any state based on principles of human rights and justice pursue its own national interests to the detriment of those with whom we share our fragile planetary home.

So, we are now on to the most testing phase in our journey of transformation, as we work to close the gap between word and deed and begin the task of building that new and better Ireland. This report is intended as a modest resource to help us undertake that process, and a key message contained within it is that each of us has a role to play as interdependent beings. 

It is surely disingenuous to talk or write about the shape of an ethical society, whilst passing on the responsibility for the creation of such a society to ‘other’ individuals and ‘other’ institutions. Transformation must extend into every corner of society; into our communities, our schools, and our workplaces; into the worlds of business and finance and public service and the arts; into the political and electoral choices which we all make; and it must encompass the needs of all our people as interdependent beings, at every stage and in every circumstance of life. 

The response to the Ethics Initiative and the high level of interest shown at all levels of society demonstrates, I believe, that there is an appetite exists among our people to take up this challenge.  There is positive momentum evident, in so many ways, at all levels of our society with so many already translating words into deeds, showing us how we can effect real and positive change.

Last month for example I spoke at an awards ceremony, here in Áras an Uachtaráin, of the Red Cross register of pledges, where the generosity of many Irish citizens has translated into concrete offers of accommodation, goods or services such as tutoring or counselling to refugees coming to our country. We also witnessed last year the great humanitarian work of our naval service as they rescued thousands of those who fled to Europe to seek refugee status. When confronted with the ethical challenge of displacement and human tragedy, so many Irish people have stood up to be counted and to play their part.

I think also of that great and instinctive sense of community solidarity that came to the fore during the recent flooding in many parts of the country.  In my work as President I am inspired every day by the magnificent volunteers working at every level of our society to help those in need and to improve their community, their country or their world. This is Ireland at its best.

Níl aon dabht ach go bhfuil an toil ann dul i mbun gníomhaíochta, caidreamh a dhéanamh agus an tsochaí a athrú ó bhonn. Is acmhainn í nach féidir a chloí.  Ní mór anois tairbhe a bhaint as an acmhainn sin, í a chur i bhfeidhm agus i ngníomh i dtreo is go ndéanfar ní hamháin ár sochaí a athshamhlú ach í a athrú ó bhonn. 

[There can be no doubt that a will to act, to engage, and to transform society exists. It is an inextinguishable resource. What must come next is the harnessing of that resource, its translation into deeds and actions that will promote not just the re-imagining, but the transformation of our society.]

Later this year, I will be launching a third and final special Initiative of my Presidency which will introduce themes aimed at how this might be accomplished both at a practical level, and at the level of consciousness and policy.

So today, as we launch the report ‘On the Importance of Ethics’, we must resolve that we will take real action to not just close a chapter on that which was not the best version of ourselves; but begin a new one, choosing to create opportunities that will invite citizens to what is a real Republic; a Republic founded on true freedom, inclusion and equality, a Republic in which we can all be participatory and proud citizens.

Thank you very much.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.