Leabharlann na Meán


Remarks at a Garden Party for Members of the Oireachtas and Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly

Áras an Uachtaráin, 28th June 2014

Deputy First Minister,


A Cheann Comhairle, Speaker,

Distinguished guests all,

It gives Sabina and me great pleasure to welcome you all to áras an Uachtaráin – fearaim fíorchaoin fáilte roimh gach duine atá linn tráthnóna. We look forward to sharing your company for an afternoon of enjoyment, friendship and stimulating conversations, ach thar aon rud eile tá sé tábhachtach go mbeadh sibh ar bhúr shuaimhneas, scíth a ligint agus bheith céiluirach go bhfuil an Samhradh linn.

I have the greatest respect and the warmest feelings towards parliamentarians and for their work as legislators – a work of such vital importance for the shaping of our living together as a society – but also for their courage to offer ideas and service in the public space. As a former parliamentarian myself, honoured to have spent twenty-five years as a member of Dáil Éireann, and a further decade serving in Seanad Éireann, I deeply value the role of elected representatives in their practice of offering, debating, differing and reaching accommodation or consensus on the important issues of the public world.

The public world, as a space of discourse, has to be preserved as the very definition of democracy. It is an essential space shared by citizens who are free to debate in an open and pluralist manner, imagine alternatives to the ideas and practices that govern their present circumstances, and enable project their future together, in Ireland, Europe or at the global level.

Enabling citizens, through the widest and deepest education to participate in decision formation in all matters that affect their lives is a fundamental requirement of real democracy. We must also all welcome the increase in the number of women coming into politics and offer a further welcome to those representing the diversity of our communities.

To embrace politics as a vocation can, nowadays, be described as somewhat of a heroic gesture. Not only are we living at a time when institutions and seats of political power suffer from a grave crisis of legitimacy, but the deeds of politicians are also frequently met by a kind of pre-emptive cynicism that far too rarely points to constructive alternatives and, at best, manages a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of the mediocre.

The suggested superiority of what is so often claimed to be objective as a source of political authority poses another type of challenge to democracy and its representatives.  The privileging of  “expert” knowledge over democratic debate, the status accorded to unquestioned assumptions as to the ‘laws’ governing the economy, constitute, in my view, highly perilous trends for the future of our polities.

The future of democracy at every level requires its discussion not to drown in a mire of cynicism and gossip but, rather, that creativity be expressed to achieve the change we urgently need in addressing our local and global challenges.

The technical and the democratically sourced voices need not be in a contradictory or antagonistic relationship. The best normative outcomes require both. But what is instrumental must be regarded as just that, and be put in the service of what is the normative and moral will of the demos.

In the face of such challenges, all of us who have faith in a pluralist political discourse, in the vital function of democratic disputation, might best speak with critical and informed respect of the work of parliamentarians. We must not shy away from reclaiming politics – the representation of the public; the defence of citizens’ hopes and aspiration – as an important and noble activity. Neither can we be content with an appeal to changes in civil society as Habermas suggests. Systems of state and administrative systems for delivery of decisions have to change.

In April of this year, during my State Visit to the United Kingdom, I had the honour of addressing both Houses of Parliament at Westminster. To be thus invited to speak to an institution which, over the centuries, has enabled the British people to gradually find their full democratic voice, was a very moving experience.

It was also inspiring to stand in a place where, for more than a century, many hundreds of dedicated parliamentarians, in their different, and often in the fullness of their dissonant ways, represented the diverse interests and aspirations of the Irish people. Such distinguished figures as Daniel O’Connell, Thomas Kettle, and Constance Markiewicz – the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons who, of course, chose not to take her seat but, rather, to represent her constituents in the first Dáil Éireann.

I am delighted, this afternoon, to see representatives from the two parliaments on this island, the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly, meet together in friendship and mutual appreciation. I am glad to be able to recognise that this is not the only forum for your meetings and discussions, and I commend the working groups from your respective institutions for managing to give life and substance to the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association, the establishment of which had been envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement.

I wish the members of this Association well in their endeavours to advance issues of mutual interest and concern for both parts of the island. May I avail of this occasion to pay tribute to the joint Chairs of the Association, the Ceann Comhairle, Seán Barrett, and William Hay, the fair and even-handed Speaker of the Northern Irish Legislative Assembly.

Of course there remain many sensitive questions to solve in Northern Ireland – problems for which there is no easy solution, engaging as they do issues of collective identity, symbols, and the painful legacy of a fractured past. But the work of politics is always ongoing, more replete with possibilities than difficulties. We should rejoice in the length of road already travelled towards permanent and constructive peace in Northern Ireland.

In this jurisdiction too, in Europe, and globally, we are challenged to face problems needing urgent and collective action. It is through deepening democracy and active, emancipatory and pluralist politics that we will hand on our planet and our responsibilities to future generations.

May I conclude by wishing all of the parliamentarians in this room a rich and rewarding political life in the service of the citizens they represent. Sabina and I thank you again for joining us this afternoon. Whether you are here on your own, or with a family member or a friend, we hope that you are enjoying the day and the company.

On your behalf and my own, I salute the hard work, unfailing good humour and – not least – culinary skills of the staff here in Áras an Uachtaráin. Our thanks to the assistance of the Civil Defence, our friends from St. John of Gods, the Army, Captain John Dicker and the Vehicle Workshops, and the 2nd Cavalry Squadron.

I also wish to thank very warmly our talented MC this afternoon, Audrey Carville, and our fantastic entertainers: Claudia Boyle, David Brophy, Synergy, The RTÉ ConTempo Quartet, and Declan O’Rourke.

May all of you enjoy the music, the food, the gardens, and make yourself at home.

Bainigí sult as an gceol, as an mbia agus as na gairdíní, agus bígí ar bhur suaimhneas!