Leabharlann na Meán


Speech by President Michael D. Higgins at a State Dinner in Honour of the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Mrs. Elke Büdenbender

Áras an Uachtaráin, Wednesday, 27th October, 2021

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Your Excellency, President Steinmeier,
Frau Büdenbender [Elke],
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is such an honour to host this State Visit of His Excellency, President Steinmeier and his wife Mrs Elke Büdenbender, returning a State Visit to Germany that Sabina and I enjoyed in 2019 which had so many highlights, beginning with the kind and warm reception we received from you, President, your wife Elke, and indeed all those we met at the reception you held in our honour at your home in Schloss Bellevue in Berlin, as well as the many people we encountered on our visit. We recall also our memorable visits to Frankfurt and Würzburg and of course to the University of Leipzig where I had the honour of delivering an address to students and faculty in the University’s beautiful Paulinum. 

May I take this opportunity to express my sympathies to those Germans who suffered severe flooding damage in July across two states; our hearts continue to go out to those affected as they rebuild their communities in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia.

President, may I suggest that our two countries, Germany and Ireland, have never enjoyed such a burgeoning and flourishing relationship as we do now, with a contemporary relationship built since the foundation of our State. Indeed, as has been pointed out , when the first hydro-electric Shannon scheme was established in Ireland in the 1920s at Ardnacrusha – one of the great infrastructural projects in the history of our State – it was a very deliberate decision, a cultural assertion of separation from London, to invite Siemens to provide technical assistance.

Since the medieval period when Johannes, also known as John Scottus Eriugena, illuminated the Carolingian court with his learning, the Hiberno-German relationship has been rooted in a broader European web of connections of knowledge, people and power.

The migratory experience between Ireland and Germany is of course documented for centuries, particularly those scholarly connections, from the mediaeval Irish monks and scholars who left their imprint in so many ways, perhaps the most notable being Cavan-born missionary St Kilian who settled in Würzburg, to the Wild Geese, victims of our turbulent history who found sanctuary in Germany as soldiers or civil administrators – the early precursors of the many who now arrive on Erasmus scholarships from a far less turbulent Ireland.  

German-Irish scholarly links were cemented in the late nineteenth century by philologists such as Kuno Meyer and Johann Kaspar Zeuss who, travelling in the opposite direction, assisted in the reinvigoration our native language and folk culture. The Brothers Grimm, too, became fascinated with Irish folklore. 

Let us not forget, too, the importance of the Frankfurt School of social theory and critical philosophy, established in 1929 at Goethe University, Frankfurt, whose many intellectuals, academics, and political dissidents dissatisfied with the contemporary socio-economic systems of the era – capitalist, fascist, communist – helped to deepen our understanding of why such systems came to pass, offering alternative paths to achieving the peaceful social development of a society and a nation based on changing economic assumptions. 

The Frankfurt School scholarship is still a source of great intellectual force today, thanks in no small part to leading exponents, such as political philosopher Jürgen Habermas whose scholarship on Europe and the multiple crises we face, remains essential reading. 

By the 1950s, Nobel Prize-winner Heinrich Böll – he inspired by his contemporary, Samuel Beckett, whose influence can be felt in his surreal play, A Mouthful of Earth – fired the German imagination with his beautiful ethnographic word-sketches of the west of Ireland, published in his seminal Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Diary), which has shaped the German perception of Ireland for decades and continues to be influential.  

In our own time, Hugo Hamilton’s account of his childhood in a German-Irish family in Dublin has provided a unique contribution to literature and has found an enthusiastic readership in Germany, helping to further promote understanding between our two nations. German-Irish sculptor Imogen Stuart’s Pangur Bán installation adorns the reception area here at Áras an Uachtaráin .
I am so happy that both are with us this evening.

I know, President, that you appreciate Irish music. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Irish rock band, U2’s seminal album “Achtung Baby”. Recorded mostly in Berlin, where band members were living at the time, many regard the album, released in November 1991, as a reflection of the drive and energy that U2 witnessed and experienced in the then newly re-united heart of Germany.  

Migration has been a rich seam from which both our nations continue to benefit. This was so powerfully exemplified by the news that it was a married couple, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, children of Turkish immigrants to Germany,
where refuge has been offered to so many, whose ground-breaking research in the field of modified genetic code catapulted them into the public eye as the scientists behind the world’s first effective Covid-19 vaccine, that produced by BioNTech/Pfizer, the most widely administered here in Ireland.

Germany and Ireland today enjoy many fine cultural ties, exemplified through Germany’s official cultural institute, the Goethe‑Institut, which plays a key role in cultural exchange, as do the many university partnerships for example. Irish‑German relations are also being fostered among some schools: pupils of 
St Kilian’s German School in Dublin can apply directly to study at German higher education institutions. The close cooperation with the Lycée Français d’Irlande on the Franco-German Eurocampus in Dublin, which includes joint instruction in some subjects, serves as an exemplar model

On matters of economy, Germany and Ireland are prolific trading partners in both directions. Both our countries reap the many benefits of a long history of sustained tourism, and it is a remarkable statistic that approximately 1 percent of Germans travel to our island each year, the third-highest group by nationality. It is estimated, too, that there are approximately 12,000 German nationals living and working here, while Germany is home to 30,000 Irish citizens, with many young Irish finding a home in the cultural metropolis of Berlin, enabling a cross-pollination of cultural and artistic exchange among the artistic communities of both countries.

Our people have stood together at times of great challenge, whether it was Ireland welcoming German children affected by the aftermath of World War II, or German and European support for the peace process on this island.  

President, may I suggest that both our countries are now at a critical juncture as we face up to the great challenge of rebuilding our economies and societies in the wake of the devastating Covid-19 public health emergency.

I suggest, if I may, that we are presented with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do things better, to embrace and bring to fruition a new paradigm of existence with each other, in relation to work and living, and with the world itself; a renewed and healthier connection of ethical society, sustainable economy and ecological responsibility. Central too to the flourishing of a reimagined post-Covid-19 society will be the themes of the spirit of which matters of art and culture are the essential ingredients.

The pandemic has had, and indeed continues to produce, such devastating personal, social, cultural and economic consequences, particularly now in those regions of the world which are struggling to secure vaccines, or indeed in those countries in which there is a high degree of vaccination hesitancy.

The pandemic has forced us to return to fundamental questions which we as a society ignore at our peril. What are the essential tasks and needs of a society as we live together? How did it come to be that so little value was placed on essential work and the contribution of frontline staff, those who work in the provision of universal basic services, or indeed in what must be accepted as the ‘real economy’.

The task now at hand is to create a society that is not just more equal, one in which all work is valued, and all jobs are decent, fulfilling and secure, together with sufficient social protection and quality universal services, but it must also be a society with a widespread capacity for reflection and evaluation of inclusive options for participation against an appropriate timescale.  

So much is, and can be made, possible now. How hugely regrettable it would be if, through some form of evasion, moral cowardice, or indeed incapacity in the governing paradigm, societies were to continue to disregard the efforts of these women and men, our essential workers, that, having paid them fitting tribute for putting themselves and their families at risk for us all, we were to settle for reverting to where we were before the crisis. We must recognise what are needs, and do so in a universal sense, as opposed to continuing acceptance of the slavish pursuit of wants presented as insatiable and defiant of regulation. 

Covid has exposed the potentially transformative and emancipatory role that the state can play if the will is there to allow for an innovative and interventionist state. We require a more activist and democratic state, one that can plan, co-ordinate, manage and intervene when necessary in an open, transparent manner, one placing the needs and welfare of its citizens at its core. Competence in decision-making and the fullest forms of participation must be achieved by a movement for economic literacy of a new kind, one that will empower every citizen.

In order to achieve the renewal (social, economic, democratic) we now need,
I argue that a radical paradigm shift is required in the connection between ecology, economics and society, one that combines the radicalism that is in the consciousness of climate activism, with the awareness of egalitarianism and the programmes of social inclusion activists. 

I support those calls for a new ecological-social paradigm, a recovered version of political economy, an integrated, sustainable model that is now available to inform policy. They are already gaining traction in influential organisations, such as the OECD, and in the European street which has, in the aspirations of its citizens, sought a Europe that is more than a zone of economic cooperation and technocratic arrangements.

Consideration of a new eco-social paradigm requires a universalist mindset, one that recognises the limits of the world’s natural resources, as well as the role that unrestrained greed has played in creating the climate crisis. Human beings are first and foremost resonant beings, as the contemporary German sociologist Hartmut Rosa would advocate, and an eco-social model is consistent with this principle, a counter-concept to the ubiquity of alienation. Rooted in the concept of human need, eschewing models that take insatiable consumption and unrestricted accumulation as inevitabilities, it is a paradigm that represents our best hope for a sustainable future together, offering intergenerational solidarity and the hope of a more just society.

There are lessons on this which we can take from Immanuel Kant. We must approach the recognition of ‘dignity’ being defined universally and by cultural agency. We need to escape from the prison of thought built on the idea of the linearity of progress, or of rights being either an exclusively European discovery, or a benign ambition or gift of colonisation. We must, too, have the courage to accept the innateness of human rights of the person as being superior to their definition narrowly as acquired rights within borders. 

We also need a new social contract, one which shares risks more collectively so that a more generous and inclusive society is achieved, widening opportunities and asking citizens to contribute for as long as they can so that everyone can fulfil their potential. A more generous social contract, founded on key elements of solidarity and harmony, one that recognises our interdependencies, supports and invests more in each other, will assist in the building together of a more inclusive, cohesive society.

We require a space of discourse so that we may succeed in the generation and better understanding of ideas and policy evaluation across the social sciences. The quality of media literacy is too a source of concern. Here the essay tradition in German journalism is something from which we in Ireland and many other nations in Europe could learn.

As to the importance of solidarity, may I thank President Steinmeier for his and his country’s ongoing solidarity with Ireland in the context of Brexit that solidarity has been an important intervention, not least to help underpin the peace process in Northern Ireland. The European Union’s value and internal cohesion have rarely been so evident as during the withdrawal negotiations, and the support of our European partners in protecting peace in Northern Ireland and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland has been a reminder of the value of Europe standing together to defend its core values: democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

As to foreign policy, Ireland and Germany share similar values in our belief in multilateralism, especially in the areas of international peace and security. Of particular importance is our shared commitment to peacekeeping and to the work of the United Nations Security Council. I would also like to acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe to our German friends for assistance in evacuating Irish citizens and their dependents from Afghanistan during the recent crisis. 

President Steinmeier, I would like to take this opportunity to wish your Government the best of luck with Germany’s Presidency of the G7 next year when your country’s leadership will be vital in tackling crises such as that of climate change.

As to matters pertaining to Europe and its future direction, I am delighted that Your Excellency will meet with students of the University of Limerick on Friday, many of whom are engaged in German-Irish studies, at which there will be an opportunity to discuss the future of Europe, something about which I know you feel passionately. 

Democracy needs such impetus for renewal. We must, all of us, engage meaningfully with the European street in any discourse on our shared future as Europeans. The European street needs to be reclaimed for all its citizens. 

I so agree with you, President, that we must not capitulate on this, our valuable shared heritage, and let it be torn asunder by opponents of our European Union. We must safeguard it, care for it, improve it – that is our historic duty.

European countries have proven how they can work well together on matters of research and academic exchanges, in medicine, as evidenced with Covid vaccines, and in seizing opportunities that new technologies offer for environmental sustainability. We must deepen and widen such connections.

As to our shared European future, may I suggest that Europe can be an exemplar in the forging of those new connections between economy, society and ecology, of which I have spoken. There is now an opportunity for a green Europe to emerge from the former Europe of coal and steel as we continue in the Anthropocene era, a green Europe that can continue to provide for its peoples without damaging irrevocably the fine ecological balance of the planet, a version of society combining ecology, economy and culture that is rooted in social justice, humanitarianism and ethics.

As we move towards a decarbonised sustainable future, central to its success will be its inclusiveness. Thus, a cognisance of the need for a ‘just transition’ for workers and communities will be required to ensure that everyone is part of a sustainable, low-carbon economy, and benefits from decent and green jobs. There must be cohesive social policies that ensure no loss of citizen participation rights.

On the European street, there is a concern that our shared future might be defined in such a way as retains, even deepens, existing inequalities within our European Union. They speak of broken faith in relation to the ‘cohesion’ that was promised in the Lisbon Treaty, and ask where cohesion is evidenced? They look at what an austerity model visited on the peoples of the Union together. They ask, in relation to the future are the fiscal measures of the Union’s hegemony to be allowed to frustrate the catching up that capital investment in the deficit countries might achieve in a global low-interest environment. The European Union of the future cannot be simply a reinforcement of different statuses accorded to surplus and deficit members. Those of us concerned for the future of the Union must put the peoples of the Union, and what they should share, above the narrow mindset of the requirements of any malfunctioning aberration of fiscal policy. 

Looking ahead, may I suggest that the Europe we seek now as we rebuild must be one that retains in its aspirations the spirit of the Ventotene Manifesto, a Europe in which the rhetoric of hate is replaced with the language of openness, inclusivity, cohesion, solidarity. It is a Europe in which its Member States will share their competencies and perceived advantages, including in matters of trade and economy. It is a Europe that recognises that the shift to a gendered ecological-social paradigm of existence must be pursued together, with urgency, and not just for our benefit in the European Union, but for future generations of our shared planet whom we would wish to inhabit a peaceful, harmonious world that is supported by a sustainable vision of ethical economy and society, and enriched by a diversity of cultures. 

Such a pursuit would surely assist with resolving what you, President, recently identified as a “crisis of trust” between citizens and the state, a democratic crisis that has such corrosive potential.

Yes, it will be welcomed on the European Street, in villages and farms, if we commit to investing in a vision of Europe being something inspiring for its citizens, one that recalls the best of utopian ideas. Utopia may never fully exist in reality—it derives its meaning ambiguously from the ancient Greek words for ‘no place’ and ‘good place’—but I ask, if this is not a time ripe for dreaming of utopias, then when would be? I go further, and ask if it is not a time for political economy as alternative to abstract description.  It is a time for moral impulse on politics for we cannot ignore our present circumstances and challenges. 

After the financial crash of 2008, sadly the greatest growth in the democratic world was xenophobic extremism, and as a result of the ongoing pandemic, many certainties of preceding decades have been upended, leaving a vacuum which utopian ideals with diverse moral considerations should properly fill. Now comes the time to imagine futures which are not just better, but altogether different, to have a truly inclusive discourse, journey to recover lost authenticity. 

In combining the tasks of conscientisation with a commitment to original thought and compassionate, emancipatory scholarship and teaching, good intellectual ideas can help bridge the space to that utopia and its praxis that we all, as vulnerable inhabitants of our fragile planet, need. Drawing on scholarship such as that of Ruth Levitas and German philosopher Ernst Bloch, it is by questioning the false inevitabilities that we have been handed that will enable us to change everything – challenge these assumptions, upend them, take our first steps on a journey of hope. Out of this alignment of curiosity, intellectual rigour, moral courage and dogged determination, a new ethical, sustainable Europe, of which we can all be proud, can emerge.

President Steinmeier, these two State Visits allow us celebrate all our connections, past and present, and be confident that in the future we will have even closer relations for our successors to mark and recall in decades to come. May I now invite you all, distinguished guests, to stand and join me in a toast:

To the good health of President Steinmeier and Mrs Büdenbender,

To the happiness and prosperity of the people of Germany,

To the continuing friendship and affection between our two peoples.

Sláinte mhaith – Prost!