'We need to think about an entirely different kind of society'

As Michael D Higgins prepares for his inauguration as President of Ireland, read his final Dáil speech, delivered on 25 January 2011, in which he talks about the failure to build a real republic in Ireland, and "that ugly statement of Michael McDowell’s that inequality is needed for the stability of society."

As other speakers have done, I thank those who have sat in the Chair at different stages, for their courtesy and kindness to me over a very long period. I have been here in this Chamber for 25 years, with nine years in the Seanad and since I first stood for election 42 years ago. I am indebted not just for the courtesy of Members of this House, the staff and ushers and others, but also on occasion, for their kindness as well. Gabhaim buíochas ó chroí leo agus le mo chomhghleacaithe thar na blianta.

I want to take advantage of the wide range of speeches that have preceded me, including those on Dáil reform. Nevertheless, I wish to concentrate on what makes up some of the contextual background to what we are discussing. I wish the next Government well. It is a Government I hope to look at from a distance. I have already said I am very grateful for the kindness and courtesy of my colleagues in this House over the years and I hope not to be saying goodbye to them. If I succeed in getting the Labour Party nomination for the presidency, I look forward to meeting them all in their constituencies in a less formal setting.

When I first stood for election in 1969 I was very conscious of something that is important to me. I was leaving an academic world in which I had spent a great deal of time and on which I had expended a great deal of anxiety in order to secure entry. People from backgrounds such as mine did not go to university, did not qualify in other universities and certainly did not teach in universities. I left that world to participate in public life which was part of the tradition of my family. I wish people from all walks of life took part in politics and in public life. It is very important to act in the public space with whatever, as Connolly would put it, gifts of hand or brain one has, and to deliver it for one’s fellow citizens. I was conscious in 1969, however, of the great failure of a country that then called itself a republic. I believe no real republic has been created in Ireland. The failure has been of three kinds. There has been a failure in making political power republican, a failure in making republican any kind of administrative power and a failure with regard to communicative power. Without being technical about each of these, I think those who wanted Ireland to be independent would have envisaged a country in which there would be far greater distribution of power, that it would not be confined solely to the exercise of parliamentary democracy.

Parliamentary democracy is incredibly important. For many years, people in Ireland struggled to have their own parliament and struggled to participate in it. But there is more to political power than voting once every four or five years; there is the exercise of power in every dimension of life. If a real republic had been founded, we should have been spending decades extending and deepening political power. To the credit of the Labour Party, that has been its intention and aspiration, however achieved, since it was founded in 1912. With regard to administrative power, it is quite appalling there was no real change from the time the Treasury dominated in the olden days in the hand-over to the Department of Finance. As a political scientist I find it quite extraordinary that so much attention has focused on changing the electoral system and so little on the structure of Cabinet power. There is no constitutional basis for the hegemony of the Department of Finance; it was a practice that flowed seamlessly from the British Treasury and adopted without question. If one wanted to effect radical change, one would break the connection between the monopoly enjoyed by the Government of the day and Parliament. One would allow, for example, the establishment of a committee system with the right to initiate and change legislation. If one wanted to go further as in the Scandinavian model, it would be to allow committees to have limited budgetary powers, thus ensuring people who came into politics would have a career in politics separate from being on the Front Bench if in opposition or being in Cabinet if in government. These are real reforms but they are empty and missing from the discourse. I have the impression that even though the Labour Party has produced 140 proposals which I strongly support, including in particular its proposals on citizenship, I find, generally, there is an element of fright in what those elected are suggesting as if they are offering themselves for reform, as if that was the major problem. That is not the problem.

I will give my opinion on where I think this is going, having spent my lifetime, not just in elected politics but also in academic politics and the social sciences, another area of great failure. I say this as a founding member of the Irish Sociological Association and the Irish Political Science Association. One need only watch television and listen to radio to know what is happening internationally. A significant price is already being paid for the broken connection between the aspirations of the people of this planet and those who take decisions on their behalf. The distinguished political scientist, Jürgen Habermas, has suggested that people can be invited to be bound by rules and by decisions in which they have had a chance consciously to participate. In one part of the world after another, we have the assumption that rational parliaments will be able to solve global problems such as the food crisis, the environmental crisis, the energy crisis or whatever. At the same time, very serious people are suggesting that parliament is what is irrational and that markets are rational when in fact all of the evidence shows it is the flow of international market capital which is completely unaccountable and is irrational. There is not one jot of evidence since the crash in the 1920s in the United States, as both Professor Samuels senior and junior have stated, that the markets are rational. There is strong evidence for the speculative consequences of markets.

On the other hand, people have put all their trust in parliaments and all over the world, parliament is losing. In the European Union, for instance, we are in the gravest danger of sinking back to a common market rather than a Europe beyond wars which might have been a Europe of all the citizens. The citizen deficit in Europe is its most serious failure. That is why those who want to defend their banks, be they French Presidents or German Chancellors, are defending their francs rather than the possibilities of Europe. They have put us in such danger as regards the European project.

There was a great opportunity missed to build a real inclusive republic in Ireland which would have reformed the relationship of Cabinet to the Dáil structures, that would have had a democratic, local government, that would have allowed opportunities for participation. There has been a political failure to establish a republic. There has been an administrative failure whereby administrative structures are hierarchical and patriarchal. I listen to those speaking about the clash between being a legislator and a representative and the consequences of clientelism about which I wrote in the 1970s. This is because of an authoritarian administrative system that never saw the citizen in the French republican sense of being an equal. It was because the relationship of the citizen with the State system was devalued. There is a communicative power where there is no connection between the vulnerability, the struggle and the agony of ordinary people at this time and the description of what is news, of what is happening in the world which they inhabit. They do not have equal access to the story, rather it is for those who work in the sector. I was Minister with responsibility for broadcast communications. This is not an Irish phenomenon. Across Europe and the western world, people will say that they must be cynical about presenting what the viewing or listening public will accept as the news of the day. This kind of artificial connection between what is moral and what is ethical is incredibly dangerous. It is widening an excluded underclass in Ireland. It is creating people who will move quickly to conflict because there are no mediating institutions in Europe. In one country after another across Africa and Asia, as people overthrow dictatorships they place their trust first in representative institutions and then, if they are let down, they are into a straight conflict with what are regarded as the forces of law and order. The result is war and the waste of human and other resources in the terrible tasks of war.

I say this not to depress anybody but simply to state that since I was a child in County Clare I have had a belief in the power of education and in the power of ideas. However, I believe an enormously high price has been paid for a kind of anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism in Irish culture. Therefore, I believe we need to draw one conclusion. We need not suggest that that which has failed us should or can be repaired. This is why the Labour Party is incredibly important in leading a government. We need to go back and recover the promise of a real republic that would be built on citizenship and that would reject as outrageous in a republic the kind of radical individualism epitomised in that ugly statement of Michael McDowell’s that inequality is needed for the stability of society. It ranks with the mad Margaret Thatcher view that there is no such thing as society. It stands there as such a notion. People should have seen immediately how incongruous it was to speak like this with the language of radical individualism.

Instead of speaking about the republic that might be created people spoke about getting a bit of the action. Suddenly it was no longer important to have just one house for shelter or to have another for pension purposes, in case a family split up or somebody retired. One needed a string of houses and thus our property bubble was created within a bubble of speculative capitalism that had flowed from an attack on the Glass-Steagall Act in the United States which had introduced regulations following the great crash. President Clinton gave in after several years of lobbying by those who stated it was necessary to get rid of all of the regulations so that the instruments needed by the market could be pushed out to absorb what was regarded as an endless flow of credit. What was this? It was an irrational form of capitalism and thus one of the projects now is the idea of whether capitalism can save itself again.

I believe that as Ireland moves into a time when we can celebrate the founding of my party, the great lockout and 1916 we need to think about an entirely different kind of society. I am immensely practical about this. I can suggest, I have spoken and I have written elsewhere and will continue to do so that what one would do — if one wanted to deliver what I am describing in terms of political participation, administrative fairness and the equality of the right to communicate — would be to speak about a floor of citizenship below which people would not be allowed to fall. One would make secure children from the time of birth to very old people who wonder whether they will have to leave their homes to die, as they frequently do within 18 months of being sent to a nursing home. One would make it possible that children share the same class and for that period of their lives at least would be able to be equal with regard to education. In addition to this, people would have decent housing.

This was the agenda when Sean O’Casey wrote about disparity. James Connolly took the Irish Citizen Army with its egalitarian agenda and placed it side by side with nationalism. The lesson we learned from this was when the egalitarian socialist agenda was placed side by side with the nationalist agenda it would be the socialist agenda which would lose. This was in the dialogue immediately before the meeting of the first Dáil when Michael Collins told the IRB it need not bother with this because they were just going through with it.

Those of us in favour of a version of Ireland where no one will fall below the floor must say it not only to ourselves but also to Europe. In addition, a highly participative inclusive republic was the one in the vision of those who made the case for Irish independence at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. It was this which was stolen from the people after the foundation of the State when the conservatives marched into all the principal professorships including education and philosophy. UCD became a stable for conservatism and suddenly one had the continuation of an administrative nightmare and the robbing of the people of the delivery of the republic with regard to their ordinary lives.

Frequently, people such as Slavoj Zizek have said to me that if things are as I describe them then what is needed is a form of terror that would sweep everything away and to start all over again. A terrible price would be paid for this so therefore one must put one’s faith in representative democracy and having done so one wants it to work. If one wants it to work one must be open to making the type of institutional changes that I mean. How could this be carried? There is need for a discourse in which we are able to speak about the vulnerabilities that matter and where there is not a huge gulf between what we say in here and what is happening on the street.

People wonder why poverty has to reproduce itself in the same family from one generation to another or from one area to another and wonder why there is a difference between the quality of schools in one place and the quality of those in another. God did not make it like that. Nature did not make it like that. The people in the so-called Irish Republic made it like that and they maintained it like that. I remember in County Clare when one could point to the two or three people in the Labour Party because they lived in a galvanised house. People would explain that they were Labour in the same way as they would say they were on the margins of society, and they were. Therefore, with regard to thinking the Finance Bill is necessary for this that or the other, I hope the new Government realises that the model which is broken should not be repaired and that there is a discourse now which is wider and which is not only in Ireland but in Europe, where citizens are wondering what institutions might best express that which we wish to share with each other, where the concept of interdependency is accepted and where it would be regarded as obscene to state that radical individualism is what is important and what must drive us. All that radical individualism with its privileged view of professions and its side of the mouth politics with regard to benefit and privilege is what must be rejected.

This has a practical expression in Europe. If we create here a radical inclusive republic we will place it in a social Europe which accepts the interdependency of peoples rather than the aspirations of the elite property owning classes and individual countries. We would then be able to be a region in the global sense that offered guarantees about labour, security and peace. It would be a powerful moral voice in the world with regard to having alternatives to war and allowing people their own paths to development which would be very attractive.

With regard to the Bill the question the people ask, which the new Government must address, is why. The new Government must speak endlessly about jobs. This is the point for people who lose their jobs or are told they must be made unemployed. Everyone here is very reasonable and I ask people to be at least accurate about one thing I remember in this House, which is the night in September 2008 when Labour Party was left alone. The vote was 124 votes to 18 votes. We were the 18. We voted and sustained debate through two nights with regard to an unlimited guarantee that joined the debts of our speculative banks to the deficit issues of the economy. This is what we are facing tonight. I am sorry that as young a Deputy as Deputy Doherty would take it upon himself to suggest that the Labour Party was participating in any cabal. After all it was he who said on 1 October 2008 in the Seanad:

This legislation is about more than the banks. It is about offering security to ordinary citizens and to investors in Irish businesses which in turn means jobs. As the media speculated, other states may well follow this move by our State...my party welcomes this decisive move . . . I support this Bill.

With respect, it was a disaster.

I also say this now looking forward: I hope the discourse we will have now will speak about inclusion. This Bill contains some good measures, but there are also ridiculous ones. I will give one example of what I meant by the phrases, political power, administrative power and whatever. In my long time in here people agitated, for example, for the equality legislation that was introduced by my colleague, Mervyn Taylor. People imagined that when we had got the equality legislation we had arrived at a particular point, but the political science would have indicated that political power was useless without administrative power. It was only when the equality legislation was followed through with the Equality Authority and Combat Poverty Agency that it was possible to administer the benefit that had been won politically. That is the meaning of administrative power and is why we lost the Combat Poverty Agency and the Equality Agency to the right and had all the cuts. That is what citizens in a republic want; they want more political power and want administrative power. They want to communicate their vulnerability and want to be able to respond to each other’s independency. The very last thing they want is more of that terrible saying that has brought us to this point now. That is why I am proud to be president of the Labour Party. If we have failed from time to time, what is never in doubt is that we were speaking about a real republic that has yet to be built in this State. {jathumbnailoff}



Image top: The Labour Party.