Getting to the heart of the young Irish
An initiative, launched by President Michael D Higgins, aims to harness the potential of a new generation by offering them a platform to help chart a new direction and vision for the country
IT’S A LUMINOUS August morning and President Michael D Higgins emerges from the portico of Áras an Uachtaráin.
“Hola!” he says to a group of young people gathered outside, before welcoming them to the building in Spanish. There’s a chuckle all round.
He’s just back from a few weeks in northern Spain, where he’s been learning the lingo, swimming in the ocean and soaking in the culture of Cantabria. At 71 years of age, he might well be Ireland’s oldest exchange student.
Then again, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Despite the generation gap, he’s always been a student at heart. Maybe it’s his past career as a lecturer, encouraging young people to think critically, or his inquisitive mind. Either way, he feels a new generation with energy and original ideas has a key role to play in shaping a new Ireland.
That’s why he’s meeting a group of youngsters today to announce the latest phase of a new initiative, “Being Young and Irish”. It aims to harness the potential of a new generation by giving them a platform to help chart a new direction for the country.
It will consist of regional workshops to be held throughout September and a website ( president.ie) where young people can send in submissions or proposals. Among the questions being posed are: what is your vision for Ireland?; what can you and other young people do to help achieve this Ireland?; What else needs to happen to make this possible?
It all sounds very noble and high-minded. But young people, more than most, can spot empty rhetoric a mile off. So, what, realistically, can the jobless generation expect from joining the debate, apart from providing the backdrop for a soft-focus photo opportunity?
For the President, it’s about helping giving young people an opportunity to “take charge of change”. They have a central role, he insists, in envisaging a new future that hasn’t arrived yet.
Instead of drifting along and accepting a world shaped by others, he maintains that active involvement in directing change can be hugely empowering.
“Young people are facing conditions of change which are going to impact on them, and are impacting on them. They are carrying the greater burden of unemployment, broken expectations . . .” he says, during an interview in Áras an Uachtaráin.
“This is an opportunity for young people to tell us how they feel the Ireland of the future should be brought into being . . . That means not just reacting to obstacles. It means coming up with proposals. I’ve quoted Raymond Williams before: ‘Be the arrow, not the target’. Be the target and you are marginalised. But be the arrow and you are an instrument of change in your life and the life of others.”
This isn’t just about a few simple reforms. In many respects, he’s laying down a challenge to young people to envisage nothing less than a new society. One where there is an ethical connection between economy and society; where there is trust in institutions; and a shared future that creates an Irishness that we can all be proud of.