The President has momentously said the unsayable about our economy

In his speech to the European Parliament, President Michael D Higgins lived up to every expectation we could have had of him

President Michael D Higgins and European Parliament president Martin Schulz address journalists during a press briefing at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday. Photograph: Fred Marvaux

President Michael D Higgins and European Parliament president Martin Schulz address journalists during a press briefing at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday. Photograph: Fred Marvaux

Fri, Apr 19, 2013, 12:01

On Wednesday, at roughly the time President Michael D Higgins was delivering his momentous speech to the European Parliament, I was attending a meeting of concerned citizens seeking to forge alliances with a view to action when the inevitable happens.

These were mainly people who have educated themselves as to the true meaning of what is currently happening to European citizens, and the possibilities for saner, socially useful systems of banking and economic management.

Some were business people from whom the material rewards of a lifetime’s work have been stolen by the three-card trickery of international banking.

Others were barely out of college, young men who have been radicalised by watching their country slip from what seemed like abundance to hopelessness, just at the moment when they were expecting to inherit it. The average age of the gathering was a little over 30.

The meeting brought me back to similar gatherings in those pre-Tiger days of the early 1990s, when you could talk about the intrinsic dysfunction of the prevailing economic or banking model without being laughed out of court. Back then you might find yourself listening to the late green economist Richard Douthwaite expound on the possibilities of parallel microcurrencies, or sit beside the former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald at a public conference as he debated the merits of a basic income for all citizens.

Such discussion was brought to an abrupt end by the Celtic Tiger. What would be the point in talking about alternative systems when everything was so hunky dory? Who could argue with success?

Now the discussion has recommenced. Sitting in rooms like this you get an entirely different understanding of what has been happening than you might pick up from, for example, the radio or TV, where the discussion is chiefly concerned with rebooting the broken system.

The “experts” who describe “reality” in these contexts are invariably people who have stakes in the present system, either by virtue of being employed by banks or other economic agencies, or simply because they have committed themselves to some predictive analysis that rules out other options. But the people in that room on Wednesday have no stake in the present system, have either lost everything or never had anything to lose.

For several hours we sat talking and listening, oblivious that, at those very same moments, our President was touching on precisely the same themes, 700 miles away in Strasbourg.

Surge of relief
Soon after leaving the meeting, I got a call from Newstalk, asking if I would come on The Right Hook to talk about the President’s speech. Reading the text they sent me, I felt an enormous surge of relief, something like I experienced as a child when some disaster seemed imminent and my father came home and took charge of things.

In a carefully crafted and historical-minded speech, the President said some very clear things, and in doing so lived up to every conceivable expectation we might have had arising from his election 18 months ago. Here is the core of his statement: “We cannot . . . ignore the fact that European citizens are suffering the consequences of actions and opinions of bodies such as rating agencies, which, unlike parliaments, are unaccountable.

“Many of our citizens regard the response to the crisis as disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to the urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity. They feel that the economic narrative of recent years has been driven by dry technical concerns; for example, by calculations geared primarily by a consideration of the impact on speculative markets, rather than by sufficient compassion and empathy with the predicament of European citizens who are members of a union.

“In facing up to the challenges Europe currently faces, particularly in relation to unemployment, we cannot afford to place our singular trust in a version of a logistical, economic theory whose assumptions are questionable and indifferent to social consequences in terms of their outcome.”

The President did not go all the way, though perhaps he went as far as he could go within the constitutional limits. It is possible to argue with various characterisations in his speech – for example his choice of words such as “compassion” in elaborating the possibility of alternative understandings. What we need, of course, is not compassion but reason exercised in the common good.

It is possible to be sympathetic to the efforts of the present generation of politicians to maintain some form of stability in the face of a disintegrating system. But there can be no forgiveness for their refusal to speak truthfully about the true extent and deeper meanings of the present crisis.

But we can sleep a little easier now that the President has spoken as he has. For we now have the hope that there is at least one leader in Europe who may be willing, when the moment arises, to say the unsayable, to tell the emperors and empresses, to their faces, that they are not wearing clothes.

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