Courage vital if we are to build flourishing and decent society

Mon, Jul 9, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:Those who have power to change have not the will and those with the desire remain powerless

‘Irish society is being challenged to little less than to remould itself.”

This was stated by President Michael D Higgins when launching a book of essays entitled Towards a Flourishing Society, published by independent think tank Tasc.

His challenging address on this occasion provided confirmation that his presidency will indeed be a “presidency of ideas”. Given the Republic’s deep-seated crisis it is critical that we build a new public consensus through what the president has termed “an emancipatory discourse”. This involves fresh thinking and a national conversation to develop a widespread consensus about the future direction of our society.

It will not be an easy process to “remould” this society. We need to move from a dysfunctional neo-liberal state where self-interest predominates, towards an effective civic republican state where the common good prevails.

However, given the loss of economic sovereignty and succession of public policy failures that have characterised our Republic to date we cannot afford to succumb to a view that there is no alternative.

The late Tony Judt spoke of “captive minds” in his The Memory Chalet (London, 2011) and said that “ . . . the thrall in which an ideology holds a people is best measured by their collective inability to imagine alternatives”.

Contributors in Towards a Flourishing Society have dared to imagine a new civic republic. This would represent a great experiment in human well-being. We have outlined the vision this requires, examining in some detail the political, institutional, economic and social structures required to realise this vision over the next decade.

These are worrying times for our people. Inquiries have analysed how we descended into the dismal economic situation now confronting us. There have been judicial tribunals into the pervasive corruption that scarred our public realm. The Tasc vision of the flourishing society addresses the erosion of our democratic public life by providing a new framework: as a people we need, in the words of political philosopher Michael Sandel, “a new politics of the common good”.

The Government is proposing a constitutional convention to review the 1937 Constitution. It is timely, therefore, to set out proposals for public engagement and deliberation about the values and norms that should shape society in the future.

It is clear that we need a new constitution for a civic republic, one that will provide the underpinning for norms and values and public institutions of a 21st century Republic. We have to define in our constitution equality of citizenship and freedom as “freedom from domination”. Social solidarity has to set out as the bedrock of a genuinely republican society. The convention ought to comprise civil society representatives, legal and political expertise. It should involve deliberation across the State on a wider scale than that used by the Forum on Europe.

The convention ought to be convened under an international chairperson of the calibre we had in senator George Mitchell in Northern Ireland. We might consider the contribution that Irish political philosopher Philip Pettit, author of the seminal work Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government and now based at Princeton, might make to such a convention. We need to learn from the innovative constitution-making adopted in South Africa. The Government’s apparently limited and modest proposals for a convention form an insufficient response to the crisis in public governance. We need a more radical approach.

The flourishing society essays are about reclaiming the rich concept of republicanism from the misuse and abuse it has received in the Irish context as a consequence of militant separatist or sectarian and xenophobic movements.

Movements like Sinn Féin are more comparable to those of the far right that have arisen in a EU. Republicanism in the western tradition of political thought centres on human development and solidarity.

As Abraham Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Human flourishing of all people is the proper end of political, social, economic and political activity. This end must be kept in view in the reconstitution of Irish civic and political culture. We need to recover a more accurate and rounded concept of the human person than the one that prevails in neo-liberal ideology.

Our problem might be summed up by that great exponent of equality, RH Tawney. “The continuance of social evils is not due to the fact that we do not know what is right, but to the fact that we prefer to continue doing what is wrong . . . Those who have the power to remove them have not the will, and those who have the will have not, as yet, the power.”

Now, surely, it is the time for all who desire to build a flourishing society from the ashes of the failure of our nominal Republic of Ireland.


Dr Fergus O’Ferrall, Adelaide Asst Prof of Health Policy, Trinity College, Dublin, is editor and contributor to Towards A Flourishing Society, published by Tasc; www.tascnet.ie. He is also a member of The Irish Times trust.

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