Too many people are ‘voyeurs’ to injustice and poverty, rather than challenging it - President Higgins

President delivers keynote address at celebration of 50-year careers of Social Justice Ireland co-founders Fr Seán Healy and Sr Brigid Reynolds

President Michael D Higgins has said he is “horrified” by the “version of humanity we are being asked to accept” as more than half a million people in Gaza face famine “to satisfy the demands of a few people in some of the richest countries in the world”.

Speaking at an event in Dublin on Wednesday, the President said too many people today, rather than challenge injustice and poverty, were “voyeurs”.

He was delivering the keynote address at a celebration of the 50-year careers of Dr Seán Healy and Sr Brigid Reynolds, co-founders of the equality body Social Justice Ireland, and to mark their retirement as its joint chief executives.

Their great contribution, he said, was to provide empirical facts to challenge poverty and injustice, and “to the literacy of the public... to be able to say: ‘You must be involved in these conversations and you must arm yourself with empirically based facts’.”


Describing them as “two remarkably socially engaged citizens” who had “done so much over the course of half a century” to gather and publish evidence to “campaign for a more just Ireland, indeed for a more just world”, he said: “Their focus on poverty as an aspect of human rights was very important.”

It was “uncomfortable” to realise people “work so hard to refute” the evidence that inequality was deepening, and to avoid examining the alternatives.

“There is an interesting thing that people don’t often want to recognise, and that is, if you are not committed to making analysis or be open to discussing alternative policy, you are dealing with what becomes the action of the voyeur.

“At times... people like to be moved by gross poverty, just have that few moments, and then move on. But nothing has changed in themselves, in the institutions – nothing changes in their conversations, their company.”

The work of Fr Healy and Sr Reynolds was “needed now more than ever”, he added.

“It isn’t just that inequality is deepening, but that its beneficiaries are ever more concentrated. The discussion space for challenging this is becoming less available, and less accessible.”

And while the “State” and governments faced much opposition and protest, what was “missing” were demands for accountability from “unaccountable corporate power”. Multinationals’ power was “more dangerous” and “a greater threat to democracy”, said President Higgins.

There were alternatives to “gradualism” in the fight against poverty, he continued. The ideas of French economist Thomas Piketty and Italian economist Marianna Mazzucato were widely accepted as valuable.

The local and the global were connected, he continued. One of the main differences between now and past “actions” was that “we all know about it. It’s on our televisions screens and we have choices about what we’re going to do about it.”

He continued: “There is a new paradigm emerging that won’t be easy. Conflicts are breaking into different pieces in fragmented forms.”

Referencing several countries’ temporary suspension of support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which supports more than 500,000 displaced people in Gaza, following allegations by Israel that some staff were involved in the October 7th attacks, the President said: “We have a situation where the agency that looks after the poorest and most broken in one of the most broken spots, UNRWA for example, because 12 of its employees have been knocked out of their jobs, correctly... that [has] 13,000 working in Gaza, and in order to satisfy the demands of a few people in some of the richest countries in the world, will have 570,000 people in danger of famine.

“I have to say... I am absolutely horrified at what we are being asked to accept as versions of humanity.”

He said recently published statistics by Oxfam, including that, globally, men owned “about $105 trillion more wealth than women” and that the world’s “richest 1 per cent own 43 per cent of all global financial assets... and emit as much carbon pollution as poorest two thirds” showed the “paradigm of property, consumption and accumulation” was a “failed” one.

Many of the globe’s crises, including climate change and conflict, had “hunger” at their heart, “which leads to migration which leads to contested space and to other things”.

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Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times