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.
There’s a cruel irony, though: many members of a new generation who could contribute to this debate have left the country. But he insists that emigrants, too, have a central role to play.
“We must remember that some of the most significant contributions – the major ones in literature – were by those who went into exile or who chose exile after the foundation of the Irish State,” he said.
“I hope the younger Irish who have left temporarily will come back and change this country completely, and make it into the kind of inclusive, exciting, celebratory place that I know it can be, and that it is at times.
“We regularly see examples of the joy you can have by being able to live together with dignity and respect. It’s really about bringing into existence that of which we could have dreamed before, but didn’t.”
It would be naive to expect any sudden or dramatic changes, though. After all, the bookshelves of Government departments strain under the weight of policy documents that are gathering dust, many of which envisaged a better, brighter future.
In contrast, Mr Higgins says, key proposals and ideas that form the basis of a final report will be specific and delivered to Government ministers and the secretary generals of relevant departments, or to the Constitutional Convention.
There is one obvious problem. As President, he is, in effect, gagged by the Government. Any major utterance requires the approval of Government. For example, even though he has signalled support in the past for extending voting rights to emigrants, he can’t be seen to call on the Government to introduce such a measure.
“But if young people bring up ideas like that at the forums, it will be transmitted to the Constitutional Convention, and I would encourage them to do so. It’s a matter, then, for the Government to structure their response . . . what I hope is that this is a process that doesn’t stop with this.”
Already, dozens of petitions have arrived. One of the striking features he says is that despite perceptions to the contrary, there is no sign of cynicism.
“That was clear when I read the initial batch of submissions,” the President says. “There isn’t the cynicism that many people think there is and there isn’t the disengagement that many people fear.”
Neither is there any sign of anger directed at an older generation, he says. In any case, he maintains that it’s a bogus notion to set one generation off against another, given that many older people lost their life-savings due to the recklessness of others.
Among the submissions that have arrived so far are calls for awareness about citizenship, equality and respect to be taught at primary level; at second level a greater emphasis on informing students about how the State works and who is responsible for decision-making; at third level greater space to debate big-picture issues such as what we can expect out of education, careers and the economy.
They are issues close to the President’s heart.
He has long railed against the corrosive effects of “radical individualism” and the need to build a new future underpinned by an ethic that emphasises the needs of the many, rather than the speculative adventures of the few.
“We need now, more than ever, a vibrant, imaginative and creative population to re-build our land, to build a real Republic,” he said.
While many despair at the shaky future that awaits a new generation, he said there were also opportunities. Young people have an opportunity to know more about connections between science, technology and the environment; they are likely to be more questioning of institutions.
“From my interaction with the young, I find that they identify more with spirituality than belief systems embedded with rules, based on fear and compliance,” he said.
Many sentiments expressed might sound vacuous from anyone else. But the President has a long track record in encouraging critical thought. And at 71 years of age, he still exudes fresh excitement and passion over the possibility of change.
You get the sense that he would relish more radicalism when it comes to imagining a new future. After all, he led a march of 600 students in the 1960s in protest over landlords who discriminated against students during the summer period. The landscape may have changed and the challenges may be different – but the desire to effect change is fundamentally the same.
One of the most memorable moments of the presidential campaign was when he lit up an audience of young people as part of a debate with other candidates about issues affecting the next generation.
“Question language. Question inevitability,” he urged the audience.
“. . . be together, be radical, talk emancipation, be emancipation. That is what you will get when I am president.”
Following a vote of delegates, he won the debate hands-down. Maybe it was that injection of passion, the exuberance of language or the celebration of thought that chimed with the audience. Or perhaps it was that he offered a rare glimpse of hope and possibility.
Either way, if young people respond to the initiative in the way he hopes they will, it could prove to be the first step on a long road towards envisaging a very different Ireland.
The Being Young and Irish consultation period will run until September 29th, 2012. During this time young people aged 17-26 are invited to contribute practical ideas and make suggestions for the improvement of Irish society online ( president.ie) or through a series of regional seminars:
Dublin, Saturday, September 8th
Cork, Saturday, September 15th
Monaghan, Saturday, September 22nd
Galway, Saturday, September 29th
For further information, visit president.ie
You can watch a video with President Higgins on Being Young and Irish here
Share your views and experiences with Generation Emigration, The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens abroad
Blog: irishtimes. com/generationemigration
Facebook: facebook. com/generationemigration