Higgins urges greater role for culture


Culture and creativity should take centre stage in discussions on how to build more fulfilling and peaceful societies, President Michael D Higgins has said.

On a visit yesterday to the Paris headquarters of Unesco, the UN’s culture and education agency, Mr Higgins was greeted with cheers and a standing ovation after he gave an impassioned critique of the dominance of neo-liberal economics. Assumptions about unregulated market freedom had “exposed our world to poverty and insecurity”, he said.

The world needed a broader frame of reference when thinking of human development. Culture, heritage and creativity were vital to meeting the challenges of sustainable development, which included the abolition of poverty, employment for all and an end to discrimination, he said.

“The cultural space cannot be shrunk to a residual of the market place. Properly respected, [it] can be not only a location for the arts but, much more broadly, a source of vision.”

Crisis at Unesco

Unesco is suffering from a severe financial crisis caused largely by the decision of its biggest contributor, the US, to cancel its support in protest at the body’s decision to grant the Palestinians full membership.

Against the background of debate about the organisation’s future, Mr Higgins warned that supporting culture was as important during a recession as in times of economic growth.

“Unesco cannot afford to fall into the pseudo-romantic trap of believing that devoting less resources to the broad cultural space is in any sense beneficial or constructive,” he said. “Starving artists in attics may make for entertaining operatic librettos, but such a myth is as destructive of social value as it is of the individual artist’s life.”

Mr Higgins called for better dialogue between western intellectuals and moderate Islam, which he saw as “one of the most urgent intellectual issues” of our time. “It is past time that they supported each other, confronted the politics of fear and exclusion . . . and worked together to achieve the sustainable, peaceful planet we need.”

Unesco’s director general, Irina Bokova, described Mr Higgins as “an intellectual and a great political leader”, and said his speech made her proud to belong to the agency.

After the visit to Unesco – the first by a president of Ireland – Mr Higgins attended a lunch for Irish and French business figures. He told them Ireland was recovering after the “aberration” of a lost economic decade, and the “likelihood” was that the country would exit the troika bailout programme by the end of the year.

Jobs and growth

He again stressed that austerity alone could not bring recovery and said France and Ireland shared a belief that jobs and growth should be priorities.

Franco-Irish trade is now worth more than €15 billion a year. More than 400 Irish companies export to France and 50 have a presence here, while France is Ireland’s fourth-largest source of foreign direct investment.

Mr Higgins’s official visit to France concludes today, when he is due to lay a wreath at the tomb of Jean Monnet, one of the EU’s founding fathers, and visit the Irish college.