More EU emphasis on culture may have made ‘better union’

‘Music and things of the spirit and heart can travel over borders so easily’ Michael D Higgins says

If the EU had placed more emphasis on the importance of culture during its foundation, perhaps it might be a "better union" than at present, President Michael D Higgins has said.

Speaking in Galway at a celebration on Saturday to mark the city's 40-year twinning with the French city of Lorient, Mr Higgins appealed for a return in Europe to the "old French values" of equality, fraternity and friendship.

Culture should not be considered as a “commodity”, but its value to society was of even greater significance during times of economic contraction and high unemployment, Mr Higgins said.

In his address to an audience led by Mayor of Galway Frank Fahy, Mayor of Lorient Norbert Metairie and French Ambassador to Ireland Jean-Pierre Thébault, Mr Higgins said that both Brittany and Ireland shared "the pain of a struggle for cultural preservation".

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The connection between Galway and Brittany was “profound” and the ties were “myriad”, with a shared sensibility to music, literature and philosophy, similar landscapes and coastlines and the “scripting” of both climates by the “vast Atlantic ocean”,”Mr Higgins said.

“Perhaps if we had given greater emphasis after the founding moments...to the importance of culture, and how music and things of the spirit and heart can travel over borders so easily, we might in fact have a better union than we have at present time,”he said.

Mr Higgins, who was the State’s first minister for arts, recalled a very important debate 20 years ago in relation to the idea that culture “could not be a commodity”, and was “something of the spirit, something of different generations” .

“Of course, these issues remain”, he said.

French, Irish and European ideas were “even more important” in the task ahead of “redefining Europe, redefining it socially in solidarity with all of those values which were important to us then, drawing on our strengths”, he said.

Ireland, France and Europe "share a great challenge at the present time" as in agreement on a strategy to deal with climate change, and a new definition of development which "will be sustainable", he said.

Referring to the future of the EU, Mr Higgins appealed to the “ richer possibilities of a Europe filled with young people who really want lives that embrace the arts and culture, and who see strangers as visitors”.

“We cannot assume that this will fall automatically,”he said, referring to the current relationship between economy, society and culture.

“In times of contraction of the economy and high unemployment, you need culture more than ever, you need your spaces,”he said.

It was also a time to remind people that they have not “lost any other rights” because they were not “consumers with an income to spend”, he said.

Noting his personal fondness for Lorient, Mr Higgins referred to the names of Irish pilgrim monks in Brittany, the exchanges in music, sport and education, the existence of 11 GAA clubs and a Gaelic league in the north-west French region, and the musical links nurtured by performers Alain Stivel and Liam O'Flynn.

“The easiest part for conversations between peoples of Europe has been in the cultural sphere,”he said.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times