'Tough times undoubtedly lie ahead'


Extracts from the speech given by Mary Robinson at the annual commemoration of the death of Michael Collins in Béal na mBláth

"I am pleased to have been invited to give the oration in commemoration of the death of a towering figure in Irish history, Michael Collins.

"It is fair to say that all of us, from our schooldays onwards, know something about Collins' role in the War of Independence and in the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. We know that Michael Collins will always have a special place in Ireland's history. As one of his biographers, Tim Pat Coogan put it: "He will be remembered most of all for his energy and organisational ability, his courage and charisma".

"Every generation faces its own challenges which call for particular qualities of vision and leadership. That is as true today as it was in Collins' time, even if the island that Michael Collins lived in and died for is a very different place from modern Ireland - and the responses needed are also very different.

"We certainly face enormous challenges today, some believe greater than any since the State came into being almost 90 years ago. Somebody looking in at us from the outside would be entitled to think that most of the news coming out of Ireland in recent times has been very negative. The international banking crisis has hit us proportionately harder than other countries. The gap between national income and national revenue is a yawning one. And the findings of widespread physical and sexual abuse of children, particularly in residential homes run by religious orders, has shocked and appalled people.

"Taken individually, any one of these challenges would be formidable. Coming all at once, they require immense determination to ensure that we meet them successfully.

"Challenges of this magnitude demand not only detailed solutions but a comprehensive vision of what sort of society we want to see emerge from our current difficulties.

"I will come back to the issue of the need for a vision of ourselves because I feel the lack of one lies at the heart of the crises we face.

"But first I would like to say that it is not all bad news for Ireland. We have achieved something in recent years which many thought unattainable: peace on our island. That is no small thing, especially when we look back on our history.

"We should not romanticise the times Michael Collins lived in. They were terrible times. Killings and reprisals were the norm. Irishmen fought against each other in the civil war, leaving a legacy of bitterness that lasted for generations.

"In 1990 I was glad to be able to say on my election as president of Ireland, that I had been elected by men and women of all parties, and of none, who had stepped out from the faded flags of the civil war. But it took a long time for that to happen.

"Fifty years after Collins died, Ireland experienced the sort of terrible cycle of killings and bombings, violence on an unprecedented scale that lasted for 30 years.

"Today we are at peace. This is something we can all be immensely proud of. We should not underestimate the scale of the achievement. Ireland may no longer be a role model for economic success but we continue to be a role model for ending protracted and bloody conflict.

"Tomorrow I will visit Israel and Palestinian territories as a member of The Elders where our objective is to meet a wide cross section of Israeli and Palestinian society, including grassroots organisations, young people, members of civil society, independent experts, business leaders and others.

"We want to offer our support to those who are working hard for a peaceful co-existence while also listening to the concerns and aspirations of a broad range of individuals on both sides.

"I will be drawing on some of the valuable experience of listening to the many groups and individuals from Northern Ireland during my time as president. Our hope is to make a modest contribution to opening up space for a genuine and successful peace process there too.

"It is also necessary to seek to draw something from the revelations about the abuse of children in our society. The implications of those decades of abuse have provoked soul-searching debate. The scale of abuse, as revealed in the Ryan report in May, was so widespread as to leave no doubt that it was systemic and that it required the complicity of many in our society in addition to the abusers themselves.

"In that context it is heartening to see the Irish people facing up to these realities squarely. That is essential if we are to try and understand the pain of the victims and how and why these terrible abuses could take place. Above all, I am struck by the determination on all sides that such abuses must never be allowed to happen again.

"We have recognised the full extent of our economic plight too, and are facing up to the measures which will be needed to see us through very difficult times.

"There an be no doubt now that the boom years have ended. Having to reduce expectations is painful. Tough times undoubtedly lie ahead. The ones who have most to lose are at greatest risk: the poor, those who have lost their jobs, young people whose prospects are suddenly much worse than they thought.

"Many commentators have made the point that the measures we put in place in the period ahead will effect a whole generation. Everyone is bracing themselves for strong medicine. It is imperative that we get the prescription right.

"It is interesting to hear on so many sides that we must take account of the bigger picture if we are to address our problems successfully. Just as it is a truism to say that the law is too important to be left to the lawyers, so the problems facing Ireland are too important to be left to the economists.

"We can draw some relief from the knowledge that Ireland is not alone in terms of the scale of the challenges faced in the wake of the international financial crisis. None of our European partners is immune from the fallout. All are expecting negative or minimal growth and have been forced to give emergency help to their banks.

"What can be said for certain is that for the country to emerge from a crisis of this magnitude it must have a vision of where it hopes to go and what it sees as its future. To shape such a vision we need to listen to everyone who has something to contribute, yes the business sector and the financial experts, but also the social entrepreneurs and innovators, the teachers who educate our children, social workers and activists who understand the reality of being poor in Ireland today - and those who have been marginalised in the past. We should also listen to our creative artists.

"Many have pointed to the way Sweden overcame a severe banking crisis in the 1990s as an example for other countries, including Ireland. The Swedish story has eerie similarities to our present situation. The end of a property bubble, inadequate regulation of banks that were seriously over-reaching themselves - it has a familiar ring.

"There is much debate about the financial model the Swedes used to overcome their crisis, which enabled them to do so in record time and with minimal damage to their economy. What the commentators agree on is that a key factor was that all sides of society, the opposition included, were brought on board so as to have as broad a consensus as possible around the tough measures that needed to be taken.

"What is the alternative to this approach? The likelihood is that, in the absence of a vision of our future which enjoys broad support, every interest group will put its own concerns first and fight to protect what it has. That would be a recipe for disaster.

"Undoubtedly sacrifices will have to be made. There is no easy way out of the predicament we find ourselves in. Two principles are emerging from some discussions about our economic problems: firstly, example should come from the top - those who can afford most should give most. Secondly, those at the lowest end of the scale should be protected from the worst effects of the recession.

"Both of these principles seem to me to be fundamental. They are an essential part of a vision of the future which is founded on fairness and bridging the gap between the well-off and the poor, a gap which is already too wide in Ireland.

"Some of our current plans will not be affordable in the new reality we face. But in cutting back, we should be careful not to mortgage the future of the next generation. An area which has given rise to particular concern is funding for education. It doesn't surprise me to hear resistance to cuts in spending on education. When we consider the achievements Ireland has made since the time of Michael Collins, improving access for everyone to education must rank near the top - and yet we still lag behind many of the European partners in terms of class size and facilities.

"Ways must be found to protect the quality of our education and the goal of achieving access for all to education. Education is the key if we are to maintain momentum in strengthening innovation and knowledge skills at all levels. That in turn, is vital to create employment.

"On an occasion such as this we can step back a little from the immediate crisis and see the opportunity for an innovative vision for Ireland, and for Ireland's links with the poorest countries. As the world focuses on the discussion on climate change, and the urgent need for an agreement in Copenhagen, this coming December there is an opportunity for Ireland to become a champion of what is being called climate justice. To do this, we would need to commit to being in the lead in mitigating our greenhouse gas emissions and developing our own alternative energy resources. These are the green jobs we must invest in as part of securing the future.

"Irish universities, business, social entrepreneurs, as well as Irish aid and Irish development NGOs all have a potential leadership role to play in this urgent task.

"We understand the importance of local ownership, of technologies that are compatible with local culture and community structures and how to build resilience to cope with changing weather patterns."

"...The vision of Ireland's future is necessarily different today from Collins' time. We have made huge strides in social and economic terms but now we have to confront the gravest threat to the planet itself, as well as the serious threat to the progress we have made. And, just as we face momentous decisions about our economy, so the actions we take in the next few years on the global environment have the capacity to shape our future for good or ill.

"I would like to think that among our young people, who have demonstrated talent in so many fields, from entrepreneurship to the arts, from high technology to sports, visionaries will come forward who will rise to the challenge of leading Ireland to a new era of prosperity and fairness for all our people, and a splendid place as the champion of climate justice for the poorest nations who deserve their place in the sun.

"Positioning Ireland as a strong advocate of the principles of climate justice, and a bridge in transferring green technologies to the poorest countries, would I believe lead to the moral and economic resurgence which could harness to the full the inherent talent and idealism of our people."