Diarmaid Ferriter: Allianz’s act of monumental hypocrisy

Donogh O’Malley’s free education speech from 1966 is pillaged for profit by insurer

In the Allianz ad Donogh O’Malley’s son Daragh  delivers the famous speech introducing free education.

In the Allianz ad Donogh O’Malley’s son Daragh delivers the famous speech introducing free education.

 

It is bad enough that we have to endure nauseating advertising campaigns from banks that betrayed us so deeply; the ads that trumpet their supposed humanity, flexibility and belief in our plights and hopes. But now we must also stomach an insurance company plundering an historic Irish political speech concerning egalitarianism in education in order to promote its business.

The ad, by the agency In the Company of Huskies, is for Allianz Ireland and involves a recreation of the entire speech of minister for education Donogh O’Malley when he announced the introduction of free secondary education in September 1966. His actor son Daragh O’Malley delivers the speech. Daragh, a fine actor, gives an impressive performance and is rightly proud of his father and what the speech represented. According to the agency’s promotional blurb, “This one act of monumental courage represents a pivotal point in Irish history and had major consequences for social mobility and cultural change”.

It did indeed, but the ad can also be seen as a travesty.

Insurance companies in Ireland do not cover courage; they make decisions every day that crush people

According to the agency’s creative director Damian Hanley, the advertising campaign “depicts true acts of courage by Irish people and helps reconnect customers to the idealistic roots of insurance, reminding them that Allianz is there to support them when they face big and small choices that impact on their lives”.

Seán McGrath, chief executive of Allianz Ireland maintains, “With one statement, Minister O’Malley made free secondary education – an idea that had been circulated and debated, though never fully realised – a reality. It can be easy to overlook the huge courage it took to announce this, but he believed this would help us overcome poverty and once announced, it could not be taken back. Free education has been a core element of our society’s evolution.”

Give me a break. How can we take this piety seriously from an insurance company that is wrapping the slogan “We Cover Courage” around the campaign? Insurance companies in Ireland do not cover courage; they make decisions every day that crush people and there has been no shortage of stories aired in recent years and months about extortionate rises in insurance premiums and lack of market transparency across the industry.

Exactly 50 years after O’Malley’s speech, in September 2016, the International Monetary Fund found that insurance premiums per capita in Ireland were four times higher than the EU average. Allianz is one of Ireland’s largest general insurance companies with an annual turnover in excess of €450 million; it is part of the Allianz SE group, one of the world’s leading integrated financial services providers, which had an operating profit of €11.5 billion in 2018. Covering “courage” is a mightily lucrative and rewarding business. So is not covering courage.

And therein lies the offensiveness of this campaign. O’Malley’s initiative in 1966 was about the very antithesis of corporate profit; it was about the common good and making further education accessible to those who could not afford it. It would be nice to think that an insurance company would properly consider some of the key messages of O’Malley’s speech instead of pillaging it for profit. What he highlighted was “the fact that many of our families cannot afford to pay even part of the cost of the education of their children”. These were families “who, in the matter of post-primary education, wish to do their very best for their children but now find that the school fees – even when those are modest – are quite beyond their means”.

Where does the insurance industry stand on the issue of accessibility and affordability? Very far indeed from the ideals articulated by O’Malley and the two previous ministers for education, Patrick Hillery and George Colley, who O’Malley acknowledged in his speech, had “done so much in laying plans for the future”. In a lengthy memorandum in 1963, Hillery had insisted that the only way to reform Irish education was to confront those with a vested interest in the system remaining as it was – another message of relevance to the Irish insurance industry.

In justifying the decision to make his announcement, O’Malley wrote to the taoiseach Seán Lemass, who had gently rebuked him after the speech for not submitting detailed plans to the government beforehand.

“By now, I have received an unprecedented number of letters of commendation, particularly from parents. This is unique in my political experience and proves, I think, there is a widespread demand and support for what I wish to achieve . . . I believe that it is essential for a government from time to time to propound bold new policies which both catch the imagination of the people and respond to some widespread demand on their part”.

Would that those in control of insurance in Ireland propounded bold new and more affordable policies instead of stealing the scene of a seminal moment in Irish social and educational history in an attempt to make even more profit.

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