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President of Ireland

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President of Ireland

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Keynote Address at the Ibec Business Leaders’ Conference 2017

The Convention Centre, Dublin, 9 March, 2017



Circumstances, both positive and negative, demand new models of connection between economy, ethics, ecology and society.

A chairde,

Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a chur in iúl do Phríomhfheidhmeannach Chónaidhm Ghnólachtaí agus Fhostóirí na hÉireann, Danny McCoy, as a chuireadh dom labhairt libh ar maidin. Is mór an pléisiúir dom é a bheith i bhur gcomhluadar ag an ócáid seo atá mór le rá do phobal ghnó na hÉireann, agus atá ag tarlú le linn tréimhse dúshlánach arís i mbliana.

May I thank IBEC’s CEO, Danny McCoy, for inviting me to address you this morning. It is my pleasure to join you on what has become an influential event for Ireland’s business community, and which this year, we can all agree, is taking place in an atmosphere of great changes.

It is my belief that these changes, and the challenges they present, can be met by Irish people. The Ireland in which we live is one that is already embracing challenges at global, European and national level. The Irish people are instinctively international. They are positive about participation in the European Union and have a mindset that will be to their advantage in facing our new circumstances, including the immediate challenge of Brexit, and, beyond, the challenge of renovating the project of the European Union.

The Irish, all of them, by reminding themselves of their strengths, and supported by good policies and practices, can, I believe, rise to the challenge of ushering in a form of economy, sets of business practices, and inclusive social models that are reflective of the young, highly qualified, creative, and internationally-minded Ireland that exists today. 

I welcome today’s invitation, then, as a valuable opportunity to reflect with you all on some of the fundamental questions as to how we might achieve sustainable models of economic development for Ireland. This is a topic the winner of the prize for the Barrington Trust in 1992/3 addressed and which was covered in the proceedings of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland in that year.  The winner’s lecture was delivered by a young economist called Daniel McCoy. 

Our discussion is timely. Circumstances, both positive and negative, demand new models of connection between economy, ethics, ecology and society. These connections will have to reflect the changed nature of capital itself, its form and its impact. And they must also, importantly, take cognizance of the changed nature of work. As you know well, in our developed economies, the changed ratio of employment in services to that in manufacturing is one that has consequences not just for those workers involved, but for society as a whole.

In such economies, opportunities in terms of salaries, creativity and career advancement, usually arise in high-end jobs, while the largest volume of jobs within the service sector remain at the lower end in terms of wages, conditions and security. What has emerged in Europe has been given the name of a “precariat” – a term which reflects an alarming fracture between the welfare of the people and the welfare of the economy. To some this represents the loss of a key aim in the European Treaties, which held together the two promises of competitiveness and cohesion. 

A wide-ranging public debate on the connections between economy, social cohesion, ecology and the future of work in conditions of change, globally, regionally, and locally, is therefore as necessary as it is pressing.

Indeed, we have arrived, in Ireland, in Europe, and globally, at a highly critical juncture. Across the globe, we see destructive patterns of production, trade, finance and extraction of resources that threaten, not just social cohesion, but the future of life itself on our fragile planet. Nearer home, in too many member states of the European Union, we see the foundations of democratic life being shaken by a populism which seeks to aggregate the fears of various segments of population who feel threatened in their everyday lives, their prospects, and often in their identity.

These political developments are interpreted by many as being the result of a loss of trust in institutions, combined with widespread popular discontent at inflexible policy models. For example, while respecting fiscal prudence, many may ask if forms of fiscal restraint have been near-constitutionalised, frozen – and if so how wisely? – by agreements invoking financial stability at whatever cost. This lack of flexibility has weakened some governments’ capacity to respond to under-investment at a time of internationally cheap money, and parliamentary systems have, as a result, been put under considerable pressure.   

Recently, President Kuczynski of Peru, himself a noted economist, discussed with me his writings on the desirability of a Maastricht for his region of Latin America, and he suggested he would not be placing infrastructural investment, for example, within the same criteria as other forms of expenditure if one wanted to achieve a levelling up of opportunities and a social economy effect.

One of the most serious consequences of our current state of affairs is that those who feel threatened by globalisation, and who have also lost trust in the ability of the European Union to protect them from its negative effects, are increasingly becoming ensnared by the siren calls of the politics of fear.

Indeed the public presentation of accommodations reached by member states, and the formal policy instruments used by our European institutions have, in the recent period, too often had the effect of separating those institutions from the people they represent. If political parties lose support, the people can decide to remove them at election time. If, however, it is institutions that lose popular support, what results is a deep legitimation crisis that can threaten democracy itself.

The loss of trust we currently see on the “European street” is, dear friends, alarming. An adequate discourse has yet to reach the street: too often the words lack offers of moral political choice or intent; too often statements simply constitute a mask for failure, confusion, impotence, or even evasion, in the face of challenges.

None of this is immutable fact. There are alternatives. Those who believe in the European project must come to the fore, and I have to confess some disappointment at the range and depth of the White Paper that has been prepared by the European Commission for the 60th anniversary discussions of the Rome Treaty.

As President of Ireland, I firmly believe that we need to widen the debate on what we mean when we talk of Europe. The choice is between recovering a flexibility that will be democratically accountable or remaining transfixed, waiting for the system to be overturned. At its best, Europe can, it is my profound conviction, be renewed as a project based on humanistic values of dialogue and integration that can appeal to all generations of Europeans and their fellow global citizens.

On one of the greatest challenges facing us in this new century – migration – Europe, and our European business community, have a crucial role to play. They can do so much in demonstrating the immense creative potential of migrants, and in showing that the combination of migrants and those who are “rooted” has, in so many places, and so often, produced innovation beyond each – outcomes greater than the sum of the parts.  Then too, far too rarely do we hear that in 2015 migrants produced almost 10% of global GDP. 

Irrespective of its failings and imperfections, the European Union remains a visionary and vital project, one which has helped preserve peace and one that can still create a sense of common purpose among Europeans. Its values remain at the heart of our approach to the world. The challenges facing the Union over the year ahead are acute but, to my mind, this creates more space, not less, for a renewed and mobilised European discourse, heralding values of justice, positive internationalism and cooperation. 

It is important, therefore, that in critically assessing the Union, as we must do, we do not allow ourselves to be misrepresented. We are for the strengthening of the EU, its increased efficiency, its greater connection with the European Street, never in any sense do we function as advocates for its destruction. The context of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the Union simply means then that we must be resolute in mitigating and overcoming any negative consequences for Ireland and for the Union.

In order to succeed in this task, it is in our common interest to actively seek alternatives to the destabilising patterns of connection between economy and society that have delivered us this fractured world. We need new models that can generate – and sustain – innovation, creativity and a dynamic entrepreneurial culture; models that can deliver decent work for our citizens, and enable them to achieve meaningful lives for themselves within their communities; and, of course, models that hospitable to a respectful use of our natural resources, based on a recognition of our collective responsibility towards both present and future generations.

Much of this is already in place across our European Union, and that is our strength as Europeans. But there are too many cracks in the common house.

In seeking to fix those cracks, it is my profound conviction that a reflection on work itself, its transformations and its future, is a crucial starting point. And I also believe that all of you here have, as business leaders, a central role to play in the re-definition of work that our world pressingly needs.

Work is a fundamentally important sphere of human activity, and yet one whose recent transformations are at the root of much of the political, social and cultural malaise currently pervading so many societies across Europe and the Western world. Work is also, of course, a reality and a value that is so important to all of you, as entrepreneurs, as business executives, as managers and as employers. It is, equally, a reality and a value that is so central to the personal and collective lives of our citizens.

If I may repeat, then, the plights of precarious work and long term unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, are one of the sources at the root of the disaffection on the “European Street” for the European project; and that disaffection is a threat to the four freedoms that are at the core of this project: the freedom of movement for workers, for goods, for services and for capital. 

As we prepare for the meeting in Rome, recalling the Treaty of Rome 60 years ago, it is not a case of describing the current position in relation to the European Union as one of a failure of communication between institutions and citizens. It is that, but it is also much more than that. There are problems that transparency can solve, but there are much deeper issues of legitimacy and policy that require a complete change of paradigm.

To achieve such a change in direction as we need demands, I believe, a consensus that privileges the real economy. I am aware of what decisions face you every day, of the strategies, and networks you need to invoke in a globalised trading environment. I admire you for the success with which you have been doing it and, of course, for the employment outcome it makes possible. May I have the temerity to suggest that, in this new century, there will be more opportunities for you to co-operate, rather than compete, with each other in new markets where it has been indicated to me that you will be welcome.

A re-consideration of new models must also, of course, engage with the role of the State. Few now are advocates of extreme market absolutism. It is not a curiosity that where the case for removing the last vestiges of regulation is being made, it is in the wilder thickets of the financialised global economy.

The choices facing us may be seen as stark, but they are also inviting in their challenge. Yes, we must ask ourselves: do we want to preserve an open society, committed to promoting decent and dignified standards for human labour; a society that fosters a rich and holistic understanding of work as a source of personal dignity and freedom, family stability, prosperity in the community, democratic flourishing, and solidarity with other workers, in Ireland and abroad? Do we want to bequeath to our children an Ireland and a European Union where new connections between economy, society and ecology will have been established, and new policies been forged that will preserve social cohesion and environmental harmony, while also creating sufficient wealth and jobs?

Or should we settle for a European Union, and an Ireland, in which a growing number of our fellow citizens find themselves trapped in chronic job insecurity, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of   short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development? Do we want a Europe in which the wage share of GDP continues to be stagnant, or even falling? Do we want a society in which so many young couples start in life pinned to the ground, their future prospects amputated, unable to move dwellings, unable to expand their family and freely dream their dreams? Are we, dear friends, ready for a Europe in which, riding on the back of that human distress, populistic politicians will succeed in implementing their programmes of severing bonds of solidarity and cooperation between our countries, and returning to a narrow protectionism and the erection of hard borders?

Although some elements of this last scenario are fast materialising, I believe that it is still possible to shift the course of things towards the second, so much more desirable, collective path.

This requires, however, that we come to know, as a society, how to unite our efforts, garner our strength and determination, and draw from the best of our ethical instincts. Good ethical instincts make good economics. Ireland may not be as strongly affected by the poison of far-right politics and social unrest as some other European countries, yet there would be little consolation in shining in our splendid stability while the rest of the European edifice is crumbling around us.

Each and every one of us here this morning is thus called upon to contribute to making Ireland, not just a desirable place to live, work, study, retire, raise children and invest for Irish people, but also an inspiration for the rest of Europe. We are invited to make the right decisions, in our respective capacity, and with the different tools at our disposal, whether as elected representatives or as business representatives, as managers and as investors, or simply as concerned citizens. Yes we can, all of us together, as a society, share a space of dialogue in which assumptions, prospects, fears and dissensions are expressed and debated, and, in which, above all, opportunities are enabled and delivered. 

For this we need a generosity of discourse, and we also need a pluralism of scholarship, allowing for creative and original models to inform our policy, and putting an end to the notion that change is necessarily perilous.This new discourse I am calling forth might well deal with such questions as: ‘How can we, in Ireland and in Europe, develop a social market economy that would at once leverage the immense possibilities opened by revolutionary digital technologies and foster cohesion, creativity and ecological balance?’

If the future of work in Europe largely determines, as I believe, the political future of the European project, then how can we make of “decent work” the vector for a revitalisation of the European project?  To answer these questions, it is important, I think, to recognise that there exists European model of work.

It can best be defined, perhaps, by quoting the words of one of the founding fathers of the European project, Jacques Delors, who talked of the necessary alliance between “competition that stimulates; cooperation that strengthens; and solidarity that unites.” This unique balance between economic competition and freedom, the imperative of social cohesion and a sensitivity to ecological issues is what makes Europe such an attractive place to live in the eyes of so many from other continents.

Ireland and Irish companies enjoy too a favourable reputation as trade partners.  In my recent visit to South America I found a warm, welcoming attitude towards Europe and towards Ireland in particular, an anxiety to share experiences, expand trade, exchange technologists and students; and I do hope we can build on this, enable it, by having, for example, modern, sensible visa processes.

Returning for a moment to the concept of work and its necessary re-foundation in Europe today, my suggestion is that we must, dear friends, do everything we can to preserve and advance such a conception of work, whereby workers are considered, not as isolated units of labour submitted to wild competition, or as some mine of labour to which uncontrolled extractive processes might be directed, but, rather, as persons engaged in wholesome, productive, activities within a social context.  After all, what all of us experience, define, or even recognise, as work is the expression of the energy of mind and body in differing degrees through the life-cycle.

Work also takes place, of course, in contexts of power, as conveyed in gender relations, in conditions of hierarchy and asymmetry. Our definition of the rights and obligations of employers and employees towards one another as well as towards society; the place of creativity and autonomy in the workplace; the manner in which we cultivate the relation of work to human flourishing and conceive of its connections to other areas of human life; the way in which we conduct the debate on work-sharing – a debate that is garnering momentum in a number of European countries, alongside that on the universal basic income –, these are issues that are essential, not just to our present coexistence as citizens, but to the type of society we will hand down to future generations.

They are issues we need to discuss in our workplaces, in our workers’ and employers’ representative associations, in our national and European institutions, and also, of course, at international level. Ireland has a unique opportunity to shape the debate more actively as our country did, for the first time this year, take up a “titulaire” seat on the governing body of the International Labour Organisation, the ILO.  We should be the arrow, not the target.

Alongside this necessary discussion we need to engage on what constitutes “good” or “decent” work, on what models of work we want to preserve for the Europe of tomorrow, there is a second conversation that demands our attention. I am thinking of the rich debate underway across the Union on the various forms of growth that are within our reach in Europe today, and the various strategies that are at our disposal to achieve sustainable growth, and how it is to be measured.  

As we engage with those issues, it is important to recognise, may I suggest, that it is not a case of ever having to make a binary choice between normative [some may say idealistic] options and economic [some may say pragmatic] ones.

What the normative agenda, such as the ILO guidelines for “decent work”, provides is a foundation for good economic policy in the medium and long term. For companies, it is a framework that is conducive to a good business environment, while for society it is one that centrally contributes to the crucial social objective of cohesion.

Who would dispute that cohesion is strengthened if productivity gains that increase export competitiveness, and volumes, are reflected in increases in the wage share? As Dr. Aidan Regan, assistant professor at UCD put it,

“All of the data suggests that those countries that have lower levels of inequality and higher levels of social investment are also those that secure the conditions for a high-wage, high-productivity economy. The question for employers is: ‘what public policies can secure high-skilled, high-wages work?”

We should, therefore, surely prioritise strategies that are aimed at sustainable medium and long-term growth, rather than short term ones that tend, moreover, to be predicated on profit-taking that too often ends up in speculative locations instead of being reinvested in the productive economy.

As Henning Meyer suggested, in a research he conducted for the Hans Böckler Stiftung’s Macroeconomic Policy Initiative, insufficient attention has been given to the content of what he calls “shared value capitalism.” Quoting Porter and Kramer, Henning Meyer wrote:

“The concept of shared value can be defined as policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates. Shared value creation focuses on identifying and expanding the connection between societal and economic progress.”

The challenge, then, for all of us here today, is to achieve such a consensus as will see the State, those in the labour sector, those in positions of managements, as well and investors, give priority to outcomes in the real, rather than speculative, economy and forge collective strategies and policies that will be tested by empirically-based outcomes. This challenge is not just in the field of policy. It is also a discursive challenge.

We must find a way of building, with all our different contributions, an alternative to that discourse that casts competitiveness as the sole purpose of economic activity, and growth in output and trade as an end in itself. We are challenged, in other words, to craft a socially accountable sustainable version of the productive economy – challenged to restore a hierarchy of purpose, whereby economic objectives, tools and measures are designed to serve the fundamental objective of human development.

New international obligations in relation to climate change or sustainable development, for example, are, if analysed, real opportunities to show how diplomatic and business skill used in Ireland’s name can contribute to achieving consensus on those issues. The intelligence in this field is not different in nature from achievement of responsible, corporate excellence.

Our reputation as a country is a composite. Feeding into it are impressions and assumptions drawn from perceptions as to the Irish, who they are, that of which they are capable – in terms of education, flexibility, creativity, and all of this with some charm!

There is a story to be told, a composite image to be traded that is rich and that can be demonstrated with examples from a set of economic sectors that are innovative, productive and employment-rich. A great example is the “Origin Green” concept as implemented in Ireland’s agri-business sector, which has achieved a level of transparency that enables product access to the high end of markets.

Having a flexible and pluralist set of business models, constantly innovating and creating new products and combinations, should sit side by side with the other evolved forms of consciousness that can enable our peoples in the European Union to be aware of the impact of global challenges such as global poverty, deepening inequality, and a tectonic demographic shift which will see 50% of global population growth between now and 2050 happen in Africa – a continent which will soon have 24 per cent of the world’s population and 40 per cent of the young people of the planet. 

Those are the real challenges facing us. Given Ireland’s history, it is appropriate that we see these changes as opportunities for new partnerships – opportunities to use our skills, human, scientific and technological in a sustainable and equitable way.

Cinnte, tá scéal maith le hinsint. Tá an t-uafás féidearthachtaí  romhainn, agus mar náisiún a bhfuil pobal óg, cáilithe, le dearcadh idirnáisiúnta againn, nílimid faoi chomaoin ag samhlacha atá ag teip nó ag dul i léig níos mó. Seachas sin, tá an cumhacht againn samhail nua a chruthú.

There is, may I say it again, a good story to tell. There are many possibilities ahead of us, and as a European country with a young, highly qualified, and internationally-minded people, we are no longer forced to imitate failing or declining models.  Rather, we are empowered to bring what is new into existence – and this is a task Irish business, and Irish entrepreneurs, are already tackling so skillfully.  It is a good time for co-operation between us all. 

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.