Media Library


Speech at the Tomorrow’s Leaders Conference

Trinity College, Dublin, 9th June 2014

It is an honour and a great pleasure to have been invited to address you today at this Tomorrow’s Leaders Conference. I thank all of you for your warm welcome. I would also like to sincerely thank Elie Wiesel for inviting me to speak at this important event which focuses on the ethical responsibility of youth in the modern age.

The students from around the world who are here today are indeed very fortunate to receive the opportunity, over the course of this conference, to meet and study with Nobel Laureates and other world figures, in order to explore the ethical dimensions of their lives and of their peers worldwide. I have no doubt that the next few days will be significant ones which will have a lifelong impact on you all.  

I particularly welcome this opportunity to show my appreciation of the valuable and worthwhile work of The Elie Wiesel Foundation, which has dedicated itself to combating indifference, intolerance and injustice through dialogue and youth focused programmes. For over twenty five years the Foundation has been challenging young and old to analyse the urgent ethical issues confronting them in today’s complex world.

Throughout this time the Foundation has proved itself to be a catalyst for social change, a champion for young people and a great force in strengthening society by promoting the concepts of tolerance and justice for all.

The question of the position of ethics in contemporary society is of great interest to me, I recently announced a nationwide Ethics Initiative which is currently exploring, throughout all aspects of society, the topic of ethics and the challenge and invitation of how we might best live ethically together.

This is a key question for all of society; but particularly so for the young who will have the opportunity of being the source and agents of change; of being the arrow, not the target, as the late Raymond Williams put it.

During my first year as President I engaged with almost 800 young Irish citizens through the Being Young and Irish initiative; an initiative which invited young Irish people to offer their vision for Ireland, and to think and speak of how that vision might be achieved. Many of those who took part expressed the wish for a society which, at its very core, had values of care and concern for the welfare of all our citizens.  This reflects, I believe, the idealism, altruism, and commitment of a generation of young adults who see themselves primarily as social actors in a global community and who wish to tackle the major challenges facing our world.

If I could convey a particular message to you today it would be to emphasise the importance of intellectual curiosity and intellectual courage to constantly challenge received wisdom and orthodoxies.  I go further and say that it is essential that you, our leaders of tomorrow, identify the failed social and economic models and theories of the recent past and imagine new possibilities for the future.  It may well be that the unlearning of that which failed, and its assumptions, is a greater challenge than the encounter and the learning of the new.

One first step would be to take up the challenge of redefining the parameters of economic education and theory.

We have seen, in recent years, the consequences of removing ethics from so many areas of our shared lives, for example from the market place; of deregulation in evermore speculative markets. We have witnessed the disaster that has been delivered in so many parts of the world by a failure to reconcile personal interest and the public good with moral principles, and by our failure to strive to create a world where all can live in peace and with security, dignity and respect.

The economic world described by recent authors – Piketty, Lewis – is a threatening one.

Here in Ireland we are just emerging from a baleful chapter of our history whose economic and social impact on contemporary Ireland was severe and where so many of our citizens were forced to deal with increased unemployment, reduced incomes, mortgage arrears, negative equity and renewed emigration.

It has, indeed, been a salutary period where we witnessed at first hand the devastating effects of a gradual, but endemic rejection of an ethical culture within our political and financial institutions.  There has been a haemorrhaging of trust by citizens from institutions that had been allocated responsibility.   It has been our young people that have suffered more than most through high levels of unemployment, reduced opportunities and forced emigration.

What we are experiencing now in Ireland is a time of reflection where we have had to begin undertaking the task of rethinking, re-imagining and re-considering the way we live, the way our societies and institutions operate, and how we should define and prioritise our values in the lives we share together.

I have noted how world leaders such as Pope Francis have spoken of the unaccountable influence of forms of speculative capital are influencing lives;  of the presentation of false inevitabilities, the suggestion that we are powerless in the face of such forces and its destructive consequences.

Indeed, in many parts of the world the recent economic and financial upheaval has unveiled the limitations of the intellectual tools provided by our texts and training in the social sciences, including mainstream economics. We have witnessed, and been reminded of, the dangers of basing our framework for policy on models that have substituted instruments of measurement for theory and policy, whilst ignoring the essential role of ethical reasoning and the values of justice, equality and dignity in evaluating policy options.

I recently had the opportunity of giving a commencement address to the graduating class of 2014 at Indiana University, where I studied myself in the 1960s, and I suggested to them that

“A new generation of graduates such as yourselves will, I hope, be taking the first steps in a new ethical version of economics, a subject restored to its original title of political economy, social studies that are defined as craft, informed by wisdom as well as by contestable fact. You may find yourselves drawing on what is indeed potentially measurable, but you will be writing of it with intuitive creativity, relying on the wisdom of several traditions.”

Leadership is about leading out of what is in-authentic towards what is the promise of what might flourish for all beyond conflict.

Breaking away into new, original, emancipatory thought is not easy, it requires work, endurance, solidarity, even sacrifice.  The late philosopher and intellectual, Tony Judt once said that ‘the thrall in which an ideology holds a people is best measured by their inability to imagine alternatives’.

History tell us that quietude or passivity, is one of the characteristics of the way humanity in the past has sleepwalked into atrocity and disaster.  It is that critical capacity to challenge inevitabilities and to question received versions of our contemporary world that defines active citizenship, and it requires true moral courage. Those who can get past a dominant paradigm of thought or action and engage in original thought and emancipatory and pluralist scholarship are giving the most valuable form of leadership.

If we wish to truly transform our society we must recognise not only the necessity but also the power of creative thinking; of moving past the assumptions which have failed us and, what is very important, working together for such a different set of values as will enable us to build a sustainable social economy and a society which is profoundly ethical and inclusive, one that locates the definition of the different beliefs, traditions, imaginings, of our diverse planet.

It must be a society that understands the importance of value based decision making in an increasingly competitive and technological world. A society that understands the intersection between social, economics, and cultural realities; that is willing to accept, for example, that environmental ethics must become more interdisciplinary; and that the benefits of every policy and course of action must be balanced against any negative consequences for farm land, atmosphere, climate and war.

Securing a just and peaceful future requires an ethical approach to remembering.  Here in Ireland, and indeed across Europe, we are in this current decade, engaged in commemorating important centenaries which have required us to examine how we interpret out shared history and speak of it. If we are to remember past conflicts ethically, we must use such memories as tools for reconciliation, not revenge, for as much forgiveness as can evolve or be crafted. We must aspire to invest our resources, our creativity and our energy on such reconciliation if we are to craft a peaceful and secure future.

That future of which I have been speaking requires young global citizens who will be committed to playing a role in the peaceful pursuit of democracy and human rights in their countries and across the world. It is just over twenty years since I was honoured by being chosen as the first recipient for the Sean McBride Peace Prize. In accepting it I said that:

“The conservative can exist in comfort only by averting his gaze. To choose to know is to risk being presented with a dilemma. That dilemma, put simply, is that, once one knows, you can, from that moment, live only in the bad faith of guilty silence or act.  Many choose not to know”.

It is, indeed, very easy to choose not to know; to unthinkingly accept received but fallacious inevitabilities or a dominant ideology; to conform unquestioningly to a status quo. The rejection of creeds which are founded on intolerance and extremism, and the active contesting of systems that are unjust, patriarchal, militaristic or racist will require at times enormous bravery. It also requires a courageous vision to transcend the self in the pursuit of basic human rights.

By your presence here at this conference you have demonstrated that you truly aspire to be such active global citizens.  I commend and congratulate you for that. The people you meet and the discussions you engage in over the next few days will, I am confident, be a huge source for your determination in the promotion of ethical and engaged citizenship.

Is mian liom gach rath a ghuí oraibh agus sibh a glacadh páirt san ócáid tabhachtach seo, agus gabhaim buíochas libh as bhur dtoilteanas infheistiú a dhéanamh in ár dtodhchaí comhroinnte, agus as sochaí domhanda a chruthú ina mbeidh muid ar fad in ann a bheith bróduil aistí.

[I wish you well as you participate in this important event and I thank you for your great willingness to invest in our shared future, and the crafting of a global society of which we can all be proud.]