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Speech at Merchants Quay Ireland

Merchants Quay, Dublin, 11th September 2015

Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo inniu i gCé na gCeannaithe Éireann, agus glacadh le cóip de bhur tuarascáil bhliantúil.

Le tríocha sé (36) bliain anuas tá Togra Cé na gCeannaithe ag obair i dtreo sochaí níos frearr agus níos cothroma a chruthú dóibh siúd inar measc a bhfuil imeallaithe, saoránaigh a bhfuil ag streachailt le fa-dhbanna easpa dídine agus andúile gach uile lá.

[I am delighted to be here today in Merchants Quay Ireland, and to be presented with your Annual Review for 2014.

The Merchants Quay Project has, for thirty six years, been working to create a better and fairer society for those most marginalized members of our community; citizens who battle daily with the problems of homelessness and addiction.]

The contribution of the Franciscans to the creation of a fairer and more just society is immeasurable, spanning almost eight hundred years and many, many chapters of our national history. They have constantly adapted to the evolving and increasingly complex needs of an ever changing country whilst always placing compassion, empathy and care at the heart of all they do. 

Today, much of that work of compassion, care and solidarity is focussed on those who wish to exit a world of drug addiction and homelessness, that frightening and isolating space in our society where inhabitants are denied a voice, a right to participate and an opportunity to offer their skills and talents for the benefit of their communities.  Homelessness has, indeed, become a major manifestation of the inequalities that exist in our society today and a topic for significant discussion in recent times.

The steady increase, in this country, of the number of people seeking homeless accommodation stands as a salutary reminder of the distressing consequences that ensue when housing is treated as a speculative commodity and is not viewed as a social right. It speaks, loudly, of the terrible wrong that is visited on vulnerable citizens when policies are not rooted in an ethical concern for the well being, dignity and fundamental rights of the citizens whose needs should be placed at the very heart of those policies.

If we are to effectively address poverty in our society we must reflect on the ethical questions that are presented to us when we view and review the inequalities that pervade sections of our society, threatening to be passed from generation to generation as vulnerable citizens continue to be forced into the darker shadows of our society caught in the destructive cycle that is social inequality.

There can be absolutely no doubt that it must  be one of the critical responsibilities of a democracy’s commitments to participation to address the issue of homelessness and to seek sustainable and innovative solutions as a matter of urgency, solutions which will ensure that no citizen is denied that most fundamental need, a place they can call home.

The spirit which lies at the heart of Merchants Quay Ireland’s drugs and homeless services, reflecting the ethos of humanity and care on which the Franciscan Order is built, is a spirit which will be critical to the building of a shared future where we can rightly claim to be a true democracy. 

Indeed, coming here today has been an inspiring and uplifting reminder that while the task of re-imagining our society from an ethical perspective is a challenging one, there exists in some valuable locations a real will amongst many individuals and organisations to build a better future for our people.

While it is clear that the economic constraints of recent years have placed your organisation under considerable pressure, it is truly to be commended that you have nonetheless managed to maintain your core services.  This reflects the overall level of support for your work across the statutory, community, voluntary and philanthropic sectors. It is also a testament of your capacity to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances and to work strategically with other service providers and networks to achieve your overall goals. 

The range and breadth of support and services offered here at Merchants Quay Ireland is impressive as it includes access services, crisis support, primary health care, counselling, information and advice. Fundamental to the work is the promotion of opportunities for, and assistance with, positive change and the restoring, to those who have become marginalized within our society, of the skills necessary to re-build damaged lives on solid foundations of hope, self belief and a renewed faith in a society which has so badly failed them. 

I have been deeply impressed by your determination to bridge the gaps between existing services, recognising the dignity and individual needs of those who seek their services. It is reassuring to know that innovative initiatives such as the recently established Night Café and the extended day service will help to reduce incidents where homeless people, desperately seeking help, are faced with closed doors and anxious waits for services to resume.

Likewise, you do not simply wait for those in difficulty to come to you but, reflective of the Franciscan ethic of care for all humanity, seek out those in need through outreach services and your work with drug users in prison settings.

Neither do you wait for new social problems to manifest themselves. Instead you constantly strive to respond to changing needs through, for  example, gathering information on the nature and extent of homelessness and drug problems from those who are best placed to provide such information; the citizens who actually use your services.

I understand, for instance that evidence based research on performance and image enhancing drugs undertaken by Merchants Quay Ireland in 2014 highlighted the particular needs of a new cohort of injecting drug users who have been using your needle exchange facilities. This will, hopefully, lead to new initiatives to address their needs and is just one example of the great willingness to innovate and change which ensures that your work will continue to address the multifaceted needs of those who benefit so greatly from your generous work.

I believe that Ireland now stands at a critical turning point in our social history. We have recently come through a baleful chapter of that history, a chapter which saw the collapse of a version of Ireland built on speculation, individualism and an extreme form of  neo-liberal economics which severed the economy from social reality. It is a chapter in which some suffered more than others, a chapter which saw an ever growing and deepening crisis in areas such as homelessness, drug addiction, alcohol abuse and family breakdown.

We are now moving slowly towards economic recovery but remain challenged by the task of building a society that offers all our citizens an opportunity to flourish.  We have not yet tested the assumptions of a model that leads to a developed version of recovery.

We are presented with an opportunity to seek, together, a new set of principles which will define the next chapter of our social narrative; an opportunity to reflect on citizenship, the public world and the public space, the importance of each individual member of our community, and of our own duty and responsibility to seek to play a role in the creation of a fair and equitable society, one in which all citizens have the opportunity to flourish.

There are of course those who would wish to return to ‘business as usual’, to resuscitate and welcome that which collapsed with such disastrous consequences for many citizens, failing to see that the crisis we recently experienced was not solely an economic one, but also a social one which should leave us in no doubt that Ireland is in urgent need of a fundamental transformation. 

This is a moment of great hope and possibility for Ireland and our people, but that hope can only be fulfilled if bold changes are made in many aspects of our thought, our institutions, and our action. All those involved with Merchants Quay Ireland are a living embodiment of the will required to make those changes; those who work so hard for the citizens who have been failed or left behind by a society that has placed material gain above the imperatives of justice, equality and dignity; and those brave citizens who seize the opportunity for change, seeking to move out of the frightening and unstable world of homelessness and addiction, and look to the future with optimism and renewed hope.

All of you are citizens of whom we can be proud, courageous and imaginative citizens unafraid to envision and realise a better world.

Tréaslaím libh agus molaim sibh ar fad, agus guím gach rath oraibh san am atá rmhainn.

I congratulate and commend you all, and wish you every continued success in the future