Patrick MacGill Summer School, Glenties, Co. Donegal

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Good morning. I want to thank the Patrick MacGill Summer School for its kind invitation to address this, the 25th year of an event that has grown in importance and influence as Ireland itself has evolved and matured as a nation.

Your theme this year - A Plan for Ireland 2005-2030 - is as timely and challenging as it is inviting and, indeed, captivating. When I mentioned I was addressing a conference on what Ireland would be like in 2030 to a journalist who is a lifelong observer of the foibles of Irish life, he offered the following simple, if irreverent forecast - "Cappuccino will have replaced Guinness as the national drink and we will all be in our beds with the lights out by 10 o'clock every night".

So you see that everyone has their own take on the Ireland of the future. I can see from your programme you have lined up an array of politicians, statisticians, theologians, academics, writers, broadcasters and diplomats, to name but a few, to wrestle with attempting to identify the core ingredients that will shape and influence this country in the coming decades.

Firstly, let me be honest. Indulging in crystal ball gazing for politicians is to say the least a precarious business. And not just for politicians. Search as I might I have still to find an economist or economic commentator who forecast the economic surge delivered by the Celtic Tiger.

So, for my own part, perhaps the best way to approach the issue is to draw on my own experiences, fashioned out of 25 years or more in national politics, to pose, and attempt to answer, a few fundamental questions. How did Ireland reach so quickly the elevated position it now enjoys? What is this confident, swaggering Ireland achieving? And, most important of all, what does the future hold in store for a country that has changed, changed utterly, inside a relatively few years?

It is fair to say that I have journeyed together with this country through its trials, tribulations and triumphs over the past 30 years or more. At the age of 25 I was thrust into the front line of national politics as general secretary of Fianna Fail, then under the solid guardianship of Jack Lynch. My passion for politics, and a love of seeing democracy working to try and improve the lot of all the people, has swept me along on the highs of witnessing the new, vibrant Ireland emerging from the gloom of emigration and recession.

It has hardened me to the consequences of the politics of intransigence when coalition in Government was a dirty word and so we in Fianna Fail fought three general elections in 18 months, and also fought each other, in a vain attempt, and in the teeth of growing reality, to preserve a one party Government system. It has taken me into the furnace of political intrigue. Above all else, it has taught me a lot. I've made mistakes and I've learned by my mistakes. The same as along the way, I believe, this country has learned by its mistakes.

I take particular pride in having been a witness, sometimes in Government, sometimes not, to Ireland as it got into its stride. Seeing a country change before your eyes, watching the metamorphosis from grey, colourless, repressive and drab into an explosion of colour, life, expression and vibrancy has been an exhilarating experience.

A snapshot of the 1970's and 1980's, set against the backdrop of today's reality, is important, if only as a backward glimpse for the new generations who believe they alone are responsible for the Celtic Tiger. I never tire from telling them that they are merely standing on the shoulders of the men and women who in this country, and as exiles abroad like Patrick MacGill and hundreds of thousands like him, kept Ireland afloat during the bad times and helped build the launching pads for economic progress.

I don't need to remind most of you here of the Ireland of the 70's and 80's. One in every five people in the State was without a job. The crisis in our finances was so alarming that there was talk of asking the World Bank to intervene to rescue us. Emigration drained us of our youth. The household names at that time were those of liquidators and receivers who appeared day after day on our TV screens preparing to dismantle and disperse companies in trouble. All that was going on against the backdrop of a country and a society that was insular and introspective.

Contrast that with today's Ireland. We are close to full employment with a workforce of 2 million and an economy that is growing faster that any other in Europe. Not alone have we as good as filled all jobs but the Central Statistics Office forecast is that we will need some 50,000 immigrants each year for the next 12 years, in addition to our home grown supply of workers, to keep pace with the employment requirements of an economy in full stride. Projected economic growth is for 6% per year for the foreseeable future.

Everyone in the country, irrespective of age, seems to have a mobile phone. Take car ownership, as a further indicator. There are over two million private cars in a country that has some 1.2 million households.

In other words it has to be acknowledged that the Ireland of today is one of unlimited opportunity, with hugely exciting potential, especially for young people. It is vibrant, cosmopolitan, gregarious, and exuberant. It is a country striding confidently forward as an equal to other nations; it is a nation that has shed the inferiority complex that enveloped us for decades, if not centuries. A nation that that has enthusiastically gone from "can't do" to "can do". We now expect our people to succeed, whether in business, the arts, sport and all other areas. Sport is a good example of this.

When Stephen Roach triumphed in the Tour de France in the 1980's the Taoiseach of the day flew to be at his side in Paris and the whole Cabinet would have had no hesitation in following if given the opportunity. Jack Charlton lead the Irish soccer squad to new heights in the Euro Championships and the World Cup and the nation went into a frenzy of celebration. Any Irish golfer who was to the forefront in major championships or the Ryder Cup was acclaimed a hero. And rightly so. But today, Ireland has advanced at such a pace that we expect to be the best. Winning the Tour de France today might be greeted by a message of congratulations from Government.

We now expect our soccer team to be amongst the best in the world. And only a high profile victory from our golfers merits any particular attention.

Ireland, as I said, has changed, changed utterly. And what has been born in Ireland in the opening decade of the 21st century. A terrible beauty? A nation freed from the shackles of gratefully accepting second or third best? A nation so cosmopolitan that it has shaken off valued strands of culture, pride and history? A Nation content with looking forward and not back?

I don't know all the answers. Certainly our phenomenal success has come at a price. In many ways we are the victims of our own success. Our expectations have soared. Years ago a millionaire was a rare species in Ireland and probably merited an appearance on the Late Late Show. Today we are turning out millionaires by the day. Irish people are oozing with confidence. But many Irish people are also increasingly displaying selfishness, impatience and, even, an arrogance that runs against the grain of the humanity and decency that we as a nation have always prided ourselves on. How we hold onto that humanity and that decency must now surely be one of the greatest challenges of all.

Our success as a nation in recent years has also brought with it, or perhaps brought to the surface, social issues that are of particular concern. The pressures on contemporary family life are resulting in profound changes. I know the two contributors that follow me - Fr. McVerry and Dr. Loftus - have worked tirelessly and campaigned vigorously on many of the issues, such as the blemish of child poverty, the alarming rates of suicide, the devastating effects of alcohol on young lives and destructive impact of drugs.

It is true that the rising tide of economic buoyancy has over recent times lifted most boats in the harbour. But not all. Unfortunately some got left behind. The income gap has widened and the result is that too often those most vulnerable and marginalised in society are left struggling on the edges. This is despite the fact that welfare benefits and supports are increased solidly each year.

This year, for instance, my own Department of Social Affairs will this year spend over €12 billion on welfare supports, double what it was some four years ago. What that €12 billion means is that for every €3 of taxpayer's money the State will spend, €1 will be on direct welfare supports.

The social challenges we will face over the next 25 years will be many. Ireland is increasingly becoming multi-cultural. And this will become more evident over the next 15 years as our population grows by another million people. We must blend compassion with practical responses if we are to sensibly absorb immigrants into our expanding society. There are 80,000 lone parents, caring for 150,000 children, who need help in escaping from welfare traps and encouragement on the paths to training, education and work. I consider the continued existence of child poverty in an Ireland of exceptional wealth at the start of the 21st century to be reprehensible.

It is a stain on our society that I have committed myself to work to erase. We must also prepare for the ageing of the population. Those in the age group 55 to 64 who today represent 12% of the working age population will by 2030 make up almost one fifth. We have a serious pensions problem looming. Currently, out of a workforce of two million close to half, or 900,000, have not made any provision for a pension when they retire, other than depending on the State pension of some €9,000 a year. Over 500,000 are women who as things stand are facing retirements that will offer few luxuries.

The significant social issues we face can be eased, but not solved, by welfare and support payments alone. The easy route is to salve our social conscience by signing the cheques and hoping the problems will go away. The honest route is to go behind the payments and confront the problem. To achieve social change on the scale we need to in Ireland will call for courageous reforms. The window of opportunity is there and we must grasp the chance and make the reforms.

All of this leads us back to the question posed by this section of the Summer School - "What Kind of Society by 2030". To that there are no simple answers. Who asking a similar question a century ago in 1905 would have predicted that by 1930 Europe would have lived through the horrors of World War One. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. But it didn't. By the early 1930's the world was sadly inching towards World War Two and destruction and devastation on a scale unimaginable.

So, in that context, it is important that we assess likely changes in Irish society in the years to come in a measured and responsible way. Surely we should be looking at balancing unprecedented economic success with meeting our commitments to achieving social justice and equality. As of now we can identify many of the social challenges. On the one hand, an ageing population and on the other a declining fertility and birth rate.

The drain of emigration has been replaced by the welcome influx of immigration. Pressure on family life is taking its toll on marriages, and the children of those marriages. In an Ireland seemingly awash with money children still go hungry. In an all Ireland hopefully at peace, what are the further options to be examined.

My message going forward is that we can either passively allow those fundamental issues and challenges wash around us and allow the currents and cross currents of change buffet us in whatever direction they take. Or we can set out to influence them and choose the direction we want to go as a society . We can be leaders - and we must be - or we can be dragged along as followers.

When it comes to influence and influencing, we are no longer that hesitant, insular Ireland of two decades or more ago. We are now to the forefront of policy and decision making at European level. The EU has been hugely beneficial to Ireland. We should not allow that drift away at a time when some of our neighbours may be losing sight of the goal of a union of Europe. Certainly at European level there are problems, but lets not exaggerate. Let's not confuse institutional divisions and squabbles with the true spirit of the European ideal. Let's not loose sight of the bigger picture which is that through a Europe united the divisions and hostilities of decades, even centuries, can be healed and old and new nations can prosper together.

Just as Europe will have a central role to play in shaping the Ireland of 2030, so also will the United States be highly influential. Ireland has unique ties to the US. We are all happy to acknowledge the 40 million Americans who claim Irish roots. Some are less happy to acknowledge that US multi-national companies have been the bedrock of our economic success through enormous investment and a level of continued commitment to Ireland that is probably unique in this fiercely competitive world. Ireland uniquely can work with Boston and Berlin.

Final and lasting peace on our island can be an enormous impetus to future growth and prosperity. Today, it is worth reminding ourselves that on this island on this day we may be close to reaching that long cherished goal of final peace. We await the IRA statement to bring closure to decades of division and sickening violence. Well over 3,000 dead and thousands maimed. I now look forward to the time when, in peace and harmony, ordinary politics can resume its work and we can all pursue of legitimate aspirations and work towards them peacefully as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the influence of politics on the shaping of the Ireland of 2030. Fewer people are bothering to vote. Following the disclosures on past abuses people have every reason to feel cynical about politics. It could be argued that politicians have increasingly less influence on the direction society follows. Certainly society is increasingly influenced by the global electronic media, the text message headlines and the views of business gurus. But if democracy is to remain the bedrock of our society then the challenge to all parties, irrespective of hue or creed, is to re-ignite the people's respect in a system that ultimately gives them the final say on who influences the future direction of their country. Perhaps it is time to debate whether the politics of left and right is becoming irrelevant. What should truly matter in the end is not who is left and who is right but, fundamentally, what is right and what is wrong for Ireland.

The MacGill Summer School is a valuable forum at which to explore the shape, structure and aspirations of the Ireland of the future. It is a process that will undoubtedly expand and intensify in the years ahead. I suspect that in 2016, the centenary of the 1916 Rising, self examination of our achievements and disappointments will dominate much public discussion. One of our greatest challenges between now and then must be to finally eradicate poverty and social exclusion, especially in the case of our children. It is only then that we can hold our heads high, knowing that we have created a society which cherishes all the children of the nation equally.

Today we stand in the doorway of the 21st Century. It is a time to consider how the generations that follow will look back and judge us. They will look on us as the people who had a grasp of the Holy Grail of economic success, wealth, full employment and endless opportunity. Most of all they will judge us on how we used that prized possession. I doubt they will be too impressed by how many millionaires, even billionaires, we created during our time in that economic oasis.

Instead, and rightly so, they will judge us on how we harnessed that unprecedented splurge of wealth to reach down and lift up those who had been left behind by our buoyant economy. How we reached down and lifted children out of distress. How we lifted lone parents out of a social stigma and gave them hope for the future. How we recognised and rewarded our older people. And how as in this, the 21st century, we take our place among the nations of the world can we be proud of the nation we have become.

How well we respond to these challenges will be our legacy.

Speech Ends

Last modified:27/06/2005