|A young Michael D. Higgins|
Irishness is about ethics, not ethnics. Michael D. Higgins said that his would be a "Presidency of ideas - recognising and open to new paradigms of thought and action". Through speeches the President has explored the importance and challenge of ethics in Irish life and Ireland’s relationships abroad. There are four select Special Initiatives which mark his stewardship of the Áras an Uachtaráin, one of which is the Ethics Initiative.
Two speeches have looked at two especially important ideas. One, the idea of ethical Irishness. And two, the idea of ethically remembering Irish history. The idea of an ethical Irish identity proposed by Higgins is of Irishness based on solidarity, charity and collective endeavour, as opposed to the cupidity and rampant individualism which marked Celtic Tiger Irishness. However I would add that part of ethical Irishness is making sure that being Irish is about ethics, not ethnics. Too often Irishness has been a monochrome, homogenising concept, as opposed to broad, open and accomodative.
Below I will look at these two branches of Irish ethics.
Speaking at Croke Park Conference Centre for the Wheel’s Annual Conference, May 13 2015, Michael D. Higgins called for a more ethical version of Irishness. He said:
"We do not need to be told that the exclusion from full participation in society and political community – however temporary it may be – is a profoundly debilitating experience, and a rejection of the fundamental principles of democracy and republicanism."
He elaborated on ethical Irishness:
"As a society, we have of course recently faced a time of great challenge, a time which has called for an interrogation of the values by which we live together as we set about the work of transition from a society which was not the best version of ourselves to one which is grounded in a more ethical version of our Irishness. We must not assume, of course, that widespread support for an ethical society now exists, and that it is there for the calling upon into existence. There is no clear evidence that equality is a major popular demand, or that there is a groundswell of support for a version of the State that might introduce it. Since the 1980s, the redistributive state has lost support as ever more ground was conceded to an extreme individualism grounded in a hegemonic version of the market without limit – even into areas of social vulnerability.
Fundamental to the process of interrogation of values are indeed questions of governance and the related questions which we may ask in this decade of commemoration as to whether, in our political independence, we have lived up to the ideals articulated during the formation of the Irish Republic, but I suggest that that way is an insufficient question."
On June 27 2015 Higgins gave an address, ‘1916 and the Ethics of Memory’ at The Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. Michael D. Higgins encouraged people to remember Easter 1916 in an ethical manner. He said:
"It is fitting that we should come together here in Glencree to consider the challenge of how we should reflect on the legacy of 1916. For forty years the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation has provided a space for dialogue, and opportunities for people from across this island and across the religious and political spectrum, to come together and quite simply talk; and even more importantly, to listen to each other, and at times come to understand a previously opposing and challenging perspective.
While Glencree’s mission has been very directly focussed on building a better future for all the people on this island, it has always done so with a respectful consideration of the legacies of the past. The work of Glencree has been grounded in an unswerving determination to serve the cause of peace, and a strong ethical belief in, and commitment to, the core value of respect.
The contribution that Glencree has made to reconciliation and the building of positive relationships, across the island and beyond, is immense and well recognised. Indeed it is comprehensively recorded in your recent publication “Deepening Reconciliation”. I am delighted, then, to have been invited here today, as patron of Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, to celebrate your achievements and to acknowledge the ongoing work of the Centre, of which this event itself is an important landmark.
The term of my Presidency coincides with what has been referred to as the “Decade of Commemorations”, and addressing the challenge of this broad programme of anniversaries and remembering was an important theme in my Inaugural Address in November 2011. Beginning with the Lockout of 1913, and responding to anniversaries such as the beginning of the First World War, the founding of Cumann na mBan, the death of O’Donovan Rossa, the sinking of the Lusitania and the military campaign at Gallipoli, I have had many opportunities over the past three and a half years to address the theme of memory and the significance and necessity of dealing with the past in a manner that is ethical, which is of value to the present, and which engages with the limitless possibilities of the future.
If I have consistently referred to the need to “remember ethically” it is because of what I was drawing from the insights offered by philosophers such as Hannah Arendt, Paul Riceour, Avishai Margalit, and Richard Kearney among others. I have also paid close attention to the work of Onora O’Neill and Johnston McMasters from whom we will hear from today.
I believe that already we have seen from the discourse around this sequence of commemorative events, a rich and stimulating discussion emerge about our past and our present and about the connections with our possible futures. There now seem to be few advocates for any version of an evasive amnesia that would seek to avoid the past.
On the 1st of August we will celebrate the centenary of O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral, which has been defined of course by Pearse’s iconic graveside oration. This event will mark the launch of the official programme of commemorations that have been designed to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916. The Rising is the great landmark at the heart of the Decade of Commemorations and I think it is therefore very apt that Glencree has chosen this moment as its focus for asking us to pause and reflect on how we remember 1916 individually and together.
I should say at the outset that I approach this question of commemoration, particularly in relation to 1916, in a spirit of optimism and confidence that the act of commemoration itself can be, and indeed has been already, a source of hope and healing and is not something to be feared or resisted.
At the same time, remembering Easter 1916 in an ethical manner certainly poses challenges for all of us as individuals, as communities and as a state. How do we mark this important moment on our road to independence, and honour those who died fighting in that cause, appropriately and inclusively? How are we to properly consider the context of the times in which the recalled event took place? How can we remember in such a way as releases us from past wrongs, leaves us free from crystallised versions of hurt, recrimination and revenge?"In September 2014 Higgins spoke in Dublin at a charity event run by St Vincent de Paul under the auspices of the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative. He said Irish society should draw up ‘new ethical principles’. He said:
"The risk, as I see it, is that if we do not tackle the assumptions that have inflicted such deep injuries on our moral imaginations, we will end up going back to ‘business as usual’ - as many of those advocating acquiescent fortitude on ‘the road to recovery’ would like us to do.
We must not, then, miss this opportunity to seek, together, a new set of principles by which we might live ethically as a society."Michael D. Higgins as gave a speech 'Towards an ethical economy' where he cited Foucault and discussed the 'government of the self'. He said:
"We need to re-examine the categories by which we gauge economic value and human worth, as well as the language we employ to do so. It is not an exaggeration to say that we live in times where economic worth is primarily seen as a matter of productive capacity. This is reflected in the use of measures for growth as the principal measure of economic health, even if that growth does not impact on the levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality."
You can watched that speech here. Michael D. Higgins also spoke about moving towards an ethical education. He said:
"The society we so dearly wish for will not take shape unless we acknowledge the need for an education of character and desires, the need to encourage and support critical reflection and a more holistic approach to knowledge. Specifically, there would surely be considerable merit in introducing the teaching of philosophy in our schools, which could facilitate the fostering of an ethical consciousness in our fellow citizens."
And the President's website recorded that "Amongst the themes to be explored are: ethics in economics, business practices, financial services and professions; cyberethics and data collection; ethics in healthcare; ethics with regard to planning construction, architecture and its impact on the environment; intercultural ethics; religion and other sources of ethics in public life; and the role of ethics in discourse and the media in its formation and its practice."