Dublin, Ireland, 11 October 2014

Emily O’Reilly
European Ombudsman
Address at People’s Conversation conference
“Does self-interest or citizenship rule in Irish society?”
11 October 2014, Mansion House, Dublin

Good morning and thank you to the organisers, and in particular to James Doorley, for the invitation to address you here today.

This year marks an anniversary of sorts for me as it is almost ten years to the day since I gave a speech at the Ceifin conference in Ennis the subject matter of which was “Imagining the Future”. One decade later we continue to imagine although in a very different Ireland to that of 2004.

The speech I made on that November day received a remarkable amount of attention including from international media as it was one of the first few times that someone had stood back and examined the downside of the social impact of what was then a roaring Celtic Tiger economy.

I remarked on the fetishising of consumerism, the breathtakingly vulgar displays of wealth, the crude compartmentalising of winners and losers, the scorn reserved for those too poor or too stupid to ride the property wave, the ostracising of anyone who dared to question the Miracle that was our booming economy and above all, the absence of any genuine self-awareness of what we as a nation had become almost overnight. I wondered about who the real us were. Were we real when we were on our knees, pious and poor, or were the strutting, swaggering, newly rich and loving it Irish men and women, the real us?

And then the tiger left.  And the economic rock on which so many people had enriched themselves – in many cases through the accumulation of ruinous levels of debt – was found to be no more solid than the seductive, but deadly shifting sands on a beach.

And the payback began.  We still cannot know how much suffering people have endured over the last six years; how many suicides, how many descents into depression, how many marital breakups, how many family homes destroyed,  educations denied, careers abandoned, how much psychic and actual pain was caused by our shockingly sudden fall from financial grace.

As Ombudsman, I observed a number of phenomena.  Complaints about building and planning plummeted, complaints about access to social protection soared. As Information Commissioner I saw how Government Departments, including those of Taoiseach and Finance, barely disturbed by access requests during the good times were suddenly besieged by citizens, by civil society, by media, demanding to see records, demanding to know how the disaster had happened and how they intended to fix it. Few had looked so deeply while the good times rolled; comfort and complacency dented our civic obligations to question, to demand a proper accounting for the ultimately ruinous decisions that were being taken.

As a citizen I noticed an emerging public discourse, the raising of voices either silenced during the earlier era or suddenly shocked into a panicked articulation  of almost existential angst about what we had become and where we might now be heading. Suddenly we were awash in repentance, in recrimination, in anxious navel gazing about our very essence, how we had lost our way, how we should now strike out on a different path. Former cheerleaders became chastened apologists and sackcloth and ashes took to the catwalk.

New initiatives emerged to seek to guide this new discourse. We have had the We the Citizens initiative, followed by the Constitutional Convention were we have witnessed genuine open citizen participation in debates around issues of critical importance to all of us but the jury is still out on what concrete outcomes will eventually emerge from all of this, on whether citizen engagement is raised beyond the level of debate.

So now all roads are leading to 2016, with all manner of political, social and economic agendas being fashioned with the stamp of national renewal. The People’s Conversation project seeks to rethink citizenship as its contribution to this anniversary year and I commend you for that and wish you well.

But what fascinates me about the timing is that this conversation and similar attempts almost to redefine or reinvent or return us to what we imagined we were, are happening at a time when the tiger may be about to make a return journey, although this time perhaps in steerage as opposed to first class.

We have seen it beginning to wink at us and to wave its glorious tail. The property supplements are back, the international media is writing gratifyingly laudatory editorials and opeds about our economic recovery, spending is up, unemployment down, and there does seem to be a consensus that recovery is in the air and that is of course to be welcomed.

 I note also that the Central Bank has moved to clip the Tiger’s wings- if you´ll forgive the mixed metaphor-  by recommending  that people might actually save before they buy a house,  but there is no doubt that the property market is in revival mode. On my way to the airport by the backroads on North Dublin in recent weeks I have witnessed ghost estates that have stood unloved and unfinished for the last five years suddenly, and literally, become alive again.

So put crudely, in the event that we are allowed again to splash the cash and engage in get rich quick schemes 2014 style,  will the national conversations about citizenship and related matters come to a grinding halt, or will they continue, with meaning, and focus and will they actually drive real change?  Put even cruder still, when we couldn’t afford to do anything else but talk, then talk we did through the initiatives I mentioned earlier, but if we are now about to be distracted by the reappearance of our old feline friend, will we jettison what has so promisingly begun?

We failed to fix many things even when the country was awash with money.  Our health system continues to be problematic, the marginalised never stopped being marginal and the recession pushed them even further away.  The recession did afford us an opportunity to reflect on how we might re imagine the way we have always done things but that journey has barely begun.

There’s a poem by Sam Walter Foss called The Calf-Path which some of you may know. It describes how a calf once walked through a forest, and opens with:

One day through the primeval wood

A calf walked home as good calves should;

But made a trail all bent askew,

A crooked trail as all calves do.

It then describe how over the course of the next few hundred years a dog followed the dodgy trail of the calf, followed by a flock of sheep and then humans and over time  the crooked trail was trodden into a path, and then a road and then a village, a town and eventually a city. The penultimate paragraph gives us the climax of the farce:

Each day a hundred thousand rout

Followed the zigzag calf about

And o’er his crooked journey went

The traffic of a continent.

A Hundred thousand men were led,

By one calf near three centuries dead.

Initiatives such as the People’s Conversation give us an opportunity to re-examine some of our own country’s calf-paths developed over the past hundred years, and to question the orthodoxy of how we do things. Ultimately, as I understand it, the People’s Conversation wants to guide us to a place where the common good becomes the guiding ethic.

A society in thrall to the type of self-interest witnessed during the boom will never lead us to Adam Smith’s vision of the common good. It leads rather to an unequal, consumerist, overly competitive society where money relentlessly follows those who already have it, and the poor get dragged along, placated by notions of meritocracy and the promise of future gains.

But citizenship – and when I use that term, I mean everyone who lives in this country and not just legal citizens _ is often narrowly understood. The citizen is not necessarily a virtuous being who fully accepts the trade that is implied by citizenship as between rights and responsibilities. When we think about real citizenship we talk about someone who lives by a guiding ethic in relation to the responsibility they have vis a vis their fellow citizens and the consequent need to subsume some self interest in pursuit of that common good.  But what also needs to be understood is that that act of subsuming flows back to the individual when society is rewarded by better outcomes in relation to a whole range of economic and social indicators from health to recidivism to educational outcomes.

But that guiding ethic has to flow from the top, from all of the leaders in our society. Just as people took their cue from many leaders that it was personally,  socially and even ethically alright recklessly to pursue what turned out to be lethal mirage of property wealth, so those same people can be led in another truly positive and ethical direction if the cues and the leadership are there.

I again wish you well in your work. Much of the discourse around these and similar events is hopeful- hopeful of a better politics,  of a better public administration, of better  leadership in every sphere- but sometimes too all of that hope ultimately ends in disappointment. Yet the impressive array of interests and organisations in this room suggests to me that you have both the capacity and the vision to track a different path to that tracked by the mythical calf in our own country. You have a chance through the People’s Conversation to define a vision that gives a practical and sustainable expression to the finer parts of our Irishness, the parts that have proved immutable despite everything, our energy, our creativity,  our openness, our humour, our capacity for friendship and for the giving of a helping hand to friends and to strangers alike. I would encourage you also to be creative both in the creation of such a vision, and in its subsequent implementation.

Emily O’Reilly’s speech at the launch of The People’s Conversation

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