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Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach, to the Philosophical Society, Trinity College Dublin, 8 November 2004

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Text: Bertie Ahern ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), to the Philosophical Society, Trinity College Dublin, Monday 8 November 2004


I am delighted to join with you this evening and am honoured to accept this nomination as Honorary Patron of the University Philosophical Society.

Despite the title being bestowed on me today, I have to admit that I enter this debating chamber with some trepidation. I have been reliably informed that within the inner sanctum of the Phil, your eminent President, Mr Patrick Cosgrave, is hotly considered to become a future Taoiseach! With a name such as Cosgrave, the odds could certainly be on his side!

I wish to concentrate my address this evening on two areas. Firstly, if I may, I will concentrate on recent developments in Northern Ireland. Following on, I will focus on the role of the university in modern Irish society. At first glance, these issues may not appear to be related. My desire to touch on both however is indicative of the huge relevance they both pose to the ongoing development of Irish society. Central to their success is the challenge of working together in partnership to realise the full potential inherent in our society today.

It is that potential, which through cooperation and engagement by all relevant players, will shape the future direction of this country.


Northern Ireland

Since our intensive discussions with the political parties at Leeds Castle in September, we have been working to resolve the remaining difficult issues in relation to Northern Ireland.

For a number of reasons, the window of opportunity for agreement is very narrow. Westminster and local elections in Northern Ireland are almost upon us. Moreover, we are approaching the first anniversary of the Assembly elections and it is two years since devolved government was suspended.

We have the opportunity to provide stable inclusive governance for the people of Northern Ireland, to end paramilitarism and achieve an historic outcome to the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

After so many decades of conflict and turmoil, the outstanding issues, while difficult, are very few indeed.

I hope the parties grasp the opportunity and move forward together towards a fully inclusive society, respecting diversity, based on equality and partnership.

Everyone must be prepared to take risks for a final agreement. But we do not believe, at this advanced stage of the process, that these risks are unmanageable for any party.

If there is a will on all sides to finish this once and for all, I believe sincerely that it can be done.

That requires movement from both sides to close the gaps on the key outstanding issues, including the question of acts of completion by the IRA. Both Governments now believe that there exists a real prospect of definitively ending IRA paramilitary activity and rapidly completing the decommissioning of IRA weapons. The achievement of that prospect would transform the political environment in Northern Ireland and we are determined that it will be secured.

At the same time, we need to ensure that the manifestation of that ground-breaking reality has the required confidence building impact on the unionist community. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) should be left to get on with its job of objectively verifying the process of decommissioning. It has all the required integrity and expertise to discharge that task. However, I recognise that - on account of the deficits of mistrust from the past – some additional elements of transparency may be required to close the gap on this most sensitive issue.

If the will is there to make an accommodation, it ought to be possible to agree such reasonable steps, which maximise public confidence in the process of putting arms beyond use. On the other hand, if people make unreasonable demands that carry a resonance of humiliation for any side, these will be entirely counter-productive and will not work. It would be tragically ironic if the prospect of ending IRA activity and capability was lost because it did not meet unrealistic thresholds of visibility.

We also need to close gaps on commitments to participating in all of the political institutions of the Agreement and in regard to the critical area of policing and the related question of the devolution of justice and policing powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. These raise challenging questions for the DUP – specifically, whether they are genuinely up for partnership politics or not.

The last year has seen an unprecedented engagement between the Irish Government and the DUP. I have been impressed by the serious and professional approach the DUP has adopted in these discussions. While strong advocates of the unionist cause, they have also displayed an evident willingness to do business. In particular, I have been encouraged by Dr. Paisley’s commitment to finding a way forward, which brings lasting peace and stability to Northern Ireland.

In my view, the moment to achieve that historic step has arrived. If in the next couple of weeks we can finalise the offer that is available from the republican movement, the DUP have an unprecedented opportunity to consolidate peace and political stability in Northern Ireland. That can only be done, however, within the context of their full acceptance of partnership politics – both within Northern Ireland and in the operation of North/South arrangements that bring practical benefit to both parts of the island. Any attempts to hollow out the power-sharing provisions and protections of the Good Friday Agreement will neither be acceptable nor will it work.

For our part, we are prepared to accommodate changes to the operation of the Good Friday Agreement so long as they are not at the expense of the fundamentals of the Agreement.

The Good Friday Agreement is an indispensible reality. It is the basis on which we have agreed that the divided nature of Northern Ireland society is to be addressed. The Agreement is the foundation on which all of the relationships on this island, and between Ireland and Britain, can be further built and strengthened.

Prime Minister Blair and I had a useful opportunity to review matters in Brussels on Friday. We are determined to press ahead to secure the real opportunity, which we believe is now available if the parties have the will to go for it. In our view, there are only a few issues outstanding and none of them are unbridgeable. Moreover, the passage of time will not help to make any of them easier to resolve. If they are challenging now, they will be equally difficult in 6, 12 or 18 months time.

It would be a huge mistake for people to think that they can pass on this opportunity in the expectation that another equally attractive one will present itself within a short time-frame. If this opportunity is squandered, it will have consequences – both in terms of the time that elapses before we can again seek to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland and as regards the form and content of the political process during the interim period.

Neither the Prime Minister nor I favour parking the process. We hope in the coming days to finalise our proposals. We will ask the parties to give them careful consideration; to seriously reflect on the opportunity that is now available to address and resolve all of the issues that have obstructed the achievement of a stable dispensation in Northern Ireland; and to take serious account of the opportunity costs if the current window is allowed to close without a constructive outcome.

The Good Friday Agreement is our template. There will be no going back. We want to bring everyone with us. But if we cannot achieve a positive outcome, as partners with the British Government and as co-guarantors of the Agreement, we have said that we will find a different way to move this process forward. We will work together on an even closer basis with our British partners to advance the Agreement in every way possible.

Our partnership with the British government has developed and deepened over the last decade and is central to the entire process. This relationship of co-partnership has been, and will continue to be, a key driving force in the peace process as we move forward.


Role of the University

Turning now to the role of the university in modern Irish society.

Oscar Wilde once famously remarked that it was "the exquisite art of idleness" that was "one of the most important things that any University can teach."

Despite the high esteem in which Mr Wilde is held in literary circles, I am afraid that I have to take issue with him on this. Yes indeed, the University can be a haven in which to spend hours in idle distraction on the more frivolous pursuits. But that said, Irish universities today are certainly not places of idleness.

In their commitment to academic excellence and intellectual curiosity, universities have long been central to the development of modern Irish society. It is our universities that, over decades, challenged people such as you to engage with new issues and to push beyond the limits of traditional thinking. In so doing, they contributed to the development of highly-qualified, open-minded individuals who became the backbone of our economic turnaround of recent years.

As Malcolm Skilbeck pointed out in a review of universities in 2001 – "the test for universities is, essentially, their readiness to mobilise the enormous talent at their disposal."

And that talent, does not reside in the hard drive, the mobile phones, the microchips that pervade life today. Instead, it is inherent in all of us, in the human beings who are capable of turning information into knowledge and, in turn, using that knowledge to further the development of society.

And therein lies the key role of education. One of the great lessons which Seán Lemass and Donogh O’Malley taught us, is that education policy is central to social and economic policy. The historic achievements of ending mass unemployment and mass emigration could not have been realised without the dramatic increase in participation at second and third levels, which began almost forty years ago.

As we focus on the many challenges that remain for the university sector today, it is easy to overlook how far we have come in a short space of time. We started off with one of Europe’s lowest rates of completion of secondary education. Today, we are a full 10% above the average. At third level, progress has been even more striking. Our under-35 year olds are amongst the most likely in the world to have completed a third-level qualification.

This turnaround did not happen by accident however. It was a direct result of careful investment decisions over the years. Since 1997, we have funded 30,000 new third-level places and the largest building programme in the history of Irish education is underway.

Progress has also begun to take place in terms of access to third-level. The top-grant scheme, which we introduced four years ago, is now supporting over 10,000 students from welfare-dependent families to attend Universities and Institutes. Every part of the sector is also starting to seriously engage with targeted initiatives including alternative admission options.

There is also underway what can be described as nothing short of a revolution in research activities in third-level institutions. In 1997 the total dedicated research budget of the Department of Education was exactly zero. Today, there are dozens of world-class research facilities open on campuses. A broad range of funding initiatives are supporting thousands of students and staff across our universities, in both the sciences and the humanities.

This all points to real and measurable progress. It shows us that if we aim high, we can achieve major advances in a short time. And this is why I welcome the very constructive report of the OECD into the future development of higher education.

Their big message was that we have to be committed to an ongoing programme of investment and reform. Where we have quality, we must work hard to maintain it – and where we have serious shortcomings, we have to acknowledge them and try new approaches.

I strongly support the idea that we have to aim to stay in the top division in terms of both participation and quality. I also strongly support the idea that we must do this whilst redoubling our efforts to expand educational opportunity at every level of the system. Education confers personal empowerment. It is critical therefore, that every individual in this country is offered the possibility to develop their own unique talent and utilise it to contribute to society in whatever role they chose to undertake. And, universities have a key role to play linking up with schools and community groups, providing access to those who would never have considered an approach to a third-level institution.

The OECD had many recommendations and the Government will consider them in detail over the coming year. We will, however, not be going back over ground which was debated extensively in recent times and where definitive conclusions were reached.


Public Service Duty

But, given the huge investment in higher education in this country, this generation needs to ask itself one question. With all the opportunities we have had, how do we ensure that the groundwork is in place to enable future generations benefit from our success?

As W.B. Yeats so eloquently put it, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire". And, having been provided with the education, that fire should spur us all on to actively engage with the society around us.

Your grandparents, even your parents, grew up in a country that was vastly different to the one in which we live today. Over them hung the constant threat of unemployment and emigration. For them, there was no luxury of choice. But, in having less, they were infused with a hunger for change. They were determined that Ireland should not languish in the political and economic doldrums. And, today, we are all reaping the fruits of that determination.

When the burning need for change diminishes, so too can the inclination to become actively involved in public life. Let us not forget however, that despite having attained a certain level of success, society continues to evolve. Many issues remain to be addressed; challenges have to be faced. In fact, considering the pace of change in society today, it is all the more critical that educated, open-minded individuals actively engage in defining its future direction.

The reality is that the State does not run itself or decide its own values. It is a human construct, and by implication requires active and ongoing engagement on the part of all citizens. The intrinsic value of our democratic society lies in the freedom it confers on all of us to participate. Ironically, for democracy to work, participation is not really optional; it is critical in order to ensure its ongoing, healthy development. The danger is that if we disengage from the democratic process, democratic institutions will cease to have any relevance for us.

And, when I refer to engagement in public life, I am not simply talking about engagement in politics. I am also referring to active involvement in the many community and voluntary activities that underpin the well-being and diversity of our society. Just think how less colourful and satisfying Irish life would be were it not for the thousands of individuals who selflessly volunteer to work with local community groups, sporting organisations, the homeless, people with disabilities and the elderly around the country.

Even here on campus, life would be second-rate were it not for the many clubs and societies - sporting, creative or otherwise - that define that infamous university "experience".

Trinity students have a long history of contributing not only to life on campus, but also to the broader society around them. I was particularly delighted to hear, for example, of the commencement of the Computer Clubhouse scheme in Trinity this weekend. I know that Trinity students have been actively involved with the Computer Clubhouse on the Media Lab Europe campus in the Liberties in recent years. Now, through the efforts of the Centre for Research in IT in Education and Suas – the educational development charity - you are broadening the reach of the programme. By acting as mentors for children in disadvantaged schools, you - the student volunteers – enable them to explore the full potential of new technologies. You are providing them with the confidence to use the tools of the 21st century in the most creative and meaningful ways possible. Your involvement with the programme, and your ongoing work with Suas, is just one example of how your involvement can have a real influence on the lives of those around you.

As I see it, the challenge now - eminent debaters, listeners, and possible future Taoisigh - is to ensure that that spirit of volunteerism and commitment continues to be kept alive today. The contribution being made by so many students, both at home and abroad, is direct proof of all that you have to offer. In referring to Suas and the Computer Clubhouse, I know that I am only scratching on the surface in terms of your ongoing contribution. The reality is that in a time of relative plenty, it is all too easy to sit back and be cynical; to dismiss those who work for change as misled idealists. As those privileged enough to have received a broad education, you are well positioned to counteract that cynicism with true leadership and vision.

The challenge is yours for the taking. The future is yours on which to leave your mark.

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