Learning our way out? Ireland’s presidential election

 I’ m in Dublin this week, attending AONTAS’ annual conference on community education. Ireland’s economic woes have tended to overshadow everything else in recent years, so it will be a welcome opportunity to catch up with colleagues and listen to what is going on in the adult education community. And to find out what the Irish think of their new president.

 As a nation, Ireland exercises an influence out of all proportion to its size. This is partly due to the size of its ‘diaspora’, and their continuing attachment to their ancestral home; partly to its history, which has placed it at a crossroads between Europe and North America; and partly to the wider appeal of a set of symbols and values that many people think of as distinctively Irish. One of these symbols, in recent years, has been the office of President of Ireland.

 The Uachtarain na hÉireann has few real political powers; but the sheer intelligence, grace and force of personality of Mary Robinson and Mary MacAleese have endowed the role with real standing in the world. At first sight, Ireland’s latest President looks set to strengthen his role’s symbolic authority. Michael D. Higgins is, among other things, a scholar, intellectual and poet. And although he is also a veteran Labour Party politician, he has signalled a willingness to reach out and include all Ireland’s citizens, in a modern manner (one small symbol of this was his invitation to the Humanist Association to join the inauguration, alongside representatives of Ireland’s main faiths).

 It isn’t for me to judge or predict his likely impact on Irish politics, but I do want to draw attention to two aspects of his inaugural speech. First is his emphasis on social solidarity. In telling terms, he argued that the banking collapse, and the financial damage that followed, ‘has left us fragile as an economy, but most of all wounded as a society’. Building a sustainable economy and an inclusive society will, he suggested, require a common search for new values based on ‘an active, inclusive citizenship’. He quoted the Irish proverb: ní neart go cur le chéile, ‘our strength lies in our common weal’.

 Second, President Higgins signalled a new approach to the presidency’s leadership role.  In promoting inclusion and creative thinking, he announced plans for a series of presidency seminars to explore themes that go beyond a particular and specific political agenda. The first is to focus on ‘being young in Ireland’ – a raw topic, at a time when one young adult in eight is unemployed, with lasting scarring consequences that will follow these young people through their life course, and when emigration is again evoking memories of past despair over Ireland’s future. Other topics pencilled in include the restoration of trust in public institutions, and the ethical compact between economy and society. 

 This is more than a hint at the idea of a learning presidency, and hopefully also the broader ambition of a learning society. Of course, not all of the inaugural speech was new: Michael D. Higgins is far too experienced a politician to forget the importance of emphasising a common past, a unifying heritage. Nor is this the end. Inaugurations are a beginning, and much remains to be done. But for once, an inclusive dialogue, and an open approach to social and political learning, could move to the top of the political agenda.