Michael D.


President of Ireland

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

A Uachtaráin, Madame la Présidente, a Chomhaltai den Tionôl Parlaiminteach, Members of the Parliamentary Assembly, is mian liom buiochas a ghabhâil libh as ucht na deise a thabhairt dom labhairt leis an tionôl seo, tionôl a thugann le chéile toscairi parlaiminteach na 47 stâit Eorpaigh – institiûid a bhfuil rôl suntasach imeartha aici an daonlathas agus riail an dli a lâidriû ar fud âr n-ilchrioch.

I am continuing in English.

Well, it is one of the great achievements of the Council of Europe to support minorities and their languages.

May I begin then by thanking you, Madam President, for visiting Dublin in June last year and for the kind invitation that you extended to me then to address this Assembly? I congratulate you on your re-election to the position of President and wish you and all the other members of the Parliamentary Assembly enduring stamina, imagination and moral courage, too, in continuing to build up European co-operation and the rule of law in response to the great challenges of our times. It is, for me, both an honour and a great pleasure to be in this Chamber, in this distinguished institution, the Council of Europe, which conjures up the very first steps of Europe’s moral and cultural reconstruction after the devastation of the Second World War.

I am animated, too, by a particular sense of urgency and gravity, as all we elected representatives of the peoples of Europe are seeking to make our way through what must be described as a fragile moment for democracy. Ours are times when, again, we acutely need and appreciate the opportunities offered by the Council of Europe as a unique pan-European co-operation body. These are times, too, that require us to rekindle the values of human dignity and democratic pluralism that the Council of Europe upholds and fosters.

As one of the 10 founding members, Ireland remains keenly aware of the important role that the Council of Europe has played in shaping our own path in European co-operation. The young Irish State remained neutral through the Second World War. It was, in the late 1940s, a somewhat poor country, geographically peripheral, and its foreign policy was very much coloured by unresolved issues with its powerful neighbour and former coloniser, the United Kingdom. Thus Irish participation in The Hague Congress and in the negotiations in London that culminated in the Council of Europe Statute in 1949 represented an important early engagement with the ideas and debates then coalescing about the shape and scope of post-war co-operation. Over subsequent years, our membership of the Council of Europe and our implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights have been fundamental in consolidating the rule of law and supporting positive social change in Ireland.

Today, in the face of new challenges that overhang Europe, I deem it important to start by reaffirming my country’s solid commitment to multilateralism, and to the goals and principles that have guided the Council of Europe’s endeavours throughout the 65 years of its existence. Indeed, ever since its foundation, and with a renewed sense of purpose during the decade that made history after the end of the cold war, the Council of Europe has provided an essential catalyst. First, it highlights the fundamental principles of pluralist democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. Secondly, it has worked on the setting of standards in the area of human rights through the European Convention on Human Rights and other legal mechanisms, and thirdly, it has confirmed the common goal of a freer, more tolerant and just society in Europe. That is an overall framework for which we must consciously and proactively care, and we must nurture it as an indispensable component of the architecture of stability, peace and trust that we have been building on this continent over the decades. It is a legacy of profound ethical significance that is admired and emulated across the globe, and we must be mindful not to let it unravel – rather, we must extend and straighten it.

Before I come to those destructive currents, which in my view threaten to unravel our European systems of cohesion and co-operation, I acknowledge more specifically the Council of Europe’s immense contribution to the vindication of human rights in the fullness and indivisibility of their breadth. Of course the European Convention on Human Rights and its protocol – which my country signed in 1950 and ratified in 1953 – and the activities of the European Court of Human Rights lie at the centre of the work of the Council of Europe. I am delighted at the prospect of visiting the Court this afternoon – an institution so fundamental not only to the Council of Europe, but to European democracy in the broadest sense. Ireland’s deep regard for the activities of the Court and its role in strengthening democratic debate is reflected, for example, in our support for its webcasting programme. Since 2006, Ireland has voluntarily funded the webcasting of Grand Chamber hearings before the Court. By allowing free access to some of the most important proceedings that take place here in Strasbourg, that project not only enables citizens to better understand the Court’s operations and the rights that flow from the European Convention on Human Rights, but it also makes citizens aware of the manner in which the vindication of human rights can inform and invigorate democratic life and societal change in their own country.

In the area of socio-economic rights, the adoption of the European Social Charter was a milestone in suggesting that human flourishing entails the effective enjoyment of social rights as well as civil and political rights. I am glad that Ireland has been a supporter of both the original and revised charter, and that it has accepted the collective complaints mechanism presided over by the European Committee of Social Rights. The Irish have also backed more recent initiatives aimed at strengthening the system of protection under the European Social Charter, including the Turin process.

A further strength of the Council of Europe has been its emphasis on the role of culture in nurturing democracy. For the Irish, a nation attached to the preservation of its ancient Gaelic language, the adoption of the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is but one example, and an important step towards the recognition of cultural rights throughout Europe. Taken together, the human rights structures of the Council of Europe present a model of efficacy and sophistication in the promotion and protection of rights and liberties, and demonstrate a firm commitment to the fundamental principle of the indivisibility of human rights, apprehended at once in their civil, political, economic, social and cultural dimensions.

Our foundations are therefore more than adequate, but that is not to say that Ireland is blind to the possibilities that exist for enhancing the efficacy of the European Court of Human Rights, and indeed the Council of Europe. Ireland is supportive of the reform process undertaken by the Court, and we welcome the achievements that it has already secured in reducing the enormous backlog, which at one stage threatened its very functioning. More broadly, Ireland endorsed the decision of the 2005 Warsaw Summit to refocus on the Council of Europe’s primary mission – to promote human rights, the rule of law and democracy in Europe – and it has been a long-standing supporter of Secretary General Jagland’s efforts in that regard.

While recognising the need for qualified, informed and positive reform, I wish to express my disquiet and concern at those endeavours under way in some quarters that risk undermining the very legitimacy of both the Court and the European Convention on Human Rights. Some of the criticisms addressed to the Court pertain to a wider political argument about Europe. Given Ireland’s particular historical, economic, political, institutional and territorial circumstances, the terms of the debate about Europe constitute for us Irish a very serious matter for concern.

Let me state things clearly: the European Convention on Human Rights must remain the cornerstone of human rights protection in Europe. To those who might suggest that there is a tension between the principles of parliamentary democracy and the international protection of human rights, let us respond unequivocally that parliaments flourish in an atmosphere where rights are vindicated. Those two propositions must, I believe, provide the basis for our collective discussions, because the Council of Europe and Europe itself are arriving at a crucial juncture in their history. European co-operation currently faces a range of serious difficulties that must be – and are – of concern to all European citizens, and in a particular way to their elected representatives, including yourselves. Indeed, it is in your capacity as delegates of the national parliaments of Europe that I address you today, and it is by appealing to your experience and sense of responsibility as parliamentarians that I now turn to the alarming trends – some of a new kind; others the recrudescence of old ills – that currently imperil democracy, social cohesion and our shared future both within our national community and at a European level.

As a former parliamentarian, honoured to have spent more than three decades serving in the Irish national Parliament, and including some years as a member of this Assembly from 2001 to 2003, I have the greatest respect for the work that parliamentarians perform to fulfil and respond to the needs and aspirations of the citizens who elect them, and for their practice of debating, differing and reaching accommodation on the important issues that shape our public world. The suggestion I wish to put before you today is that however grave the challenges we face, they also present parliamentarians with an opportunity to reassert the relevance of parliaments, their discourse, representations, and indeed their capacity to revitalise the project of European co-operation.

The first challenge we face, as members of this Assembly are acutely aware, is the disquieting return to our continent of grave geopolitical fractures that carry disastrous human consequences. As we meet here this morning, armed conflict is continuing on the territory of a member State of the Council of Europe – Ukraine – with catastrophic repercussions for its citizens, as the report of Mr Sheridan, which was debated here just before I began to speak, powerfully recounts. Putting an end to military violence so as to enable people from all sides to return to their homes and communities and rebuild their lives, is at once a pressing and of course arduous task that calls for the resources, skills and patience of various parties. It is also clear that longer-term and deeply rooted differences must be tackled in a spirit of dialogue and co-operation, founded on justice and respect for fundamental rights. That is the test and that is the challenge for diplomacy.

It is here that the Council of Europe has a clear and indeed imperative contribution to make, beyond the important initiatives that have already been undertaken by members of this Assembly and, of course, by you, Madam President, who have been so exemplary in your endeavours to maintain contact with all delegations and who uphold that delicate but essential balance between principles on the one hand and, on the other, openness and readiness to discuss the necessity of ending the havoc of the present destruction.

A second, profound challenge to democracy and social cohesion arises from new forms of fanaticism and conflict whose ramifications reach out to the heart of our European cities. These threats were brought home to us most recently in Paris, where in the space of three days we saw freedom of expression and freedom of the press assaulted in the most direct and dreadful of ways, through the murder of a satirical paper’s entire editorial team, and a further four men coldly assassinated in an act of pure anti-Semitism.

The task of responding to the root causes of such threats is of immense complexity. This is not just because these new forms of violence arise at the obscure intersection of global geopolitical tensions, individual trajectories and beliefs and complex structures of social inequalities; it is also because there are great risks inherent both in the very responses that might emerge from fear and anger among our citizens and in the obvious potential for political exploitation of those passions.

I know that the ambassadors of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states agreed last week, under the Belgian chairmanship, on a decision to step up action against terrorism. The challenge, of course, is not confined to reactive responses; it entails understanding and addressing the motivations of those young people who are drawn to extremism and political violence. The challenge also extends, I believe, to those novel uses of technology and science such as cyber-attacks and remote extrajudicial executions performed by machines that blur the boundaries between war and peace and risk instilling generalised suspicion between and within our societies.

I sincerely believe that the Council of Europe and this Assembly in particular must continue to play an important role in upholding the rule of law in the face of destructive forms of extremism, be they of a religious or nationalistic type, as well as State hubris. The Council of Europe has shown in the past that it has the ability not to lose sight of fundamental human rights – for instance, when the general atmosphere in the West had overtones of a new crusade. One example was the 2006 report by Senator Dick Marty documenting the participation, both active and passive, of some of the Council of Europe’s member states in CIA detentions and transfers – what were called “renditions”. Senator Marty’s report was of great international significance in recasting debates on the balance between counterterrorism and the protection of human rights. I myself recall referring to the report during debates in Dáil Éireann, our lower chamber. That was just one instance among many others when I could clearly see the great benefits that derived from close interaction between discussions and parliamentary work taking place in national parliaments and those in European and even global fora.

More broadly, I believe that parliaments offer an important and privileged channel to increase public participation in and awareness of urgent foreign policy debates. The conception of professional diplomatic activity and raison d’état as being in conflict with emotional and moralist public opinion is, in my view, very flawed. Parliaments can and must hold governments accountable for what is said and done, or not said and done, in the wider world in the name of their citizens.

This debate on whether foreign policy is an essentially executive function or whether it can genuinely accommodate democratic accountability is by no means new. It is interesting to note that, for example, among the issues reported back during the first years of Ireland’s membership of the Council of Europe was that of the relative strengths and prerogatives in this Organisation of the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers. In 1949, the Irish delegate Séan MacBride remarked to his Parliament, the Dáil: “To a large extent the Statute which is presented to the House is designed to shackle the members of the Assembly but I feel that, with the passage of time, the members of the Assembly themselves will take things into their own hands.”

Foreign policy is not the only domain where parliaments should, I suggest, reassert their relevance. Economic and fiscal policy is another essential area, and an urgent one, for proactive parliamentary activity and discourse. Indeed, the third, perhaps less directly confrontational but no less undermining, threat for the future of European democracy is revealed in the largely unquestioned leaching of power and authority from parliaments to the apostles of a narrow version of fiscal orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that seems predicated on the de-peopled version of the economy. Today, global financial markets, assumed to be self-regulating, and unaccountable bodies such as rating agencies, occupy a far greater space in contemporary media and discourse than do parliaments debating the fears and welfare of citizens. What has happened, we must ask ourselves, to the field of public economics and its discourse, for its decision-making structures, previously located in representative institutions, where differences based on declared assumptions were respected, to have given so much ground to a single version of expert knowledge about the so-called laws governing the economy? How have we let rating agencies, for example, acting as some kind of modern panopticon, not bound by any democratic requirements, gain such influence on the life-world and prospects of our citizens?

What can be done? Parliaments both at national and European level must urgently claim back competence and legitimacy on economic and fiscal matters. In saying that, I am not negating the limitations that severe fiscal constraints, combined with intense global competition, impose on our elected representatives’ ability to craft a variety of policy options. What I am saying is that no single economic paradigm can ever be adequate to address the complexity of our world’s varying contexts and contingencies. The current status quo, whereby decisions that are the legitimate object of political debate and normative arguments have been abandoned to the automaticity of rigid fiscal rules from one corner of a dominating paradigm – even as economists themselves disagree over the theoretical soundness of such rules – is highly perilous for the future of our politics and our citizens. We need good economics based on pluralist models and connected and answerable to society.

In that, parliaments matter. Centuries of effort have been invested by European citizens in securing the vote. It is to their elected representatives that citizens look for accountability, for the opening up of new collective possibilities lodged in sound policy options and for connecting them to wider horizons through their work in international fora such as this Assembly. Can we let go these hard-won advances? Have we considered the consequences of leeching this legitimacy, authority and capacity? It is my profound conviction that a strong case can be made for the centrality of ethics to our deliberations on economic matters. This requires no dismissal of any tool of economics, not to speak of the field itself. It is simply asking for a context for economics that is ethical. Indeed, questions of political economy can never appropriately be regarded as purely technical; they have, I suggest, an intrinsically normative dimension, and should therefore always be open to political discussion and dissension.

My message is not a pessimistic one. National parliaments and supranational parliamentary bodies such as this can, I suggest, reclaim a central role in preserving the public world that lies at the heart of European democracy – that essential space shared by citizens, who must be free to debate in an open and pluralist manner, and whose children must have access to a pluralist scholarship, be enabled to imagine alternatives to the ideas and practices that govern their present circumstances, and project their future together, in their national communities, in Europe, or at global level.

The Council of Europe has shown an impressive lead in addressing the fiscal questions of our time from an ethical perspective, as is demonstrated by the recent initiative of the Commissioner for Human Rights on the theme of “Safeguarding human rights in times of economic crisis”. If we are to respond to this crisis of democracy in a holistic manner, recognising the political, economic, social and cultural dimensions to the problems before us, you, parliamentarians, obviously have a most valuable perspective to offer. Every day, on the streets and in your advice centres, you encounter unemployment, poverty, and the feelings of alienation and insecurity expressed by those – particularly the young – who, as Jürgen Habermas put it, “have to pick up the tab for the impacts of a predictable dysfunction of the financial system on the real economy”, and who, “Unlike the shareholders…will not pay in money values but in the hard currency of their daily existence.”

I reflect on what Theodor Adorno once said: “The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.” This is also profoundly valid for political truth. The suffering that all of us elected representatives should endeavour to voice is not just that in our own parishes. We are invited to seize upon contemporary issues of global significance, such as climate change and the new sustainable development goals currently being negotiated in the United Nations. The choices that will be made at the end of this year on both agendas – in New York in September for the post-2015 development agenda, and in Paris in December for the climate change agenda – will have a real impact on not just the peoples of the south, but on all of us on the globe, including in the Western world. We are called upon to revise simplistic binary definitions of development, not just because elements of the South are now in the North, while some features of the North have migrated to the South, but because global environmental and social issues, such as the scale of the refugee crisis in Europe’s own neighbourhood, demand a complete shift in mindset and discourse.

These great global challenges require all of us to take part, not in old and divisive North-South confrontations, but in conversation about our humanity and its future. They present our parliaments, should they seize the opportunity to assert their legitimacy and design clever institutional strategies, with a unique chance to reassert the relevance of parliament and to contribute to the fundamental task of crafting appropriate and morally grounded responses to our contemporary circumstances. We elected representatives are challenged to respond to the current historical moment through best practice in our national and European assemblies, but also as ethical subjects, conscious of our shared vulnerabilities, our solidarity and our interdependence with all those who dwell with us on this fragile planet.

Let us not be daunted by the magnitude of the task. Let us rather bring as much work and competence to the project as we can. Let us build such bridges as will secure the trust and confidence of all our people by showing ourselves to be authoritative and responsive, including on fiscal and economic matters. Let those who have experience of parliament show that they can negotiate the pathways from national arenas to the complex supranational structures of decision making and power that we are now faced with. You have the mandate to do so on behalf of your electorates. I wish you well in seizing back the discourse about the defining economic and social choices of our time. This is an essential imperative if we truly wish to preserve the democratic system that was created for Europe after the Second World War, and which held firm as the division of the continent ended 25 years ago. In a way, we are invited to engage in no less than a cultural and ethical re-founding of the kind completed by the architects of European co-operation at the mid-point of the 20th century.

Today again, from the flux of our diverse European histories, current problems, fears and aspirations, there can emerge a response that will accommodate what our collective memory has made endure, and that which the human spirit has invested with hope. Today again we are invited to reach back to a fertile tradition of rich scholarship, of moral instincts and of the generous impulses of European thought. We are also asked to take from the work of utopian and ethical visionaries, and are urged to be creative as we construct a realistic strategy for sustaining a culture of peace, democracy and human rights in Europe. We are required to be bold as we work together in co-operation, open to the world, caring for it in an inter-generationally responsible way – and all of this is possible.

Mar focal scoir – to finish – the European Court of Human Rights has in one publication been described as “the Conscience of Europe”. Extending with poetic licence that label of honour to the Council of Europe as a whole, we might regard all of you here, in your various tasks and activities, as citizens of the republic of conscience, described by Irish Nobel prize writer Seamus Heaney in a famous poem that he wrote to celebrate international human rights day. The poem ends with the following lines:

"The old man rose and gazed into my face

and said that was official recognition

that I was now a dual citizen.

He therefore desired me when I got home

to consider myself a representative

and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere

but operated independently

and no ambassador would ever be relieved.”

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir – thank you.


Thank you very much, President, for your most inspiring address to us, and for having stressed the role of parliamentarians, and our responsibilities. We shall remember that we need a centrality of ethics, as you rightly underlined, and that we are – I take this as a lesson – citizens of the republic of conscience.

A number of speakers would like to put questions to you. The first is Mr Iwiński, on behalf of the Socialist Group.

Mr IWIŃSKI (Poland)

Ireland has traditionally been a country of emigration, first of all to America. However, recently it also became an important country of destination, mainly for people from new European Union member States, particularly Poland. How do you see the role of your giant diaspora, and the integration challenges and dilemmas inevitably created by newcomers?

Mr Higgins, President of Ireland

As a young sociologist in the United States, the first great work on migration that I read was Thomas and Znaniecki’s work on the role of the Polish peasant in Europe and America. It was one of the great, seminal works on migration, based on the letters of Polish immigrants. We were very pleased in Ireland when the A10 group of countries, including Poland, joined the European Union. We had the great benefit, too, of many Polish people coming to live with us and contributing to our community, society and economy. I was very pleased that, after the economic contraction, they stayed with us. I had an opportunity to meet some of them when I visited Poznań for Ireland’s game against Croatia. We also met Polish communities, some of whom were so warm towards, and of great benefit to, some Irish people who had got into difficulty.

The question is interesting, because what we have found with the Polish community in Ireland is that, whether they are learning Polish – some of our schools give them the opportunity to do so – or celebrating their own belief system in their own chapel, they have been able to place the richness of their own culture alongside our own. That is as it should be. The movement of people around our common, shared European home is of fundamental importance.

On responding to what politely can be called the economic contraction, our own diaspora has been of great importance to us. In a practical sense, it was of immense value not only in helping to create the infrastructure for the resolution of difficulties in Northern Ireland, but in telling the world about the advantages of establishing business, research and development in the country with the largest cohort of young people aged between 18 and 25 who have finished third level education and are highly qualified.

Our diaspora is very important. Boundaries should never exist in relation to the human spirit. That is what we must do now: concentrate on our common shared instincts to deepen our humanity and express it in all the different forms of interaction we have with each other. I repeat that that is not utopian; it is highly practical and highly achievable.


I call Mr O’Reilly, on behalf of the Group of the European People’s Party.

Mr O’REILLY (Ireland)

President Higgins, we are greatly honoured that you are able to join us today. I join President Brasseur in sincerely welcoming you to Strasbourg. On behalf of the EPP, I thank you for an insightful and thought-provoking address.

We were all horrified by the terrorist killings in Paris earlier this month, which represented a direct attack on the fundamental core of the Council of Europe’s mission. Equally, we were heartened by the unprecedented solidarity that followed. We know that a transnational and multi-sector response is needed alongside security, but what do you suggest as a holistic response to the current threat and what broad strategies should we employ?

Mr Higgins, President of Ireland

Thank you very much. It is a pleasure to hear Ireland being so well represented in the Council of Europe.

In the short term, it is very important that we co-operate and share our information with regard to both reaction and prevention. It is also increasingly important that we look at what we have neglected. We have neglected the conversations that should have taken place between those who genuinely advance faith systems based on fundamental texts. In our failure to support moderate advancement and respect for the differences between faith systems and ethnic identities, we have created a kind of lacuna into which distortions of texts and those who would seek, like predators, to exploit fear have moved.

Yes, we must co-operate and be unequivocal in our defence of the values that are at the heart of the Council of Europe, including, obviously, freedom of speech and all the responsibilities that go with it, but we must also support those who genuinely have different belief systems – not just religious and spiritual ones, but political ones – and create a discourse of tolerance. Because that work is now urgent, it has to be proceeded with through the medium and long term. We might ask what strategies are available in our countries’ education systems to help us look at the stranger as someone with whom we share vulnerabilities on our fragile planet, and we must confront those tendencies that suggest that the stranger or the person who is different must be treated with aggression. We cannot be unequivocal about any of those tendencies in our Europe, if we are to uphold the values at the core of the Council of Europe.


I call Mr Leyden, on behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

Mr LEYDEN (Ireland)

On behalf of our president, Mr Jordi Xuclà, and members of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, all the Irish delegation and, indeed, everyone in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I extend to you, President of Ireland – Uachtarán na hÉireann – Michael Higgins and first lady Sabina Higgins, céad míle fáilte.

Having served as a distinguished member of the Council of Europe from 2001 to 2003, you are familiar with the Assembly’s work and that of the European Court of Human Rights. Your speech certainly outlined the situation extremely well – well done on that wonderful, inspirational speech. As one of the founding members in 1949, Ireland can be very proud to have been a small country that worked with the other nine to form the Council of Europe. You as president of our country are very proud of that, as are all of us.

You were a distinguished lecturer in sociology and political science at the National University of Ireland in Galway, where I had the benefit of hearing your inspiring lectures when I was an extramural student in the early 1970s, so thank you for your contribution to my political career. You were one of the most inspirational lecturers of sociology and politics in Galway.

Your record on human rights is well documented. One issue on which you and I worked together in the Irish Parliament was the future of Palestine and the establishment of an independent Palestine living in harmony with Israel. That subject is very close to your heart and your political work. Go raibh míle maith agat, Mr President.


I remind colleagues that they have 30 seconds to ask questions.

Mr Higgins, President of Ireland

I did not cover that in my lectures, President.

I am very grateful for those good wishes. To begin at the end, I do not think that any of us could overestimate the importance of making significant progress on the issues in Palestine and Israel. This is a significant day, because the Secretary General is representing us in Auschwitz. We must move forward into a new space and have discussions that are supported by a secretariat, rather like we had in Ireland and Northern Ireland, so that it is possible to have continuity between one set of suggestions and another.

I would also suggest that 2015 is an incredibly important year. The meeting in Addis Ababa on the funding of the millennium sustainable development goals is very important and, as I have said, September is important. When I mentioned issues in the South and the North, I meant the large exclusions as a result of unemployment, poverty and so on. When I mentioned what had gone from the North to the South, I meant that developments on continents such as Africa and South America must include the people, rather than letting the benefits flow to an elite. Those are real issues. However, after Doha, and given the tones of the Delhi Declaration, we do not need a wasteful North-South confrontation. We need a clean sheet, and we must make proposals that are acceptable globally, which means that we must rethink our models. For example, previous proposals required some of the poorest countries to spend more on the interest payments on their debt than they were permitted to spend on health and education. Those days should be behind us. We are in a new place, in terms of our climate change vulnerability and our responsibility to the planet and to future generations. We must fulfil the sustainable development goals and, for example, eliminate preventable diseases.

Our world is scarred by inequality, which is an issue that you often debate. Nobody in the social sciences would suggest that inequality is beneficial and necessary for growth. All serious writing in the social sciences suggests that the widening inequality gaps and all that flows from them are great impediments to global, European and national stability.


The last speaker on behalf of the political groups is Mr Kox from the Netherlands, the president of the Group of the Unified European Left.

Mr KOX (Netherlands)

Mr President, there are also Irish members in the Group of the Unified European Left, but they allowed me to ask you a question. After the storms of austerity, the winds of change now seem to be reaching Europe. Yesterday in Greece, Prime Minister Tsipras was sworn in. Despite the warnings of mainstream politicians, he is seen as a signal of hope by many Greek people. The winds of change might soon reach your country as well, as many surveys show. Why did so many mainstream politicians turn a blind eye to the social effects of austerity and the political consequences of so many people losing their trust in democratic institutions? I am looking to you for an inspiring answer.

Mr Higgins, President of Ireland

If one looks back at world history, there were those who opposed the extension of the capacity to print and read books. They said that people would read not only the Bible, but Tom Paine, which would be very dangerous. I believe that it is increasingly important that all our citizens have the opportunity to understand economics and hear how choices are made.

I cannot comment on the recent events in any country. However, all my speeches since I became president have been about the integrated nature of ethics, the economy, ecology and society, which are not abstractions. Equally, the public have not been invited on to the street. It is the responsibility of those who speak on their behalf to empower them with the capacity to read their world and their institutions and to ensure they can fully participate. Those who do not do that will have to react to the possibility of a great disquiet.

In all my speeches, I stress the importance of having a pluralist education – I was a university teacher – and a pluralist teaching of economic theory. In the most so-called developed economies of the world, some of the greatest universities devote less than 15% of their students’ time to the history of the subject economics. We have seen an instrument become an excuse for a method, and, in turn, a substitute for a theory. It would be foolish to reject all economics and not to use all the sophisticated tools that are available to us, but it is essential that they are embedded in an ethical context.

I could go much further than what your question suggests. It is possible, for example, for us to envisage a common European and global home in which we agree to transfer sovereignty to make certain values achievable in the future. However, in doing so, we must not forfeit our capacities, rights, duties and responsibilities to implement the content of the charter that has come from the Council of Europe. There is an opening for discussion and debate. Let us take all the possibilities of the charter and regard them as our common responsibilities. We can then exchange and pool our sovereignty to achieve security and stability on the bigger issues, such as sustainable development and climate change. All that is possible.


I apologise for forgetting to ask Mr Selvi from Turkey to take the floor on behalf of the European Conservatives Group.

Mr SELVİ (Turkey)

In 2009, Europe entered the deepest recession since the end of the Second World War, and Ireland was among the countries that were shaken by the crisis. The economic assessments of international institutions indicate that Ireland is on the way to returning to a pre-recession level. The pace of the Irish economy’s recovery and its exit from the bail-out programme over the past two years is impressive. I congratulate you on it, and ask you for your comments on the speed.

Mr Higgins, President of Ireland

I am glad to say that the unemployment rate in Ireland has decreased from more than 15% to 10% and sinking. New jobs are being created, and Ireland’s export performance is good. The real economy – the agricultural economy – was positive, even during the contraction. However, that adjustment has required a huge sacrifice by the people of Ireland.

In my speech I used the phrase “the de-peopled economy”. Economy is a description, but people comprise society, and the economy serves them. That was the view of many conservative and progressive economists, from Lord Keynes to Adam Smith and his theory of moral sentiments. Therefore, what we say about the economy should be embedded in ethics and the social context.

In relation to your interesting suggestion, the Irish economy is not a driverless car; it has citizens aboard, and they paid a high price. It is not helpful to use Ireland as an exemplar of what others should practise. The Irish Government was in a difficult position and it made difficult decisions. We are all glad that the economy is improving in many ways. For example, its debt to GDP ratio will be 2.7 next year, and export performance and the unemployment figures are good. But there is still so much to do. The Irish Government and other parties recognise that emigration is still too high. There is a lack of opportunities to invest. It is not only a matter of fixing the flows between banks in terms of their assets. It is also a matter of getting an investment structure. This is a European problem. How can we ensure real investment in a real economy that will create employment and multipliers that will help local economies?

Although it is a debate for another day, I would suggest that the different political groupings – I am pleased to have had questions from all of them – will face this issue. How do you protect the real economy, its social connections and the citizens who depend on it from speculative flows – the great cloud travelling around the world seeking to come to earth like toxic rain – that create bubbles, be they property bubbles or other types? How do you protect your people?

It is crucial that those who make economic decisions are made accountable – as I said in the central part of my speech – but that is not the property only of the left. People throughout the world are concerned about that. How do we enable people to participate fully? That has implications for education. We are not in medieval times, when a single paradigm descended from God knows where and affected all people’s lives, so that they had to move like muppets. That is over. I am glad to say that throughout the world people are leaving that simplistic medievalism.


Thank you very much, President. We would have liked to continue to ask questions because I still have a long list of people but unfortunately we have to stop now. I regret that we cannot continue this discussion but I hope that in another forum we will have the opportunity to listen to you again.