Speech by Minister for Health, Simon Harris TD at Inspirefest18 BGE Theatre 21st of June 2018

Good Morning, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am very happy to be here this morning on behalf of the Irish Government to open Inspirefest18.

I’d like to thank Anne O’Dea and SiliconRepublic for inviting me here this morning. I would also like to congratulate them on assembling a host of wonderful speakers who I’m sure will give thought-provoking and compelling presentations over the next three days.

I’d like to welcome you all to Dublin, and to the beautiful surroundings of Grand Canal Square, where the benefits of innovation can be seen all around. I hope you will all have time after today’s fascinating talks to take a stroll around the city and enjoy the, shall we say ‘diverse’ Irish summer weather.  Then again InspireFest is all about diversity so I guess you’ve come to the right place.

As Minister for Health I attend a lot of conferences, and the panels tend to have a familiar look. In contrast, InspireFest’s line-up of speakers this year is 65% female, and I understand the attendance is also 65% female.

Instead of this being exceptional, it is the status quo which should be controversial.  More and more women are pursuing STEM qualifications but this does not translate to them working in their area of expertise. We often hear conjecture about why women find it difficult to work in STEM fields, which too often places the blame with women themselves. We even hear pseudo-scientific theories that women do not have the same interest that men do in these areas. With the huge attendance from women at InspireFest and other venues where participation from women is actively welcomed and encouraged, we can show that the interest is there, and that workplaces which do not work for 50% of the population are long past their sell by date.

If we want to bring about change, we need to challenge the status quo, although we may never run short of areas for improvement.

2018 has so far been a momentous year for Ireland, with the passage of the recent referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of our Constitution, and this has come not so very long after another successful referendum on marriage equality.

Marriage equality was a movement and a moment that few of us if any will forget.  It defied the expectations created by an outdated national self-image.  It forged a new mirror in which a reflection began to appear of the Ireland we are instead of the Ireland many assumed we still were.

Perhaps it was an image that wasn’t immediately recognisable.  The received wisdom ahead of the abortion referendum was that it would not be like marriage equality.  It could not be like marriage equality.  But in most ways, that turned out not to be true.  So why was that?

Una Mullally, a journalist with the Irish Times, wrote an interesting piece during the campaign about the incapacity of the political system and elements of the media to recognise grassroots movements that do not follow traditional modes, or perhaps it is if they are recognised the frame of reference they are measured by is obsolete.

I was struck by how the diverse fields represented at Inspirefest are at the very heart of those movements or indeed often breeding grounds for them.  Perhaps that is because they are in their various ways about connection.  That may be what the two referendums had most in common.  People connecting with them and most importantly connecting with each other.  You are at the vanguard of linking the way we work to the way we live and the things we think and believe and that is, well you know, inspiring.

When the result of the referendum began to become known on the night of the 25th of May it was overwhelming both in its scale and its effect.  One of the most striking features was the unity.  Men had not stayed out of it.  The generations were not so far apart as people thought.  And the presumed geographic divide did not materialise.  Ireland’s image in that still new mirror has sharpened and caused some old certainties into question in a way that can only be positive.

It is clear that embracing diversity, inclusion and innovation creates a positive energy we can harness to make Ireland a better place for everyone and a more attractive place for people to want to live and work.  Finding the place you call home and finding your place in the world are intrinsically linked.

Build it and they will come, can actually be about the kind of society we are and I hope that Ireland is now seen as the kind of tolerant, open, inclusive country people want to be part of.

We have opened a new chapter where women of all ages will have a truly equal place in Irish society, and will come to the forefront as leaders.

When I first became involved in activism as a teenager — a little while ago now though not as long as the grey hair might seem to testify — it was because of an issue which was near to my heart and I worked for positive change.

I recognise and salute the same drive and passion in the many young speakers you’ll be hearing over the next three days. I’d like at this point to acknowledge the work of Peter Brabazon and Specialisterne Ireland who since 2013 have been helping people with autism find employment.  Peter will be giving a talk later today with Liam Ryan of SAP on how people with autism contribute to the tech sector.

You will also hear from Shaun O’Boyle.  He will tell you about House of STEM, his Irish founded initiative for LGBTQ voices in STEM – that now boasts members including CERN. Social enterprise companies such as Specialisterne and networks like House of STEM can make a huge difference in challenging preconceptions.

They help to show that businesses can derive a huge benefit from being inclusive and accepting difference, which might otherwise be seen as an obstacle.

Inspirefest defies convention in other ways too of course. For instance, for a long time there has been an idea that the sciences and the arts are somehow opposite from each other, or must always compete for dominance in the public imagination. As the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins said, speaking in 2015: “It is time to recover the unities of scholarship, to strike out for originality, seek as comparative standards the great moments of intellectual work from around the world”.

Inspirefest has brought together speakers who are uniquely qualified to discuss both the sciences and the humanities, to unite them in their approach to their field, to bridge the artificial gap and show the benefits of melding one with the other.

By keeping an enquiring and open mind, they have opened up opportunities not only for themselves, but for others. Dr. Easkey Britton will speak later about the link between the sea, the environment and your mental health. As someone from a seaside town I can vouch for this!

When he spoke here at InspireFest last year, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke about Creative Ireland, the Irish Government’s initiative which places an emphasis on the promotion of the arts and our shared culture and heritage in Ireland, led by my colleague Josepha Madigan, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Last month she announced the Creative Ireland Programme Scheme which will offer grants for regional and local programmes focusing on the three themes of individual and collective wellbeing, connecting communities and innovation. Hopefully this Scheme will encourage groups all across Ireland to harness their creativity and passion for something truly remarkable. As Minister for Health I will be watching the rollout of Creative Ireland with keen interest, since the benefits of being involved in creative activity are far-reaching, and can have a positive impact on mental health and other health outcomes.

Minister Madigan is just one of the women I am privileged to work with in Cabinet. A few weeks ago, she was up in Clones in County Monaghan with another Cabinet colleague Minister Heather Humphreys, announcing the restoration of the Ulster Canal. Today we are all here in Grand Canal Dock, at the terminus of the Grand Canal, which links this city with the River Shannon.

As I passed it on my way here I was struck by how quickly technology progresses — there was a time when the canals were at the cutting edge of science and technology. Now, they are used for a completely different purpose to what was intended.

For me, this links to the importance of Inspirefest. It reminds us that our endeavours need to relate to the outside world, to adapt and to react to changes. We need to think about how our work will be used in the future, and how it will change as a result.

As the ground-breaking computer scientist ‘Amazing Grace’ Hopper said: “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for”. InspireFest wants us to leave the safe harbour – it challenges us to embark on a voyage of discovery; it asks us to re-examine the ways we pursue knowledge.

I am confident and excited that Inspirefest 2018 will showcase the very best of our curiosity, our quest for innovation.

My focus as Minister for Health is on health reform, and innovation is key in this area. When we talk about medical technology or pharmaceuticals, there are developments all the time.

Initiatives such as the Health Innovation Hub are supporting new projects that encourage and enable patient participation in their own care. While technology is important we can’t rely on it alone. We need to bring people together to share and learn, to help deliver true reform that will improve how we provide health services in Ireland. Patient-centred care is at the heart of this reform, we need to create a health service where patients can speak up and know that they will be heard. By putting the patient at the heart of what we do, we can create a health service that works for everyone.

I’m sure you’ve all read your conference programme with keen interest, but I’d like to mention one of the excellent speakers you will be hearing from this morning: Aoibheann Mangan, who received the European Digital Girl of the Year at the Ada Awards last December, a fantastic achievement.

Patient-centred care is particularly important to me in my role, so I was very interested to read about Aoibheann’s recent project which used technology-enabled dolls to prepare children for their hospital stays and the treatments they will receive there.

Innovations like these, that can help to inform and to provide comfort, can help us to lay a groundwork for a future of compassionate care that puts patient at the heart of what we do, particularly as we are currently constructing the new Children’s Hospital here in Dublin. I’m sure we are all looking forward to seeing what Aoibheann does next as she carries on the legacy of the first computer programmer Ada Lovelace. I know that part of Inspirefest’s mission is to provide role models for young people in science and the arts, especially young girls, and to meet with peers with similar interests. In Aoibheann Mangan, they have both.

Looking through the list of extremely qualified and varied speakers, I’m beginning to wonder if I took a wrong turn in life, perhaps if I’d given it more thought I could have been living my best life as a professional surfer or experimental vocalist.

What is clear from the list of speakers is that times are changing, and there are now many more opportunities available for young people of all backgrounds in Ireland and abroad.

Inspirefest focuses on the future, but it also highlights the change happening now in science, technology and the arts.

I know that their presentations and experience will be an inspiration to many here, and I hope that you will have the freedom to choose your own path in life. Maybe you will be inspired by what you hear over the next three days, and make a difference in your own way. Maybe you will seek to collaborate and help the people already doing great work in here in Ireland or internationally.

Maybe you will go your own way, and forge a new path that none of us could have foreseen.  We are strong converts to defying expectations so you have our support in whatever you decide.  The future is bright, diverse, inclusive – and yours.