Speech by Minister for Health Simon Harris TD, at the Parnell Summer School : ‘1916 in Contemporary Political Discourse’ : 8th Aug 2016


One of the great things about this country is how surprised we are sometimes when we get something right.

Ireland’s 2016 commemorations fell outside that habit of cynical resignation. They went beautifully. We didn’t have anything like what happened last week at the Changing of the Guard in Buckingham Palace, where an unfortunate understudy – a soldier on horseback – made pretty much an epic dogs’ dinner of whatever he was supposed to play on the trumpet. God love him, it’s going to be tough living that one down…

Our 1916 commemorations went — I was going to say like clockwork, but that would be to understate the magnificence of it all. And the way it engaged so many communities, right across the country. If we were doing a curtain call, we’d be saying “Let’s hear it for the Defence Forces. And An Garda Siochana. And the arts groups. And the community groups. And the historians. And the media and the State.

All achieved something we weren’t sure could be achieved: a respectful, reflective, inclusive and celebratory marking of the centenary of 1916.

Key to that was the very fact that the men and women of 1916 were heard, not in our terms, but in their terms, whether it was through the words of the Proclamation or the accounts of the final conversations between men who were due for execution — conversations with clergymen and with family members.

They spoke to us across time and distance, and they stilled us with their idealism and their faith in a future they would never see.

But that’s not to say that 2016 didn’t bring its own focus, its own interpretation, to the commemoration.

It did. In many ways, it did.

In one particularly interesting way, 2016 created a new understanding of an aspect of 1916 that had largely been ignored: the innocent children who died in a scatter of random acts and accidents and had been forgotten.

Forgotten until that master of the contemporary Irish conversation, Joe Duffy, set out to find and tell their stories. One broadcaster with a benign obsession made us all aware of an infinitely sad aspect of the Insurrection. In the process he proved that central to public discourse at any time is narrative.

We tell stories to understand the present and the past. We always have. The oral tradition is stronger in Ireland, for historic reasons, than in many other countries. It just takes different forms at different times.

Sometimes, as in 1916, it is filled with irrational generous hope. Yes, of course, the rebels were criticised at the time by other Irish people. They were called “Rainbow chasers.” Like any criticism, that says more about the critics than it says about the criticised. And, like most criticisms, it has a grain of truth in it. They were rainbow chasers. Dreamers and poets in uniform… They were reflective, inclusive and aspirational in their discourse.

Contemporary political discourse is less respectful, reflective, inclusive and aspirational.

Part of that is the availability of instruments — media instruments — that allow contemptuous thoughts that in other times would never have been shared, to go global.
But part of it is a new pattern, particularly in political discourse, where politicians are competing like side-show performers for tomorrow’s headline, to create tomorrow’s controversy, to be tomorrow’s trending celeb.

I’m not sure politicians should be celebs, gaining their public credibility by personal attacks on others.

Attacking wrong ideas is fine. Attacking people who genuinely hold those ideas is questionable but constant.

Of course, anybody who goes into politics now had better be prepared for that, because it’s a reality that’s not going away anytime soon. But let us all be clear. It is not without dire consequences for public trust and public behaviour.

We have seen, across the Atlantic, the emergence of a discourse based on Us and Stereotyped Them. Based on building walls to exclude and billing the excluded for the building. It’s a discourse that waves facts away and is contemptuous of expert opinion. It is a discourse where rivals are characterised as devils.

When I say this approach isn’t without dire consequences for public trust and public behaviour, the supportive evidence is pretty clear. The New York Times this week put on their website recordings taken by their reporters at Republican rallies. Recordings, not of the speaker, but of the crowd. I hate to use an over-used word, but I can’t think of a better word. They were vile. They were racist, violent, abusive, terrifying.

That they have been stimulated by one candidate makes one question inevitable: Is this what the candidate wanted?

The Greek myth has Pandora opening a box that should have been kept closed, and in the process letting all the evils of the world loose. I firmly believe that the racist, ageist, anti-feminist discourse now widely deployed is a modern version of Pandora’s box.

The box was opened by the spread of media. First mass media. Then social media. Once the evils were out of the box, there was no putting them back.

During 1916 communication was thoughtful and slow and yes – slow sometimes brought its own problems, but today we have the other extreme – instantaneous reaction, response and comment. Where is the time spent thinking, reflecting, researching to respond in a respectful, inclusive way?

But we see it each day. Every day.

And every time it happens, every time we move to the brute crudity of the communications continuum, it is excused with the same apologia: “Down with political correctness.”

It’s a clever nasty slogan, that one.
It warps a virtue into control freakery.
It diminishes the good into a prissy Puritanism.
It creates a band of bigoted brothers and sisters.

Whenever you hear the question “Has political correctness gone too far?” be afraid. Be very afraid. Because – underpinning that ostensibly reasonable question runs a sewer of squalid assumptions, like that it’s OK to use filthy terms to describe women, black people, travelling people, disabled people or – at its simplest – politically opposed people.

Nor should we, on this side of the Atlantic, point to one geographical area and one particular stream of language as if one man was responsible for a phenomenon that is now global and instantaneous. What we will euphemistically describe as “the conversation” is constant, is happening on thousands of platforms and unlike most conversations, it’s conducted at high volume. It can also be overwhelmingly destructive.

The development of communications technology has been brilliant and convenient and liberating, in many ways. But it cannot take the place of thoughtful, rational debate. We need to have a more respectful, informed political and public discourse here in Ireland – and I’d dare say many other places too!

But think about it.

When you go on any online site where people can comment on the actions or ideas of a public figure (not necessarily even a politician) you cannot but be struck by how often those comments seem disproportionately angry with just about everything.

Being angry is sometimes taken to being the same as being idealistic. Not so. Being frustrated isn’t the same as being angry.

I got into politics because of a bone-deep frustration with the way people with disabilities were treated by the state.

I figured that the payoff in a democratic society is that if you persuade enough people to pass a law, let’s say about disabilities, that can have a major positive impact not just on the group you care most about, but on all groups and for generations to come.

I’m in politics now for 7 years and I still believe that. With a passion, I believe it.

Here are some other things I believe in. ‘Religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens’ and a resolve ‘to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally..’

I believe that when a politician starts thinking or talking about their legacy, they’re done. It’s over.

But at the same time, I believe every politician elected to Dáil Éireann should never, ever accept the continuum of things. The men and women of 1916 had a big simple objective: end British rule and everything else would follow, as day followed night.

No such simple objectives are presented to the men and women of 2016. Certainly not to any one Minister. Definitely not to the Minister for Health.

But — and it’s a great big BUT.

But it is the duty of each and every one of us in politics to be driven, to be obsessed, with the determination to leave our country better than it was when we were elected to serve it. It is my duty not to measure success in attaining specific arbitrary targets – but to measure it by constantly asking the questions: Will the people of Ireland live better, healthier lives as a result of my time in office? Will 2016 be seen, in times to come, as the year we began to make healthcare equal and effective for each and every citizen?

Before I conclude, I want to go back to a term of abuse.

A term of abuse from a gentler time.

Rainbow chasers.

That’s the unspoken and frequently forgotten mission of every elected politician: to be a rainbow chaser. To seek the best and disregard the worst.

It’s the only way to survive modern politics, in my view. It’s the only way to deliver the dreams and hopes owned by each and every citizen in this great country.

And it helps not to forget one thing about Pandora’s box. When she released all the evils, she slammed the lid closed. What she didn’t realise was that one element was still inside. Hope. There’s always hope…

Thank you.