When I locked my bike outside the Davenport hotel where we were launching our event on Monday morning, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’d made lots of preparations, delegated all sorts of tasks and had prepared speeches, but still wondered how things might go for President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins’ launch of the Ethics Initiative among community and voluntary groups. The event was a risk, but also an opportunity.
Having met with President Higgins several times in early Summer, and regularly with his staff in the run up to our event on Monday the 22nd of September, I had a good sense that he would capture the core of our work – especially given his input at a national SVP event last year. But it was his understanding of SVP, and of the debates and tensions at the heart of the organisation, that really struck me. The President talked of SVP ‘combining the spirit of charity with the pursuit of social justice’ and cited the organisation’s concern for others and willingness to offer time and support to assist people. Equally he spoke of the need for ‘public policies, institutions and redistribution mechanisms that can reduce inequalities in our society.’
For President Michael D Higgins, it’s not a case of ‘either / or’: of charity or of justice. Because of the member visits to homes throughout the country and the practical help provided, coupled with our advocacy work for fairer policies and a fairer society, one feeds off the other. One is legitimised by the other. Doing both means that what we say is grounded in peoples’ experience and has authenticity and insight and this was recognised by the President in his speech to us.
Civil society organisations like SVP have now been officially asked by the President of Ireland to input to his Initiative - volunteers, members and staff of charitable organisations alike. We are now invited to reflect in a critical way on our own thinking, language and practice – which is quite challenging personally and organisationally if we really take this on. We are also requested to come together with others to talk about the values and vision that we want to see as a society. Given recent election results, discussions around economic recovery and signs from the housing market – and especially pressures in the rental market - indicating that heading for “business as usual”, President Higgins strikes a chord when he says that people are anxious for a new set of values by which to live in an ethical, or fair way.
The next 18 months are an unprecedented time of risk and opportunity for our country, given the potential of the recovery – both positive and negative. So the conversation we have in our homes, communities and organisations need to ensure that people who are marginalised are heard – that’s why we conducted our recently launched research about one parent families, ‘It’s the Hardest Job in the World’. For the community groups and voluntary organisations undertaking conversations and consultations, I’m reminded of the President’s words – ‘ the struggles of the marginalised are the struggles of society in general.’ We don’t know what the various conversations will generate, what directions they’ll take, or whether we’ll even agree with most of the content. This process is also a risk and an opportunity. Either way, the President has set the tone of the conversations by reminding us, who are in a position to do so, to ‘let the poor and the unemployed of Ireland speak.’