Fergus Finlay at the Annual Parliament Meeting 2009

Making all our Voices heard

Remarks by Fergus Finlay, CEO, Barnardos At the Senior Citizens Parliament Dublin, 17th April 2009

It was our former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, who famously urged us to party on as if there were no tomorrow. And for many years it seemed, despite all sorts of warning signs, that the party would never end. Well, I think we all have to accept that the party’s over, at least for now.

And the choice we now have to make is the same as the guests at any party where the hosts have encouraged over-indulgence. Do we give in to the hang-over, take to the bed and feel sorry for ourselves? Or do we decide that this is the time when we look after each other, and recover some of the things that we might have lost during the period when we were all being told that there was no need to worry about tomorrow?

If I could put that another way: we’re in a period of transition now. We need, all of us, to be heard in a demand that that transition be accomplished in a spirit of social justice and solidarity, and not by forcing the weakest and most vulnerable to carry the burden of adjustment. I believe we should be heard together.

I met a businessman about a year ago, who told me that the greatest tragedy would be if the only legacy of the celtic tiger was a very large fleet of second-hand luxury cars. It’s beginning to look that way, isn’t it? With jobs being lost at the rate of hundreds a day, factory closures no longer making the news unless they’re big ones, banks teetering on the brink of extinction, and the public finances apparently going to hell at a rate of knots, there is cause to be afraid.

But the celtic tiger always had two sides to it – a snarl as well as a smile. That’s because of the choices we made throughout that entire period.

When the businessman made his sad remark, it reminded me of an incident that I wrote about involving two friends, back in 2002. They were caught up in traffic, between Castledermot and Thomastown. To while away the time, they began counting Mercedes in the oncoming traffic. It was a busy sporting weekend, and there had been an international golf tournament in Mount Juliet. In the short distance they travelled, they counted 106 Mercedes coming against them – none of them older than two years old.

In that same weekend – this was shortly after the 2002 general election – the newspapers were full of cuts and the threat of cuts. That was the way we did it in those days, and it is still possible to see the graphs. In 1997, 2002, and 2007 we drove public spending up immediately before every election – throwing money at every problem imaginable – and then, as soon as the election was out of the way, we squeezed it as tightly as possible. And always, we got lectures from our leaders and some of the media about how high taxes were in Ireland, and how little we could afford to support people who were vulnerable.

At the time we began that round of cuts – and this was at the height of the celtic tiger – Ireland spent 3,339 ecu per head of the population on what was called social protection – the range of payments and services for people who are unemployed, sick, pensioned, or have a disability.

The EU average at the time was 5,601 and the average within the eurozone was 5,558. In fact, the only countries that spent less than us on social protection were Greece, Spain and Portugal – where at least the population can benefit from a better climate!

At the height of the celtic tiger, we just missed being the richest country in the world. But our leaders made a choice for us in Ireland. They never really debated it with us, they just put the propaganda in place to make sure we would see things their way. And the choice they made for us is this. Everything that could be done to facilitate the growth of private wealth and consumption was done. Everything that could be done to make sure that no sense of community obligation interfered with that growth of private wealth was done. One of the great ironies of that policy approach was that it has led to a situation where today, twenty of our leading economists – none of whom could be called radical – are calling for the taking into public ownership of the banks.

In many ways, of course, the manifestations of the celtic tiger years were spectacular. One of the great pleasures of my job over the last few years has been the opportunity it has given me to travel around Ireland. And it is impossible to do that without noticing that virtually every town in the country acquired three things in common with every other town. No matter where you go, on the Cork to Dublin road, through the towns in the midlands or the west or the north east, down south of Limerick and into Kerry, or through Carlow, Kilkenny and into the south east, they’re all the same.

Every single town had a brand new hotel on its outskirts, sometimes one on each corner of the town. And all the hotels had enormous signs outside, advertising the cheapest prices you’ve ever seen and the most attractive possible amenities. After you’ve seen the signs, you’d never want to stay anywhere else – until you see the next sign.

And every town was ringed by new apartment blocks. All luxurious, all exclusive, all dripping with prestige. You had to be ready to snap them up, because they were all “almost” sold out – despite prices that seemed more like Malibu than Mountrath. Generally speaking, they tended to be surrounded by scaffolding, and they were usually built so close to the road that that it was hard to visualise the gardens and the play areas that had to be associated with such luxury and prestige.

And the third thing you saw everywhere, at the edge of every town you drove into now, were the new cathedrals. New places of worship, built on a scale we’ve never seen before. Humbling in their majesty, awe-inspiring in their magnificence. What new Gods, you wondered, have come to inhabit the earth? Who could possibly deserve a home made with such a lavish outpouring of glass and steel, such vaulted ceilings, such an abundance of light that they can be seen from miles away?

And then you draw a little closer, and see the signs over these wonderful basilicas. Honda. Mitsubishi. Volvo. Ford. And slowly it dawned on you. It wasn’t Gods, nor even people of high rank. These homes were built for cars, to keep them dry, warm and shiny, and to enable us to gaze on them with wonder. It was one of the great manifestations of the new religion of consumerism – materialism made flesh.

And it must have cost millions. All over the country we built huge shrines to new cars. Nobody lived there except the cars, and yet they were lit through the night. They looked warm and comfortable, the cars all beautifully looked after. There are places in our larger cities where there are whole streets of these cathedrals, lined up one after the other, each one more magnificent than the next. In all our lifetimes there has never been anything like it. Palaces for cars. Magnificent surroundings to make sure they feel at home.

Sister Stanislaus Kennedy has described home this way: “Home is a place in which to feel safe and secure, warm and dry. A place to rest, eat, sleep and entertain, find solitude, pray, love, laugh, argue and cry. A place to read a book, share a meal, watch a television programme, play an instrument, do a bit of gardening, play with the children, get the housework done and the bills paid, be at ease with oneself and with friends and family, in safety and security without fear of interference or intrusion.”

And she goes on to say that the need for a place like that is deep and urgent in all of us. “The desire for a place called home is the deepest need in every human heart and perhaps the least recognised,” she says. I’m sure the cars feel the same.

We started building these mausoleums in the early 1990s, as the celtic tiger started to roar. Back in 1995, for example, we bought almost 83,000 cars brand new. By 2005 that number had increased to 166,000 – exactly double the number we bought a mere decade earlier.

But here’s an odd thing. Back in 1996, before the celtic tiger really took off, the number of people who were homeless in Ireland was almost exactly 2,500. A decade later, the official figure was 5,581. The number of shiny new cars we own doubled in a decade. So did the number of people who had nowhere to live.

A few years ago, again at the height of the celtic tiger, Professor Robert Putnam visited Ireland. He’s a man whose work we all admire, and his message has been the same wherever he goes. “More Americans watch Friends than have friends,” was one of his sayings.

His message was that the civic engagement – the neighbourhood friendships, the dinner parties, the group discussions, the club memberships, the church committees, the political participation; all the involvements, even the street protests, that make a democracy work – has declined over the last 30 years. And he made the point during his visit that it could happen here in Ireland – indeed, that it was well under way here.

In the week he visited Ireland, and I remember researching it at the time, the Finance Bill became law. That Bill contained, among other things, the following provisions:

  • £1.2 billion in tax reductions, a significant proportion of which went to reduce the top tax rate
  • New and very substantial tax breaks for share options
  • Tax incentives for landlords and tenants
  • Reductions in stamp duty rates
  • Abandonment of a new anti-speculative tax that had been announced the previous summer
  • Major new tax breaks for people who invest in private hospitals
  • Relaxation of the rules relating to tax returns.

We worried aloud about the impact of materialism and affluence on old-fashioned values of community. But when we stopped worrying, we got on with driving the affluence, and always in one direction. Throughout all those years, housing lists increased, the waiting lists for core disability services got longer, elderly people waited on trolleys or chairs in hospital corridors for essential treatment and care, and tens of thousands of Irish families remained stuck in grinding poverty. Indeed, despite regular changes of definition, the number of children in consistent poverty in Ireland remained more or less the same as the country got richer and richer.

And other things happened too. Little by little, and side by side with our prosperity, we have developed a society that is becoming almost entirely value-free. I know it is sometimes argued that the decline in our older value systems, rooted as they were in religion, was the consequence of a new liberalism, and of debate about issues like marital breakdown and family planning – debates that convulsed us before our wealth began to accumulate.

I don’t accept that. But I do believe the day is surely coming when we will all regret the gradual erosion of a value system and its replacement by nothing at all, except perhaps the worship of materialism. And it’s not just a value system that’s gone, but even some of the traditional concepts around which we built a community, concepts like neighbourliness, for instance.

Side by side with that, we have the spectacle of priests, bishops, politicians, gardai, doctors, bankers, business people, even some sportspeople – there has hardly been a profession or form of public life which has not been tarnished by the behaviour of a few, and often more than a few. The discredit into which all forms of authority have fallen in the last twenty years, caused in the main by self-inflicted wounds, has left a deep and so far unfilled vacuum.

These and other social, cultural and political changes have undoubtedly contributed to the emergence of a more profound individualism, where individuals are less constrained by the influence of social demands and absolutist moral codes. And in recent years we have also begun to see the emergence of a link between the growing individualism and an emphasis on consumerism, whereby success and fulfilment began to be associated with consumption and the display of a variety of material possessions.

Some commentators have argued that the institutions most severely undermined by the new moral individualism were the traditional family and traditional organised churches. In our case, it could perhaps also be argued that a direct result of all of that has been that we have become one of those boats lifted on high by a rising tide, but desperately in need of an anchor because of a dangerous swell.

So, it probably won’t come as a surprise if I argue that there really is no need for us to mourn the passing of the celtic tiger. Of course good things happened in those years too, especially in the area of pensions and other supports. Of course there are issues we must now address, in an economy that is under more stress than at any time in our history. One of the biggest challenges, and we know this already, will be to sustain and protect the gains made in the past.

But at least we know that those challenges cannot be dealt with in the way we have become accustomed to – by throwing money at them. We may not be able to get out of the mess we are in without a huge investment of blood, sweat and tears. But we are also certain to need a lot of imagination, a lot of creativity and new thinking, and a lot of solidarity.

For that reason, one the things we should be really thankful for has been the growth in the last ten years of organisations like the Senior Citizens Parliament, and the willingness of people of every generation to speak up for themselves. We failed to defeat poverty and exclusion while we were wealthy – perhaps because we didn’t try very hard. But there is a real opportunity now, by pulling together in a different direction, to set our sights a lot higher.

Part of the answer may lie in the much bigger pool of people with significant skills and with time on their hands. While social capital and volunteering are not the same thing (Putnam describes the former as “doing with” and the latter as “doing for”), the two are inextricably linked.

In Ireland, we have a long history of volunteering, from the tradition of meitheal where neighbours and communities came together to work collectively on tasks such as saving the hay or cutting turf, to charity and philanthropy: many of our institutions have their origins in voluntary action, including schools, hospitals and the credit unions. Volunteering today is expressed in many ways, from the informal (such as cutting an elderly neighbour’s grass or helping out with the school run) to the formal (where volunteers may sign contracts to work for specific periods of time on specific projects). It takes place across sport, the arts, human services, advocacy and human rights.

As much as it ever was, volunteering is a profound act of democracy and active citizenship, as it endorses the right of each individual to shape society. It fulfils a need we have as social animals to be part of a larger community and to contribute skills and energies for causes outside our immediate interest. By investing time and energies in our communities, we are investing in ourselves, our futures and those of our children.

And of course, the community and voluntary sector, in which the State has increasingly become a stakeholder through partnership in public service, relies on voluntary effort to sustain it. The sector in Ireland, contributing an estimated minimum of €200 million to gross national product, is unique in that it delivers many services that in other countries are delivered directly by the state.

However, questions need to be asked, such as: are we relying on volunteers to fill in gaps and prop up underfunded services? If so, is this acceptable? Is this what volunteers should be doing, or have we blurred the boundaries between the goodwill of private citizens and the responsibility of the State? According to Charles Handy: “The responsibility of government is to use some of the riches created by the market, not to make life easy for everyone, but at least to make life possible, not to share out the money but to invest that money, in order to build a decent society.”

But over and above that is the capacity of the sector itself – the voluntary and community sector – to lead. That has never been easy for us. I know from my contacts with a great many voluntary organisations that there is a huge wealth of talent, professionalism and commitment ready to take on the job of building a decent society. And the investment that has been made in strategic thinking, in focussing on results, in managing change, is as great in our sector as it is in any multinational corporation.

One of the really fascinating possibilities lies in the area of the generations working together. In Barnardos, we are developing a programme that addresses the needs of young children with significant literacy and numeracy challenges. That programme pairs senior citizen volunteers, on a one-to-one basis, with the children involved. It is our hope and intention that we can develop the programme to a point where it will be of value to every school in Ireland. The good news is that the results so far have been astonishing. The skills, abilities, care and commitment that our older volunteers have shown have yielded dramatic results in improved confidence and ability among the children they are working with. And we have noticed a particular spring in the steps of the volunteers too.

That sort of commitment is only possible to sustain in a society that believes in it. The key to that belief is leadership based on a commitment to social justice and fairness. Our government made a profound mistake last year when they threatened the security and well-being of every senior citizen in Ireland through the medical cards decision. The Senior Citizen’s Parliament and others are to be congratulated for the stand you took then, and for the determination you showed that an intrinsically unfair decision could not go unchallenged.

I think we need to demonstrate more of that leadership. I look forward to the day when people representing those who are elderly, those who are very young, those who are disable, and those who are vulnerable, can come together in one very powerful lobby group. We need to be able to say, in the interests of fairness and justice, that people who were regarded as having no voice in the past will not be silenced now.

We all know that in the current situation, we have to rely on each other within families. Grandparents are playing an increasingly important part in keeping the economies of families going – and in many cases that is being done out of necessity. As I said earlier, I’ve seen at first hand how senior citizens can transform the lives of young people. Within movements like the Special Olympics, for instance, the inter-generational effects are frequently profound.

Given that we’re already doing all that, there is the potential, I believe, to make really powerful statements about the society we want to see for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children, if we could all begin to speak with one voice. It doesn’t mean that any of us have to give up our individual identities. But the one thing in which we all have a common interest is a better future. Demanding that future together would send a message that no government could ignore.