by Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy
Thank you very much, Mary for the introduction, I’m glad to be here this evening to congratulate you on this the 10th anniversary of your publication I suppose and of the work you have done over the past ten years and before that in your work for many years in this area. So I’m delighted to be associated with the work that you are doing, it’s really important work. And this evening I am talking to you, I’m really talking about justice; justice in our society, and the need to establish a just society. And it’s kind of serious, I know you have come to have fun and enjoy yourselves, but I’m kind of serious, so if you’ll bear with me for a little while to talk about something that is serious.
Today I suppose we hear a lot of talk about the economy, the recession, the fiscal treaty, and the importance of getting it right. And it’s right that we would be concerned in that way, and it’s right that we would be concerned about getting it right. But I think today we need more than that, we need to envision a different kind of picture. We need new leadership and we don’t plan for it today, and if we don’t plan for a new future today, we won’t have it in the future. We’ve never in Ireland had social policy living side by side with economic policy and therefore we never had a fair distribution of our resources in Ireland. And what I want to envision tonight is a socially just Irish society, a new kind of society. Social justice is a big concept, but basically, what it comes down to is that instead of an economic policy, an economic system that relies on the markets to regulate our relationships and the way we live and relate, we need a social system that takes a needs-based approach. What we need is a civic rather than an economic model. A system that puts the meeting of people’s social needs and their reasonable and legitimate expectations for a decent life both for themselves and their children at the centre of Irish life.
When I think about the kind of Ireland I would like to see, I try to envisage a place where every child can grow up, safe and well, and take their place as responsible and participating citizens. It is imagined then a child born into this socially just Ireland; it might be a struggling inner city child, it might be a suburban middle-class child, it might be born into an immigrant family or into a traveller family. It might be a girl or a boy, it might be born to a two-parent family or a one-parent family; it might be a healthy child or it might be born with HIV or with a disability. It might be a little Muslim or a little Catholic, or it might be a child born to secular parents. Its mother tongue might be English, or Irish, or Polish, or French, or Arabic. Whatever the child’s background, whatever their genetic heritage, or their cultural identity, or their health status, it is easy to recognise a natural desire to want to reach out to the myriad needs of a small child. It’s a bit hard to extend that thinking to agree that all our children should be able to grow up free from violence, free from oppression, free from addiction, to be safe from all kinds of exploitation and to have their health, housing, education and welfare needs met as a right. Needs-based provision of housing, health centres, health and education services as a right is the cornerstone of social justice and is the very least we can expect in a society that calls itself Christian, humane and democratic. As long as we do not see the meeting of people’s needs as the basis of an equitable civic society, we will continue to have babies who at birth are already severely disadvantaged because of their family circumstances. Poor family circumstances can prescribe a life of multiple deprivation, early school leaving, unemployment, and possibly crime. And imprisonment, as surely as a child born on the other side of the town or the other side of the city, into a privileged family, is likely to get their Leaving Cert, possibly a degree and even a well paid job.
My vision for Ireland is that it should be a place where such predictions cannot be so confidently made at the birth of a child. Rather, it should be a place where any parent, any parent of a new born child, can be sure that the needs of their child will be met. Ideally, any baby born into our country should have equal and unquestionable access to the services and the help that it needs regardless of its parents’ income. Imagine now that our national baby, so to speak, born into a new socially just Ireland is growing up. He or she ideally lives in a family in a warm and adequately spacious house, in a healthy environment, in a safe neighbourhood, without guns or drugs or violence, with green spaces and places to play, served by local shops and facilities and with a good public transport. Ideally, the child needs the support of its parents and its extended family and to grow up in a mixed community to form good and safe relationships with family members, with older people, family friends and other children. We all know there will always be children who for one reason or another cannot remain in their own home. If children are at risk in their home, everything possible should be done to ensure that they have appropriate care and protection, with high quality services to enable them to live to their full potential. I think we will never have adequate care and quality childcare services for children who can’t remain in their own home until we regard them as ours. Until we see them as ours, we will never cherish them equally. Up until now, we have always seen these children as other people’s children. These children should have all the rights of every other child in the street and should be enabled to live to their full potential.
When the time comes for our imaginary child to go to pre-school and later to primary school, he or she needs to have a place that is suitable for his or her needs, preferably a local school that is adequately resourced to meet the needs of all the community’s children including both the physical and intellectual disability, psychological or emotional problems, or learning problems. In order to meet the needs of all the children of the community, the schools need to be properly funded both for capital and current costs. Of course, there will always be budgetary constraints and we all recognise that but swingeing cuts at primary level are bound to have very serious repercussions for our most vulnerable children. Cutting access to special supports for our poorest children is an appalling response to an economic problem and an indication that government thinking about education is highly skewed. Children from the most vulnerable families, whether or not they live in officially designated disadvantaged areas, need access to books, special support and small classes. But the way our society works is that the children from better off families actually are the children who get all these supports, not the children who need them most. All our children, including the children of migrant families and minority groups need to grow up learning the language of the society they live in as well as the language of their home. Without special supports in schools to ensure that this happens, the children of immigrant families who are already disadvantaged will be further disadvantaged as they struggle with a new language without the support they need.
Education is highly valued in our society; it is often seen as an economic rather than a moral or social good. In a future socially just Ireland education will be valued for its own sake as well as for the economic benefits it brings to society and to the individual. I would like to see all our young people grow up with the intellectual and moral equipment to be able to resist the blandishment of the market culture, and to be able to make good choices for themselves and for their society free from consumerist pressures. I believe that young people, given the right kind of support from their parents and from their educators, can and will make good decisions. But it will not happen in a school system that is all about competitive examination whose ultimate, if unspoken goal, is to exclude some students from third level, from employment and even from civic life itself. As an imaginary child, the emerging adolescent has started to think about taking his or her place in the adult world, their needs are changing again. The young person needs a kind of route into adult life that best suits his or her talents whether that is a place in college or university or in an appropriate job. Not everyone can have a job that is glamorous and thrilling but everyone’s workplace and training place should be a place where they are respected and where they can respect themselves as contributing to society, where they can earn a decent income and where their talents and skills are valued. Adults needs also change over time and at some point everyone needs to avail of services such as housing, continued education, medical or psychiatric treatment, counselling, therapy and support in the face of difficulties such as bereavement, addictions, mental illness, financial difficulties or family breakdown, so that the person is constantly supported to live the best life they can, as part of their community and in the company of family and friends.
We are all aware of the problems faced by people who are using health services in this country at the moment but I want to put in a special plea for mental health services. Lack of services for mental health is at the root of many of our social problems including family breakdown, addictions and homelessness and the provision of such services is crucial to the creation of infrastructures that support a socially just Ireland and you know that better than anyone. All citizens should have access to sports and the arts as participators or as spectators and should have access to community and civic life, to social discourse, to public debate and political participation. As an imaginary citizen of this new socially just Ireland grows into middle age, they should be able to look after their dependents who now might be adults rather than children and to plan for their own retirement and old age. A socially just Ireland, responsive to the needs of its citizens, will provide a variety of options for older people and a continuum of care, depending on the person’s developing needs. People should be able to work full-time for as long as they are willing and able, perhaps with the option to withdraw gradually from the work place, working part-time for many years and gradually reducing their commitment as their circumstances change. Likewise, older people should be supported to live independently for as long as they wish with appropriate household help and nursing care, and easy access to sheltered and supportive housing if they need it and with access to hospital and nursing care as they become ill and frail, and more dependent. Recent cuts to home help hours is not only appalling, it is immoral and is causing huge distress for people who need help and for their families.
If we can agree that every child born into our society deserves what it needs in childhood, in youth, in adulthood, in middle age and in old age, then we are signing up to the idea of social justice because in essence that is exactly what it is. It is about meeting everyone’s needs as a right, providing everyone, not according to their income levels, not according to their social status, not according to their gender or the colour of their skin or their cultural identity but according to their needs and circumstances. As a society, however, we are rather muddled about what it is we are prepared to provide for our citizens and about how social groups should be distributed. And we seem to be increasingly opting for a market model for our health, and our housing and even in education. But the values of the marketplace have shown their greed-driven emptiness now and the marketplace cannot be entrusted with the provision of social goods because the marketplace has no conscience. But if we are prepared to envision a different kind of living and to articulate that vision and to reiterate it over and over again we will win minds and hearts. People are more open to change now than they have ever been. This is a golden opportunity to rethink our whole approach to society and to accept and implement not just change but what amounts to a social revolution. I believe that my vision for a socially just Ireland is not an impossible dream. It’s up to us all, people and politicians to think about it, to talk about it and come up with a mechanism for bringing about what amounts to a social change. But the one thing we must do is to plan. We need to overhaul our infrastructures and put in place infrastructures that support social justice.
Family has never been a strong point in this country; we are very good in a crisis, we are very good at creative responses to immediate problems. But we have a political system that with all its merits unfortunately tends to reward short-term thinking – this is our biggest challenge in this new century, the challenge of changing the way we think, so that we are not constantly responding to immediate circumstances but have a long-term view and a long-term goal and a plan as to how we’ll achieve these goals. The time has come in our development as a nation to think long and hard about what kind of society we want, how we are going to achieve it and how we are going to put in place the mechanisms of change. And through it all we need to keep this vision steadily in view, the vision of social justice, the ideal that all our citizens are provided for, according to their needs, not according to their social circumstances. If this vision is discussed and debated enough I am convinced that people will want to implement it.
Our economy is in a bad shape. But we have known what it is to be poor and we have known what it is to be rich. We are well placed now to see money and the marketplace, consumerism and property, greed and competition for what they are, and especially to see their limitations. For much longer than we have been a rich society we have been a thoughtful society, a soulful society, a resourceful society and a society that values family life, learning and social networking. It is time now to pool these values and to revision our nation as a socially just society where all our children are cherished equally, not just according to the constitution but by the nation, by the state, by the community and by all our national structures and institutions, so that all our children can seize their opportunities and go forward to play their role and achieve their potential. That is what I believe a socially just Ireland is, and that is what I believe is possible if we choose to make that decision. It is really up to us. It is up to us to rethink where we are, it is up to us to rethink the values of the basis of our society; it is up to us to think of a different kind of future; it is up to us to begin again.
And so, I will leave you with the thoughts of Brendan Kennelly, somebody who surely knows and understands how humans strive to reeducate ourselves, to reinvent ourselves, to reimagine ourselves. And the poem is called ‘The Begin”
“Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of light in the window
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in the dark
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending that always seems about to give in something that will not acknowledge conclusion insists that we forever begin.”
Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy is a well-known social campaigner, founder of a number of voluntary organizations, including Focus Ireland, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, Young Social Innovators and the Sanctuary. She is also an author and her most recent books are Moments of Stillness and The Road Home.