Huffington Post: Let Mandela Inspire Us to Live Our Lives for Justice

Published in The Huffington Post, June 26th 2013

The outpouring of global love for Nelson Mandela shows that people everywhere crave courageous leadership and celebrate those who are prepared to break the rules to uplift humanity. Mandela remains a rare role model of substance in a world dominated by the pursuit of fame, wealth, fame and power. His story is one of vision, hope and healing and is a powerful testimony to the human quest for freedom.

The teachings of Madiba, the tribal name by which he is affectionately known in South Africa, offer us an opportunity to reflect on the values and principles that we hold. They challenge us to ask whether we are upholding our beliefs by putting them into action in our day to day lives and whether these values are represented in our economics, our politics and our media. They also show us the power that one person can have in transforming lives and nations. We don’t all need to become Mandelas, but we can each achieve great things in small ways.

If Mandela spoke to us today I wonder what he would say about the modern struggle for freedom? What would he say about the global financial cartels that are subverting democracy, about the ongoing brutality and hunger strikes in Guantanamo Bay, or about the hunting of whistle-blowers and prisoners of conscience such as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden?

In a world of lies, spin, and doublespeak telling the truth deserves to be celebrated and rewarded. As with apartheid South Africa, when the rules that are supposed to protect people are actually oppressing them, there is a duty to dissent. It is no accident that modern day freedom fighters are being demonized in the same way that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan called Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” during the ANC campaign to end the injustice of apartheid.

Surely we don’t have to wait until the history books are written, until Edward Snowden is celebrated for giving up his well-off lifestyle and his freedom to reveal how we’re being illegally spied on. Or, in this Orwellian age, is it better to keep our head down and pretend this is nothing to do with us, for fear we too will be targeted as thought criminals and potential terrorists?

The tensions involved in navigating truth these days are evident in the mixed messages conveyed to our young people. On the one hand parents and teachers do their best to instill a strong sense of fairness; telling children to be kind and honest, don’t fight, share, help others, and speak out when something is wrong.

This basic moral code underpins much of our society but exists side by side within a contradictory dog eat dog world where bullying, image, money, ego and war making often reap the rewards. Young people are encouraged to become customers and consumers first and citizens second, but not to become activists like Nelson Mandela who fearlessly challenge injustice wherever they see it. If they did, then 25-year-old soldier Bradley Manning might be a Nobel Peace Laureate rather than being locked up in solitary confinement for upholding his legal duty to report war crimes.

In this competing moral order it’s hard not to be compromised. We’re rewarded for keeping up appearances, turning a blind eye, and keeping busy by pushing on up the ladder regardless of who is left behind. No time to worry about war, poverty, human rights violations, corruption, or environmental destruction. Someone else will look after all of that. Or will they?

This moral maze suits the dominant version of political and economic development where the fittest thrive and the majority is left to fend for survival. It does so by promoting individualism over community cooperation, and by keeping us fearful, separate and in competition with each other.

It weakens the natural human desire to care for each other and keeps us focused on individual achievement and progress. The logic is that if we focus on our own self-development then others will do the same and we’ll meet down the road either as winners or losers.

The reality is that within the competition paradigm we all end up losers as when one suffers, we all suffer. This is something Nelson Mandela understood well when he embraced his oppressors upon release from prison. He understood that an injustice to one was an injustice to all and that without forgiveness there could be no peace. He thereby helped to prevent retribution, vengeance and hate by promoting cooperation for the common good of all South Africans, regardless of race.

Mandela represents the higher human spirit and the light within each of us that craves truth, justice, fairness and freedom. From adversity and against all the odds, he has stood for what is right and for the betterment of all. He overcame the injustice of 27 years in prison, offered reconciliation to those who jailed him, and gave the world a profound lesson in leadership, love and forgiveness.

When confronted with despair in this age of great change, we could do well to remember the life of Nelson Mandela and to invoke his enormous spirit and courage. None of us is perfect and Mandela is no different, but he has shown us how great the human spirit can be even in the darkest hours. ‘Nothing is impossible until it is done,’ he once said.

His legacy is a challenge to us all to rise above adversity, to unlock our own greatness, and to uplift each other. Let us honor Mandela through our actions and by carrying the flame of hope and freedom forward for future generations.

Ruairí McKiernan

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Irish Times: Give youth a chance: real and radical change needed

Published in the Irish Times, August 13, 2012

OPINION:Young people may have it good compared to many in the world and to generations before them but they also face daunting challenges

THE YOUNG people are at it again. They’re drinking, fighting, losing their religion, and causing havoc on the streets of Ireland. They have no respect, no manners, no get up and go. They’re mollycoddled, dossing on the dole, sunning themselves in Australia and only interested in sex, fun, Facebook and their phones. You’d think that Ireland’s young people were the scourge of the nation.

Sadly that’s a common view shared by many and something that urgently needs to change. Yesterday was International Youth Day and the theme this year is “building a better world, partnering with youth”, a proposal that is in great need of consideration here in Ireland.

A staggering 40 per cent of our population is under 30. Think about that. Four out of every 10 of us is under 30, meaning a new generation is coming of age to fundamentally change every aspect of this country.

When you turn on the TV or radio it sometimes feels like a funeral for Ireland or indeed humanity. It’s no wonder there is a mental health crisis and that many of us choose methods of self-medication or escapism through alcohol, drugs, entertainment or apathy.

Our leaders aren’t leading us through this. They’re busy trying to appease the markets. It’s hard to be convinced or inspired by vague talk of recovery and reform. “Stick with us, we’ll be back to ya” is the overarching message – a message we oddly seem to be accepting. Where’s it all leading to? Where is the big vision to get excited about? Recovery towards what? Another Celtic Tiger? No thanks.

This is not about us versus them, youth versus age in a battle for sympathy and solutions. Surfing the storms of change can’t be easy for the older generation. My parents were born in the 1950s and grew up in a rural, Catholic and conservative Ireland broken by generations of colonialism, conflict and emigration. It was a romantic Ireland in many ways but also a country where young people were to be seen and not heard in an authoritarian culture where the influential in society held sway over the rights and voices of the majority.

Of course young people today still have it good compared to many in the world and to the generations before them but they also face new challenges. The power of consumer culture and advertising often has more power than their parents. They are affected by the continuing cuts to education, youth and health services, and by the financial pressures and stresses of their families. Young people are bombarded with overt and often abusive sexual imagery online and in the media, all contributing to the already difficult anxieties of adolescence.

The results are evidenced by high levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, political disengagement and suicide among Ireland’s youth – all symptoms of a country that is failing our young. This can lead us to ask questions of our elders but if they too are lost then what chance do our young have?

All of that said, things are changing, new ways are emerging and a cultural shift is under way. People all over the world are increasingly questioning those in positions of power and asking big questions of themselves and their leaders.

Young people are often at the fore of this questioning as was the case during the Arab Spring and in the 80 countries where the Occupy movement emerged as a youth-led attempt to stir debate and ask why 1 per cent of the world’s population controls 40 per cent of its wealth.

We need to celebrate and encourage this questioning and foster a culture of debate, dissent and discovery. If we do not question, we are lost. Perhaps this calls for the teaching of philosophy and civic education in school as is the case elsewhere in Europe.

Moving towards empathy and a compassionate understanding of underlying issues would serve us better than knee-jerk reactions to youth and other issues. Asking why a large part of the nation’s youth are getting off their heads every weekend would be much more useful than rushing to criticise them. The dominance of alcohol advertising in sport and music has a huge role to play in this.

Beyond this the reason young people are abusing their bodies, minds and spirits is everything to do with them needing support, a listening ear, a hug, an education system that nourishes the human spirit and uncovers the enormous gifts and potential within each person, alternative safe and fun places to hang out, healthy role models, guidance and wanting to hear messages of “You matter”, “Ireland needs you” and “I love you”.

There seems to be a vacuum in the heart and soul of public dialogue. We are too busy reacting or understandably caught up in survival mode. Together we must reclaim our power as citizens of Ireland and meaningfully discuss our hopes, dreams and future. Can we collectively find a new vision for ourselves and our country, something to believe in that offers young people, and indeed all of us, hope for the future? Of course we can.

In my experience of growing up in Ireland, going through my fair share of trials and tribulations, and of 12 years working with young people, nothing is more empowering than opportunities to participate in decisions that affect your life. Ten meaningful minutes with a young person can change their life.

Our huge youth population is one of our greatest untapped national resources. It’s time to meaningfully engage with them, to mobilise and resource a national inter-generational effort that connects young and old in homes, schools, clubs, communities and in government. It must mean an end to the prioritisation of bond holders over young people (the youth centre in the Taoiseach’s home town of Castlebar, population 10,000-plus, recently closed), the establishment of a youth parliament with real power and radical democratic change that provides real citizen engagement beyond the limited scope of the forthcoming constitutional convention. It means the passing of the delayed Children’s Rights referendum, injection of fresh young voices onto boards and into the worlds of media, politics and business.

We cannot continue to stand by and lose more young people to unemployment, emigration and despair.

By investing in young people, they will prosper and we will be rewarded individually and as a nation. We will unleash a part of us that is missing: a bold, energetic, creative, entrepreneurial, imaginative, and irreverent force for change that can build the bright new world that we are crying out for.

Ruairí McKiernan

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Irish Examiner: Protest is essential for the health of society

The Irish Examiner June 17th 2013

As protests continue in Turkey and the G8 meet in Northern Ireland, the right to peaceful assembly and free expression has never been more important, says Ruairí McKiernan

PROTEST might not always be an attractive proposition, and we won’t always agree with those doing the protesting, but we must defend with all our might the right to express the change we dream of.

The right to protest is essential for the health of any society. Protest offers a channel for expression to people who otherwise don’t feel heard and puts pressure on governments and companies who aren’t acting in the interests of people and planet.

The end of slavery and colonialism, workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights in Northern Ireland have all been achieved because committed individuals and communities, often facing ridicule and repression, had the courage to protest oppression and injustice and proclaim that better ways were possible.

There has been much speculation as to why the Irish don’t protest more, given the litany of scandals and abuses we’ve endured. It may be because people feel it’s a tactic that belongs to hippies, students, lefties and anarchists or that they believe protest doesn’t work.

Or it may be that our inheritance of colonialism and repression has given us a fear of rocking the boat — something that is convenient for those with power.

Aside from this, too many have been led to believe that people power is ineffective. Instead, they put their faith in the political system, or decide to ‘get real’ by leaving aside their idealism, accepting things as they are, thereby risking cynicism, despair and things getting worse. “Sure what’s the point?” we hear said in defeat, before the opportunities have been explored.

The point is that injustice and greed thrive when good people do nothing. Taking action changes things. It is uplifting, empowering, and effective in changing opinions, laws and lives. By not acting we end up as helpless spectators dependant on the promises of politicians and the goodwill of profit-focused corporations. If done in a healthy way, protest offers a practical way to maintain our humanity and dignity by expressing ourselves beyond shouting at the telly or giving out on Twitter or in pubs.

The Ballyhea protesters in Co Cork demonstrate this each Sunday as they march through their village to remind the world that they don’t accept that their children will have to pay the gambling debts of bankers and bondholders. Imagine how fast things would change if everyone did this. So too the people of Rossport, in holding hope alive against the might of Shell and the State. Protest helps us see we’re not alone. It can turn us back into power brokers. It reminds politicians that they are paid to represent us, pressures them to act in our interests and helps them deliver difficult reforms at key moments.

Despite the bad name given to activism and protest, it is no accident that many of our heroes used protest, demonstrations and marches as core tactics in their toolbox for change. Michael Davitt, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, John Hume, Mary Robinson, and President Michael D Higgins all dared to disagree.

mandelaThere are those who stopped a nuclear plant being built at Carnsore point in Wexford, and the 12 Dunnes Stores workers who gave hope to an imprisoned Nelson Mandela by going on strike for two years because they had to handle the fruit of apartheid South Africa. There are those who have marched to save hospitals, and those who picketed and petitioned to ensure schools were built.

The victories of protest are often undervalued. We may never know how bad things could have been if it was not for the courage of the few to stand up for the rights of us all.

Those courageous enough to stand up and speak out are often attacked, dismissed and isolated for doing so. Their careers and reputations are threatened, their health suffers, and it becomes difficult to be a lonely voice in a sea of silent support. It is therefore all the more important to support people who say the thing the rest of us are afraid to voice.

Of course protest isn’t always the best or only way of doing things. As the saying goes, ‘it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’.

Too much emphasis on protest, anger, outrage and opposition can be draining, unappealing, and counter-productive. It is sometimes better to propose and create positive alternatives and to offer hope where there is none. Sometimes though, as with the Arab Spring, protest is that flame of hope, a visible declaration that we are alive and not prepared to take any more.

In a world faced with war, poverty, austerity and climate change, it is vital that the right to hold this flame of hope remains alive. It is essential that groups such as the G8 are reminded that they are failing humanity and compromising the survival of the planet. It is no accident that 1% of the world controls 39% of the wealth (their wealth grew 7.8% last year) while 80% of the world lives on less than €8 per day. The policies of the G8, a self-appointed group, prioritise the wealth of some over the wellbeing of all, drowning out opposition and alternatives. Raising our voices for change is therefore as much a duty as it is a right.

Amid revelations of government spying on innocent people, a crackdown on protest, and the demonisation of dissent, the freedom of free expression and peaceful assembly has never been more important. Europe’s recent history of dictatorships is a reminder of what happens when we lose this freedom. Now, more than ever, we need to be vigilant, vocal and courageous in protecting our rights to dissent and in daring to dream of better ways.

*Ruairí McKiernan is an award-winning social innovator, campaigner and member of the Council of State.  He is hitchhiking around Ireland in July listening recording voices and visions for Ireland before talking at the MacGill Summer School on July 28th. His website is www.community.ie

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Sunday Times: Suicide, Hope, and Healing the National Soul

The Sunday Times, June 2nd 2013

By Ruairí McKiernan

‘Why are our young people killing themselves?’ an older man asked me the other day.  Having spent the last twelve years working in the community and running suicide awareness campaigns, I suppose he hoped I’d have a straight forward explanation for him, but I didn’t. That’s because there is no one cause when it comes to suicide. Suicide is complex and demands a deeper look.

There has been a historic underinvestment in mental health services in Ireland. Increased demand and cuts to youth, health and education services have piled pressure onto already struggling support services. Many people looking for help are met with unanswered phones. Costly and rushed GP visits often prioritise prescriptions for anti-depressants over listening and talk therapy. The waiting lists for mental health services can be weeks or months unless you can afford private care. In the absence of better support, all too many medicate their pain by abusing alcohol and drugs. The suffering and isolation is there for all to see in the streets and pubs of Ireland.

A colleague in her twenties described her own experience of seeking help as this:

‘I have been told on numerous times to come back in a month after telling a GP I was feeling suicidal, or been told that I wasn’t feeling suicidal enough. This made me feel worse and stopped me from going back for help when I needed it most. Eventually I ended up in a crisis and was in hospital for two months. This could have been avoided if I had received the support I needed when I needed it. There is very little support for someone who is experiencing severe depression or suicidal thoughts. They are given medication, and little other options. More time to talk would help, but waiting lists are long and often it takes months to be seen which is often too late. There is a shame associated with suffering from depression and it can be difficult to admit to others that you are going through a tough time which means that often the people who you need most are not aware of what you are going through. ‘

Suicide affects all ages and classes but hits those on the margins much harder.  Young men, farmers, asylum seekers, and the unemployed are all disproportionately affected. Studies show suicide among the Travelling community is six times the national average and that gay people are seven times more likely to attempt suicide. What’s needed is a more equal, loving and inclusive society that respects all people as well as developing supports based on specific needs. Cultivating a culture where men can talk openly and seek help is critical in all of this.

The tragedy of young people taking their own lives is particularly hard to comprehend. Loneliness, bullying, abuse, depression, unemployment, and growing up gay in a country that hasn’t fully accepted difference can all be factors but not the only ones. Each suicide is different and we may never know the cause. Loved ones are left with pain, confusion and often self-blame.

It could be argued that being young in Ireland today is a suicide risk in itself. Young people are surrounded by negative news and told to prepare for emigration amid a 30% youth unemployment rate (50% in some places). Many of them witness their parents stressed about money and the future. They are groomed by advertisers to see success in terms of unhealthy celebrity lifestyles focused on sex, money and image. The education system locks them into a production line of rote learning with little space to learn about themselves or about life before being catapulted into a visionless society grappling with debt, austerity and climate change.

The challenges of these times are being felt by all ages and it can be hard to find peace between all the pressure and noise. It is no accident that the western world is facing a mental health crisis. Science and technology have brought civilisation to a bold new frontier but many of us are out of sync with the soul. An over emphasis on material growth hasn’t been balanced with the human need for meaning and the desire to be free. It has imprisoned our spirits and left many of us disconnected from our true selves, from each other, and from the natural world around us.

We’ve a long way to go but there are signs of progress as we seek to reclaim our power. The closure of mental institutions, the Amnesty International and See Change anti-stigma campaigns, singer Bressie talking about his mental health struggles, walking therapy groups, and the Slí Eile recovery farm in Cork are examples of moves in the right direction. So too is the growing interest in wellbeing, diet, fitness, yoga, meditation and counselling.

It is possible to prevent suicide but only if we start co-creating a kinder society with a less unjust economy. Just as community campaigning led to political action on road traffic deaths, the same is possible with suicide. Public pressure can lead to funding and to joined up thinking and services but suicide cannot be solved by government alone. It requires a deeper look at root causes and the source of our pain. By offering time, listening and love to those around us, by seeking support when we need it, and demanding the services we deserve, together we can bring healing and hope to Ireland.

Ruairí McKiernan

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Irish Times: Shaking off the ‘drunken Paddy’ image

The Irish Times, September 24 2013

Twelve months ago I gave a presentation on the subject of youth drug and alcohol abuse to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children. I highlighted the huge pressures facing Ireland’s youth, including peer pressure, bullying, unemployment and emigration, all within a national atmosphere of despair over our collective future. I focused on the widespread culture of binge drinking in Ireland, which appears to be often ignored, accepted or normalised by many parents, publicans, politicians and law enforcers.

I pointed to the entrenched culture of alcohol abuse at the heart of Irish life and the fact we know this is damaging our health, our society and our economy.

Research tells us alcohol abuse adversely affects rates of mental ill health and suicide, road accidents, A E admissions, workplace participation, public disorder offences, rape, domestic violence, and family cohesion. HSE statistics show alcohol is estimated to cost the economy €3.7 billion per year.

I called on politicians to show courage and leadership. Central to this is facing down the powerful drinks industry, groups like British multinational Diageo, and lobbyists from the FAI, GAA and IRFU who embrace alcohol sponsorship.

One year later, and following a summer of alcohol-fuelled controversies, there has been some progress in the debate but little in the way of meaningful action. A few months ago Minister of State Róisín Shortall made reasonable proposals to restrict drink advertising, phase out sponsorship of sporting and culture events by 2016, introduce minimum pricing and impose a responsibility levy to help change our unhealthy drinking culture. Despite Government promises to tackle the issue, Ms Shortall’s proposals didn’t make it to Cabinet, with Fine Gael ministers claiming the proposals were too strict. The issue was due back on the table in September but many fear it may be swept back under the carpet.

As the country prepares for Diageo’s annual “Arthur’s Day celebration”, I would like to repeat my call for political courage, leadership and action.

Elected representatives must unify and demonstrate vision and integrity on an issue that is a core part of our dysfunction as a nation. We need to develop the national debate about our drinking habits, to ask on a deeper level why we abuse alcohol so much, and to explore alternative ways and places to socialise and celebrate. Ireland can be a great nation, but it is time to wise up and lose our “drunken Paddy” reputation.

Politicians, if they truly have the best interests of our people at heart, must face down the drinks industry. It is time to work together to create a proud, strong and healthy nation that realises our enormous potential.

Ruairí McKiernan 

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Irish Independent: Ireland needs to talk about sex

Ireland needs to talk about sex

The Irish Independent, 28th March 2013

By Ruairí McKiernan

INFORMING young people about drugs doesn’t make them run out and get high at the next opportunity. Similarly, informing them about threesomes doesn’t mean they will suddenly jump into sexual experimentation that they otherwise hadn’t thought about or planned.

The recent controversy surrounding the SpunOut.ie article on the pros and cons of threesomes (one of the site’s 3,000-plus articles) raises the important issue of how or whether sex education is taking place in this country.

The fact that the Health Minister and Taoiseach felt they needed to weigh in on the issue suggests we as a society are still hung up when it comes to sex. It is particularly interesting that the article which stirred the controversy was featured in a newspaper that appears to celebrate titillation on a weekly basis.

Traditionally, issues around sex in Ireland were guided by the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Sex was said to be an act between married people, more for procreation than enjoyment, and certainly not to be talked about or celebrated.

Supposedly celibate men preached to us that contraception was bad, divorce was wrong, masturbation was sinful, and that people attracted to the same sex were either ill or evil.

Because of the unique influence of the church in the foundation of our State, the government and our education system shamefully toed the line. The result has been decades of avoidance, ignorance and repression when it comes to all things sex.

Unmarried mothers or flirtatious young women were isolated and incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries whilst homosexuals simply didn’t exist in pure holy Ireland or were criminalised and forced into depression, suicide, marriage or emigration. Others struggled on in relationships lacking in love and intimacy while a culture of abuse and double standards thrived within the church.

They say money makes the world go round but sex is way more powerful. It’s at the heart of everything, helping shape relationships, health, happiness and society at all levels.

It’s an often invisible force that motivates and drives us at so many levels, not sinful or wrong, but if approached from a place of awareness, it is something that can be beautiful, natural, loving, human, sacred – and fun.

It’s understandable that parents and politicians are concerned about what information our young people have access to. They should be concerned, very concerned. Increasingly young people’s realities are being shaped by a shallow celebrity, advertising, and media culture that promotes an unhealthy view of body image, success, and sex that leaves young people feeling inadequate and vulnerable to self-harm, eating disorders, depression and unhealthy relationships.

Equally worrying is the fact that a huge number of young people, particularly young males, receive their primary sex education from hard-core pornography.

Their first introduction to the wonderful world of sex is all too often a tragic representation of sex as something where women are objectified, used and abused for male pleasure.

The advent of accessible internet and smartphone availability means many young people have instant access to the world of pornography without any grounding, support or education to contextualise it and let them know that porn doesn’t and shouldn’t reflect reality.

There’s a misguided assumption out there that parents and schools are providing this essential guidance, but sadly this isn’t the case.

Many schools, teachers and parents shy away from open discussions around sex simply because of the culture in which they were raised. In many cases the religion of the school is a dominant factor in preventing proper sex education from taking place, education beyond just the birds and the bees.

It is in this vacuum that SpunOut.ie was created and the reason it has emerged against great adversity to become an internationally respected award-winning quality youth health resource used by hundreds of thousands of young people, parents, teachers and indeed politicians.

SpunOut.ie achieves this on minuscule funding, paying very modest salaries, and doing what governments working alone continually fail to do – that is to reach and support young people in relevant, engaging, appealing, and effective ways.

It is for this reason that a unique and effective partnership with the HSE has been a win-win for SpunOut.ie and successive governments over the past eight years.

It is also a reason why short-sighted sensationalist journalism, religious lobbying and reactionary politics shouldn’t jeopardise what is an essential service for a generation who have inherited a country that is more than just financially bankrupt.

SpunOut.ie reaches young adults aged 16-25, an age group who are sadly far from sheltered from the dangers and realities of the world. Allowing and trusting them to make informed decisions can help empower them to become fuller, healthier and happier citizens of our beleaguered nation.

The threesome issue presents us with an important opportunity, a chance to grow together as a country and to start talking about sex and all the other things we’ve been told to stay away from.

Parents, teachers, and youth organisations like SpunOut.ie all have a role to play. Central to this is listening to people, responding to their needs in relevant ways and realising that the world isn’t going to collapse once we start to talk about all that has been repressed for so long.

Ruairí McKiernan

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Irish Examiner: I’m prepared to stay and fight for a bright future

I’m prepared to stay and fight for a bright future

The Irish Examiner, Thursday, May 16, 2013

More than 300,000 people have left Ireland in the past four years. Tempting as it is, Ruairí McKiernan is prepared to stay to help make the country a better place.

By Ruairí McKiernan

EMIGRATION is tempting these days, especially as I’ve struggled to get by working in the community sector, which has been hit by 20%-50% funding cuts.

During a recent trip to Australia it was easy to see why so many people are flocking there in such numbers. A strong economy, decent health, education, and social services, and a sunny outdoor lifestyle all contrast favourably with the mood in Ireland at the moment.

Two recent reports show how younger people in Ireland are disproportionately affected by austerity. Issues like unemployment, personal debt, negative equity, and suicide are hitting the under-40s harder and it’s understandable that many are leaving our shores to seek a better life abroad.

Australia is no utopia though. It has its fair share of problems, and is dependent on a mining boom driven by Chinese economic growth. Inevitably, many emigrants settle there, growing old away from friends and family, something that breaks the hearts of so many Irish parents.

The prospect of emigration has raised interesting questions for me. When I was 12 my family emigrated to Australia during the recession of the late ’80s. My parents were my age at the time and wanted to build a better life for their family. They were inspired by my uncle, Jim McKiernan, who left difficult times in ’60s Ireland and later became a member of the Australian parliament for 18 years.

After a while though, they decided on returning to Ireland, preferring to be close to relations and to try and make a go of it at home. Two decades on, Ireland is in recession again. I’m preparing to get married and, like my parents before me, I’m contemplating the future. I have been considering future prospects for work, housing, healthcare, and the conditions for raising a family in a country that seems to stumble from one crisis to another.

Increasingly I’ve been wondering about what kind of future is in store for us and what role I want to play in that. Much of it boils down to having hope in the future and, sadly, hope is in short supply these days. Ireland is a struggle at times but ultimately I love it. I’m proud of our rich heritage, our culture, music, and sport. I love the wild beauty of our land and the spirit, warmth, and wit of our people. I value my friends and my family and can see how difficult it would be to leave them. Like most people, I want to see things change for the better and I’m impatient with the pace of change.

I am fed up waiting and I’m not prepared to be a spectator watching the unfolding litany of hypocrisies, calamities, corruption, and incompetence.I don’t underestimate the challenges ahead. While our biggest priority might be economic in nature, I believe the underlying issue is one of national confidence and self-belief, belief that we can really and truly transform things.

Throughout history and against all the odds, Irish people have transcended fear and dared to dream that a different reality was possible. We let the world know that Ireland was a place that valued truth, justice, democracy, and the dream of freedom.

We could do well now to invoke that same spirit of freedom and reclaim our country from rogues and profiteers, and the despair that is holding us back.

It can be hard to be positive at times but it is often during the most painful times that the conditions for breakthroughs and true transformation are most ripe. The best antidote for despair is action, and it is time for us to rise together and become the leaders we are waiting for. What role we each take will be different, but together we have the skills, talent, and heart to bring hope back to Ireland.

A new Ireland is possible, one that takes risks to create a bold new vision. We have the perfect opportunity to put new systems in place, transform our politics to give people a real say, and overhaul our economy to promote green energy and social innovation.

We can rethink education, health, transport, and our relationship with the natural environment. If we want a new, vibrant, and equal republic then we can have one. First we need to get active, vocal, and organised, and demand better from ourselves, each other, and from those that claim to serve us.

I don’t want to have to leave my country and I am prepared to fight for a bright future here. As tempting as the Australian dream might be right now, for me the dream of co-creating this new Ireland is much greater.

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