Speech at a St. Patrick’s Day Reception for those who work in support of homeless people
Áras an Uachtaráin, Sunday 17 March 2019
Tá an-áthas orm féin agus ar Shaidhbhín fáilte a fhearradh romhaibh anseo inniu chuig Áras an Uachtaráin agus muid ag ceiliúradh Lá Fhéile ár néarlaimh, Naomh Pádraig.
[Sabina and I are delighted to welcome you all here today to Áras an Uachtaráin as we celebrate our National Day – St. Patrick’s Day – the feast day of our patron Saint, Patrick.]
St. Patrick’s Day is always, of course, an important occasion for Irish people at home and around the world, a time when our global Irish family join together to celebrate our Irish culture and heritage, and to reflect on the life of St. Patrick – a migrant, our Patron Saint whose life embodies for us the values of solidarity, friendship, forgiveness and concern for his fellow citizen.
Here in the Áras, it is also a day when, in recent years, Sabina and I, reflecting on the qualities that defined the life of St. Patrick, gather together groups of citizens who have made, or are making, a special contribution to Irish life. Today, we are delighted to welcome so many of you who work tirelessly, and with great generosity of spirit to create a better and fairer society for that most marginalised group of society, those who are homeless.
All of you are here today because of your great spirit of solidarity, your genuine desire to hold out a hand of friendship and support to those who are experiencing homelessness. Your example in putting into practice a shared humanity with those who are sleeping rough in our streets, or raising families in single hotel rooms, or those moving their possessions from hostel to hostel, or who are totally dependent on the kindness of friends for shelter, you truly embody the spirit of real community and inclusion that must lie at the heart of any truly democratic society, of a real republic of citizens.
Four years ago today we held a similar reception; gathering together citizens who work with such commitment to alleviate the hardship for those in this country who live day to day with no permanent home to call their own. At that time, I spoke of how an estimated 5,000 citizens were homeless at any given time in Ireland, including those in inappropriate temporary accommodation, those in emergency accommodation and those who were surviving with minimal or no shelter.
Today, as I acknowledge real, genuine and well-meant efforts, and despite the more positive economic conditions which now prevail, the figures around homelessness remain challenging, constitute a call for further and more radical policies.
There can be no doubt that the figures speak of a widening inequality in a country that considers itself to be not only a modern but an increasingly just place.
We are proud that we live in a country that has in recent times shown the world its willingness to embrace more progressive policies. Yet in such a basic area as the right to security in a home we are far short of what real republicanism would suggest. There can, however, be no place in a true democracy for such an extreme individualist credo that views housing merely as a commodity for trade within the marketplace, a financial transaction for those who can afford it. Regrettably, and despite the bitter lessons learned during the years of the Celtic Tiger, it is a credo which continues to gain traction.
We have seen the terrible consequences of placing profitmaking and speculation ahead of the human need for shelter and a home, of the distressing outcomes that occur when housing is treated merely as a marketplace commodity and not a social right. We have witnessed, and continue to witness, the terrible deprivation of inclusivity that is visited on vulnerable citizens when policies are not rooted in an ethical concern for the well being, dignity and fundamental rights of the citizens whose needs surely should be placed at the very heart of those policies affecting basic necessities that a real republic requires. Any economic recovery therefore must not become a revival of an unrestrained competition within a marketplace that has been simply extended beyond economic goods into areas of social vulnerability.
In this society which so many would like to aspire to being a progressive one, one in which we are truly prepared to reflect on the ethical questions that are presented to us, as we view and review the inequalities that pervade sections of our society, inequalities which are forcing more and more of our citizens into the darkest shadow of that society that is the frightening world of homelessness.
Can we genuinely say that there is clear support for such an equality as would make possession of the basics of life itself as a matter of rights? Is there widespread evidence that equality is a major popular demand in the version of Ireland which has grown and renewed itself following the economic collapse of recent years? Would it be wrong to say that we have at home, and in the European Union, become mute in the face of extending and deepening inequality, rising poverty in relation to housing?
Is the progressiveness that we have proudly presented to the world in recent times a patina that enables us to gloss over that most fundamental inequity of homelessness? Is it the case that some, including some in positions of authority and influence, seem prepared to allow the myth to grow and deepen that there is something natural or inevitable about our housing situation? Such a myth is not only false, it is destructive of social cohesion.
There can be absolutely no doubt that it must be one of the critical responsibilities of a democracy’s commitment to participation that it addresses the issue of homelessness and to seek sustainable and innovative solutions as a matter of urgency, solutions which will ensure that no citizen is denied that most fundamental need, a place they can call home. It is past time that we returned to consideration of the appropriate role of the State in these matters.
As President of Ireland I have had the great privilege of meeting so many of those within our society who work so generously and tirelessly to help those trapped within that dark shadow of homelessness and enable them to look to some security in the short term, and in the medium to long term to a better future. It is such a great pleasure for Sabina and I to welcome you all here today, and to have this opportunity to thank you for all you do to transform the lives of our fellow citizens who are facing homelessness in its different forms and for so many different reasons.
You, more than anyone, know the many human stories that lie behind the stark figures and statistics; the difficult journeys undertaken, the individual stories of addiction, violence, neglect, abandonment, bereavement, abuse, failure of institutional care and so many other failures by society that have resulted in vulnerable citizens experiencing a life devoid of all that so many of us take for granted: the intimacy of familiar surroundings, of predictable friendships, of a sense of belonging, a voice in society, a right to participate, safe and secure shelter for themselves and their children. You are witnesses too of course, and it is so important to lives that can be turned around, hope that can be harvested.
I commend and thank you for all you do to bring promise and possibility into the lives of those citizens, so many of them frightened or vulnerable and facing the future with a sense of dread and despair.
Time and time again, as I visit and meet with the many organisations and volunteers in the homeless sector, I am both moved and impressed, and made grateful as President of Ireland for your commitment, dedication and great compassion as you continue to give of your time, skills and human spirit of generosity to enable those who are homeless to shape and craft a future of hope and expectation, a future where they can plan, aspire and contribute to society from the shelter of a place that they can now call home.
On this St Patrick’s Day, when we celebrate the life of St Patrick – a life defined by compassion, integrity and great forgiveness and concern for his fellow man – we also celebrate and offer to the world those aspects of our values that make us uniquely Irish. In doing so, let us resolve to build together a fairer Ireland, an Ireland that treasures all of its people equally, and understands that a nation that has truly progressed, is one that encompasses all of its people, regarding the full participation of all citizens as a fundamental right.
May I conclude by thanking you all for coming here today and wishing you a very happy St Patrick’s Day.
Finally, I would like to thank all those who have made today such a special experience: The Mulcahy Family for enabling us to have such a celebratory occasion; and the first-aiders and the staff here at the Áras who have all worked so hard to make today a success.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir