Published in TheJournal.ie, February 4th, 2016
News that Trinity College Dublin is to compel first year students living in college accommodation to attend mandatory classes on sexual consent has rightly raised eyebrows.
The majority will no doubt already be well aware of the difference between right and wrong and yes and no when it comes to sex. However it is clear something must be done to change a culture where sexual assault is an all too common occurrence.
The Trinity initiative echoes similar moves in the US where colleges are starting to take action. This follows the alarming 2014 White House report ‘Not Alone’, which outlined the urgency of the situation concerning sexual assaults on students. The problem merits serious attention here in Ireland too. A study last year by the Student’s Union at Trinity revealed a staggering 25% of female students and 5% of male students have been subjected to an unwanted sexual experience.
Figures from the Central Statistics Office showing a 15.7% increase in sexual assault offences show that this is a much wider societal issue.
In the wake of the horrific New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, it seems predatory forces also exist much closer to home. Children’s charity CARI has experienced a 43% increase in the number of young people reporting rape and sexual assault by teenagers, some of which have been recorded and shared on social media.
Sadly sexual abuse has been around for a long time but awareness is growing, perhaps coinciding with the rising voice of women who make up the majority of survivors. That’s not to say men aren’t affected. There is no shortage of men who have experienced similar abuses, many of whom continue to suffer in silence in a society where it can be difficult for a man to appear vulnerable.
Sexual violence is a national problem that surrounds us all
The study that influenced the naming of One in Four, the organisation founded by clerical abuse survivor Colm O’Gorman stated that one in four people have been victim of sexual abuse of some kind. That’s a lot of people, people you and I know well without necessarily knowing their private suffering.
It also points, rather worryingly, to the existence of a large number of abusers, many of whom are never brought to justice. An antiquated justice system with one of the lowest conviction rates in Europe helps maintain this indefensible status quo.
Things need to change. It isn’t right that many women feel they aren’t safe to walk alone. Nor is it good for us men when a woman crosses the road or speeds up because she feels afraid.
Yet beyond the rape crisis centres and women’s groups, where are the public demands to address what are essentially crimes against the basic humanity of our mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, aunts, cousins, sons and brothers?
One initiative that seeks to address the particularly high levels of violence against women is the White Ribbon project which in Ireland is run by the Men’s Development Network. Like the UN’s HeForShe campaign, it has helped ignite debate on the issues but much more is needed if there is to be a fundamental culture shift.
Listening and understanding men
The emergence of a new wave of men’s groups such as Fir Le Chéile, Mojo and the ManKind Project (see www.mensgroups.ie) represents a welcome approach to listening to and understanding men. This is essential if we are to avoid a culture of blame and shame that can leave some men feeling patronised.
The growing men’s movement is also helping to define what constitutes healthy masculinity.
Central to this is the idea that a truly empowered man doesn’t need to abuse other people. This isn’t about feminising men, but rather creating space to identify the underlying tensions that are driving so many men to addiction, violence, depression and suicide. This also means looking at how we can better support and mentor young men so that they can be initiated into manhood in life affirming ways.
I work a lot in schools and colleges and can see that change is happening. However, there remains a significant gap in the provision of consistent and meaningful education on sex, relationships, and emotional wellbeing. This is especially needed in a world where the sexualisation of young people through media, marketing and celebrity culture is relentless, and where violent and demeaning pornography is freely available on every smart phone.
In order to create a safe and nurturing society for all women and men we need to start looking deeper and having difficult conversations. Regardless of whether the Trinity approach is a wise one or not, one thing is certain – we can’t sit back in silence. Addressing rape and sexual assault is a collective responsibility and one we must not shy away from.
If you or anyone you know needs support on any of the issues raised in this article please contact the free and confidential Rape Crisis Helpline on 1800 77 8888 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Ruairí McKiernan is part of the founding team behind www.alustforlife.com, he is the founder of SpunOut.ie, a Fulbright scholar, and a member of the Council of State. Twitter: @ruairimckiernan. Website: www.ruairimckiernan.com
Published in The Irish Times, December 17th, 2015
What would you do if you uncovered something you knew to be profoundly wrong, something that the public had a right to know about but you weren’t supposed to tell? What if talking about it meant risking your job, your reputation, and maybe your freedom? Most of us would like to think we’d do the right thing. Yet how many would go the distance?
These were no doubt some of the questions whirling around in the mind of 23-year-old Chelsea Manning when, back in 2010, she leaked classified information while working as a US army intelligence analyst in Iraq.
The leaks included the chilling “collateral murder” video that showed soldiers in a US helicopter killing several Iraqis while laughing about the dead and the dying. They contained evidence of a mass killing of Afghan villagers, US opposition to a $5 per day minimum wage in Haiti (where leading clothing companies have factories), as well as revelations of torture at the Guantánamo Bay camp. They are also credited with revealing US complicity with repressive Arab regimes, a factor that contributed to the overthrow of corrupt Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
In discussing her actions, Manning told Amnesty International: “Humanity has never had this complete and detailed a record of what modern warfare actually looks like. Once you realise that the co-ordinates represent a real place where people live; that the dates happened in our recent history; that the numbers are actually human lives – with all the love, hope, dreams, hatred, fear and nightmares that come with them – then it’s difficult to ever forget how important these documents are.”
Manning, whose grandfather, Billy Fox, emigrated from Dublin to Wales in 1948, wanted the world to understand the reality of war, the brutality and bloodshed that lie behind media headlines and depictions in video games, and the cowardly nature of drone-style warfare.
This is particularly important in the context of the Iraq war, a war widely accepted to have been based on lies, propaganda and the pursuit of oil.
“When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.” Manning stated during her 2013 trial.
Her motivations were in keeping with the sentiments of Nobel Peace laureate Dr Martin Luther King when he once said “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law”.
War crimes and state terrorism
Indeed there are some who say that Manning is a traitor, that the leaks endangered lives and risked national security. This does not however take into account that they helped expose war crimes and state terrorism, regardless of them being cloaked in the language of freedom and democracy.
What Manning did was to help shine a light on how wars like that in Iraq help fuel fundamentalism. The deaths of approximately 150,000 Iraqi civilians and a country decimated has left a generation vulnerable to the hate-mongering of vengeful minds. Destroying Iraq was always going to guarantee that the cycle of violent retribution continues.
When I met Chelsea’s mother, Susan, in Dublin back in 2013, she told me Chelsea’s grandmother used to always say to her “if you can’t tell the truth then don’t bother talking”. It struck a chord with me. I was left wondering what influence this had on Chelsea’s moral compass as she journeyed into adulthood. Could it be that Manning, like Edward Snowden, HSBC Swiss bank leaker Hervé Falciani, and the growing chorus of courageous whistleblowers, was prepared to walk the talk on that most basic human value – the truth?
In a statement following her sentencing, Manning declared “sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.”
Hero of truth
It is Chelsea Manning’s birthday today. She turns 28 and will spend it in Fort Leavenworth military prison where she has been for the past 5½ years as part of a 35-year prison sentence. Yet she refuses to lie down, continuing to campaign on foreign policy, transparency and gender issues, writing opinion pieces for the Guardian and the New York Times, and tweeting under the handle @xychelsea by using phone calls to dictate tweets to intermediaries.
In times of spin and geopolitical war games, it can be hard to know where to turn for the truth. This is why people like Chelsea Manning are so important. They offer to light the darkness, risking their freedom so we can have ours. This is all the more reason they should not be forgotten, especially on their birthday.
Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, Fulbright scholar and member of the Council of State. ruairimckiernan.com
Published in the Irish Independent, June 17th, 2015
Find a list of retreat centres in Ireland here: http://www.ruairimckiernan.com/retreats-in-ireland.html
We humans aren't machines, yet many of us live as if we are. So many people I talk to these days are consumed by busyness and time pressures. 'Keeping busy' seems to be the norm, as if busyness was something to aspire to. It often feels like the world is speeding up and that there aren't enough hours in the day.
Thomas Merton referred to this as a kind of modern violence on the soul. "To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence," he once wrote.
From the age of four, most of us are on a fast and furious production line of school, college, and work. Free time is often taken up with homework, housework, shopping, cleaning, and catching up with an ever-increasing amount of bills, phone calls, emails, and social media updates.
All of this can fog up your mind and leave you feeling fed up and exhausted, which in turn can affect relationships and bring on physical and mental illness. It's no wonder then that the World Health Organisation says that mental ill health is one of the greatest threats facing our world.
Exercise, friends, hobbies and holidays are all good ways to offset the pressures of modern life but sometimes, as I've found out, you have to just step away from it all and go a bit deeper. It's important to let your spirit catch up with you, especially when you're feeling the strain and know something needs to change.
Stepping off the treadmill isn't that easy. Money is often a concern, as are work, family and social commitments. However, the way I look at it, going on retreat is an investment.
It gives you a better chance of knowing yourself and knowing what direction to take in life. By putting yourself first you are better able to serve all your other responsibilities. It allows you to rest and renew and become clearer, more at ease, and more successful at whatever you put your mind to.
For some, beach or walking holidays do the trick, but a retreat isn't a retreat unless you have space for silence, solitude and tuning in. Most of us spend a lot of time on the external world but the internal world is just as important, if not more so. Feeding into this is fundamental to our well-being. It's hard to do this in our day-to-day lives and that's why retreats from a half-day to a month or a year can be necessary.
Generally, a busy mind will find every excuse not to go on retreat - the idea of quiet time alone horrifies it. The busy mind wants to keep thinking, doing, distracting, avoiding. Sometimes, that's because we have 'stuff' to deal with, things that need attention that might be painful and upsetting.
This stuff is there even if you have buried it. It will find you one way or another, so better to tackle it than have it eat away at you.
When deciding to go on retreat, consider bringing a journal to write in and maybe some books and music, but remember that smartphones and internet access are the enemy, offering you an instant gateway of distraction into the noisy world you are trying to get away from. If you're going on retreat, then be on retreat and try to leave the smartphone at home. If you need a phone, maybe just take an old Nokia-style one with you.
The options of where to go are endless. There are retreat centres all over the world that specialise in providing relaxing spaces for people to come and relax. Sometimes, retreat centres offer programmes that involve yoga, meditation, writing, walking and personal development workshops. More often than not, these retreats can be expensive, although they do offer the prospect of being life-changing, and you get to share the experience with others.
At the end of the day, all you need is somewhere warm, quiet, safe and relaxing. Choose somewhere surrounded by natural beauty with good walks. We're spoilt for choice in Ireland. Over the past 15 years, I've stayed at Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, Slí an Chroí in Wicklow and the Dzogchen Beara Buddhist centre in West Cork, among others.
I've gone camping, stayed in hostels and bed and breakfasts, and had day retreats that included solo hill walks.
Most of us could do with some form of retreat every few months or so, even if it's just for a day or a weekend. It's like soul food, precious time to step back from doing and catch up with yourself. Finding a way to do this can be difficult, but making the decision to proceed is a great gift you can give to yourself, and consequently those around you.
Going on retreat generally requires cash, but the biggest demand is courage, the courage to step back from the constant doing so you can step forward again with a spring in your step.Find a list of retreat centres in Ireland here:
Find a list of retreat centres in Ireland here: http://www.ruairimckiernan.com/retreats-in-ireland.html
Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, Fulbright scholar and member of the Council of State.
Published in the Huffington Post, May 26th, 2015
Standing at the court yard of Dublin Castle last Saturday, I could feel a new Ireland being born. In this, our summer of love, the country has found hope at a time when many of us are disillusioned and weighed down by debt, deception, and despair. In doing so we have sent a powerful message that the people of Ireland are not afraid to rise up and shake off the shackles of our past.
This has been a story of heart breaking testimonies and huge courage in a battle against fear, misinformation, and the campaigns of church leaders. The dedication, collaboration and tireless efforts of countless campaigners and volunteers have shown the vast power of community, and the true meaning of love.
The yes vote has been a spectacular victory for civil society, a case study in the beauty of democracy, and a love story with many heroes. We’ve seen sports stars, the Gardaí, trade unions and student groups, psychologists, youth organisations, all main political parties, and everyone from dissenting priests and nuns joining veteran LGBT activists in speaking out for equal rights and an end to the shameful treatment of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
Young people have been stars in this, offering near universal support for saying yes to an equal Ireland. On social media, in schools and colleges, and on the streets, they mobilised like never before. Tens of thousands of them registered to vote for the first time, thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of groups like the Union of Students in Ireland. From Canada, Australia, the UK and beyond, young emigrants returned en masse to make their mark on history. This was a moment young Ireland stood up to be counted.
Parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts have played a huge role too - those who wanted to end the isolation of gay people, and could see that Ireland has had enough of fear, judgment, shame and suffering. It's said that older women played a huge role, breaking with tradition and religion to birth a new dawn. And this victory didn't belong to a liberal elite. In working class areas such as Tallaght, Ballyfermot and Ballymun the yes vote was up on 80-90%.
It’s rare that the Irish political establishment covers itself in glory but during this campaign something was different. Yes there were issues, some parties and politicians stepped up to the plate more than others (and that's been noted) but for the most part there was a degree of unity beyond the usual blame game. Party strategists will be busy trying to capture the credit and momentum (watch out general election), but this doesn't belong to parties. It belongs to all of us.
Observing some of the no campaign’s tactics, it is clear that old prejudices won’t disappear overnight, but there’s no going back now. Ireland has changed forever. The concerns of no voters might persist but as we discovered with the introduction of contraception and divorce, time will show that the world goes on and that the main thing to change will be that more people will be happy, healthy and free to live without judgment. This, regardless of any differences, is surely something worth supporting.
As we prepare to commemorate the 1916 rising, the yes vote has inspired a generation and presents the prospect of the youth vote swaying the next election. It has shown us what is possible when we dare to dream and realise our huge power to change reality no matter how impossible it might seem. Let's not stop here. There are so many other battles for equality to be fought. Take gender, the wealth divide, disabilities, racism, direct provision, age equality, housing, health care, education, mental health and global justice to name but a few. But for now let's rejoice in our new Ireland and the great future that is ours for the taking.
Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, Fulbright scholar, and a member of Ireland's Council of State. His website is www.ruairimckiernan.com and he is on Twitter@ruairimckiernan
Published in TheJournal.ie May 12th, 2015
AS THE MARRIAGE referendum campaign heats up there’s a lot of talk on the no side about marriage being an institution that needs to be protected. But protected against what or who? Marriage predates religion. It was historically linked to land, money and status, with women often traded between families as mere commodities.
Marriage has always been evolving. Up until the ’70s women had to give up work when they got married. In the not too distant past, love between Catholics and Protestants was frowned upon, divorce was illegal, and people were often forced to stay in miserable, violent or abusive relationships for the sake up protecting the institution of marriage.
It’s time now for another change. For too long many of our gay and lesbian friends, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons and daughters have been isolated and marginalised. They have been cruelly judged by some as being freaks and sinners, people who aren’t somehow normal or equal in the eyes of God or the State. It’s hard to believe now but it was only in 1993, and despite appeals by some groups, that being gay was decriminalised in Ireland.
Gay people are still pushed to the margins in many ways
My 15 years’ experience in youth and community work has shown me that a pervasive culture of homophobia has pushed many gay and lesbian people into the margins of society. This has led to depression, addiction, emigration and denial of identity for many. It has meant that some people have never been free to be who they truly are.
Thankfully things are changing but still, all over Ireland, and particularly in rural Ireland, gay people live in the shadows. They listen to the so called banter at school, at work, in pubs and at matches, the jokes and jeers about ‘queers’ and ‘faggots’, and of something negative being described as ‘gay’.
Research by Headstrong – the national centre for youth mental health, has found that 6% of heterosexual young people they surveyed had attempted suicide. This number is too high but it is nothing compared to the figure of 19% for gay and lesbian young people and 24% for young bisexual people. Other research suggests these numbers could be higher.
But these aren’t just numbers and statistics. The figures are made up by real lives –real young people in our families, schools, colleges, churches, work places and sports clubs, young people we need to stand up for, support, love, cherish and protect.
Marriage is a core part of our culture and denying same sex couples the right to be part of this is telling them they’re not equal, that their love isn’t as special or as sacred. For those considering a no vote, think about what message voting no would send to these people who are already struggling with having their identity and sexuality debated on a daily basis. Think about all the young people who are still afraid to come out to their parents. Think about all the suffering and suicides that we can avoid.
Decoys and distractions from the real issues
As to the argument that civil partnership will suffice, there was a compelling riposte doing the rounds on social media recently. It stated that arguing for civil marriage is like saying African-American civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks should have been happy with her seat at the back of the bus.
When it comes to the debate around surrogacy and adoption, this is a decoy and a distraction. These laws are already in place and the Chair of the Adoption Agency has clarified this. No amount of misinformation or fear mongering will change this.
It’s clear too that neither marital status nor the gender of parents can guarantee happiness or safety for kids. The reports of agencies like Barnardos, the ISPCC and CARI provide harrowing evidence of this. There are plenty of single parent families, both single mothers and fathers, who provide better parenting that some families combined. Similarly there are same sex couples who are as dedicated to loving, supporting and protecting their children as anyone you’ll meet.
This time last year I got married. My right to marry was not one I had to fight for, unlike the estimated 10% of Ireland’s citizens who are denied the same right. The question needs to be asked – if marriage is an institution that can foster love and joy in the world, then why deny it to another? If, for some, this is about religion and God is love, then why would that God want to prevent someone’s happiness? Surely none of us has the right to deny that right and to deny another’s happiness.
This is why an unprecedented alliance of diverse voices is calling for a yes vote. This includes Sr Stan, Mary McAleese, Gay Byrne, Fr Tony Flannery, Brian O’Driscoll, the Gaelic Player’s Association, the Garda Representative Association, Amnesty International Ireland, the National Youth Council and all the main political parties.
I understand why some people fear change. There is much to be concerned about in a fast changing world where community is fragmented and compassion is in short supply. But we shouldn’t give in to fear. People have suffered enough. Fear is the enemy of love and on May 22nd we have a chance to choose love. In doing so, we can help heal Ireland and send a powerful message to the world about what kind of people we are and what kind of country we want to be.
Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, Fulbright scholar, founder of SpunOut.ie, and a member of the Council of State. His website is www.ruairimckiernan.com
Published in the Irish Independent, March 4th
How is it that after 13 years of education, most young people graduate knowing more about geography and maths than they do about health, happiness and navigating the challenges of life?
Nobody is suggesting that facts, figures and Italian mountain ranges aren't important but it's time to get real about the true priorities.
It's no secret that Ireland has an abundance of mental health issues that need attention. The statistics around anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, alcohol abuse, addiction, violence and suicide all point to cries for help.
Figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) tell us that suicide levels are at an all-time high, with over 500 people taking their own lives each year. The vast majority (83pc) of these deaths are male, which highlights the urgent need for a focus on men in particular.
Overall, it's clear that all is not well in the hearts and minds of the Irish nation.
A dysfunctional economy is no doubt playing a role in this, as is a political system that is looking more and more Victorian by the day. Permeating all of this is an ideology that promotes consumerism over citizenship, and emphasises the needs of the market over the needs of the people.
Science and technology have brought many great material advances to this country and so many of its people, but in some ways it has left many people more lonely, disconnected and living in despair.
The Dalai Lama sums this up in his poem 'The Paradox of Our Age' which includes these lines: "We have bigger houses, but smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees, but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, but more problems, more medicines, but less wellness."
There's no doubt that these are testing times.
The threats posed by so many global issues - war and terrorism, climate change, and economic meltdowns and austerity - feed an anxiety that is reflected in our media and our politics.
Young people pick up on this and need to be supported through it all. They need guidance and direction from elders and mentors. They also need opportunities and spaces to express their feelings and their fears, as well as their hopes and dreams.
That is why education can play such a leading role in this. That's not to take away from the role of parents and the wider community, but it is at school where young minds are nurtured for over 30 hours per week.
English, Irish, maths, history, they're all important, but none of them will matter much if the student graduates without a sense of who they are, what their unique gifts are, and how they can withstand the inevitable storms that will come their way.
Similarly, how is a student to focus on learning if, as research suggests, up to 20pc of them are in crisis at any one time?
Employers have an interest in this too. A head full of facts can only get you so far in the modern world. Increasingly, they are looking for staff who aren't just technically competent, but are well rounded, good communicators, and confident in themselves.
The same is true in sports, where there is a growing trend to take a 'whole player' approach, where managers want players who are healthy in mind, body and soul.
The current hit-and-miss approach to well-being in schools throughout the country needs to change. The implementation of the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) programme is patchy and inconsistent.
In the year 2015, a high percentage of students will still not receive any sex and relationships education beyond what they might learn from friends, or as is increasingly the case, from the hardcore pornography so easily accessed via the internet.
We know too that bullying is rife in our schools, particularly homophobic bullying, and that for the most part mental health is only touched on as a non-essential part of a crowded curriculum.
It's time to change that. The 1916 proclamation imagined not just prosperity for all people, but also their happiness.
It is time to honour this vision, and to start walking the walk when it comes to mental health, suicide prevention and creating a healthy Ireland.
Proposals for a new Junior Cycle well-being module are a step in the right direction but we need to go the full distance.
It's time now to heed the calls of campaigners like Niall Breslin (Bressie) and start to embed mental health and well-being into the education system as a core priority.
What's needed is a visionary, mandatory life skills curriculum from national school right up to the Leaving Cert.
Third-level institutions can also play a role. This effort needs to be well resourced, supported by skilled educators and suitable partner agencies, and it must provide genuine spaces for young people to be heard, seen and supported.
The cutbacks to guidance counsellors need to be reversed and we need psychologists and other supports available to anyone who might be in distress.
Mindfulness and meditation can play a big role, as can using guest speakers, online supports, creative expression, physical fitness and re-connecting with the natural world.
Teachers, who are already working under difficult conditions, need support in all of this too.
We know what needs to be done. Now who among us has the courage to stand up and help make it happen?
Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, founder of SpunOut.ie, and member of the Council of State. He is a voluntary board member of Uplift, Gaisce - The President's Award, and the Soar Foundation
Published in The Irish Examiner, February 19th 2015
The Diageo-funded ‘Stop Out Of Control Drinking Campaign’ is like the time when Shell got involved in environmental campaigning - it’s hypocritical, writes Ruairí McKiernan
YOU couldn’t make this up. A drinks industry group has created an alcohol awareness campaign headed by the respected head of a leading children’s charity.
Sounds crazy, but this is exactly what’s happening with the new Diageo-funded ‘Stop Out Of Control Drinking Campaign’, chaired by Fergus Finlay, the chief executive of Barnardos.
Most people agree that Ireland needs to look at our relationship with alcohol. There’s hardly a family in the country that isn’t adversely affected in some way. We have a boozy reputation abroad and it seems every visiting dignitary is handed a pint before they have time to unpack their bags. This in a country where alcohol-related harm is estimated to cost every taxpayer over €3,000 per year.
In understanding this, the role of alcohol as a painkiller, needs exploring. For most people, drinking doesn’t pose a problem, but for many others it’s a cheap, accessible,and socially acceptable crutch for easing suffering and pain.
Alcohol also plays a central role in Irish culture, helping us mark weddings, funerals, andJunior Certificate and Leaving Certificate celebrations. A lack of alcohol-free spaces to gather and socialise doesn’t help, nor does the example set by some of our leaders.
The controversy surrounding the Dáil ‘lapgate’ incident on the night of the 2013 abortion debate highlighted this, as did the claims of widespread drunkenness on the night the former Anglo Irish Bank was liquidated. Just last December, there were more allegations of late-night Dáil bar boozing as senators voted to pass the controversial Water Services Bill.
UK multinational Diageo has a big interest in our relationship with drink. They’re continually pushing to create the impression that Guinness is part of the Irish identity. The latest Guinness TV advert goes so far as to align its product with the proud legacy of Munster’s famous win over the All Blacks.
Evidence shows that brand positioning alongside sports and music is key to reaching the youth market. The bottom line is the drinks industry wants us to consume more booze, not less, and they invest heavily in dreaming up new ways of making this happen.
I’ve no doubt that there are good people working for Diageo who are parents andconcerned citizens just like the rest of us. But can we trust a corporation to lead the way in tackling the drink problem they help create?
It reminds me of Shell getting involved in environmental campaigning in what campaigners refer to as ‘greenwashing’. Surely there’s a contradiction, as former Ireland rugby international Denis Hickie points out, in spending tens of millions promoting alcoholand on the other hand offering a few quid to help clean up the mess.
It’s like a tobacco company running a ‘Stop Out Of Control Smoking’ campaign.
Ultimately, Diageo’s new campaign is its latest attempt to frame the debate, dilute the issues, offset criticism, and prevent real legislative reform. It gets the Government off its back and allows the company to foster a socially responsible image.
Ireland isn’t alone in this. There is a growing body of international evidence documenting efforts by the global alcohol industry to influence governments to adopt alcohol policies that are favourable to their business interests.
The World Health Organisation has issued a warning on the emergence of the alcohol industry getting involved in public health campaigning. They say that industry initiatives are usually weak, rarely evidence-based, and unlikely to reduce harmful alcohol use, as I suspect is the case with Diageo’s website, drinkaware.ie.
A key part of its strategy in all of this is to create the appearance of partnership working, while in reality it holds the real power and the purse strings.
Diageo’s latest manoeuvre comes in the wake of the Government abandoning attempts to tackle the issue of alcohol sponsorship in sport. Soon afterwards, Communications Minister Alex White appointed a recently resigned drinks industry lobbyist to the board of RTÉ.
Now we have a Diageo-created campaign supported by Barnardos, St Patrick’s Mental Health Hospital, Dublin City University, the Irish Rugby Union Players Association, the National Parents Council, and a range of other partners, politicians, and celebrities. In addition to this, several experienced members of the children’s rights sector have joined Diageo’s payroll and are no doubt bringing much-needed credibility and connections.
Fergus Finlay says the new campaign is fully independent yet David Smith, the head of Diageo Ireland, and the man with the cheque book, sits on the board. This is the same man who in 2013 threatened investment in Ireland if market conditions weren’t favourable. Meanwhile the campaign’s website, rolemodels.ie, appears to be connected to a UK lobbyist linked to Diageo.
I don’t doubt the commitment and integrity of Mr Finlay and the supporters he has brought on board. All of them are unpaid and I understand that they believe that the campaign is independent.
However, like senator Jillian Van Turnhout, Dr Mick Loftus, Alcohol Action Ireland, the Union of Students in Ireland, and many others, I’m just not convinced.
It looks like the industry wants to distract us from the big issues, just like the tobacco industry has attempted to do. Yes we need campaigns and debates but until we tackle the drinks industry we’ll continue to dodge one of the major factors behind Ireland’s problematic relationship with alcohol.
Published in TheJournal.ie , December 9th, 2014
THE ONGOING NATIONWIDE protests are about much more than water charges. They are about trust and power, leadership and vision, and the people of Ireland finally standing up to be heard. They come at a time when the democratic disconnect needs urgent attention, and when promises ring hollow in the hearts of a jaded nation.
The water debacle on its own is enough to spur anyone to the streets. The mismanagement, inflated salaries and bonuses, and the incompetence in planning, communications, and budgeting are symptomatic of a wider systems failure. This was supposed to be about infrastructure and conservation, and tackling the 42% of water being lost to leaks. Most people were open to this, but we see now it’s also about creative accounting, cronyism, and possible privatisation. Yes, we need a solution for our water needs but the current plan is creating as many problems as it’s solving and is a step too far for many.
When it comes to the prospect of water privatisation, people aren’t buying it. Wherever the IMF have gone, they have pushed for open markets through privatisation. Promises about protecting water and other assets are made but politicians move on, pensioned up, leaving people dazzled in the headlights of spin. ‘Trust us’ we’re told, time and time again, in what is increasingly an abusive relationship where trust is in short supply.
The mass privatisation of public services
All of this is occurring at the same time the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), a secretive EU-US trade agreement, is in the pipeline. The TTIP puts the mass privatisation of public services firmly on the agenda. Under the TTIP’s investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, corporations can sue governments in secret courts for what they see as anti-competitive policies.
We now know, thanks to a leaked letter, that Minister Richard Bruton, has lobbied for the introduction of these courts. But why, and who is he representing? The Irish Congress of Trade Unions recently warned that, under the TTIP, Ireland could end up being sued by US multinationals for increasing the minimum wage. Sound far fetched? Not if you consider that French multinational Veolia recently sued the Egyptian government for the same reason. Veolia also happens to be the world’s largest private water company and isinvolved in the installation of Irish Water meters.
It is this type of ideology that has resulted in the obscene figure of 1% of people now owning over 50% of the world’s wealth. This is a gap in income inequality not seen since the 1920s and is leading to unrest the world over. The mindset behind the TTIP and similar agreements is too often about finding ways of transferring public wealth in health, education, energy, housing, public broadcasting, transport and water over to investors who are unelected and motivated only by profit. It is about dismantling the collective commons that our ancestors built over centuries, and handing it over to private interests.
The people of Ireland aren’t supposed to concern ourselves with the TTIP, Irish Water or the house of cards tumbling around us. Reasonable people shouldn’t protest, we’re told. Reasonable people, it’s suggested, should behave themselves, go back to slaving day in and day out, and trust that our best interests are being taken care of. The reality is that protest movements, for all their weaknesses, have always influenced great change. As Henry David Thoreau said “disobedience is the true foundation of liberty”.
Authorities ridiculing, smearing, attacking and infiltrating protest movements is nothing new
We need to keep perspective on all the talk of the sinister fringe, the dissidents, and the people one government TD called parasites. Protest movements, like all groups of people, will always have their shadows, including people who engage in foolish actions. There have been scuffles and incidents, including attacks on demonstrators, but we’ve had no riots, no beatings, no smashed windows, or burnt out banks or cars. The emerging movement is made up mostly of peace loving people who are not affiliated to any party or group.
When discussing violence, it is also worth considering the economic, institutional, and psychological violence that is contributing to Ireland’s high levels of depression and suicide. Likewise, the policy decisions and inequalities that have led hundreds of thousands to emigrate, and which, according to Unicef, have resulted in an extra 130,000 children living in poverty in Ireland.
Ridiculing, smearing, attacking and even infiltrating protest movements is also nothing new. It helps create drama and noise, distract from the real issues, shift perceptions, and feed sensationalist headlines. Thankfully, in the era of social media and citizen journalism, people are starting to see beyond this. We can create, share, comment, and make up our own minds on what and who to believe.
Find your voice – and use it
As 2016 approaches, we are entering a period of great upheaval, where the seeds for a new Ireland will be sown. It is clear that people are tired of waiting for promised reforms and aren’t prepared to just wait until the next election to have their say. Protest is shaking up the status quo, in the same way it has done throughout history.
Through community-led campaigning, people are finding their voice, claiming their power, and reminding politicians of who they are paid to serve. The protests might be unsettling for some but they are also about active citizenship and democratic participation at a time when people are calling out to be heard. When the people lead, the leaders will be forced to follow.
Ruairí McKiernan is an award winning social innovator, campaigner, Fulbright scholar, and member of the Council of State. He is on Twitter @ruairimckiernan and his website iswww.ruairimckiernan.com
Published in Yes! Magazine
Kenny Ausubel doesn’t do despair. “There are more reasons for hope than horror,” he tells me with such vigor that you can tell he believes it. Ausubel is one of America’s leading visionaries and has for decades been trailblazing new ways of educating, activating, and connecting people and ideas around social justice and ecology.
With a vast network of allies throughout the world, including high-profile supporters like Jane Goodall, Naomi Klein, and Leonardo Di Caprio, Ausubel is an impressive figure with plenty to say at a time when visionary voices are badly needed.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of his Bioneers movement, which he co-founded with his wife Nina. I interviewed Kenny at his home in Santa Fe in advance of the annual October Bioneers summit in San Rafael, Calif.
Below is an edited transcript of what he had to say.
Ruairí McKiernan: How would you describe Bioneers, what type of people are involved and why?
Kenny Ausubel: Bioneers is a natural antidepressant. As we’ve shown since 1990, the solutions to most of our environmental and social crises are largely present, or we know what directions to head in. We highlight the profound transformation already taking hold around the globe, the dawn of a human civilization that partners with the wisdom of nature’s design and practices values of justice, diversity, democracy and peaceful coexistence. We’re working to rapidly spread, adapt, and scale the models and solutions that already exist and help shortcut innovation.
We act as a seed head for the game-changing social and scientific visionaries through our annual national conference, award-winning media, local Bioneers Network conferences and initiatives, and leadership training programs. Bioneers is a revolution from the heart of nature and the human heart. Over and over, it’s the story of how great a difference one person can make, and how community makes the difference.
Twenty-five years into our journey, it’s impossible to keep up with the avalanche of authentic solutions, creative responses, and radical transformation occurring in global consciousness.
McKiernan: Do you remember the moment when you decided to create Bioneers?
Ausubel: Bioneers was born in the water, specifically in a hot tub in the mountains near my home of Santa Fe, N.M. I was visiting with Josh Mailman, a friend and visionary leader in social finance. I had previously been affected by ill health and later made a documentary about the corrosive politics of cancer treatment. (The film is called Hoxsey: How Healing Becomes a Crime). One of the big takeaways for me was understanding that the lineage of conventional allopathic medicine’s central reductionist belief was that the body had no ability to heal itself. The doctor had to intervene heroically to kill disease, usually with highly invasive, dangerous, and toxic methods.
To the contrary, natural medicine’s empiric tradition saw the role of the doctor or practitioner as supporting the body’s inherent ability to heal itself, using generally harmless natural products or practices. The principle was this: Working with nature to heal nature. Nature has a profound ability for self-repair and healing. We barely understand it.
The second impulse for Bioneers arose alongside the company I co-founded in 1989, Seeds of Change, the organic seed and backyard biodiversity venture, which taught me that, biologically speaking, diversity is a core principle of nature’s operating instructions.
During the ’70s and ’80s, I’d sought to learn about people who had discovered fundamental solutions to our most pressing environmental and social crises. A pattern emerged. They peered deep into the heart of nature and living systems in search of cues and clues. After all, nature has 3.8 billion years of R and D under her belt. What’s here is what works.
The most basic question they asked: How would nature do it? I came to call them bioneers—biological pioneers who looked to nature not as resource but as teacher, mentor, and model.
As Josh Mailman and I sweated in the cold mountain air, I was raving about these amazing innovators and solutions, and how the world didn’t know about them. He asked: “Why don’t you have a conference?” I’d never even been to a conference and it sounded boring. I shrugged him off. Then he said, “I’m giving you $10,000. Have a conference.”
We did the first Bioneers in 1990, and it was electrifying. Who knew?
McKiernan: Were there other major influencing factors in your life before that?
Ausubel: My father taught at Columbia University and we had these glorious summers on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. That was before it was cool or expensive. My brother and I got turned loose with our bikes, fishing poles, and bathing suits. We lived outdoors. Only years later did I realize how profound this experience. Being in nature was like church for me. Also, I grew up in an academic home which was a floating salon crackling with the intense, spirited exchange of ideas. So Bioneers is very much like that.
McKiernan: Looking back over the 25 years of Bioneers, what have been some highlights for you?
Ausubel: The highlights are countless. I’d say overall the specific convergence of movements and sectors and the accompanying evolution in our collective vision have marked real high points.
For instance, we’ve been a hub for the imperative convergence of the environmental and justice movements. It boils down to this: Taking care of nature means taking care of people—and taking care of people means taking care of nature. You cannot have one without the other.
Another highlight has been to witness the rise of both women’s leadership and the awareness of how crucial it is to restore the balance of masculine and feminine in our institutions, society, and within each of us. For us, this may be the single “trim tab” that shifts the entire system—it’s not just another issue.
A third highlight has been to witness the field of biomimicry really take off. The field literally had no name when we began, until Janine Benyus published her landmark book in 1997, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
McKiernan: Any major low points along the way?
Ausubel: There’s no light without shadow. We had a couple of financial near-death experiences, but we came through them with heroic support from some key individuals. The 3-year organizational restructuring we’ve recently completed was harrowing. Thankfully things are great now. We’ve got a new headquarters in San Francisco and hired the inspirational Joshua Fouts as executive director.
I never set out to build an organization, and then I realized it was completely necessary if we were going to take the work to the level of influence it deserves. For many years, especially at the beginning, few people understood what we were doing, especially in terms of systems thinking. We might as well have been UFOs. I have a Gary Larsen cartoon on my wall. Two beetles are talking, and one says: “Of course we eat a lot of shit—we’re dung beetles.” So all this goes with the territory.
McKiernan: Has Bioneers made a real difference in people’s lives, and in the world around us?
Ausubel: There are countless stories of tangible outcomes. Through a daisy chain of connections we made and related conference programming, Ecuador became the first country in the world to put rights of nature into its national constitution.
Part of our M.O. is as a kind of star search for the greatest people you never heard of. We referred Michael Pollan to the organic farmer Joel Salatin, who became the protagonist as the farmer “who proves organic can feed the world” for The Omnivore’s Dilemma and for “Power Steer,” Michael’s cover story in The New York Times Magazine.
We’ve spawned many award-winning third-party films for the greatest people you never heard of and we were the main source of subjects for Leonardo DiCaprio’s feature documentary The 11th Hour.
Through our Resilient Communities network of local chapters we helped advance numerous initiatives including the Dreaming New Mexico Project. This helped the state achieve greater clean energy and systemic changes in local food production.
In New Bedford, Mass., Bioneers By the Bay helped establish the city’s first energy office and energy department to expand renewables, conservation, and green jobs—including energy audits for more than 3,000 residents, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. For this work, the city won a U.S. Conference of Mayors grant for $300,000.
McKiernan: How do you feel about the state of the world today compared to when you started Bioneers 25 years ago?
Ausubel: As the state of the world has hurtled from urgency to emergency, we can move from breakdown to breakthrough. The years between now and 2020 will be the most important in the history of human civilization, the decisive window to make the shift.
The ecological debt we’ve incurred is dire. Climate change has crash-landed into the present. The hyper-concentration of wealth has captured our political systems, impoverishing humanity, nature, and democracy. The bottom line is we’re living beyond our means and the collection agency is at the door.
Fortunately, nature has a profound capacity for healing. As a community of leadership, Bioneers is helping disrupt our current failed institutions by offering people better choices. We show a compelling vision, models, and the how. It’s showtime.
McKiernan: How do you see the link between ecology and mental health problems in our world today?
Ausubel: There’s a whole new condition called nature deficit disorder. It’s serious. Overwhelming evidence now exists showing the profound healing capacity of just being in and around nature—even in a park or having a window box with a plant. Hospitals are picking up on it because it saves money by reducing hospital stays.
But it’s bigger than that. In some intuitive way, everyone can feel the horrific destruction that’s going on. We’re part of nature, and we resonate. Everyone is suffering from some background level of post-traumatic stress disorder, or worse. There’s little doubt our psyches and emotions are being ravaged.
There are many other factors too, including behavioral effects of heavy metal poisoning, pesticides, and chemicals. For instance, several studies have shown how violence dropped after lead was removed from gasoline.
The reality is that we’re in for some serious pain but social ties save lives. Over and over, the communities that make it through crisis are the ones where strong relationships exist.
McKiernan: Many people feel lost when it comes to figuring out what role they can play in creating change. Do you have any advice for these people?
Ausubel: Today’s problems are too complex and interrelated for any individual or single discipline to solve. These daunting realities require new forms of leadership and organization anchored in collaboration, teamwork, diversity, and network organizing models.
I have enough trouble figuring out my own life, so I’m not big on giving advice. But really the issue is to engage. Educate yourself, find the issues you most care about, and then learn about the people and groups doing good work and reach out.
As a wise mentor once told me, life is like crossing stepping stones across a rushing river. Often you can’t see the next step till it comes. Take that first step of learning and reaching out. The rest will likely take care of itself.
McKiernan: Finally, is there anything in particular you’re excited about for this year’s Bioneers event?
Ausubel: Everything! We’ve got many of the genuine visionaries with both feet on the ground who’ll be illuminating some of the pathways, such as Naomi Klein, Eve Ensler, Manuel Pastor, and john a. powell. We’ll be looking at how California can become a world leader in responding to climate change, how mushrooms can save the world through detoxifying land and treating breast cancer. We’ll also be exploring cheap solar-energy solutions and indigenous leadership, not to mention having a lot of fun.
More information on Bioneers at www.bioneers.org
Ruairí McKiernan wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Ruairí is a Fulbright scholar based at the Citizen Engagement Lab in Berkeley, Calif. He is the founder of SpunOut.ie and a member of Ireland’s Council of State. He is on Twitter @ruairimckiernan and his website is www.ruairimckiernan.com.
Fifty years ago, students in Berkeley ushered in an era of student activism that has inspired social movements the world over. The Free Speech Movement (FSM) began when a group of Berkeley students decided that they could no longer tolerate the hostility of the university authorities to free speech, political organizing and academic freedom. FSM changed the course of history and in turn ensured the city of Berkeley become synonymous with civil liberties and social justice organizing.
Times have changed and many argue that it is a reputation that is no longer deserved. While Berkeley is more progressive than many places in the U.S, it is clear that the culture of large-scale student activism has changed. Many claim the youth of today are apathetic. Others say they just engage in different ways. It may also be that exorbitant college fees play a large part in taking the radical edge out of the student population.
One group that continues to fly the flag for the Berkeley's campaigning spirit is theCitizen Engagement Laboratory, or "CEL", as it is commonly known. CEL is based near the university in the Brower Center, a hub for numerous environmental and justice groups. Founded by Berkeley born film-maker and activist Ian Inaba, alongside friends James Rucker and Daniel Souweine, CEL helps "incubate and accelerate" groups who want to harness the power of technology for transformative social change. It builds on the success of web pioneers like MoveOn.org, which was born in Berkeley in 1998.
According to CEL Managing Director Cindy Kang, their work is all about building on the legacy of previous generations in order to create new ways for people to get organized, be seen and get heard.
"Traditional tactics remain integral to grassroots organizing and campaigning. What we're seeing now is a convergence of online and offline organizing, which is engaging people on an unprecedented scale. Groups like MoveOn.org, Avaaz.organd 350.org have shown that you can connect and mobilize large numbers of people with limited resources. The recent climate marches in 166 countries are an example of this. If done strategically, online action generally leads to offline action - to conversations, debates, phone calls, protests and eventual cultural and policy change. It goes much deeper than just email based petitions. It's about activating all aspects of democratic engagement," says Kang.
Since its foundation in 2008, CEL has helped over a dozen organizations reach millions of people and create lasting change in the areas such as political reform, climate change action, and in stopping corporate abuses. Each year, through its open-call process, CEL incubates new organizations to help them get off the ground. It has also recently launched CounterPAC, a new initiative focused on fighting corporate money's corrupting influence on politics.
While some argue that CEL's approach to campaigning lacks depth and feeds a culture of "clicktivism", it is worth considering the real victories that it has led to.
These victories include the recent decision by Google to drop its involvement with lobby group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), due to their stance in denying the reality of climate change. This landmark victory was due in no small part to the persistent campaigning of CEL's 'Forecast The Facts' team, not to mention the longstanding anti-ALEC campaigning by partner organization ColorofChange.org.
Other victories from the CEL community include the monumental 2012 defeat of the SOPA internet censorship legislation, which was led in part by the one million plus members of Demand Progress. Another is Reebok ending its relationship with rapper Rick Ross after tens of thousands of Ultraviolet members campaigned to highlight how his comments on rape contributed towards mainstreaming rape culture. Similar victories have included Presente.org's campaign to push CNN news anchor Lou Dobbs off the air due to him spreading what they say were "dangerous myths about immigrants."
Berkeley's campaigning spirit is also spreading globally through the work of OPEN(Online Progressive Engagement Networks), which was founded by Berkeley campaigner Ben Brandzel. OPEN is helping connect, support and found groundbreaking citizen-led democracy groups in Australia, Canada, India, Nigeria, Ireland, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the UK, and beyond.
"Online engagement can be effective but we're not about favoring one approach over the other" says Cindy Kang.
"We have many mountains to climb and it's going to take all types of people acting in a variety of ways. All tools are needed, whether that means protesting and direct action, online organizing, or creating new social enterprises and innovations. Face to face connection is so important and the web has a lot to offer in terms of helping facilitate that."
"The Free Speech Movement was born out of a response to an undemocratic and cruel system. That system still prevails but so too does our commitment to do whatever we can to stop it and build a new world in its place." she added.
Ruairí McKiernan is an award winning social innovator and a Presidential appointee to Ireland's Council of State. He is a founding member of the soon to launch Uplift campaign organization in Ireland and he recently concluded a research visit to CEL. His website is www.ruairimckiernan.com and he is on Twitter@ruairimckiernan and on Facebook www.facebook.com/hopehitching
Irish Times, September 15, 2014
What makes you come alive? Surely this is one of the most important questions for students as they return to school and make decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Figuring out the right choice of subject, course and career is central, not just to landing an eventual job, but to achieving happiness, fulfillment, and a life worth living.
Much of the focus these days is on promoting careers in technology, and it’s easy to see why. I love technology. It’s a big part of my work and can’t be ignored. But is it wise to usher young people into careers that have no consideration for their specific talents or dreams?
Do we really want the next Beethoven or JK Rowling stuck in jobs that cause them to wonder what might have been? Yes, we need programmers and maverick tech start-ups, but we also need innovators and revolutionaries in every discipline.
I’m a pragmatist, and I see the logic in studying for careers that offer decent job prospects. It’s no fun being highly educated and highly unemployed. However, life is short, and we need a society that serves all aspects of life, not just the economy. Education therefore must be about more than meeting the needs of the labour market, or pushing a narrow vision of success that over-emphasises the importance of material wealth.
Rather than packing young minds full of facts, education should seek to help students question the world around them and to find and express their own unique gifts. It ought to help them come alive – to awaken them to the great possibilities that life has to offer. As a quote often attributed to Yeats says: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Last year’s Gallop study of 230,000 workers in 142 countries shows that this isn’t happening. Some 87 per cent of all workers surveyed saw their work in a negative light, with only 13 per cent actually liking their jobs.
Many of us never get to fully realise who we are or what our true calling is. This is a tragedy and the consequences are devastating. The lost potential is everywhere, often taking refuge in addiction and entertainment, begrudgery, resentment and depression. The most common antidote is to stay busy and don’t think about it.
All of this is why helping young people explore the depths of their talents and passions, and supporting them to make informed and conscious decisions about their education and work choices, is one of the most important things any of us can do. It’s why mentoring matters, and why investment in guidance counselling and youth services is vital. It’s also important that young people get to explore their own interests, which might mean making time to travel or volunteer.
In an increasingly competitive and homogeneous world, following the well- beaten path doesn’t guarantee success. Ireland in particular needs to understand this. Much of our economic and social dysfunction has been brought about through a lack of visionary leadership, relying instead on compliance, conformity and looking outside for answers.
The next generation must rip up the rule book. Ireland needs young people who will challenge the status quo and create a country where independent thinking is encouraged. We need students of all ages who are prepared to take the road less travelled in a quest to realise their full potential.
Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge, and he was right. It is imagination that drives learning, curiosity and innovation. Young people, whatever their interests or back- grounds, each has something special to offer. It is a challenge for all of us to help them find these gifts and to bring them into the world.
Didn't get that college place you wanted? Don't stress, you have options, lots of them. Now might not be the right time for college, and you may need more time to figure out what you want to do. You could also choose not to go to college at all. Whatever you do, follow your gut instinct and go easy on yourself. You've spent most of your adult life in an education system that didn't always offer you many choices.
This is a crossroads in your life when you can make big decisions that will help you create the future you really want, although there shouldn't be any pressure to figure it all out now. Research shows that most people don't enjoy their jobs so it's important not to rush into anything.
My main question to you is what makes you come alive? Of course it's important to be practical and to think about money and all of that, but it's just as important to think about what excites you, what your passions are, and what your dream life might look like. There's a saying, 'follow your bliss', which means that if you follow the thing that makes your heart sing then you can't go too far wrong in life.
You have hundreds of options. Below are just ten that come to mind.
1. Knuckle down and try again next year
You can always go back to school, repeat your exams, and try again next year. Not an easy choice. Your friends will have moved on and it might be tricky gathering momentum again. Keep in mind there are no guarantees of success the next time round. However, it can be done. You might even be able to focus better and the time will fly. Consider it carefully and don't be pressurised by anyone. It is your life.
2. Look into different course options
Consider a short course as a taster, or one that is part-time or takes just a year or two. This will give you a chance to see if you like it before committing to further study. You can also take one of the many free online courses provided by universities like Yale and Harvard. Check out www.coursera.com and Irish website www.alison.com. There's a great list of Irish PLC and other courses here.
Remember too that some colleges allow you to apply directly to them for course entry, even up to the last minute, so have a look around to see what your options are. If choosing a course, try something that really interests you, otherwise it'll be hard to study and you may end up going down a road that you'll regret later.
3. Study up north or go abroad - it might even be free
Belfast, for example, is just two hours from Dublin and is a great city with lots of colleges, although fees can be expensive. It can be easier to get into colleges overseas but you might incur heavier fees in non EU countries. If you are from an EU country, there are lots of zero fee options and often universities in the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere have courses that are taught in English. Living costs are generally less than in Ireland and you might even get a scholarship.
Check www.eahep.org/europeanhigher-education/study-in-europe.html or just do an internet search for 'degrees taught in English in the EU' and take it from there. Also, there are lots of websites with scholarship information. Search for 'undergraduate scholarships' and check out www.scholars4dev.com and www.scholarship-positions.com.
4. Get a job, or start an apprenticeship
This gives you a chance to save some money and it takes the pressure off decision making. Either choose something where you'll learn skills or something handy with no stress that gives you some space to think. You could also get an apprenticeship (electrical, carpentry, hairdressing etc.), which is a good mix of work and study while still getting a qualification.
5. Become an entrepreneur or an artist
You might have a winning idea that you've been sitting on and now is a chance to give it a go. Lots of really successful people started out young. Some never went to college, and many others were college 'drop-outs' including Abraham Lincoln, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, Oprah, Ralph Lauren, and John Lennon.
If thinking about a business idea, plot out your idea and try to find allies (not negative people) who will support and advise you. Draw up a mini business plan and ask for help from your local enterprise office. The key here is self belief. Likewise, if you are a really creative person, someone good at music, writing, arts or crafts, then now might be a good time to really dive into your art and see what's possible.
6. Volunteer at the university of life
Either volunteer in your local area, or in another town, city or country. Volunteering opens up the world to you. You can often get free food and accommodation, and it can give you a chance to travel, make new friends and learn new skills. If you volunteer with a charity that people want to support then your friends and family might help you fundraise to pay for your flight. Try to choose a volunteering opportunity related to something that interests you and where you'll be treated right and given a real opportunity to learn something. There are a ton of websites online with lots of info and opportunities.
7. Intern and learn new skills
This can be a bit like volunteering as unfortunately many internships don't pay, but some do pay a basic stipend. Choose a company or organisation that you really respect and where you'll be given real experience, not just treated as a 'dogsbody'. This could be invaluable experience and it's a chance to try out a career you might have in mind. It'll also look good on the CV.
8. Travel and see the world
The world is a big place and now is a great time to discover it. Travel can be the best education of all. You can travel cheaply if you stay in hostels or use services Wwoof, Helpx, and WorkAway, which can give you free food and accommodation and allow you to meet really interesting people in exchange for a few hours work each day. You can also volunteer and work part-time as you travel.
Couch Surfing is also a great option for meeting people and getting free places to stay. You can also survive in many countries in Asia, South America and Africa on as little as €15-€30 per day. Try to be adventurous, but always be safe and stay in touch with friends and family. Consider language lessons abroad. You can study cheaply and it's a great chance to practice as you learn. You could always blog as you go, which is what Irishman Niall Doherty is doing as he travels around the world without flying.
9. Chill out or mix it up
Sometimes you just need a break, to chill out and see what happens. Often people come up with their best ideas when they are rested and have time to think. Meditation is also a good way of calming the mind and getting clearer answers. You could always try a combination of all the above options; a bit of rest, study, work, travel and volunteering. There are many options on offer and you might think of others.
10. Still confused? Consider a vision quest
A vision quest is an intentional quest for answers that is common in many cultures. It can take different forms, and you can make up your own one, but generally it means some time alone, often in nature, seeking out deeper answers about who you are and what your special role on earth is. It could be walking the Camino, or camping in the woods for the weekend. Sounds mad? Maybe, but not as mad as going through life with no vision at all.
Whatever path you choose, do what is right for you. Don't live your life following someone else's dream. Life is too short.
I'll leave the last word with Nelson Mandela, who said:
"There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living"
Published in The Huffington Post
A hugely significant victory for people power was achieved in Ireland this month. After 19 nights of sleeping on the floor of the Paris Bakery in Dublin, a group of mostly young migrant workers succeeded in forcing political action that will help them recoup unpaid wages and make history in the process. All but one of the workers had been involved in trade unions or political campaigning before, but all have emerged as beacons for what's possible when people have the courage to act.Their sit-in campaign started when owners of the popular cafe bakery, Yanick Forel and Ruth Savill, closed the doors of their thriving business. Rumors spread of plans for the owners to set-up elsewhere in the city. There were suggestions of business interests in the Caymen islands and revelations of how the owners had been feted with awards and praise from the business community. Earlier this year, thousands of people signed a petition to stop the popular establishment being demolished to make way for a proposed new shopping complex.
What petition signatories, including myself, didn't know at the time was that while the bakery was doing a roaring trade, the owners were paying neither their staff nor their taxes. One worker was owed at least €6,000 and had been hanging on for months on the promise that the money was on the way. Another was made homeless. There were also claims of below the minimum wage working and a regime where holiday pay, tips and other entitlements weren't forthcoming.
When the workers began their impromptu sit-in on May 20th nobody expected what would follow. Within hours of the occupation local traders and campaigners came on board. An impressive coalition of groups including the OPASTI Plaster's union, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, Mandate, ENAR Ireland, SIPTU, ICTU and Uplift helped them organize actions and communicate what was happening. In the days that followed, local residents and stall holders, election candidates and passers-by started dropping in to offer food, water, songs and solidarity. In an act reminiscent of struggles of old, electricity workers refused to turn off the power, despite being ordered to do so. Just over 100 years since the famous 1913 Dublin lock-out, a new symbolic fight for dignity, rights and survival was being born.
Speaking during the campaign, Venezuelan woman Matilde Naranjo, a former waitress, said, "Wage theft is appalling and workers need more legal protections. We do not want to see this happen to any other worker in Ireland. This is not just our fight or the fight of migrant workers but a fight for all workers."
The campaign grew in momentum and magnitude. Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams paid a visit, so did government Minister Joan Burton, who gave assurances of help. They visited the Dáil (the Irish parliament) where Dessie Ellis TD, questioned Minister Richard Bruton on this issue and who, according to workers, inflamed the situation by stating what was already known. There was deadlock.
The owners refused to engage in discussion, or to wind up the company, allowing them to walk away and prevent access to an Insolvency Fund. Similar situations had happened before due to a legal loophole that means workers often don't get paid when a business ceases trading. It had happened with Vita Cortex, La Senza, GAMA, HMV, Thomas Cook and Connolly Shoes. Political promises of reform were made time and time again.
The Paris Bakery campaigners took their message to the airwaves, online and on the TV. Messages of support came flooding in from as far away as the U.S and Australia. Their cause was raised at a UN conference in Geneva. They protested at government buildings, held vigils on the streets, and arranged colorful and creative pickets outside the home of one of the owners. People with no experience in campaigning were suddenly organizers and leaders, interacting with a mass audience of supporters on Twitter and Facebook.
Almost 5,000 people liked their Facebook page. Over 3,500 people signed a petition. Over 1000 emails were sent to the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and 100s attended protests, pickets and vigils. Perhaps the quotes from 1916 rebellion leaders that adorned the walls of the cafe bakery had inspired something. Maybe there was something about the history of Moore Street, where several of the 1916 leaders had been captured. There would be no surrender on this occasion.In the end, determination paid off. On Tuesday May 10th, the by now exhausted campaigners received a letter from the Revenue Commissioners saying that they were winding up the company. Political pressured had paid off. Workers would be finally able to access the Insolvency Fund that was previously denied to them by greed, arrogance, and unjust legislation.
The former staff won't get all their money but they have been transformed as people in the process. They have realized the power and beauty of collective action, of standing up for what is right, regardless of the discomfort, the risks and the obstacles involved. They have uplifted each other, and in turn inspired others in Ireland and abroad. The workers and their supporters exemplified what is meant by the old Irish saying 'níl neart le cur le chéile' (there is no strength without unity).
The workers are now continuing their campaign so that what happened to them can't happen to others. They have become vocal advocates for the protection offered by trade union membership. New legislation inspired by their fight appears imminent, meaning unscrupulous employers can't simply walk away from their responsibilities. These new leaders have given hope to many, particularly those in the restaurant sector, where exploitation is rife. They have reminded us that change is possible and that whatever the odds, we should never give up.
Published in The Irish Independent
Shocking figures revealed by the 'Just One Day' campaign show that on one day last year, 467 women and 229 children in Ireland sought support due to domestic violence. In India recently, two teenage sisters were raped and left to hang from a tree. In California, a young man went on a killing spree as revenge against women who wouldn't have sex with him. In Leitrim, a young woman reports that she was gang raped by men on a stag weekend. It's clear that the latest debate on gender is badly needed and we all need to get involved.
Ireland has come a long way since women were allowed the right to vote 100 years ago, or just over 40 years ago when women had to give up their jobs if they got married.
Some will argue that the gender debate is over, that women are free and equal now, but the reality rips through this. Progress is happening, but in politics and industry, unions and media, corporations and churches, it is men who still firmly rule the roost.
Just 15pc of our elected representatives in Dail Eireann are women, the lowest level in the developed world. In industry, only 21pc of senior managers are women.
Things take a more sinister twist when you consider the evidence of violence against women. Globally, at least one in three women have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetimes.
The Rape Crisis Network of Ireland has reported a 38pc increase in helpline calls over a three-year period while at the same time suffering a 30pc cut in funding.
Women who are courageous enough to report rape cases to the gardai can hardly be encouraged by a justice system with a conviction rate of just 1pc, the lowest in Europe.
Nor can they take comfort from scenes such as those in a Kerry courtroom where a priest led up to 50 men to shake hands with a rapist in front of his 24-year-old victim.
Every day, many of our wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces, aunts and colleagues fear for their safety in ways most men can't imagine. It's a situation that has become so normalised that it is rarely discussed.
We should be asking why women don't have the same freedom to walk the streets at night.
The link between the mass availability of violent and demeaning pornography and the rise in rapes and gang rapes needs exploring.
Amid the growing popularity of porn and prostitution, a new misogynistic lad culture is creeping in. Derogatory comments about women are common. Rape jokes sometimes infiltrate the banter.
This war on women is nothing new. Christy Moore sings about it in the song 'Burning Times', which talks about how many women, once revered as 'healers and teachers', were repressed or killed as they were seen as a threat to the male-dominated religion.
Thankfully things are starting to change. Just as women are standing up, increasingly men are starting to ask questions of ourselves, about our suffering, our roles and what privileges we possess.
Whereas some men abuse power, men are also victims. Men largely suffer at the hands of other men, but sometimes too because of abusive females. Men, or at least some men, may still rule the world, but it is also men who make up 80pc of suicides. Men die younger and suffer in large numbers from heart attacks, addiction and homelessness.
An emerging men's movement is asking questions about what healthy masculinity looks like, about what it means to be a man.
These questions are rarely answered by a society that doesn't provide adequate rites of passages for young men in an increasingly pressurised and sexualised world.
I know this has been the case in my own life as I've often struggled to navigate the rocky road to manhood.
For centuries, men have been taught to be warriors, soldiers in a fight for survival where aggression is king. Vulnerability and sensitivity is seen as weakness.
No wonder then if men aren't more forthcoming with our emotions. It's a dog-eat-dog culture that permeates everything from politics to banking and business.
It explains in part why women don't often rise to the top of the testosterone-fuelled halls of power.
It's not that masculine traits should become redundant. We will always need the way of the warrior, only harnessed in healthy ways. In fact, it can be argued that we need men to become more manly, wilder and free, rather than tamed by corporate culture or pushed into an unrealistic femininity.
Most men are good men but it's time we started to hold others to account. How can we sit by and accept a status quo where so many women feel threatened?
Manning up means facing up to our issues in the same way that women must face theirs.
Surely we all want to build a safer, fairer world for mothers, wives, sisters and daughters? Women gaining more power shouldn't threaten us. It's not about us versus them.
It should be about power with, not power over, co-operation not competition.
We need neither patriarchy nor matriarchy, but fraternity and equality for all.
SpunOut.ie founder Ruairí McKiernan has been selected for a prestigious Fulbright TechImpact Award. The award recognises Ruairí’s exceptional leadership and ingenuity in using technology for social change.
It provides him with a scholarship to undertake cutting edge research at the pioneering Citizen Engagement Laboratory in Berkeley, California, where he will explore the latest developments in how the internet can be used to improve community engagement, democracy and political decision making.
Ruairí, who in 2011 was appointed to the Council of State by President Michael D. Higgins, is no stranger to this area of work, having set up the multi-award winning SpunOut.ie youth organisation ten years ago in Ballyshannon.
He currently work as an independent campaigner and consultant, helping individuals, non-profits and companies reach their full potential. Part of this work involves helping co-found Uplift, a new organisation that seeks to become a force for people powered campaigning.
Speaking after a reception at the U.S Ambassador’s residence, Ruairí said it is a great honour to have been selected for the award.
“The Fulbright award offers me invaluable support to continue my work in advancing the cause of people power and in forging international links.
“I am really humbled to have been chosen as a Fulbright Scholar and to be able to spend time in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is a global hub for progressive innovation and ideas. Ireland is at huge a turning point in history and we need all the new ideas we can get.
“I’m really excited to spend time with global leaders in technology and social change and to make connections with those who might be able to support some of my work here in Ireland. In particular I’m looking forward to connecting with Irish America and to see how we can better engage Irish people around the world.”
Published in The Irish Independent
IF the heart of the nation lies in rural Ireland, then the country is still on life support. I was reminded of this during a visit to Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, at the weekend – a town I lived in 10 years ago.
I was shocked by the scale of the town's decline. Boarded-up buildings and the closed-down shopping centre brought it home to me that much of rural Ireland is hanging on for dear life. In Ballyshannon, as is the case in towns all over Ireland, the young have fled, and people live in hope that a change in fortune is just around the corner. But if things don't change soon, this day may never come and we'll all be poorer because of it.
Walking through the historic streets of what is said to be Ireland's oldest town, my mind drifted back to a vision I once held for Ballyshannon and towns like it – a vision I still hold on to. It's a vision of vibrant small towns, where young and old support each other, where locally owned businesses sell local produce while still embracing the modern world of globalisation, technology, tourism and trade.
This vision is in contrast to the current model of development that is overly focused on foreign investment, urbanisation, and a soul-less vision for housing, transport and economics that has trapped so many of us in pressure-cooker lifestyles of commuting, negative equity, unaffordable childcare and precarious employment.
It is creating fragmented, car-dependent communities and is leading to the closure of small businesses, garda stations, hospitals and post offices. It is a narrow vision that is creating a centralised two-tier republic, a divide of rich versus poor, urban versus rural, in a land where many neighbours no longer know each other and old people live in fear.
I know from growing up in Co Cavan that small towns present their own challenges. But regardless of the downsides, rural Ireland still offers the prospect of a slower and more simple way of living in a world that can be too focused on speed, consumption and superficial success.
I experienced both sides of this when setting up the Community Creations organisation in Ballyshannon back in 2004. I was joined by kindred spirits, and we received generous support from local allies in the youth, health and education sectors.
Cheap rent meant we could afford a three-storey town-centre building, and an absence of urban distractions meant we had space to think and to get on with the work. This led to the creation of SpunOut.ie and to us eventually hiring staff, winning national and international awards, and reaching hundreds of thousands of young people.
Parallel to this were the challenges of being away from a main city. Internet speeds were slower, there were no nearby motorway or train lines, and to some people you might as well have been operating from Iceland. Even though it was the height of the economic boom, Ballyshannon, perhaps in part because it's a Border town, was missing a generation. So much of the town's life-force, the 18- to 40-year-olds were, like now, missing in action, gone to the bright lights of Dublin and beyond in search of opportunities.
Local development agencies were supportive in some ways but there was a sense that they were holding out for the multinationals. Young upstarts like us weren't seen as serious players when it came to the world of job creation and innovation. In the end, for a multitude of reasons, we said goodbye to friends and family, and headed to the more vibrant pastures of Galway and Dublin.
Returning to Ballyshannon on Saturday afternoon, I sensed an eerie quiet, a depression of sorts. A shopkeeper told me it was becoming a ghost town. That might be the case but to me Ballyshannon is still a town sitting on a goldmine of potential. It is surrounded by beaches and mountains, and has a strong community spirit and a thriving arts, cultural and drama scene. It has fertile land, friendly people and no shortage of local experience and expertise.
As the Government prepares to roll out its new jobs strategy, it needs to prioritise rural Ireland and local communities. It must move away from the kind of thinking that exports profits, squeezes farmers, and kills small towns and independent traders. Likewise, it is up to communities, as the Glencolumcille co-op movement did in the '50s, to take a DIY approach and get organised, get vocal and get active.
If the Government isn't going to act, then it's up to us to take matters into our own hands. We need to become more self-reliant and to re-imagine our communities in a way that balances the global with the local and restores hope to all parts of our beautiful island.
Published in The Huffington Post, January 1st 2014
SATURDAY MARKS THE first anniversary of the death of 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, the renowned American computer programmer, writer, political organiser and internet activist.
People all around the world are remembering Swartz, a man who Internet founder Tim Berners-Lee called “a wise elder of the web”. A new film on his life, ‘The Internet’s Own Boy – The Aaron Swartz Story’ will premiere at Sundance later this month.
I met Aaron at Harvard when he was 24. It was immediately clear that he was not only a genius, but also a gentleman who was wise beyond his years. He had a huge heart and a great mind that he devoted to making a positive difference in the world. While a life of great wealth and comfort could have been his, Aaron instead dedicated his skills to the pursuit of justice and equality, becoming recognised as a global figure for information and Internet freedom.
Since his early teens, Aaron was a key thinker in the development of the web. He was involved in the development of the news feed format RSS, the Creative Commons organisation, and social news website Reddit. His work later focused on sociology, civic awareness and social activism and in 2009 he launched the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Aaron was both a high school and university drop-out, and later became a research fellow at Harvard University’s Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption. He went on to found online advocacy group Demand Progress, and led it to have over one million members. Aaron was also a leading voice in successfully defeating the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, more commonly known as SOPA.
When I interviewed Aaron in 2010, his raw passion for social justice was clear.
“I feel very strongly that it’s not enough to just live in the world as it is, to just take what you’re given and follow the things that adults told you to do, and that your parents told you to do and the society tells you to do. I think that you should always be questioning. I take this very scientific attitude that everything you’ve learned is just provisional, that it’s always open to recantation or refutation or questioning, and I think the same applies to society.”
“ I felt growing up, I slowly had this process of realising that all the things around me were just the natural way that things were the way things would be. They weren’t natural at all. They were things that could be changed and things that more importantly were wrong and should change. Once I realised that, there was really no going back. I couldn’t fool myself into saying I’ll just go and work for a business and ignore all that. Once I realised that there were real serious problems, fundamental problems, that I could do something to address I didn’t see a way to forget that.” he said in response to asking him about his motivations for becoming an activist.
It was this same passion and determination that ultimately landed Aaron in trouble.
Arrest and criminal proceedingsIn January 2011, Aaron was arrested by MIT police, after downloading academic journals from the JSTOR database, which supporters say he was preparing to make freely available online. He was later charged with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He faced a 35 year prison sentence and up to $1 million in fines in what many say was a witch-hunt designed to make an example of Aaron and to crack down on net freedom activists.
On January 11th 2013, two days after the prosecution denied his lawyer’s second offer of a plea bargain, Aaron was found dead in his New York apartment.
Upon hearing the news, Tim Berners-Lee tweeted;
’Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.’
Following the announcement by the coroner that Aaron’s death was a suicide, his family issued a statement which drew attention to the role of both the US justice system and MIT in his death.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.
“Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”
The internet is at the heart of the modern battle for democracyIn June 2013, Aaron Swartz was posthumously inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame. His death is a tragedy and there are many lessons to take from it, including the need to support those who may need help.
The internet is at the heart of the modern battle for democracy. There are active forces which seek to invade our privacy and control our information. This is clear from recent news of government spying, and the continued attempts to downgrade Ireland’s freedom of information provisions. Groups like Digital Rights Ireland, and websites like TheStory.ie, are therefore all the more important. As Aaron himself said “information is power and like all power there are those who want to keep it for themselves”.
In his short life, Aaron showed what was possible when people get organised to affect change. His legacy continues to affect hundreds of millions of internet users each day. It is important his work continues and to believe that change is possible.
…because I had believed for so long that change was impossible it precluded me from taking any actions that could have caused that change and so I think the first step for everyone out there is to believe that you can actually accomplish something because once you believe that you’re half way to actually doing something.
– Aaron Swartz
Published in The Huffington Post
Irish charities are entering 2014 in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. According to Fundraising Ireland, donations to charities were down 40 percent over the Christmas period. The CEO of Bóthar says his organization received hate mail. St. Vincent De Paul, a port of last call for many in need, reported a severe drop in donations, while their Cork city branch out of Christmas toys for the first time ever.
This situation follows a series of revelations concerning the Central Remedial Clinic and a culture of salary 'top-ups' and excessive pay in various hospital and charitable organizations throughout the country. At a time when people are struggling to get by, many are rightfully outraged that their trust has been abused by boards and management who took their support for granted.
All of this was a time bomb waiting to happen in a multi-billion euro sector which remains unregulated despite years of political promises and calls for regulation from within the charity sector.
According to the now defunct Irish Non Profits Exchange, there is an estimated 12,000 non-profit organizations in Ireland, 7,000 of them with charity status. The sector employs more than 100,000 people and has over 560,000 volunteers and a total annual income of approximately €6 billion. Non-profits and charities are involved in hospitals, education, homelessness, disability, youth work, overseas aid, sport, culture, the arts, the environment, social justice advocacy and more. They are largely supported by taxpayers money and through donations from a public who, according to the World Giving Index, are the most generous in Europe.
The recent scandals are causing important and timely questions to be asked. Charities don't deserve our hard earned money just because they say they're doing good things. We need to know what they're doing, why they're doing it, and to see proof that they're actually delivering on promises. At the heart of this is the need for transparency and openness, and for clear and honest communications. Publishing accounts online should be a basic requirement, but charities should go further and consider publishing information such as salaries and regular progress reports.
Most charities have nothing to hide. The vast majority of them are small and fledgling operations often reliant on volunteers and interns. Others have just a few staff and in most organizations staff pay is modest, with many existing on temporary contracts with no pensions or financial perks. Salary levels of €25,000-€35,000 are the norm in most charities and according to a survey by The Wheel, the average charity sector CEO salary among their 1000 members is €59,000 with no 'top-ups' or pensions.
I have worked in the charity sector for over a decade and know for a fact that the majority of people involved are hard-working, dedicated, passionate, and caring people who are dedicated to making a difference. They have chosen work in a challenging sector where burn-out is rife due to the constant pressures of trying to solve difficult social problems while trying to keep their organizations afloat amid government cutbacks of up to 50 percent. This has been on top of the decline in public donations and the winding down of Ireland's two major foundations, the One Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies. This has led to wage cuts and lay-offs, and many charities have folded or are at risk of doing so.
Like every other sector of Irish society, the charity sector needs massive reform. There is no doubt that increased scrutiny is required and that regulation and better coordination and communication must happen as a matter of urgency. The debate on appropriate salary levels for management in all sectors of the economy must also continue. €100,000+ salaries are rare in the charity sector but where they do exist it is important to ask if they are deserved at a time when so many are underpaid or not paid at all. This debate must also consider that charities are like any other organization and often need to pay for skilled staff and to cover administration costs if they are to do their job effectively.
In the midst of this debate, it is vital that we ask why so many vital services are being provided by charities while, in other countries this work is normally considered a core function of the state. This leads to basic services like schools and hospitals having to beg from an already struggling public in order to keeping going. Meanwhile, many hugely profitable corporations get away with paying little or no tax in a country where philanthropic and corporate giving levels are relatively low.
For now, it is important to treat charities like any other body, to challenge them to be more transparent and demand justice where abuses have occurred. There should also be an onus on supporters to be more discerning, to undertake questioning and research before committing support.
It is essential that we value and celebrate the great work that non-profits and charities do. Charities remain essential the functioning of our country and to important relief and development work in places like Syria and the Philippines. The massive decline in donations is having a real and devastating effect on vital supports for vulnerable people everywhere. It is understandable that some trust has been broken, but we should keep perspective and remember not to punish the good work of many because of the sins of the few.
Published in TheJournal.ie
IN JUNE 2003, I wrote a letter to Nelson Mandela asking for his help. At the time I was twenty five years old and like so many others, concerned about the recent invasion of Iraq.
I wanted Mandela to raise awareness of Ireland’s involvement in what many people believed was an illegal and immoral war. I wanted him to give a message to our leaders, telling them that people everywhere wanted peace, not war.
I figured that if I sent my letter by registered post to him at the university and marked it as private, then someone would be obliged to give it to him. Naive perhaps, but I had seen how 100,000 marchers in Dublin didn’t seem to influence our government and thought it was worth a go.
The next day I listened to Mandela’s speech online. I was a young man waiting for a leader to represent my voice, and the voices of millions like me. I was looking for hope, and I wasn’t disappointed.
In his speech that day Mandela talked about the fact that there had been no world war since 1945 because of the United Nations and that “any organisation, any country, any leader, that now decides to sideline the United Nations – that country and it’s leader are a danger to the world”.
“And they do so because you are keeping quiet,” Mr Mandela continued, after prolonged applause from the audience. “You are afraid of this country and its leader”he said. Mr Mandela said he could “not keep quiet” and that “all of us must have the courage to stand up and condemn what is wrong, and I am grateful that you have allowed an old man, who is more than 100 years old, to come and address you” he said on what ended up being his last visit to Ireland.
I had no idea whether Mr Mandela received my letter, and he didn’t refer specifically to Shannon airport and Ireland’s role in the war, but you could read between the lines. Finally, someone was speaking truth to power, saying what our leaders wouldn’t or couldn’t. Mandela was standing up to the spin doctors and the war mongers. He was using his platform to fearlessly advance the freedom of all people, not just his own.
It was a speech that gave me hope and inspiration, a unique moment of light in an Ireland that was often blinkered by the economic boom. Mandela’s speech burst through my frustration and growing cynicism and caused me to commit to making a difference in the world in whatever way I could.
Just a few months later I joined with friends and set up the SpunOut.ie youth organisation. Ten years on, and although I’m no longer involved, SpunOut.ie remains an important platform for young people at a time when many are struggling to remain hopeful.
It was the example of people like Nelson Mandela that helped inspire me during the inevitable challenges of setting up an organisation and in the work I’ve gone on to do. At that impressionable time in my life Mandela was a beacon, a teacher, and a guide to what is possible.
Young people today need similar inspiration. They need leadership and vision beyond the spin and rhetoric that promises them things are changing. They are hungry for inspiration and ideas that redefine conventional politics and cut through a culture dominated byadvertising and fear.
They want their values to be represented in public life and to be given encouragement and opportunities to be involved in shaping the world around them.
Mandela is being celebrated by billions around the world not just because of his remarkable feats in South Africa, but because of what he represents for humanity. He is a symbol for the great human leap forward, of the phenomenal power of the human spirit to triumph over flaws, adversity and injustice.
At a time when the world is crying out for courageous leadership, when injustice and suffering is everywhere, Mandela has left us a timely challenge and a call to action. It is up to us to be our own Mandela, to rise up and keep the flame of freedom alive.
“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that generation. Let your greatness blossom”.
Published in The Huffington Post
During July 2013 I hitch-hiked around Ireland, recording people's voices and visions for the country, on what I called the 'hitching for hope' listening tour. I dreamed up the idea as a way of informing my speech at the MacGill Summer School about citizen's views on democracy at what is a critical time in Ireland's history.
On the trip I met people from all walks of life, including barristers and businessmen, unemployed and homeless people, islanders on Inishbofin, farmers in Connemara, Orangemen in Derry, community activists in Moyross, and monks in Glenstal.
Here are a few things I discovered along the way.
1. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith
Several people said I was mad to go hitching. On top of this I had my own doubts. I am in debt. I didn't have a plan, money, or equipment. I thought maybe I should just stay at home, be sensible, find some paid work to cover my rent, spend time with my fiancée, and cop myself on. Still, the idea kept calling to me - so I said 'what the hell' and jumped into the unknown.
As soon as I did, doors started to open. Not just car doors, but offers of money, food, places to stay, media interviews, and no shortage of people willing to share their hopes, dreams and stories of love and loss. Letting go of my fears and worries of what other people thought, and trusting in the unknown, gave me the adventure of a lifetime and a new hope for the future.
2. Hitching is alive
My average waiting time was about five minutes and I'd regularly get picked up within a minute of sticking my thumb out. The longest I had to wait was 40 minutes. Eighty per cent of lifts were from men; there's no doubt that the hitching world isn't something that's equally accessible to women for safety reasons. I got picked up by people from all walks of life including a butcher, a fish monger, a priest, an ex-priest, a beekeeper, a businesswoman, tourists, a social worker, and a software engineer. All were mad to chat. You can hear some of the in-car audio interviews on my website.
3. There is another Ireland
Sometimes you can end up thinking we're the most miserable, depressed, oppressed and hopeless nation on earth. We're not. Ireland might not be well reflected by our leaders or institutions and the effects of unemployment, emigration and austerity are not to be ignored, but everywhere I went I witnessed kindness, generosity, creativity and signs of hope, courage and possibility. Within communities people are working hard, volunteering, campaigning, supporting charities, innovating, and doing their best to embody the values of a different Ireland. Despite everything we've faced, there remains a great spirit among the people.
4. People are angry
But while I encountered no shortage of smiles and welcomes, there is no doubt that people are angry about the continuing abuses of church, State and corporate power. There is a sense that there is one law for the rich and another for the rest of us, and in many cases this is feeding anger, depression, despair and cynicism. There is an appetite for revolution, reform, and renewal and a sense that we have to find new ways of coming together and getting organized.
5. People are thinking about values
While global, national and personal crises can be traumatic and painful, they can also be times for reflection and an opportunity for radical change. Many people I talked to mentioned the need to get back to basics. They spoke about the need to get away from individualism and cultivate community spirit, to cut down on all the noise and clutter and find simpler ways of living while connecting with friends, family, neighbours and nature.
6. We have other ideas
All over the country people are innovating and coming up with new ideas for job creation, political reform, and the transformation of things like health, education, energy, food, and agriculture. People don't believe the government message that there is no alternative to austerity and they have different visions for how we can run this country and make it a world leader in science and technology, participative democracy, and in green food, farming and energy production.
7. We're tough
Talking to historians and older people on the trip helped give me a sense of the turbulent times this country has been through. Older Irish people have witnessed mass poverty, emigration and the era of the industrial schools. One historian talked about the mass killings of the Cromwellian era when thousands of Irish people were murdered. He said that we are at the end of one cycle of history and the beginning of another and that we are a tough and resilient people. The challenge now is to take the lessons from history and to learn from them.
8. This is a paradise island
Chatting to tourists helped give me perspective on how they see the country (clean, green, spacious, safe, peaceful, and friendly) as did visiting some of our world class scenic and historic sites. Fair enough, the weather is bad a lot of the time but it's worth considering the pollution, climate chaos, overpopulation, poverty or violence that so many other countries have to contend with. Overall, and notwithstanding the obvious suffering, we have it relatively good.
9. It's important to listen
I called my trip a listening tour as I think there's often too much talking and not enough listening, not just at a political level but in our day to day lives. My work with young people has taught me that listening to people can be therapeutic and empowering. Listening to different perspectives without reacting or debating also helps you see another view on things. Listening requires focus, attention, and awareness. Listening to yourself is equally important; to your gut instinct, intuition, inner voice, or whatever you want to call it.
10. It's up to us
If we wait for the government to solve our problems then we will be waiting a long time. Ultimately the responsibility of transforming Ireland and transforming our lives is up to us all. We have the power to decide what we do with our time, our thoughts, our money and our votes. Many of us have serious life challenges to contend with but there is always room for manoeuvre in how we perceive situations, and how we approach each day. It is up to each of us to help build the world we want to create.
A selection of Ruairí's articles published in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Times, the Huffington Post, and other publications.