Published in The Sunday Times and The Huffington Post
The outpouring of global love for Nelson Mandela shows that people everywhere crave courageous leadership and celebrate those who are prepared to break the rules to uplift humanity. Mandela remains a rare role model of substance in a world dominated by the pursuit of fame, wealth, fame and power. His story is one of vision, hope and healing and is a powerful testimony to the human quest for freedom.
The teachings of Madiba, the tribal name by which he is affectionately known in South Africa, offer us an opportunity to reflect on the values and principles that we hold. They challenge us to ask whether we are upholding our beliefs by putting them into action in our day to day lives and whether these values are represented in our economics, our politics and our media. They also show us the power that one person can have in transforming lives and nations. We don’t all need to become Mandelas, but we can each achieve great things in small ways.
If Mandela spoke to us today I wonder what he would say about the modern struggle for freedom? What would he say about the global financial cartels that are subverting democracy, about the ongoing brutality and hunger strikes in Guantanamo Bay, or about the hunting of whistle-blowers and prisoners of conscience such as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden?
In a world of lies, spin, and doublespeak telling the truth deserves to be celebrated and rewarded. As with apartheid South Africa, when the rules that are supposed to protect people are actually oppressing them, there is a duty to dissent. It is no accident that modern day freedom fighters are being demonized in the same way that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan called Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” during the ANC campaign to end the injustice of apartheid.
Surely we don’t have to wait until the history books are written, until Edward Snowden is celebrated for giving up his well-off lifestyle and his freedom to reveal how we’re being illegally spied on. Or, in this Orwellian age, is it better to keep our head down and pretend this is nothing to do with us, for fear we too will be targeted as thought criminals and potential terrorists?
The tensions involved in navigating truth these days are evident in the mixed messages conveyed to our young people. On the one hand parents and teachers do their best to instill a strong sense of fairness; telling children to be kind and honest, don’t fight, share, help others, and speak out when something is wrong.
This basic moral code underpins much of our society but exists side by side within a contradictory dog eat dog world where bullying, image, money, ego and war making often reap the rewards. Young people are encouraged to become customers and consumers first and citizens second, but not to become activists like Nelson Mandela who fearlessly challenge injustice wherever they see it. If they did, then 25-year-old soldier Bradley Manning might be a Nobel Peace Laureate rather than being locked up in solitary confinement for upholding his legal duty to report war crimes.
In this competing moral order it’s hard not to be compromised. We’re rewarded for keeping up appearances, turning a blind eye, and keeping busy by pushing on up the ladder regardless of who is left behind. No time to worry about war, poverty, human rights violations, corruption, or environmental destruction. Someone else will look after all of that. Or will they?
This moral maze suits the dominant version of political and economic development where the fittest thrive and the majority is left to fend for survival. It does so by promoting individualism over community cooperation, and by keeping us fearful, separate and in competition with each other.
It weakens the natural human desire to care for each other and keeps us focused on individual achievement and progress. The logic is that if we focus on our own self-development then others will do the same and we’ll meet down the road either as winners or losers.
The reality is that within the competition paradigm we all end up losers as when one suffers, we all suffer. This is something Nelson Mandela understood well when he embraced his oppressors upon release from prison. He understood that an injustice to one was an injustice to all and that without forgiveness there could be no peace. He thereby helped to prevent retribution, vengeance and hate by promoting cooperation for the common good of all South Africans, regardless of race.
Mandela represents the higher human spirit and the light within each of us that craves truth, justice, fairness and freedom. From adversity and against all the odds, he has stood for what is right and for the betterment of all. He overcame the injustice of 27 years in prison, offered reconciliation to those who jailed him, and gave the world a profound lesson in leadership, love and forgiveness.
When confronted with despair in this age of great change, we could do well to remember the life of Nelson Mandela and to invoke his enormous spirit and courage. None of us is perfect and Mandela is no different, but he has shown us how great the human spirit can be even in the darkest hours. ‘Nothing is impossible until it is done,’ he once said.
His legacy is a challenge to us all to rise above adversity, to unlock our own greatness, and to uplift each other. Let us honor Mandela through our actions and by carrying the flame of hope and freedom forward for future generations.
Published in The Irish Examiner
As protests continue in Turkey and the G8 meet in Northern Ireland, the right to peaceful assembly and free expression has never been more important, says Ruairí McKiernan
PROTEST might not always be an attractive proposition, and we won’t always agree with those doing the protesting, but we must defend with all our might the right to express the change we dream of.
The right to protest is essential for the health of any society. Protest offers a channel for expression to people who otherwise don’t feel heard and puts pressure on governments and companies who aren’t acting in the interests of people and planet.
The end of slavery and colonialism, workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights in Northern Ireland have all been achieved because committed individuals and communities, often facing ridicule and repression, had the courage to protest oppression and injustice and proclaim that better ways were possible.
There has been much speculation as to why the Irish don’t protest more, given the litany of scandals and abuses we’ve endured. It may be because people feel it’s a tactic that belongs to hippies, students, lefties and anarchists or that they believe protest doesn’t work.
Or it may be that our inheritance of colonialism and repression has given us a fear of rocking the boat — something that is convenient for those with power.
Aside from this, too many have been led to believe that people power is ineffective. Instead, they put their faith in the political system, or decide to ‘get real’ by leaving aside their idealism, accepting things as they are, thereby risking cynicism, despair and things getting worse. “Sure what’s the point?” we hear said in defeat, before the opportunities have been explored.
The point is that injustice and greed thrive when good people do nothing. Taking action changes things. It is uplifting, empowering, and effective in changing opinions, laws and lives. By not acting we end up as helpless spectators dependant on the promises of politicians and the goodwill of profit-focused corporations. If done in a healthy way, protest offers a practical way to maintain our humanity and dignity by expressing ourselves beyond shouting at the telly or giving out on Twitter or in pubs.
The Ballyhea protesters in Co Cork demonstrate this each Sunday as they march through their village to remind the world that they don’t accept that their children will have to pay the gambling debts of bankers and bondholders. Imagine how fast things would change if everyone did this. So too the people of Rossport, in holding hope alive against the might of Shell and the State. Protest helps us see we’re not alone. It can turn us back into power brokers. It reminds politicians that they are paid to represent us, pressures them to act in our interests and helps them deliver difficult reforms at key moments.
Despite the bad name given to activism and protest, it is no accident that many of our heroes used protest, demonstrations and marches as core tactics in their toolbox for change. Michael Davitt, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, John Hume, Mary Robinson, and President Michael D Higgins all dared to disagree.
There are those who stopped a nuclear plant being built at Carnsore point in Wexford, and the 12 Dunnes Stores workers who gave hope to an imprisoned Nelson Mandela by going on strike for two years because they had to handle the fruit of apartheid South Africa. There are those who have marched to save hospitals, and those who picketed and petitioned to ensure schools were built.
The victories of protest are often undervalued. We may never know how bad things could have been if it was not for the courage of the few to stand up for the rights of us all.
Those courageous enough to stand up and speak out are often attacked, dismissed and isolated for doing so. Their careers and reputations are threatened, their health suffers, and it becomes difficult to be a lonely voice in a sea of silent support. It is therefore all the more important to support people who say the thing the rest of us are afraid to voice.
Of course protest isn’t always the best or only way of doing things. As the saying goes, ‘it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’.
Too much emphasis on protest, anger, outrage and opposition can be draining, unappealing, and counter-productive. It is sometimes better to propose and create positive alternatives and to offer hope where there is none. Sometimes though, as with the Arab Spring, protest is that flame of hope, a visible declaration that we are alive and not prepared to take any more.
In a world faced with war, poverty, austerity and climate change, it is vital that the right to hold this flame of hope remains alive. It is essential that groups such as the G8 are reminded that they are failing humanity and compromising the survival of the planet. It is no accident that 1% of the world controls 39% of the wealth (their wealth grew 7.8% last year) while 80% of the world lives on less than €8 per day. The policies of the G8, a self-appointed group, prioritise the wealth of some over the wellbeing of all, drowning out opposition and alternatives. Raising our voices for change is therefore as much a duty as it is a right.
Amid revelations of government spying on innocent people, a crackdown on protest, and the demonisation of dissent, the freedom of free expression and peaceful assembly has never been more important. Europe’s recent history of dictatorships is a reminder of what happens when we lose this freedom. Now, more than ever, we need to be vigilant, vocal and courageous in protecting our rights to dissent and in daring to dream of better ways.
Published in The Sunday Times
‘Why are our young people killing themselves?’ an older man asked me the other day. Having spent the last twelve years working in the community and running suicide awareness campaigns, I suppose he hoped I’d have a straight forward explanation for him, but I didn’t. That’s because there is no one cause when it comes to suicide. Suicide is complex and demands a deeper look.
There has been a historic underinvestment in mental health services in Ireland. Increased demand and cuts to youth, health and education services have piled pressure onto already struggling support services. Many people looking for help are met with unanswered phones. Costly and rushed GP visits often prioritise prescriptions for anti-depressants over listening and talk therapy. The waiting lists for mental health services can be weeks or months unless you can afford private care. In the absence of better support, all too many medicate their pain by abusing alcohol and drugs. The suffering and isolation is there for all to see in the streets and pubs of Ireland.
A colleague in her twenties described her own experience of seeking help as this:
‘I have been told on numerous times to come back in a month after telling a GP I was feeling suicidal, or been told that I wasn’t feeling suicidal enough. This made me feel worse and stopped me from going back for help when I needed it most. Eventually I ended up in a crisis and was in hospital for two months. This could have been avoided if I had received the support I needed when I needed it. There is very little support for someone who is experiencing severe depression or suicidal thoughts. They are given medication, and little other options. More time to talk would help, but waiting lists are long and often it takes months to be seen which is often too late. There is a shame associated with suffering from depression and it can be difficult to admit to others that you are going through a tough time which means that often the people who you need most are not aware of what you are going through. ‘
Suicide affects all ages and classes but hits those on the margins much harder. Young men, farmers, asylum seekers, and the unemployed are all disproportionately affected. Studies show suicide among the Travelling community is six times the national average and that gay people are seven times more likely to attempt suicide. What’s needed is a more equal, loving and inclusive society that respects all people as well as developing supports based on specific needs. Cultivating a culture where men can talk openly and seek help is critical in all of this.
The tragedy of young people taking their own lives is particularly hard to comprehend. Loneliness, bullying, abuse, depression, unemployment, and growing up gay in a country that hasn’t fully accepted difference can all be factors but not the only ones. Each suicide is different and we may never know the cause. Loved ones are left with pain, confusion and often self-blame.
It could be argued that being young in Ireland today is a suicide risk in itself. Young people are surrounded by negative news and told to prepare for emigration amid a 30% youth unemployment rate (50% in some places). Many of them witness their parents stressed about money and the future. They are groomed by advertisers to see success in terms of unhealthy celebrity lifestyles focused on sex, money and image. The education system locks them into a production line of rote learning with little space to learn about themselves or about life before being catapulted into a visionless society grappling with debt, austerity and climate change.
The challenges of these times are being felt by all ages and it can be hard to find peace between all the pressure and noise. It is no accident that the western world is facing a mental health crisis. Science and technology have brought civilisation to a bold new frontier but many of us are out of sync with the soul. An over emphasis on material growth hasn’t been balanced with the human need for meaning and the desire to be free. It has imprisoned our spirits and left many of us disconnected from our true selves, from each other, and from the natural world around us.
We’ve a long way to go but there are signs of progress as we seek to reclaim our power. The closure of mental institutions, the Amnesty International and See Change anti-stigma campaigns, singer Bressie talking about his mental health struggles, walking therapy groups, and the Slí Eile recovery farm in Cork are examples of moves in the right direction. So too is the growing interest in wellbeing, diet, fitness, yoga, meditation and counselling.
It is possible to prevent suicide but only if we start co-creating a kinder society with a less unjust economy. Just as community campaigning led to political action on road traffic deaths, the same is possible with suicide. Public pressure can lead to funding and to joined up thinking and services but suicide cannot be solved by government alone. It requires a deeper look at root causes and the source of our pain. By offering time, listening and love to those around us, by seeking support when we need it, and demanding the services we deserve, together we can bring healing and hope to Ireland.
A selection of Ruairí's articles published in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Times, the Huffington Post, and other publications.