Wednesday 16 October 2019

Global harmony needed on ethical leadership

Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett switches on the Leinster House Christmas tree lights with the choir from the Holy Faith primary school in Derry, accompanied by Tánaiste Joan Burton, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Maxwell Photography
Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett switches on the Leinster House Christmas tree lights with the choir from the Holy Faith primary school in Derry, accompanied by Tánaiste Joan Burton, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Maxwell Photography

Liz O’Donnell

The Christmas tree is up on Leinster Lawn but the mood in Leinster House is fractious and far from festive. Decks are being cleared as the Government pushes through reams of legislation before the end of term. After the Christmas break there is no knowing what could happen and deputies across the board are on election footing, with several in the last-chance saloon.

Some in Fine Gael may be regretting the Taoiseach's decision not to call the election back in October. The seemingly intractable problem of patients on trollies, the constrained banking inquiry, and the calamitous floods of the last two weeks, all have a capacity to poison the public mood. However unreasonable it may be, when people lose their homes, livestock, farms and possessions, they inevitably cast around to blame the "authorities". In fairness to the Government, local authorities and the Civil Defence have mobilised a massive collective effort on this occasion to respond to the crisis, including immediately making money available to help those affected.

There was more than a touch of irony that while people here in rain-soaked Ireland battled the elements, world leaders at long last agreed a long-term strategy on climate change in Paris. The Taoiseach's opening speech at the COP21 conference was badly received as being minimalist and defensive; he appeared to be putting the interests of Irish agriculture ahead of our country's climate justice obligations and to be at variance with the general political sentiment and clamour for brave global action.

Climate change has always been a difficult policy agenda on which to get traction. With so many competing issues for global leaders to tackle ranging from terrorism, poverty, migration and economic and currency challenges, long-term priorities like global warming and rising sea levels have taken a back seat, despite many grandiose plans. But now for the first time, 195 countries rich and poor have agreed to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels in favour of more environmentally sustainable options. Action is no longer postponable, such is the rise in global temperatures due to uncontrolled carbon emissions and disregard by developed countries of the impact of transport pollution, agricultural methods and excessive energy use on the environment. Reaching agreement was arduous and protracted but the Paris Agreement binds all countries to reduce their emissions and sets highly ambitious targets.

This week, Ireland's White Paper for decarbonising our energy system was published.

President Francois Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius of France did well to pull it off. Perhaps there has never been a greater need in the world for ethical leadership by heads of state and government. Chancellor Angela Merkel, now ten years in office, has been appropriately acknowledged in some quarters for her courage and leadership on the migrant crisis in Europe and her handling of the Greek debt crisis. Germany has welcomed a million refugees this year. She has done so even as the tide of welcome and public solidarity is ebbing away. She faces dissent too within her CDU party, some members of which are dismayed by what they see an ill-judged and disproportionate response. But she is steadfast in her belief that this is the right thing to do, not just for migrants but also for Germany. This week, she described the challenge as the "historic litmus test for Europe".

Merkel is an example of a world leader, willing to risk unpopularity for herself personally and her party because she is convinced of the moral validity of her stance. Similarly, US president Obama has that capacity to hold firm against the tyranny of populist domestic politics, by articulating a need for gun control reform in the United States against the clout of the National Rifle Association. But he has been constantly thwarted by Congress in his attempts to introduce even moderate reforms.

Closer to home, our own John Hume, whose life is documented in a recently published book, risked his own reputation and the electoral fortunes of his party by having a secret dialogue with Gerry Adams over many years since 1985.

When news of it emerged in 1993, Hume was vilified but he made no apology for the controversial talks, even though IRA violence continued at the time. It took real courage to trust his instincts about the value of that engagement. He was instrumental in persuading president Clinton to grant a visa for Adams as part of confidence building with republicans. Clinton, in turn, took risks in granting the visa, against the advice of the State Department, and in 1994 the first IRA ceasefire was announced, marking the beginning of the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Reflecting on John Hume's selfless contribution to the peace we all now enjoy, one cannot help comparing such a life of endeavour and conviction to the likes of Donald Trump, the republican candidate seeking the US presidential nomination. The wrong-headed intolerance and xenophobic rhetoric emanating from him is enough to reduce one to head-hanging despair. Similarly, the narrow nationalist rhetoric generated by UKIP and some of the eastern European member state leaders is depressing. Denmark's recent referendum result marked yet another popular vote against EU values of solidarity. The Brexit debate can also be seen in this context.

So ethical leadership in politics is an absolute priority in these times of war, migration, economic instability and terrorism. We in Ireland, though we are small, can and do play a disproportionate part in international discourse on these major issues through the EU and the UN. Only this week, former president Mary Robinson was honoured in Dublin by Kofi Annan for her work on climate justice. Former attorney general and UN special envoy on migration Peter Sutherland has led the humanitarian debate on behalf of migrants and refugees, making the moral case for generosity and humanity in dealing with the migrant crisis in Europe. The passing of the marriage equality referendum this year is a measure of the best instincts of the Irish people and our polity.

We should be proud of our many distinguished and internationally renowned politicians, public servants and presidents and not be overly side-tracked by the misdeeds of the odd venal councillor. Probity in elected officials is important and there are rigorous checks on ensuring high standards now. But the sins of a few should not eclipse the achievements of many good men and women who devote their lives to public service in politics. Those who seek to attribute base motives to all politicians should be careful what they wish for. Denigrating all politicians from traditional parties leaves the pitch open to unproven and potentially chaotic extremes which could unravel our hard-won recovery.

Irish Independent

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