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Column: Don’t look for a messiah in our next President

The race for the Áras may be dramatic – but real change will only come from somewhere else, writes Colm O’Gorman.

Colm O'Gorman

I HAVE BEEN away from home for the past few weeks, firstly on a family break and now for work. And so I have missed all the turmoil and drama of the race for the Áras.

I value the importance and the symbolism of the office of the President. It is the highest office in the land, and one that, thanks to the integrity and principled innovation of both Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, has proven to be of both great significance and great importance.

Of course the President of our Republic has no executive or political power, but it is a position that can and should reflect and even amplify the values and aspirations of the Irish people.  Irish society has been battered by successive scandals and institutional failures over the past decade or more.  The old pillars to which we looked for leadership and for definition of our collective values have fallen. Politics, Church and most recently our banks have all lost public confidence to varying degrees. And as they have fallen we have looked around for new pillars, new institutions upon which we could rely.

Understandable enough I suppose, after all we have never really developed a culture of broad public ethical and values based discourse that isn’t reliant upon some institution or other to lead it. And that for me is the real problem. For generations we have abdicated responsibility for such an important discourse to others. We have looked to political tribes, faith-based dogma or most recently the values of the markets to define who we are and how we might be measured as worthwhile or successful. Rather than develop a culture of broad-based, inclusive, bottom-up discourse we looked to those we placed in powerful positions above us to tell us who we should be and how we should live. And now in many cases we have discovered that the rules set for us by them, were often unevenly applied. The values they espoused and the moral demands they made of us, they often failed to apply to themselves.

Many of us were cuckolded, or just plain self-deluded

Many of us were at least in some part responsible for this ourselves of course, many of us bought into it all in different ways. To varying degrees undoubtedly, but many of us were cuckolded or just plain self-deluded when we surrendered our ability to think for ourselves to others. I certainly know that I am guilty of that failure myself.

So now we need to discover new ways of public discourse. We need to find a means through which we discuss both who we are and who we might be, what our fundamental values are and how best we might each work to uphold those values in how we order our society. But this time, we must do this work for ourselves. We must lead. We must not surrender our authority and our integrity to others in cowardly fashion borne of indoctrination that told us we either couldn’t or shouldn’t bother to work out such complex but vital principles ourselves.

It is odd in some ways that an office which for much of our history as a state was seen as not entirely relevant has become the focus of such passionate debate. But we have discovered that the Presidency matters. In the early part of this most recent contest the public imagination was captured by the idea that David Norris might become President and how his election, given all that he has stood for over so many years, might be a powerful symbol of change and maturity.

When that floundered many became disillusioned. There is no doubt in my mind that David Norris made the right decision when he withdrew from the process of seeking a nomination. But I do fear that his doing so has left many people feeling a sense of despair and further disappointment. He had become another symbol to which we looked to define something about ourselves. And we need our symbols.

In October we will elect the ninth President of our Republic. I have no idea who that will be. I hope it will be a someone who can take help to foster the kind of passionate, principled and inclusive discourse that I think we need right now. But we cannot and must not depend solely upon any future President to do that for us.

Leadership is a reflection of how we want to be led

Instead we should begin that conversation ourselves right now. Rather than complain about some perceived lack of leadership or of vision elsewhere we should start to show some vision and leadership ourselves. We can do that now in our own daily lives, in our families, our communities, our school and our workplaces. We can do it over a water cooler, a coffee or a pint. We can do it as we drive to work or as we run the kids to school, it should be part of our everyday experience. Not all the time obviously, but some of the time surely? And in doing so we will shape and encourage the kind of leadership which many feel we so desperately need.

The leadership we get is a reflection of how we want to be led. If we demand and support visionary leaders, if we value principled social and ethical discourse and play a part in leading it ourselves, then it will happen. It’s not really that complicated.

I will do my bit. Of course I am lucky enough to work in a role were my opportunity to contribute is clear. It is what fuels my everyday work, what gets me up most mornings and keeps me focused when work or life becomes overly demanding. But you don’t have to work in the human rights or social justice sphere to influence the world around you. Our values are for us all to define. We can do it anywhere and everywhere. And it’s not a matter for politicians, priests or even Presidents alone. It’s a matter for all of us.

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So don’t just decry how others have failed us. Don’t look to find a messiah-like President and then bemoan that no-one has emerged that meets your idea of the leadership we need right now. Be the leader, become the change. Make the difference.

Real change, that is meaningful, sustained progress, is rarely the result of the actions of a single extraordinary individual.  Rather it is the result of the determined efforts of ordinary people living ‘ordinary’ lives.

In truth, that’s the only way meaningful change ever really happens.

It may not begin in Áras an Uachtaráin. But it could begin with you.

Colm O’Gorman is the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland and a founder of One in Four. This post originally appeared on his blog at colmogorman.com.

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Colm O'Gorman

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