Identities in Transition - Constitutional Peace Building

Public Theatre, Trinity College

03 February 2014

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon,

This has been a most important event for Trinity, and the wider community. In my capacity as Provost, I’d like to first of all thank our delegates for taking the time to be here today. The issue under discussion has been given vital impetus by the quality of today’s speakers.

All have come from the coalface, as it were, of constitutional peace building. Of course in Trinity, we are immensely proud of our Chancellor, Mary Robinson, whose commitment to education is part of her untiring commitment to human rights. And we are most honoured that Ikbel Msadaa, Suliman Zubi and Sameh Makram Ebeid have taken the time to be here today. I know that immediately after this event, you have to depart for flights. That’s how precious your time is. We appreciate so much your coming here.

It’s also an honour to have the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, as well as two members of Dáil Éireann, Michael McNamara, and Maureen O’Sullivan here today, participating and facilitating the discussion. And Tom Arnold, who is of course an internationally acclaimed expert in the humanitarian and development fields. 

The organisers, Professor Martina Hennessy and others in TIDI, deserve huge credit for putting together this high-profile event. I’m delighted to see the positive response evident in the turn-out.

It’s inspiring to see the real appetite among students and staff and in the community beyond, for such discussions.  Part of Trinity’s responsibility as a university serving the public good, is to convene such public debate. I thank Martina and all involved for doing this so triumphantly.

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On the issues under discussion, I don’t pretend to have the expertise of our panel, but as the head of one of the world’s leading universities, I want to underline the connection between students and radical reform.  It is age-old and well-established. It’s fair to say that behind most revolutions and reform agitations, you’ll find some student activity. Radicalism is what happens when young minds meet great ideas.

In this country, the United Irish rebellion of 1798 and the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 – both concerning identity and political change - can be traced to student activity in this university. Behind the Northern Irish civil rights movement in the late 1960s were students in Queen’s University Belfast.

And of course student and youth protest was an important factor in many of the recent ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions.

What does this mean for those of us on the staff of universities, who are entrusted with the care and education of young minds at a key transitional period of their lives? At a time when they are learning to take their place in society? Well, ideally we want to help in the formation of active citizens, who have a passion for liberty and reform, and an equal and balancing passion for order and human rights.

When it comes to constitutional reform and peace building, we want to instil in our students the understanding of one of our greatest ever graduates, the political theorist, Edmund Burke, who emphasised that “whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither in my opinion is safe.”

Burke also remarked that: “Education is the cheap defense of nations.” I think he meant that if countries invested in education, they would have wiser citizens, and would therefore need to spend less on armed forces, surveillance and security.

Universities are part of the body politic and when the body politic is calm and ordered with well-functioning institutions, then the role of universities in forming responsible citizens is made much easier. So I wouldn’t presume to offer advice to universities operating in unsettled political conditions. I know they are doing their best in often impossibly difficult circumstances, while I work in a democracy that recognises the value to society of independent institutions.

However, no country can afford to get complacent and, in all countries, universities should be vigilant about their role in safeguarding liberty and justice. In Trinity, we value our role in not only helping students acquire the skills and intellect to embark on interesting careers, but also in helping you to become committed citizens who will uphold democracy and human rights, and use their talents for the greater good.

Regardless of where they work, and even if they happen to be very risk averse, our graduates cannot avoid being confronted by vital issues like equality, gender identity, immigration, social welfare, and climate change. They will have to take positions on these issues and their positions will determine the world that they and their children live in. It’s as crucial as that. And of course universities don’t have the answers - we can’t foresee all the demands of the future. But we have a role in forming graduates who will approach these issues with understanding, tolerance, intelligence and foresight.

The education we offer in Trinity is geared towards this end.

And it’s why we incentivise students at an early stage to act on and implement their research and ideas – so that when they get a brainwave, they move automatically to the next step: making it happen.

The aim is to stimulate lively debate and different opinions in a campus where people learn to think for themselves and to listen engagingly to others. A campus where people have the confidence that, through hard work and application, they will see their ideas through, make a difference, change the world.

It’s heartening to see that the new emphasis in universities on innovation and entrepreneurship is having an effect in the field of civic engagement and human rights.

Last year for instance, Trinity students established Shoutout, an anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia initiative aimed at establishing workshops around sexual orientation and gender identity in secondary schools, in order to lessen stigma and reinforce a message of equality.

Such initiatives – even though often very small in scale – are examples of students seizing the moment and using the latest technologies to bring about reform in society. Students today have, I think, more opportunities to be proactive than they used to because technology has removed barriers and enabled rapid action.

My hope is that universities can continue harnessing and shaping the wonderful energy of youthful radicalism to be a force for good and for reform in the world.

With that, I now formally close this symposium on ‘Identities in Transition – Constitutional Peace Building’.

Thank you very much.

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