President pleads for a tolerant society

Racism, homophobia and other “poisonous prejudices” are among the biggest problems that Irish society has to tackle, President Michael D Higgins said yesterday.

He said that “pernicious racism” and homophobia wreak havoc in many young people’s lives, leading to loneliness, isolation, exclusion, violence at the hands of others, and self-harm.

At the Union of Students in Ireland annual congress in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, President Higgins congratulated the student movement on its work with charities raising awareness of mental health and combating suicide.

“My own background as a sociologist alerts me to particular problems that are facing us,” he said.

“We need to look inwards and ask how racism gains its foothold, how homophobia does its destructive work, how isolation and loneliness have become the reality for so many young people,” he said.

“I have every confidence that we can, by facing these issues, and working together, combat these and other poisonous prejudices, and that a new Ireland will emerge from that solidarity, from our determination that hate and bigotry will not be tolerated, will not take hold, will not grow roots, will not win.”

Mr Higgins also spoke of the serious grip alcohol and other sources of dependency have taken on our society.

“So much life has been wasted, so many close friends lost, families distressed,” he said.

But, he said, there are opportunities as well as challenges with negative connotations

“These are indeed anxious times for all the people of Ireland and in particular our young people, who face an uncertain future.

“But it is also a time for creativity, for optimism and for hope, for the realisation of new possibilities and they are there,” he said.

President Higgins also challenged the focus of universities and other third-level colleges on international rankings, and suggested third-level institutions are hiring academics for their ability to attract investment rather than their ability to teach undergraduates.

“The quality of teaching is one of the most important things in third level,” he said.

“But I have sat on boards... and I can in truth say that I never saw the capacity to teach and communicate at the top of the list in making an appointment,” he said.

“What kind of lack of nerve does it reveal when, instead of addressing these issues... you decide to start comparing yourself to English-speaking universities all over the world and simply saying, the same as you would, for example, as Rory McIlroy is number one or number two in the world in relation to golf, where is our university in the international rankings?”

He told student union officers that they have a right and a responsibility, not just for themselves but for future students, to ask questions about the kind of third-level education the country needs in times of change.

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