Book review: When Ideas Matter: Speeches for an Ethical Republic

Since becoming Irish President in 2011, Limerick-born Michael D Higgins has proven a popular head of state. 

Michael D Higgins

Head of Zeus, €15

His enduring appeal is perhaps aided by the fact that his time in office has been spent setting out a vision of what he calls ‘an ethical Republic’. He has now presented us with an anthology of 36 speeches given here and abroad, entitled When Ideas Matter: Speeches for an Ethical Republic.

Opening with his inaugural speech, he advises that we should build active citizenship ‘based on participation, equality, and respect for all.’ 

Initially the focus is on Irish identity, the Diaspora, and the Irish migrant experience. 

In one of the speeches given in Britain (the anthology includes his Windsor Castle speech on the occasion of the first state visit of a President of Ireland to the United Kingdom) he asserts that we are now confident partners (with Britain) on the world stage.

International in scope, he continues with themes including women’s rights, the defence and renewal of democracy, the meaning of citizenship and human rights. 

Memory of those who have shaped history is a key theme. He reveres in the commemoration of the men and women of Easter 1916 and World War One. He cites French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, “To be forgotten is to die twice.”

Ethical foreign policy and economics do not escape attention. Commenting on the world’s current refugee crises, he reminds us of our own exodus during the famine. He reflects on increasing populations and demands on resources. 

The role of culture continues the discourse. He states those Irish successes in the eyes of the world ‘have been cultural and spiritual’ and many ‘of the most valuable things in life cannot be measured by monetary success.’ Irish poets are quoted widely throughout.

Higgins writes on how on how we should cherish all citizens equally and embark on a more ethical way of thinking regarding matters of social importance. 

In his position as president, he is unable to comment on government policy, however, is entitled to address issues of public concern. He states ‘Parliaments at both national and European level must urgently claim back competence and legitimacy on economic and fiscal matters.’ 

He urges the public to have a more critical analysis of public policies, to evaluate whether they promote or undermine people’s rights, and ultimately to engage in greater public debate. In its own small way, could this be an endorsement of ‘populist’ or ‘protest’ politics that our politicians so despise?

Most speeches are written to be heard but these are also works of prose. Each has a distinct subject matter, yet all are visionary and thought provoking, designed to motivate and propel change for the public good. 

Hope for the future and resolution are recurring themes. They strive to provoke an emotional response in the listener, by invoking a sense of identity or history that may hither fore have been lost to him or her.

Years of experience in both parliament and education have no doubt shaped these works. He believes that society and individuals alike should improve on past failures and build on successes. 

It is said that Aristotle wanted to arm everyone with the weapon of good public speaking, and if so, Michael D has mastered this artillery. These are enthusiastic speeches which encourage the listener to speak out for what they believe. 

This book will appeal not only to those interested in oratory or in the research of public speaking, but also to people who have an interest in the arts and history of not only Ireland but civilisation.

It is not a light read; the language is dense as is the subject matter. It’s a book to digest at leisure, one speech at a time. Urging us to hope for a better world, his wish for his words is that they may be a catalyst to an agenda of change. He firmly believes ‘Words matter.’


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