We are long overdue a merit system to honour our citizens

Today, the Irish Examiner publishes a special souvenir supplement marking 25 years of the Cork Person of the Year award, writes David O'Mahony

Its longevity is a testament to its organisers, and a perusal of the supplement pages shows the diversity of award recipients and nominees. They range from high-profile sports figures to people who may have a lower profile but a track record of working hard for local and international causes, making a difference in many different ways.

It is one of a number of local awards that have real meaning not only to the organisers but to their localities.

In an interview in today’s supplement, the Cork Person of the Year awards founder, Manus O’Callaghan, reflects on the motivation behind the annual event: “This award scheme for me has always been about promoting our greatest asset, our people. And about promoting our people’s greatest asset, our city and county… Ireland is still one of the few countries that does not have a state-backed national honours system. We depend on other countries like Britain, France, and the US to honour our national heroes. I don’t mind other countries doing that, but I think we should do it too. So politicians, let’s at least start the debate on the subject.”

In truth the debate has been occasional, but ultimately hasn’t been sustained with enough vigour at government level. There has been no shortage of issues in the past 25 years that have taken precedence. It really isn’t surprising that, in what must be true Irish tradition, volunteers have assembled to plug the gap across the country. You cannot fault their work, enthusiasm, or vision, but you have to ask why we can’t organise similar events at a national level.

This is not to detract from local or specialised awards, which play such a key role in celebrating the people who contribute so much to their communities. Rather, it would serve as a validation that those local awards have the right idea.

After all, there are national awards; take the Gaisce awards for example. But these are very different, in that they mark personal development and skills and are limited by age, and while these are certainly things that should be celebrated what we need are national honours that showcase and celebrate the individual achievements and legacies of our talented and diverse population. There is, after all, a Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad (even though these can be awarded to people who are not Irish, but who have supported Irish causes). Again, these are worthwhile, but again, we neglect our own community at home.

Money is not the issue here. This does not need millions and millions spent on it every year — set a limit on the number of annual awards if that keeps costs under control.

But investment in community endeavours pays dividends for those communities, as those behind the Tidy Towns and Pride of Place initiatives will tell you. What’s missing here is will.

We can see frequently how our neighbours across the Irish Sea celebrate the achievements of people from all fields of endeavour and walks of life, from athletes to social advocates. There are so many OBEs, MBEs, and the like that it is hard to keep track of them all, but the point is that they are handed down by the head of state in a public display of appreciation for the individual’s work.

Many moons ago Ireland had the Order of St Patrick, which more or less went the way of Patrick’s snakes after the creation of the Irish Free State. I am not talking about resurrecting knighthoods — noble titles are prohibited by the Constitution anyway, and officially Ireland doesn’t recognise them (you don’t generally see Sir Bob Geldof in the pages of the Irish Examiner, only plain old Bob Geldof). But why not an Order of Merit, or an Order of the Republic?

Proposals for such an awards system (not necessarily those names plucked from my head) have been bubbling away in the background on an extremely low heat for decades, with a report from the late 1990s recommending that the president be granted the power to confer medals and parchments by an independent panel.

In 1999, the Bertie Ahern-led government was proceeding with plans for a system that would see people presented with gold medals, but no titles, and which, as reported by the Examiner at the time, have allowed members of the public to nominate individuals or groups to the panel. However, there was a dispute over whether the government of the time should be allowed to make nominations, which Fine Gael, which also said the awards were foreign to Irish tradition, objected to. Senator Maurice Manning claimed that had a civic awards system existed in the 1980s then those getting awards would have included Ansbacher account holders.

Allowing a government to make nominations would, even with the best of intentions at the outset, make such awards too politicised and open to criticism. Such an honours system should be about celebrating achievement, not scoring political points. The issue came up several more times in the intervening decade but never went anywhere.

More recently, a private members bill to establish presidential awards made it as far as a second reading in the Seanad in 2015, only to be quietly shelved after the Government collapsed. According to the Oireachtas website that bill is at stage two — just nine stages short of enactment. To be fair, there has been an election in the interim. As often is the case, a shift in politics brings a shift in priorities.

But at a time when we are potentially going to broaden the electorate for presidential elections to the vast Irish diaspora — which I think is a worthwhile idea, though others who have shared this page have disagreed — surely we can finally get to grips with properly recognising the good of our green island. Surely, as we look to tap in to the idea of a broad Irish community, we can put some time and effort into invigorating the communities closer to home.

Everybody reading this can think of people who deserve a national honour — the names would undoubtedly include some of those monthly and yearly winners of the Cork Person of the Year award highlighted today. If you can’t write five names on the nearest piece of paper in the next five minutes I will be shocked.

Until the Government acts on this, communities will continue to rally and volunteers will continue to come forward to make sure those who are making a difference are adequately feted, holding the line, one award at a time.

David O’Mahony is production editor of the ‘Irish Examiner’. Victoria White will return next week.

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