14 October 2016

Speech by An Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald TD at the London School of Economics Irish Alumni Dinner Dublin, 14th October 2016

"Today I believe as strongly as I did during those days in London that the state should stand for social justice and for equality of opportunity"

Speech by An Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality
 Frances Fitzgerald TD at the London School of Economics Irish Alumni Dinner
Dublin, 14th October 2016


I’m not a great one for looking back. But when considering what I would talk to you about I, again and again, thought about by time at the LSE and also the time before and since.

So if you’ll indulge me, tonight I will speak a little bit about my early career and how that has informed my views on the challenges we face today, as well as the ones we could face in the days ahead.  

The period I spent at the LSE was a very formative one in my life.

So many of the things that happened since, opportunities that came my way and the views I now hold, can be linked back to those years in London in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Good academic training, combined with the people I met and worked with, and the causes I became involved in, opened up my world.

My masters was in Social Administration and Social Work and my thesis was on school attendance, a problem that I would deal with again and again over the course of my career.
After I graduated I spent a few years working in London with group of around 20 social workers. They were from different backgrounds and had very different views and perspectives on the world and the work we did. I suppose you could call them edgy, maybe we all were. It was so different to the world I left behind in Ireland and from my upbringing.
London was a different city then, smaller and less diverse than it is today. But it was a huge melting pot compared to the Dublin I left behind.

I lived in a garden flat in West Dulwich and remain firm friends with the couple who lived upstairs. We were close to Brixton and the riots that broke out in 1981 because of deep social and economic problems. This happened at a time when I was already aware of the corrosive and dangerous effects of disadvantage. The views of the girl who graduated from UCD nine years earlier with a social work degree were evolving.

I began my career at St Ultan’s Children’s Hospital. It was a place where a lot of people subject to terrible disadvantage brought their children, gave birth to them and sometimes abandoned them.

Working at St. Ultan’s exposed me to real disadvantage for the first time.

And it made me angry.
My belief that disadvantage and barriers to opportunity are the greatest causes of inequality began to galvanise. Opportunity had been the defining theme of my life, and my family’s lives. It still is

After St. Ultan’s I got a job in the psychiatric inpatient unit in St James’s Hospital. That began a lifelong interest in mental health, something I share with my husband Michael, who I met at St James’s.

Places like St Michael’s Estate, St Teresa’s Gardens and Dolphin’s Barn were in the hospital’s catchment area. In a very depressed Dublin these were severely disadvantaged places at the time.

Increasingly I wanted to do something about it, to channel it somewhere.

That’s when I moved to London, to the LSE and somewhere began to appear. I had no political ambition at that time. I was never one of those people who wanted to be a politician as a child.

But while I was studying at the LSE I got involved with the National Childbirth Trust, an organisation that campaigns to improve maternity care and for better services for new parents. It’s still going today.

Five years later I came home and began working as a social worker at the Mater. Ballymunwas one of the main areas where I worked. My interest in inequality deepened. The anger over disadvantage grew.

I began to think about politics.

Garret Fitzgerald was the leader of Fine Gael and I liked what he and the party stood for. I was a committed feminist – I still am – but a practical one and cared deeply about how women were treated in Ireland. The party’s progressive social stance and its inclusivity on Northern Ireland and the European Union attracted me. I wrote a letter and joined. But to be honest it didn’t go much further at that stage.

Then I discovered the Women’s Political Association and the Council for the Status of Women, later the National Women’s Council.

I remember sitting at the back of the one of the first meetings I attended thinking “what am I doing here”?

Ultimately I became the Chairperson for three wonderful years. Then Garret Fitzgerald came back into my life with a bang. He was retiring and Fine Gael asked me to run for a seat in Dublin South East in 1992. I wanted to change so much – here was my chance.

So I became a politician in my early forties with three young children.

The anger over disadvantage and the belief in equality of opportunity drove me forward into this political world.

Those same things guide everything I do in politics to this day.

And that takes me back to the LSE which opened its doors in 1885 and was co-founded by members of the left-leaning Fabian society, including George Bernard Shaw. The School’s original mission was to work for “the betterment of society,” and the School remains committed to that goal.

We often forget when referring to LSE that its full name is the London School of Economics & Political Science, describing itself as one of the foremost social science universities in the world.

LSE is associated with the City of London - a gateway for bright students into the banking, investment and legal worlds. However, clearly its remit and influence are much broader. At its heart is a mission to make a positive difference to the world.

Economics are important – very important. The economy generates the money. We know that better than most after the last five years. This week we had a budget in which we began to invest in services again, investment made possible by a careful economic management.

But the economy cannot be treated in isolation. As envisaged by LSE’s founders, an economy should work for the betterment of society. An economy that generates resources is not an end in itself.

What you do with those resources is what really matters and that is how the study of social sciences complements the study of economics.

But the problem is that for the past thirty or forty years parts of the political centre in many countries have focused on economic theory at the expense of social science.

The result of the failure to incorporate social sciences into policy, and the concentration on economic theory, has contributed to the disconnect between the political centre and electorates.

Or to put it more simply, focusing on how to generate the most resources in the most productive way, without being equally as enthusiastic about how you want to use those resources to benefit people, has ultimately led to their alienation because of the perception that they are being left behind.

Think about it. Nations measure their success in economic terms – national income rather than national wellbeing.

We saw this sense of exclusion in the recent Brexit referendum campaign. We are seeing it in the US Presidential Campaign.

Creeping anti-globalisation sentiment is gaining traction.  That is dangerous for us. Ireland, as a small open economy, has benefitted greatly from engagement with the wider world.

Isolated economies lead to unhealthy societies. But it is also right to question who benefits from globalisation and to expect that the state must be the ultimate guarantor of the people’s best interests.

Opposing globalisation means opposing opportunity.

Everything I have seen in my career to date has convinced me, now more than ever, that equality of opportunity should define this country.

Providing equality of opportunity to everyone is how we can make this society just and fair.

It’s how we reduce disadvantage.

It’s how we break down the barriers to people achieving their full potential.

This week’s budget is about creating a compassionate society in which everyone is given the opportunity to succeed, and nobody is left behind.

It was delivered against a backdrop of increasing uncertainty because of Brexit. The numbers are quite astounding. Every week more than 1.2 billion euro of goods and services are exchanged between Ireland and the UK. Under Budget 2017 measures are being taken to make Ireland Brexit ready.

Other historical and cultural relationships that have come to shape us as both nations and peoples. It would be my hope that the LSE will be a contributor to the dialogue around these current issues.

Not surprisingly, I have found the latest budget and its negotiations something of a preoccupation for the last while. In the midst of the post-budget analysis somebody, rather predictably, quipped,

“If all the economists were laid end to end, they’d never reach a conclusion”.
“Do you know who is supposed to have said that?” 

There followed some very bad guesses. Even Chairman Mao and Lenin got a mention.

There was surprise when I said that this witticism is attributed to no less a person than the bold George Bernard Shaw.

So to conclude, I believe we are at the beginning of a period of investment in social services funded by sustainable economic growth.

Today I believe as strongly as I did during those days in London that the state should stand for social justice and for equality of opportunity.

It should use economic success to improve the lives of people for the betterment of society, as the LSE founders would have put it.

In the spirit of Shaw, and with a special health warning to those of you who may be economists, I therefore propose a toast.

That you raise your glasses “end to end”.