I know one of the questions no one would be un-diplomatic enough to ask me is my age…
But if you did, I’d tell you:
I’m old enough to have seen Ireland change. Change utterly. Change utterly for the better.
I’m old enough to have been instrumental in much of that great change,
But – here’s the kicker –
I’m young enough to be Ireland’s Tánaiste, Deputy Prime Minister. Young enough to be enthusiastic about my country as an international leader in inclusion, peace and prosperity.
I grew up in an Ireland best summed up in the title of a major novel of the time.
It was called “The Valley of the Squinting Windows”.
Great image, is it not? A valley, where all the houses have a view of the other houses, where everybody watches everybody else, but not in a good way. “Squinting” windows see only what is narrow and nasty.
That book title might have described Ireland for a time.
After our war of independence, we ruled ourselves, yes — but because we were still so economically dependent on our nearest neighbour — it was government for survival, not for success. The nation was – for the most part – at a level of subsistence that today would be regarded as dire poverty.
No electricity in many homes.
No piped water.
No toilets inside the home.
Education only to early teens for many, many children, and no job prospects worth talking about. One religion dominant, and dominant to an extent where a priest could announce from the altar the name of anybody in the area who – in the priest’s view – was behaving badly.
Oh, yes, Ireland, back then, was the Valley of the Squinting Windows.
Those squinting windows looked harshly at everybody, but they looked particularly harshly at women.
A young woman who became pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ was ostracized by her own family, banished to a religious-run mother-and-baby home, where her baby would be taken from her and given up for adoption.
No alternative to a life spent grieving, a life lived in the shadow of condemnation.
Ireland, back then, was more about control than inclusion. Particularly control of women. A woman working for Government as a secretary, for example, lost her job when she married. It was the law until 1972 that getting married equalled dismissal from the Civil Service.
Why? Because the man of the house was supposed to provide and therefore, why would she need a job?
A woman’s property was owned by her husband. Even if she wanted a card to allow her to take a book out of the local library, she had to get her husband to sign for it.
Women didn’t step out of line, because they knew they all lived in a valley of squinting windows.
Now, of course there was kindness, too. Of course there was compassion. My grandfather exemplified both. He was the man in his local community who provided simple necessary services in a quiet, respectful way. He would write letters and fill forms for people in the neighborhood who wouldn’t have been fully literate.
My own father served in the Irish army. He was also a community voluntary worker. And at a time when a polio epidemic of the fifties had come to a halt, leaving devastation in its wake, he would visit families that had experienced polio to get a sense of how they were managing and what help they needed, and I would go with him.
It was the first time I had seen the poor conditions people lived in at the time.
There was terrible poverty. But there was pride and laughter too.
When I look back on the photographs of President John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland, in 1963, it brings it all back. The contrast between this confident, laughing, powerful man and the greyness of so many of the locations where he spent time. And yet the Irish people were so proud that this man, this giant, had come to see them.
What is most interesting about John Kennedy’s words about himself and about his heritage is how often those words refer back to poverty. Kennedy didn’t grow up in poverty. Rather the opposite. But his family carried an indelible memory of the Ireland they had left. To the Kennedy family, and to his generation in Ireland, him becoming President of America was a line in the sand – a new empowerment – a sense that if one of our own could get to the White House, nothing was beyond us.
When I left school, I qualified as a social worker, went to London and spent 7 years working there.
I learned a lot during those years in London. And not just because it was the swinging sixties….! It wasn’t a Valley of the Squinting Windows.
I came back to an Ireland with a sense of infinite possibility.
But I came back to an Ireland where it was still illegal to be gay, where the church controlled lives, where contraception was available only on prescription.
The year was 1981. I joined an organisation called the National Women’s Council and ended up leading it. And then a political party asked me to run for parliament. I thought about it and said yes. I got elected, defeated, elected again.
I became Minister for Children, then Minister for Justice and Equality, and now Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation - as well as Tánaiste, Deputy Prime Minister.
Wherever I went in Government, I carried within myself an unseen banner of one word: INCLUSION.
The best definition of inclusion, in my view, is the one Franklin Delano Roosevelt came up with. The story goes that a speechwriter put a manuscript in front of him. A manuscript of a speech the President was going to make. And one of the lines in that speech was “We must build an inclusive society.”
Perfectly good statement, the speechwriter must have thought. Except that when he came to it, FDR stopped and thought and then unscrewed the lid of his fountain pen and drew a line through the sentence. Then he hand-wrote the replacement.
“We must build a society where nobody feels left out.”
That’s the best definition of an inclusive society I’ve come across, and the reality was that when I started in politics, Ireland was very decidedly not a society “where nobody felt left out.”
Many people felt left out.
Women felt left out.
We began to change that. The old career restrictions, property restrictions went. Ireland became a better place for women. A place of possibility and pride. A place where women could – and did - simultaneously hold every senior position in our criminal justice system. A place where women could - and have – become president. Two women have done that, so far.
One group who should have felt left out were too young to understand the concept: Ireland’s children. They WERE left out.
That’s why we put the rights of children into our constitution. Back in 2012 when I was Minister for Children we passed the Children’s Rights Referendum. So for the first time ever, the State is required to focus on our children just as much as our adult citizens.
Another group that felt left out were LGBTQI people. A former female Minister for Justice had abolished the laws that made being gay illegal. But removing legal penalties does not an inclusive society make, and most still felt they lived in an Ireland of squinting windows.
They felt equal only up to a point. And that point was marriage. They could have a civil partnership. Big deal, most of them said. That isn’t the same. “This is not an inclusive society if we feel left out of one of the key aspects of Irish life.”
The Government – my government – said “You know what? You’re absolutely right. Let’s ask the people in a referendum to introduce an equal right to marriage for same-sex couples.”
That’s what happened in Ireland on the 23rd May 2015.
Coming up to our Equal Marriage referendum, the General Secretary of my political party, a former seminarian named Tom Curran, stepped way outside his comfort zone. This is a quiet, self-effacing man in his early sixties who goes to Mass at least once a week. But this quiet traditionalist has a son. A gay son.
And Tom Curran stood up for his gay son in a video. The video went viral and encouraged others – so many others – of his age and background to come out and vote yes for equal marriage.
Then there was a TV reporter named Ursula Halligan. Household name. Familiar face. But still, a very private person. And then, a fortnight before the referendum, Ursula Halligan astonished Ireland by writing a column for the Irish Times about her fifty years in the prison of being silently gay.
Tom Curran and Ursula Halligan laid their reputations on the line in the interests of inclusion. As did so many others. Their courage led to a glorious day in recent Irish history. May 23rd, 2015.
On that day the quadrangle of Dublin Castle was filled, wall to wall, with couples, with their children, with rainbow flags, with happiness and with relief, as we celebrated the passing of the equal marriage referendum. Ireland – all of Ireland – young, old, rural, urban – had made a gesture of inclusivity, had told all of its children “You belong, you have the same rights whether you’re straight or gay. Welcome to a new Ireland that has its arms out to you.”
It felt like home.
Everywhere that day was home.
As Minister for Justice and Equality at the time, I was responsible for the legislation and it was the best moment of my career. Ireland was the first country in the world to introduce Equal Marriage by Popular vote.
It broke the squinting windows. Forever.
It told the world “We in Ireland are building a society where nobody feels left out.”
We’re not done.
Not nearly done.
Inclusivity is a task that never ends – but never ceases to deliver emotional and economic benefits. It’s always about the next step.
The next step for Ireland is to make sure several groups of people don’t feel left out.
People like refugees and asylum seekers.
People like migrant workers, coming to us with their skills and their hopes.
People like the elderly, who so badly want to belong to a community, not just to a category.
I want to make sure Ireland takes that next step.
I still carry that unseen banner with the single word “Inclusion” on it.
I always will.