“Beneath the surface of a society that seems to be pursuing ‘business as usual’, Ireland, like other societies, is facing an emerging crisis of economy, society and culture. Unease at obvious cracks in the foundations needs a creative response that challenges the status quo and helps people to read the signs of the times”. So said former Government General Secretary Dermot McCarthy, speaking as one of the contributors to A Dialogue of Hope: Critical Thinking for Critical Times, launched by Professor Linda Hogan of Trinity College Dublin, on Thursday 28 September, in Boston College Ireland, 43 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2. The book is published by Messenger Publications.
The Dialogue of Hope group are calling on people of all views in Irish society – poor, rich, secularists, atheists, believers, scientists, artists, poets and philosophers – to come together and work out an alternative vision for Ireland based on common values and not on the single economic model that underpins our thinking today.
Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications spoke to some of the contributors at the launch. You can listen to the individual interviews here.
Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, convenor of the group, outlines the role churches should play in bringing about the more inclusive dialogue the group are calling for. He says the Catholic Church in particular doesn’t have an embedded model for listening to their people. It is crucial, however, that they start to do so in a humble and attentive way if they are to have any credibility as part of the wider conversation aimed at creating a new vision for Irish society.
“Ireland is at a critical juncture,” according to group member David Begg, former General Secretary of ICTU and Chairman of the Pensions Authority. In his article and interview with Pat Coyle he says we need a radical rethink if we are to have any positive outcomes for our citizens into the future. He highlights the difficulties facing the country not just in terms of Brexit but also in terms of its positioning within the EU and its relationship with the US, particularly under the current administration.
The Citizens Assembly, PeopleTalk and the Constitutional Convention are good examples of the type of engagement that needs to be fostered, according to Fergus O’Ferrall, Lay Leader of the Methodist Church in Ireland. Whilst welcoming these initiatives he noted that there were also people throughout the length and breadth of rural Ireland who were suffering from a variety of social issues. Their voices need to be heard too, he says, adding that appropriate platforms need to be set up to enhance the democratic participation of all our citizens in shaping our future. As a man of faith he seeks and welcomes dialogue with secularists and non-believers, a common theme amongst all contributors to the book.
Dr Dermot Lane, diocesan priest and theologian, spoke to Pat Coyle about the importance of anthropology and the need to develop a new and shared vision of what it means to be human in this world. He says that many of the disparate sectors whom they are calling on to participate in fresh thinking, have not always reflected on what being a human being actually means. He is convinced that if believers and non-believers, secularists and religious, were to work on this together they would find much common ground, not least in the call of the ‘other’ as revealing the relational foundation of our humanity. It is in this light that he sees anthropology as the cornerstone of hope.
Other members of the group, all of whom were present at the launch, include Professor Michael Cronin of the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies in DCU, and Iseult Honohan, Associate Professor Emeritus in the UCD School of Politics and International Relations. Together they have called for the creation of a new narrative for 21st century Ireland based on input from a representative and inclusive range of Irish people. As Gerry O’Hanlon SJ noted, “We have a housing crisis; we have serious systemic problems in our health service and policing structures, and we see villages dying on their feet in rural Ireland, yet all we hear talk of is economic growth and increasing stability. But the reality is, that the economic model is patently failing and we need a new narrative that is much broader and deeper than the neo-liberal economic model can provide.”
According to David Begg, “Recent years have seen a coarseness enter public discourse, exacerbated by social media. The only effective way to counter the demagoguery, populism and anti-politics of this era is for citizens to participate more actively in society, to reboot an active form of civic republicanism.”
The group, who first came together in March 2016, say there is a continuing sense of economic crisis in Ireland, with Brexit and other international developments overshadowing our patchy recovery from the recession. Many people, they say, are alienated from conventional politics. “Our conviction is that beneath the economic and social crisis lies a crisis of faith in institutions, in the State and the EU, in the potential of collective action, in the future itself.”
Gerry O’Hanlon SJ says the crisis of faith includes the Churches: “There is hostility toward the Christian Churches, the assumption that religion is an irrelevant or malign force in society, and there’s a stand-off between secularists and believers regarding sexuality, gender and education.”
The group say they take hope from signs of social activism, courageous witness and creative response to the crisis but that more is needed. In their book they analyse the roots of the current crisis, outline a vision that could help mobilise a broad coalition of those willing to work for change and suggest possible approaches for developing a platform for this coalition. They also propose lines of action that demonstrate the potential for Christian engagement with secular society in tackling specific common concerns – an “audacious task”, according to Linda Hogan. She praised the contributors for the depth of insight in the wide variety of papers in the book, papers which she summarised succinctly in her appreciative opening reflection.