NUIG 1916 – 2016 Conference

Last weekend NUI Galway held a national conference on the theme of “Ireland 1916-2016: The Promise and Challenge of National Sovereignty”, in honour of the centenary of Irish independence. The four day conference brought together speakers from academia, industry and media to take a retrospective and prospective look at Irish politics, economy and society in the past 100 years and into the future.

The presence of some leading sociologists, economists and political scientists made for stimulating and in-depth sessions on societal, economic and policy issues, which have significant implications for sustainable development, and business, in Ireland. A few of these sessions were of particular interest in the sustainability/business context and these are reviewed below.

Economy and Society


Prof. Kevin O’Rourke presents his paper alongisde some of his respondents

First up is Friday’s session on “Economy, Society and Well-being of Citizens”. The keynote speech was delivered by Prof. Kevin O’Rourke from the University of Oxford, who spoke on “Independent Ireland: a comparative perspective”, a review of Irish economic history from 1916 – 2016, in comparison with other European countries. The data presented clearly illustrated how, having grown in line with Europe from 1926 – 2001,  Ireland suddenly became an economic growth “overperformer” at the turn of the Millenium.

20161111_201323  20161111_201344

Irish GDP volatility 1960 – 2014

Prof. O’Rourke went on to discuss Brexit, suggesting that we have to hope that the UK chooses a “soft Brexit”, but that countries will invariably look after their own self-interest. He pointed out that this was something Ireland is no stranger to, citing our corporation tax-rate. He highlighted that tariffs on exports to the UK may be imposed by the OECD and we will need a transitional trade deal while Brexit is occuring over the next couple of years. Prof. O’Rourke also talked us through the the Irish export figures, observing that the EU is a far more common export destination for every sector except agriculture. He closed by cautioning that “the kind of hyper-globalisation we’ve been so good at exploiting is becoming politically unsustainable throughout the western world”.


The destination of Irish exports, as presented by Prof. O’Rourke

After Prof. O’Rourke’s paper, five respondents from different scholarly perspectives gave their views on the session theme and, to varying extents, the paper.

First was Prof. Alan Barrett of the ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute), who focused on the Society and Well-being aspects of the theme, and in particular on the topic of children’s welfare. With reference to the 1916 proclamation, he asked: does Ireland treat all its’ children equally? The ESRI has set about answering this question through the Growing up in Ireland (GUI) survey (, where 18,000 children have been interviewed and tested at various stages of their lives. The report has revealed some startling findings on the link between social disadvantage and learning, low birth weight and obesity, such as those illustrated in the slide below. His conclusion was that, no, every child in Ireland is not getting an equal start in life.

20161111_151222The panel considers Prof. Barrett’s findings

The next respondent was Prof. Mary Corcoran from Maynooth University’s Sociology Department, and she spoke of the concept of “everyday civicism”. She defined this as social civility, the “everyday interactions” that “create the latticework that hold society together”. She noted that in the wake of the recession, participatory spaces of different kinds have sprung up where exchange, democracy and debate is taking place, such as urban allotments, public libraries, festivals etc. So although we may have “lost the plot”, she said, we’ve also demonstrated “a lot of resilience, resourcefulness and civicism”.


“We may have lost the plot…” Prof. Mary Corcoran

Tony Foley of Dublin City University then spoke of the historic lack of indigenous manufacturing entrepreneurship in Ireland. He suggested that this has not emerged due to a mismatch between cost base and technical capability. Dr. Eoin O’Leary of University College Cork began on a similar theme, observing that although 80% of Irish R&D is spent by MNCs, they are three times less likely to innovate than Irish companies. He put this down to Ireland’s “rent-seeking” economic policy, suggesting that we have a “dissociative” approach to policy, supporting FDI over indigenous industry, and that the government needs to create conditions for “bottom-up” economic development.

20161111_201704 20161111_201723Dr. Eoin O’Leary’s suggestions for Irish economic policy

Lastly, Dr. Conor Skehan of Dublin Institute of Technology discussed the urbanisation of Irish society, highlighting how much the distribution of our population has changed in the past 100 years, and particularly in the last 20.

The session closed with a brief Q&A, which featured several audience questions related to sustainability. In response, Kevin O’Rourke expressed his support for climate-related trade tariffs*.


The Saturday morning session was entitled “The Challenges, Promises and Responsibilities of Education in the 21st Century”, where the keynote speaker was Prof. Louise Richardson, Principal of the University of Oxford, who presented a fascinating paper on education and terrorism. She said that although it is tempting to see education as an antidote to terrorism, the reality is not that simple, citing several prominent terrorists who were qualified professionals with a third-level education. She discussed the theory of “relative deprivation”, suggesting that this can affect radicals in poorer countries. Prof. Richardson emphasised the importance of encouraging students to think critically, act ethically and have empathy with others.

She also briefly discussed access to education, presenting the sobering statistic that 4 out of 5 children in well-off areas of Dublin will get to University, compared to only 1 of every 7.5 in disadvantaged areas.

This was a theme taken up by the first respondent, Prof. Dympna Devine of UCD, who argued that ineqality in education is a violation of childrens’ moral right, and suggested that there has always been chronic under-investment in education in Ireland, even during the boom. In the Q&A later she suggested that it is “extraordinary” that the private model now dominates early years education in Ireland and that this raises fundamental questions around power. She also drew our attention to UNICEF’s work on child poverty (e.g. see

Second respondent Prof. Fionnuala Waldron of St Patricks College (Dublin City University) spoke on education for democracy and climate change education. She suggested that the goverment should focus on funding these issues, rather than some more niche concerns, using this cartoon to illustrate her point.

Image result for joy of tech coding cartoon

Prof. Waldron spoke eloquently on education for democracy: “we must learn to act in solidarity with people who are not like us; to recognise our shared humanity”. She suggested that climate change education currently takes a “rear view mirror” approach, focusing on past policies and whether climate change is happening, rather than considering future scenarios. Education for sustainable development must engage “head, heart and hands” (e.g. see

Prof. Willie Donnelly of Waterford IT then focused on University partnerships with industry. He cited the internet as a notable challenge to education in the 21st Century, suggested that it is jeopardising our critical thinking. He also commented in the Q&A later that Irish Universities need more encouragement from the government on multi-disciplinary work. The final respondent was Dr Niamh Hourigan of University College Cork, who suggested that the big challenge for Universities is to “be the critique of neo-liberalism”.

The last word was left to Louise Richardson, who suggested in response to a question from the audience that Universities perhaps need to separate themselves more from industry than they have. We need to remember that:

“The purpose of a University is to create cultivated human beings, not simply supplying a skilled workforce”.


The closing plenary of the conference was a discussion on “Political Futures and New Paradigms”, featuring Prof. Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania. Prof. O’Leary began his talk by highlighting the “Ireland 2116” map below, pointing out that if climate change continues at current rates both Galway and Dublin will be under water in 100 years.


Ireland 2116: the title slide for Prof. O’Leary’s talk

He then identified a number of current political “megatrends”, stressing that Ireland is not immune from these trends:

  • De-democratization
  • Power of the rich
  • Purchase of the media and the judiciary
  • Erosion of social democratic parties
  • Estrangement from political parties in general
  • Xenophobia
  • Neoliberalism and its discontents

Prof. O’Leary went on to discuss the currently “unsteady equilibrium” of the EU, particularly in the context of Brexit. He used these cartoons to illustrate how Brexit has been perceived around Europe.

Image result for tom janssen brexit Image result for gatis sluka british pound                         by Tom Janssen (Netherlands)                                         by Gatis Sluka (Latvia)

He then discussed the various soft and hard UKEXIT options, with the help of the following slide [apologies for the very poor quality photo].


UK-exit options, as presented by Prof. O’Leary

He has proposed his own UKEXIT option, “Dalriada”, where Scotland and Northern Ireland remain part of the EU. Details here:

Prof. O’Leary also discussed the possbility of a united Ireland, suggested that there is a Northern Irish case for unification in terms of economic benefit. This point was taken up by the first respondent, Dr Niall Ó Dochartaigh of NUIG, who pointed to the results of a RTE/BBC NI survey on unification which suggested that the majority of respondents are “open to debate, discussion and persuasion”. Dr Ó Dochartaigh discussed the nature of democracy in light of recent political events. He suggested that “democracy is about debate and change, not about stasis”, encouraging us to remember that politics is about challenging the majority: “it is not in our power to keep things the way they are. We need to respond to changes in imaginative ways”.

The final respondent was Prof. Jennifer Todd of UCD, who argued that in fact Dalriada could be more radical. She noted in her talk that “identity politics doesn’t work” and suggested that politics hasn’t taken this into account. For further reading on the topic, check out this article on identity politics and the US election:

*For more into on climate change and trade, here’s a couple of references:

Click to access abstract_trade_climate_change_e.pdf

Click to access Focus-C.pdf


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