I know it’s been a long and fascinating day for everyone. With such a diverse range of speakers it would be foolish to try and draw a single message from their contributions.
There have been stories of building a lasting global business, of how to cope with critical decisions and of fundamental skills which can be used by people working to succeed in any walk of life.
What can certainly be said is that a theme of innovation, determination and excellence has been consistent. There’s been a mix of the practical and the personal – all working to inspire individuals and organisations not just to grow but also to prosper.
One of the things which separate Europe and America is that we have a low tolerance for politicians delivering speeches about themselves. So I want to take a different approach. I want to talk with you about the broader context which we must all address now and in the years ahead. In doing this I want to reflect on some important parts of our history which we can draw vital lessons from.
By any objective measure this is a challenging moment in world history. This isn’t about a fixed point in the economic cycle or the normal ebb and flow of political movements.
No – it’s about much deeper issues about the basic direction of our societies and our economies. And what’s more, the implications are so significant that no one gets to opt out.
Much of the last 70 years saw the greatest advances in overcoming poverty, building prosperity and achieving social progress ever recorded. Many different policies and ideas lay behind this but it was ultimately the triumph of liberal democracy.
Societies governed in the interests of the people. A belief in the rights of the individual, in diversity, in openness and in the ideal of cooperation. A genuine understanding of common interests.
Conflicts which had defined the relations within and between societies for centuries were progressively overcome – and many were inspired to overcome immense odds to be free.
It is untrue to say that this was a straight fight between unrestrained capitalism and state control. Free enterprise went hand in hand with free societies and a strong social system.
Unfortunately, along with sustained success often comes great complacency.
It is not long ago that we were being told about the ‘end of history’ and the seamless progress of open democracy.
Today, economic sentiment is high but many foundations of modern institutions are fraying at the edge. Extremism is a reality. Respect for diversity is falling. Efforts to undermine strong international institutions are mounting. Anti-trade sentiment is widespread. Anger at inequality is both constant and growing.
What makes this most challenging is that this represents a mixture of reasonable and unreasonable concerns.
A sense of being left behind in two-tier societies is a reflection of what’s actually happening. It erodes social cohesion and opens the doors for charlatans and those who are promoting agendas which would actually make things worse.
In Europe today we have some countries which have high employment, rising incomes and strong budgets – yet also experience factors normally associated with countries in crisis.
This matters for everyone because if the anti-trade, anti-foreigner, anti-cooperation agenda grows and secures more victories it will cause immense damage.
There are many who look at this situation and despair. I don’t agree with them.
I have no doubt that the problems of this moment can be overcome if we remember the spirit and the ideals of those who secured so much progress in the past.
The problems they overcame were much more significant than what we see today.
This is not a moment to rip up what worked in the past, it is a moment to renew and evolve principles which are as relevant today as they have ever been.
If we want to understand this a very easy way is to look at the example of how historic progress was achieved here in the past.
A decisive moment in our country’s history was the leadership of Seán Lemass.
He believed that the only way forward for us was to be more open – open to trade, open to ideas, open to cooperation with other countries. He understood that we had to challenge ourselves and that even the deepest problems could be overcome in time.
And he was proven spectacularly right.
The robust recovery of recent years has been built on the core long-term foundations which he put in place. A commitment to open markets, a pro-enterprise tax system, membership of the European Union and, most importantly investment in the skills and ideas of the Irish people.
By no means was a perfect country created, but we did secure sustained progress in areas where we had once been defined by failure.
Let’s always remember that the main debate in Europe about Ireland joining what is now the European Union, concerned whether we were just too poor to participate.
I never cease to be inspired by Lemass’ story of rising from a modest background with no wealth or connections to draw on.
He fought in the revolution which established our state. He showed incredible leadership as a Minister in creating enterprises which are still in place and in keeping our people fed during a world war.
However it is the final chapter of his extraordinary life which has had the longest impact. In only a few years he launched a rapid series of initiatives which transformed our country. Within weeks of becoming Taoiseach his government began the process of opening up to international trade. It also signalled its intention to use education as a driver of progress. The state began a dramatic move to prioritising enterprise and innovation.
A programme of law reform was set in train, including the dismantling of absurd censorship laws. He subsequently began an engagement with Northern Ireland which was central to achieving breakthroughs much later on.
And of course he was determined that Ireland would be a full and active participant in rules-based international cooperation, both in Europe and globally. He pushed for a strengthened UN which could secure action on deeply important issues like nuclear non-proliferation and human rights.
With the lodging of Ireland’s application to join what is now the European Union, this revolutionary nationalist showed that the only way of securing the sovereignty of nations and avoiding a constant cycle of conflict was to build a new type of shared future between nations.
Born in the last year of the nineteenth century, Seán Lemass was nonetheless a deeply radical man in his commitment to modern ideals and a faith in progress.
He was also a modest man who had no interest in the presentation of policies or in finding ways of claiming credit for them. To him what mattered was substance and results.
What he and his generation overcame dwarfs the challenges that face us today. One of the most effective things we could do today would be to renew our commitment to the principles which they set out.
What does that mean in practical terms?
First of all it means an increased focus on investing in people. Through education, through training, through supporting individuals with the ideas which can create not just new businesses but also new industries.
Rapidly expanding funding for research and innovation is essential. More than ever before, the greatest natural resource for any country will be its people.
We need to renew the principles of strong, rules-based international organisation. In the first half of the last century there were many international organisations with worthy objectives, but they had no power to enforce agreed rules. The anti-EU sentiment of recent years is an effort to return to a failed model of the past. Reforming and developing the Union must be a priority.
As part of this we in Ireland need to renew our North/South cooperation and create a new approach to relations with Britain which can mitigate some of the worst impact of the Brexit vote.
And while we do not seek to impose our form of government on others, we should not shy away from asserting our belief in the values of western democracy.
We must speak up for the importance of trade as a central enabler of progress. The idea that free trade has benefitted only those who were already doing well is simply false. For countries and companies which want to prosper, fair access to new markets is as important as it has ever been.
And we must address the fact that growing inequality will undermine vital social cohesion unless we understand it and address it. This is not about the sort of destructive redistribution seen at times in the past.
It’s more about giving every person a fair opportunity to have a good quality of living. That means tackling chronic job insecurity, ensuring affordable housing and new approaches to guaranteeing pensions. It also means making sure that when people take risks to build businesses they don’t have to always risk everything.
We should reject the false choice of having a strong economy or a fair society. History shows us that the most successful economies have societies where people are helped to realise their potential and where they feel they have a stake in its future.
In these challenging times there are still more than enough opportunities for us to seize.
We need to be clear in our values. To put investment in people at the core of our policies. To never forget the need to challenge ourselves.