The director, Andy Pollak, gave the commencement address at the graduation ceremony for 900 graduates of Dundalk Institute of Technology on 5 November. This is what he said:
This is a great wee country and a great wee county
It is fashionable now to be depressed (sometimes even despairing) about the state of Ireland. We are – like so many other countries in Europe – beset by deep financial crisis, huge debt levels and crippling government austerity programmes. And it is stating the obvious to say that you – as Irish third level graduates going out into the world of work in 2011 – are facing into a very tricky period, where jobs are not always going to be easy to come by.
But I just want to remind you how far we have come on this island in recent years. In the past 13 years Northern Ireland (where I work five days a week in Armagh) – after a quarter of a century of bloody sectarian conflict – has seen what I can only call a miraculous transition to peace, partnership government and a solid beginning on the long road to reconciliation between our divided communities. For most of that period the Republic of Ireland (where my home and family are and where I spend my weekends) experienced its own economic miracle (however temporary), as its growth rates soared and for the first time since independence the vision of an economically independent and prosperous nation appeared to be within reach
We all know what happened to that miracle in the past few years. Greed, dishonesty and foolishness are not unique to Irish bankers, property developers and politicians in the first decade of the 21st century. They have been responsible for economic boom-and-bust cycles for thousands of years: the advent of capitalism a few centuries ago has only exacerbated them.
I know that we are again living through very difficult times: the dreaded dole and emigration queues are back with us again. And once again it is the ordinary people – even if they are more often than not the highly educated ordinary people now – who are suffering rather than those in the ‘golden circles’ who got us into this mess. But I believe passionately in the imagination, courage and ingenuity of those now highly educated young Irish people to get us out of our present predicament.
For if you choose to look carefully, the ‘green shoots’ of a prosperous and sustainable new Ireland are already there under our feet. For the purposes of this short talk, I am going to take the place most of you know best to illustrate those shoots: the border county of Louth, the ‘wee county’, the smallest county in Ireland in terms of its geographical spread.
You may not know it but Louth is held up as a bit of a model by wise people who are thinking deeply and strategically about Ireland’s future. For example, Dundalk is Ireland’s first fully-integrated ‘sustainable energy community’. It has a four square kilometre Sustainable Energy Zone in the area around this campus which is the envy of every town in Ireland. Earlier this year those towns were queuing up to enter a competition being run by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, the government body in this area, to obtain funding to follow Dundalk’s successful example.
And what does that success consist of? Last year a sizeable group of residential, industrial and commercial buildings in this zone – including this Institute of Technology – acheived targets of 40% improvement in energy efficiency and an annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 9,000 tonnes. That’s better than anywhere else in Ireland and not far short of some of the best local authorities in Europe. And don’t let the climate change deniers fool you: in this energy hungry world and this energy deficient island, with oil prices constantly rising and fossil fuels fast running out, saving energy is one of the all-important keys to a prosperous and sustainable future.
And this town is leading the way. The Dundalk 2020 initiative (so-called because of the need to reach specific EU targets for renewable energy by the year 2020) has involved all sectors in the town: the local authorities, business and industry, the Institute of Technology, local schools, Louth County Hospital and the Crowne Plaza Hotel, shops and leisure centres. Major firms like Heinz, Xerox and Glen Dimplex have also signed up to energy efficiency agreements. As a result of an article in the New York Times about the town’s drive for sustainability, in which Heinz featured, its Dundalk plant is now seen as an environmental and energy leader within that multinational company.
Dundalk Instititute’s windmill – the first of its kind on a third level campus anywhere in the world, as far as I know – is a symbol of the town and the institute’s commitment to this initiative. And as we all know, there are potential jobs in sustainable energy – lots of jobs. A couple of years ago Open Hydro, a Louth company, became the first to generate and supply tidal electricity to the UK national grid. The power units for this tidal turbine were built at the firm’s plant in Greenore. You don’t have to be a ‘Green’ to realise that this is the kind of innovative area where local industry and local skilled people can make a real international impact.
If Louth is leading in the ‘green revolution’, it is also leading in the ‘grey revolution’: that is, in the development and provision of new goods and services for older people. This is not something graduates in their twenties think much about, but as the number of older people in Ireland and Europe explodes – white-haired ancients like me who are living longer and longer – a whole new sector is being pioneered to meet their needs: their health, their nutrition, their mobility, their ability to live independently using new technologies. And again we have to pay tribute to Louth people for their foresight in this area. Three years ago Louth became the first Irish county to launch an Age Friendly Strategy. Two months ago the World Health Organisation named the county as an international leader in age-friendly locations. At the same time Dundalk Institute of Technology has set up two pioneering age-friendly research centres, CASALA and Netwell.
There are other areas where Louth is in the vanguard. A cross-border Memorandum of Understanding between Louth and Newry and Mourne to cooperate across a range of areas was hailed when it was signed last March in Brussels as the first of its kind in Europe. The work of the Louth Economic Forum and the intelligent use of development levies by Louth County Council to create jobs has led to senior politicians like Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan praising the county for its business-friendly policies. And we all know that the Louth football team is due a big breakthrough in the Leinster championship after being robbed by Meath last year!
So I would say to parents here today – don’t be too despondent that your bright young sons and daughters may have to leave Louth, and even leave Ireland, for a few years after graduation. They are educated to a level generations of Irish people in the past could only dream of. These young people are highly intelligent, open-minded and adventurous, and well used to the ways of the world in this most globalised of societies. The few years they spend in Britain or the US or Australia or Europe will develop their talents, increase their confidence and mature their personalities. They will be better Irish leaders and citizens and workers when they come back.
And to the graduates I say: whatever the attractions of those faraway places, please keep your minds open to the possibility of coming back to the country that reared and educated you. As you can hear from my accent, I grew up largely in London with an Irish mother and an Eastern European father. I’ve been back 39 years now, and I still believe it is still the best country in the world to live, to love, and to raise a family.
And think about coming back to Louth too: I believe there are some real visionaries here – some of them in this Institute – who are beginning to turn this region into a real powerhouse of entrepreneurship, green energy and cross-border cooperation. Come back one day in the not too distant future and lend them your skills and idealism. Come back one day and make a contribution to this beautiful region which is your home place. For despite the reverses of the last few years, Ireland remains a young and optimistic and enterprising place. As our new president Michael D. Higgins, said last weekend, it’s time to ‘Give up your aul cynicism’. This is a great wee country, and this is a great wee county – be proud that you are a part of it.