Speech by President McAleese at the official opening of Mandate’s Organising and Training Centre on 21st September 2009

Friday 25 September 2009

Dia dhíbh go léir inniu. Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo libh ar an ócáid speisialta seo.

I am delighted to be here this evening at the official opening of Mandate’s new Organising and Training Centre, and in particular to be part of the FETAC graduation ceremony of the first members to have benefitted from the Centre. I would like to thank General Secretary John Douglas for the kind invitation and I warmly congratulate the first graduates whose achievements, thanks to hard work and commitment, are cause for real celebration and pride.

It is one hundred years, almost to the day, that the Dublin Drapers Association – the forerunner of Mandate – was launched by Micheal O’Lehane in August 1909. The challenge for the new union at that time – no less than for the emerging national trade union movement in which he was to become a leading figure – was one of organising and campaigning. The new union made a vital connection when it campaigned to have conditions of work and employment viewed in a broader economic, political and social framework. O’Lehane recognised that the lives of working people are not only affected by the rules and conventions that govern their employment, they are also influenced, ultimately, by their freedom as citizens.

From our perspective today, the challenges that the union faced in its earlier years were monumental. Its early campaigns included highlighting the indignities and injustices of the “living in” system whereby new entrants to the retail trade were required to live in dangerous, overcrowded dormitories subject to the ever-present risk of fire. More broadly, the union sought to instil a sense of self-worth and self-confidence among workers in a world that routinely grossly abused them and had little respect for their dignity or humanity. Thanks to the trade union movement a new culture prevails today in Ireland and we would find abuse or exploitation of workers utterly intolerable, contemptible but most importantly unlawful.

Mandate’s advocacy is an important element in the constant striving to improve conditions for workers, particularly in administration and the bar and retail trades. It is a job done day in and day out by committed trade unionists, men and women who know how important it is to both earn a living and to invest in a strong, egalitarian and caring society. Your members often deal directly with the public, that is how they earn their wages and so you also have a vested interest in ensuring that they do their job as well as it can be done. Customers, consumers or service users should be entitled to expect that the shop assistant, the waiter or the clerk who is looking after them is giving them one hundred percent of their interest and attention. I know you invest significantly in the education, upskilling and training of your members so that they can get the best from the job and give their best to it.

There is always more to learn in every sphere of life and education opens up fresh opportunities and possibilities, but it is not always easy to find the time, the confidence or the motivation to return to the classroom so I particularly want to congratulate and encourage those who have done so and to congratulate Mandate on creating an environment which facilitates and encourages members to become students again. This Organisation and Training Centre provides an accessible, flexible and supportive learning environment and a pathway to enhanced personal development and career development. In the sixth century BC, the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu was quite right when he noted that “opportunities multiply as they are seized”. Education is one of the most important opportunities offered to us in life and I am sure each of the graduating FETAC students could tell us of new-found confidence, enthusiasm, energy, skills, friends and optimism that are the unseen benefits from the courses for which they are receiving certificates tonight.

We know things are miserable on the economic front currently and that there is a mood of disappointment and of deep worry as so many people face redundancy, and financial difficulties. We had a taste for a short while of an Ireland with nearly full employment and we saw and felt the surging confidence it brought. We know now that some of it was built on quicksand but it is not beyond our spirit, character and imagination to learn rapidly from these chastening times and to rebuild our economy but this time in ways that are robust, sustainable, sensible and sound. Ours is still an infinitely better world than the one faced by Michael O’Lehane and his colleagues in the Dublin Drapers Association a century ago. They faced their Everest with courage and determination and now we face ours. Overcoming adversity is deep in our DNA but it needs people who are not paralysed by the scale of the undertaking but who keep on taking the small, medium and big steps that it takes to make progress.

Making ourselves as individuals stronger, more resilient, more skilful through education is an important investment in ourselves, our families and our community. Everyone who decides to become a problem-solver is an important source of momentum and real hope. The 30 Mandate members who will receive their FETAC certificates this evening are problem-solvers, doers, achievers and they are deserving of our respect, praise and gratitude. Their families share their pride and their success for they helped them see the course through and at times I am sure it might have seemed easier to just give up as you all juggled family, work, tiredness and study. William Butler Yeats once said “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”, so this is as much a beginning as an end and I hope it will encourage you to keep on learning and inspiring many others to use this magnificent new facility to invest well in themselves. Is iontach an obair atá ar siúl agaibh anseo. Gurb fada buan sibh ‘s go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.