WIP students share their ambitions for Ireland in 2040

WIP Voices: Ireland 2040

In late September, in Notre Dame’s home in Dublin – O’Connell House, the WIP Class of 2017 shared their reflections after a summer of debates in the US.  They presented discussion papers they had written on the economy, issues of identity and managing migration for Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2040.

They were joined by speakers from academia, business, government and the arts – including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD (WIP Class of 2000)

The key note speaker for the event was Jake Sullivan, senior advisor through the Obama Administration and to Hillary Clinton.

Student Discussion Papers


Paper 1: Cultural Identity

Paper 2: An All Island Economy

Paper 3: Migration

Welcome – Martin Dyar

WIP’s inaugural writer in residence Martin Dyar opened the event and spoke about the “deep reflection” of WIP students during their time in the US and the program’s embrace of diversity and discussion. While “there’s no doubt that WIP’s work is intellectual … the topics and themes often require the exploration of historical records and the gathering and synthesising of new information”, Dyar said that “the challenge of the WIP programme innately is a challenge of expression”.

He quoted from Robert Frost’s 1916 poem The Road Not Taken whose reading had struck a chord at the WIP class of 2016 graduation in Belfast. The American poet sensed that “choice and destiny were equal”.

“We are looking to the future in Merrion Square this morning … we are reaching for the stars but history tells us that we will need far more than self regard. History reveals the fact that marvels of complacency lie at the root of the cycles of repetition and regression that have so consistently exploded our dreams of progress.”

Opening Remarks – Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD

WIP board member Heather McCormick (Class of 2008) introduced fellow alumnus an Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD (Class of 2000) who spoke for 20 minutes. Seventeen years ago, the program was called ‘Young Leaders’ which had grown out of ‘Project Children Interns’ and the Taoiseach recommended the fascinating Project Children documentary about the program’s evolution.

He recalled his time in DC as Congressional intern in the office of Congressman Jack Quinn and paid tribute to Kathleen Barger and her family in Alexandria VA who hosted him. He was among the first four students from the Republic of Ireland to be part of the program which had up to then concentrated on Catholic and Protestant students from Northern Ireland.

“We rapidly came to the conclusion that they were much more like each other than they were like us, if only they could have realised that all the problems would be solved! Of course I never have that thought now when I meet politicians from Northern Ireland!”

Admitting that the experience of sharing the program experience with fellow delegates was as important as the intern work, the Taoiseach explained: “What I learned the most out of it is that the lesson of real leadership isn’t just about following the crowd or hoping to channel people’s emotions – although in politics you do need to be able to do that from time to time – it really is doing what you believe what is right regardless of the consequences, standing by what you believe is right and hoping to inspire people to share that vision.”

He spoke about the need for young people to be “disruptive and constructive” as they sought out their areas of service and leadership. Outlining his government’s economic policy, he explained that the forthcoming budget would be “the first budget to balance the books in ten years and we will continue to reduce the debt” and the inherited deficit spending that dwarfs the debt from the banking crisis.

His vision was that “we are not an island on the edge of the a continent but rather an island at the centre of the world at the heart of a common European home that we helped to build, a country that is confident about our place in the world when so many other countries seem to have lost their confidence about where they belong in the world”.

On Brexit, he explained to the WIP alumni that the Irish government is “to protect the gains of the peace process and the gains of the Good Friday Agreement; avoiding any new barriers to trade between north and south or between Britain and Ireland; and maintaining the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland which is much more than a common travel area [and originally described] as the ‘reciprocity of civic rights’ [and] ‘a common citizenship’”.

The next decade needed a continued policy “of building bridges not borders”.

“Power sharing is very much the way forward and I don’t believe there should be any change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland based on a majority of 50% + 1. Any change must have a certain degree of cross-community support.”

The audience chuckled when the Taoiseach talked about age and confidence:

“ … the other day when I accidentally stumbled on my maiden speech on thejournal.ie and it was the maiden speech I made in 2007. First of all I was a lot fatter … but the other thing that really struck me was that I was so much more confident.

“Why was I more confident in what I was saying in 2007 when I was just a newly elected TD than what I say and think now? When you are a bit younger you do tend to believe that problems can be easily solved and that you have the answers to all of the world’s problems and all the country’s problems. You rapidly find through experience and a mixture of success and failure that you don’t.

“But the most important thing is to never become cynical. Even if you don’t always have the answers to all of our problems we should always strive to find all of the answers to all of our problems: that’s what we seek to do and that’s what we ask you to seek to do and continue to advise us in that way.”

He finished by stating his gratefulness for participation in the program in 2000 which allowed him to test ideas, challenged his preconceptions, and opened his mind, exposing him to new people and places and helped him in some way become the politician that he is today.

Panel 1 – Identity in 2040

Rachel Watters introduced the substantial Cultural Identity in 2040 paper which proposed a freedom of cultural expression for everyone (Irish, British or neither) on the island together with a equality of opportunity and an empowering civic engagement that builds respect. Politics lecturer Dr Mary Murphy noted that “one of the best things about going away is what you can bring back”. She saw positivity, optimism and a ‘can do’ mindset in the paper but cautioned that Brexit could not be ignored as the two parts of the island are “now facing potentially different futures [as] the trajectory for both parts of the island has been interrupted”.

Trevor Ringland wondered whether the WIP team’s ambitions had been too restricted given their chance as young people to create a new future. “We’ve taken some pretty hard decisions across this island to free up the future and do things differently. If hatred and violence were one of the determining influences on relationships on this island in the past, then let it be friendship and building of relationships that are the driving inspiration for the future.”

Panel 2 – An Island Economy in 2040

The second panel looked at the paper on the All Island Economy in 2040 and was introduced by Diana Oprea who outlined their three goals: an economic model rooted in the principles of the circular economy; measurement and investment to reflect and service our society’s ambitions; and infrastructure that will support living well in cities and rural communities for generations to come.

Business journalist Dearbhail McDonald commented that “as the world has become more globalised, we’ve now got digital globalisation and the more interconnected the world has become the more interdependent it has become”. Political models are challenged, if not broken. She asked whether corporations would outgrow or become more powerful that governments and agreed with the paper’s position that “the future of this island is dependent on leveraging the economics north and south”.

Fellow panellist Emma Swift and WIP alumna works in the global product policy team at Google and was previously at Tech City UK. She championed the need for tech start-up employees not to fear being self taught and able to demonstrate their critical thinking and problem solving. She advocated mixed teams that combined artistic talent along with STEM skills.

Panel 3 – Migration in 2040

The final panel tackled Migration in 2040 and was introduced by Colum Mackey. He explained that while his WIP group did not agree on everything, one thing they did concur on was that “we wanted the decision to migrate to be one of a personal choice of the migrant and not a decision that was taken as a result of force or necessity”.

Panellist Hans Zomer is head of communications at Áras an Uachtaráin and self-identified as a “serial migrant” and an “economic migrant”, having moved from his home in Netherlands to and now to Ireland. Debates about migration cause him to ask “am I a problem?”

He welcomed that the group had set out a vision in their paper and quoted Jonathan Swift who said ‘vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others’. He emphasised the importance of words and how they can bring people into your analysis or reinforce the very problems you are trying to identify.

He contrasted the 2015 ‘Mediterranean refugee crisis’ when 135,000 crossed the Mediterranean into Europe with the situation in 1987 when “70,000 Irish people crossed into the UK – migrants – and nobody called that a stream or an influx or a deluge of migrants”.

“When twice that number of people crossed the sea into a much larger area, not one country but into 27 countries, we are calling it a ‘crisis’.”

We choose words that define something as a problem. He identified class as another issue that the paper could have addressed.

Closing Remarks – Jake Sullivan

Jake Sullivan wrapped up the event and responded to the three papers. An American policymaker who was national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden and a senior policy advisor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign, he is now visiting lecturer in law at Yale Law School.

He highlighted the economic paper’s realisation that “if we’re going to make real progress on climate then our approach on agriculture is going to have to change”. What do you say to the people who built their livelihoods and built their culture rooted in a way of life on the farm? They deserve plausible answers.

“As you think about answering the question of what is the change that is required to deal with technology, to deal with climate change, to deal with artificial intelligence … what actually is our story to the people who in the immediate term are negatively impacted by that?”

He finished with an anecdote that will stick in the minds of the WIP class of 2017 and the other delegates. His first time in the White House Situation Room – “it’s not actually as cool as it looks in the movies” – he sat in the meeting and feeling “I’ve really made it, this is where the magic happens” before wondering “there’s got to be another room down the hall where the real people are making the real decisions”.

“And then you realise there isn’t another room. It’s only us at the end of the day. It’s hard as a young person to decide ‘I’m going for it. I’m the guy. I’m the gal. I’m going to be the one who does it.’ That can feel like arrogance … But I would encourage all of you … not to confuse hanging back with being humble. You guys have a contribution and role to play right now today, not to wait on these things.”

Solutions are incremental: you don’t get to where you want to be in one step, as Jake discovered during the US/Iran nuclear negotiations.

This is the room. Think the big!

Would you like to find out more about WIP?

Applications for our Class of 2018 will open on October 23rd