15 April 2016
By David O’Sullivan
Manus O’Callaghan, organiser of the Cork Person of the Year awards scheme over the past 23 years, is calling for the new Government to establish a state backed Honours System for Ireland.
Many countries have a government backed national honours scheme to recognise outstanding achievement and I think the new Government and Dail should at least start the debate about the merits of an Irish State Honours System.
It is important that we celebrate and honour great Irish men and women and their achievements. It is also an important marketing opportunity to promote Ireland and its people here at home and abroad. Up to now we have depended on other countries, such as Britain and France to honour our people, like Seamus Heaney, Sir Terry Wogan, Bob Geldof and many many more. I am delighted when other countries recognise great Irish citizens but I think we should also be doing it here at home. – said Manus
A few years ago, the Office of Active Citizenship at the Dept., of the Taoiseach did recommend that Ireland establish a national honours system to recognise outstanding contributions to Irish society, but nothing ever came of the recommendation. Bertie Ahern, who was Taoiseach at the time, said “I am prepared to engage again with other parties if all of them are now ready to proceed to devise a suitable honours system.”
Also, some decades ago, Eamon de Valera and Sean Lemass did consider reviving the Order of St. Patrick created in 1783 and discontinued in 1922 when the Republic got its independence. The egalitarian doctrines of a Republic stopped Governments since, from discussing award schemes.
In 2003, Fine Gael T.D., Michael Finucane called again for an Irish honours system when Christina Noble received an award from Prince Charles. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said at the time “Irish people who achieve something significant in their walk of life must go to other jurisdictions to get their awards. This is wrong. An awards system should not be based on a system of monarchy or anything else. It is only an awards system.”
Over the last 15 years alone, Irish recipients of British awards include The Corrs, Daniel O’Donnell, Niall Quinn, Pierce Brosnan, Pat Eddery, Orla Guerin. The more gongs the British send across the Irish Sea, the less likely it is that the issue of an Irish honours system will go away. Of course, we also depend on other countries to recognise our talent, such as the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to Mary Robinson in 2009 and the French Legion d’honneur to multiple people.
In 2012, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore did create a “Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.” The President of Ireland confers this award at an annual ceremony to a maximum of ten people living abroad who have given sustained and distinguished service to Ireland. So we are getting closer, but still no award scheme for the Irish at home.
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I do appreciate that people fear cronyism or politicising an award scheme, and no Government should proceed without all-party and full Dail support. Some form of Independent Commission would have to be established to recommend people deserving of these awards.
So I am calling for our new Government to establish a state backed national awards scheme, to present these awards at the same time each year. There is no real costs involved, and it can be run by a lot of voluntary effort, just as we do in Cork for our awards scheme, and overseen by the appropriate Dept., of Government. Other local award schemes, like the Cork Person of the Year, would still exist. The national award would be designed to be very Irish in nature and name, but it does need the status and standing of been backed by government and all the institutions of state as the prime official award scheme, over all others. The General Public could be involved in nominating people who have made major achievements and committed themselves to serving and helping Ireland. People who have made life better for other people or be outstanding at what they do, in any sector or activity. People who have made us proud at home and abroad. An award scheme to honour and celebrate Ireland’s greatest asset – our people.