MACGILL SUMMER SCHOOL: SUCCESSION AND SUSTAINABILITY
A UNIQUE FORUM FOR PUBLIC DISCOURSE
For the past 38 years, the town of Glenties in Donegal has hosted the MacGill Summer School. Inspired by the life and works of Navvy Poet, Patrick MacGill, The MacGill Summer School, founded by Joe Mulholland and a local committee and directed by Joe for most of its existence has attracted growing numbers of people from all walks of life to engage in public discussion of the urgent issues of the day – social, economic, political and environmental. The list of past contributors to be found on the MacGill website reflects almost every domain of public life in Ireland over the past four decades.
MacGill has fulfilled many roles, providing a ‘safe place’ for parties to the conflict in Northern Ireland to meet and exchange views, and a platform for government ministers to enunciate their policies and be challenged forthrightly from the floor by citizens – and later in the bar – if they were unhappy with the answers! Countless scholarly, authoritative presentations have been made on a broad range of subject-matter without ever being overly academic.
LIVELY DEBATE ON THE ISSUES OF THE DAY
In a crowded hall with, on average, up to 300 people, and beamed around the world online, sessions of analysis and debate on subjects generally related to public policy go on from mid-morning to late in the evening – the problems of our health service and possible solutions, reform of the public service and of our politics, homelessness and housing, how trust in policing might be restored, gender inequality, environmental degradation, how to avoid boom and bust economic cycles, the decline of the Catholic church and religious practice, and the pros and cons of multinational investment in Ireland – to name just some of the topics. A constant theme has been the need for good governance and more planning to meet the growing requirements of our country into the future. Diversity of opinion is welcomed and accessibility is the hallmark of typical MacGill contributions.
INCREASINGLY EUROPEAN AND GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES
Over the past decade in particular, the sweep of MacGill has widened to address developments in Europe and the wider world that impinge on Ireland, one of the most open societies in the world, with sessions on risks to national security from international terrorism, mass migration of distressed families, the invasion of privacy enabled by the internet and social media, the threats to democracy facilitated by the same technologies and the real threat to life on this planet by pollution of the sea and global warming. The existential crisis created by Brexit has been extensively covered in recent years, as has the vital question of Ireland’s role in defence of and future development of the EU.
COMPLEMENTARY ENRICHMENT THROUGH THE ARTS
True to the foundational inspiration of Patrick MacGill, the arts have been an integral element of the programme. Eminent figures like Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel have been staunch supporters of MacGill and their work has been performed and recited by leading actors. Musicians, singers, photographers, painters and other artists have performed and exhibited during the week in Glenties. Inclusion of the arts provides entertainment and serves as a reminder that artists enlighten the darkest places and show the way forward for humanity.
THE MISSION OF MACGILL WAS NEVER MORE RELEVANT
We live in times of immense promise and great danger for Ireland and the world, and the mission of MacGill is to provide a forum where well-informed analysis of and debate on the burning issues of our time take place with as much participation and involvement of the general public as possible. In its lifetime, the MacGill School has dealt with a broad range of the challenges which confront our own country and the world, but rarely has there been such fear and foreboding that humanity is now facing into a period of great danger that could lead to disaster for the planet not only in terms of climate change but also of humanity itself.
We have cracked the genetic code but thousands of species are becoming extinct in our lifetime; we can produce enough food to feed everyone but millions die of starvation; medical advances hold the cure to diseases that continue to ravage whole nations; fabulous wealth is created for the few while untold numbers languish in dire poverty; we can communicate with anyone, anytime, anywhere via the astonishing internet but its abuse enables cyber-crime and disruption of democratic elections; true patriotism, the glue that embraces diversity, and cooperation that recognises the fundamental interdependency among nations, is being eroded by a form of nationalism that espouses narrow, self-centred, fascistic, win-lose thinking.
IRELAND IS NOT IMMUNE
Though one of the richest countries in the world, we have a two-tier education system, a two-tier health service and a two-tier justice system. While continuing to promote our beautiful landscapes and green credentials, we are failing to take the necessary steps to meet our obligations to reduce carbon emissions, and protect our seas, rivers and lakes and our clean water resources. Trust in our democratic institutions has been weakened by the lack of accountability for catastrophic failure in policing, banking and the health service. Good governance, which requires a long term perspective and hard choices, is trumped by the short-termism and amoral localism that are the keys to being elected.
Debasement of the truth and erosion of civilised values are the greatest risks of all.
DEBASEMENT OF THE TRUTH AND EROSION OF CIVILISED VALUES
It is no mean task for individuals, families and nations to successfully navigate these turbulent local and global waters, and for this life-long journey they need to be able to distinguish between facts and lies, and to discern right from wrong, good from evil.
Until recent times the world seemed to be on a largely positive trajectory of expanding access to education, respect for human rights and appreciation of the brotherhood of mankind. The liberation of nations from exploitative colonialism; the remarkable achievement of the creation of the European Union out of the carnage and devastation of two great wars and the assertion of women’s rights to equality all reflect this heartening trend.
As if out of the blue, however, these gains and our hope for further progress are jeopardised by the emergence of a new politics crystalised in Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, mimicked in Brexit which, in effect, seeks to ‘Make Britain Great Again’. In recent days, we have seen democracy challenged as never before on the streets of French cities. The forces that have unleashed these and similar destructive movements were always present but, crucially, they have cleverly harnessed the power of the internet and social media to amplify their message, bypassing traditional channels of communication with misleading soundbites and “alternative facts” that manipulate public opinion.
Responsible citizens in journalism and in other professions are framed as “enemies of the people”, and experts are dismissed as out-of-touch “elites”.
THE MISSION OF MACGILL
In this era of immense promise and great danger, in the battle between enlightenment and a return to darker ages when forces might be unleashed that could destroy our democratic institutions and our hard won freedoms of expression the mission of MacGill is:
To provide a forum for well-informed discussion about the burning issues of our time, involving face-to-face engagement between experts and people holding responsible positions in society, with the ultimate purpose of achieving sustainable social, economic and environmental progress in a challenging, turbulent and uncertain world.
ACHIEVING SUCCESSION AND SUSTAINABILITY OF MACGILL
For 38 years, the MacGill Summer School has been maintained as a voluntary, community-based effort by Joe Mulholland, supported by a small group of dedicated people based mainly in Glenties. In those years, the School has steadily grown to what it is today – a national forum for serious and relevant analysis and debate. However, if this unique contribution to Irish public life is to be sustained into the future, then this informal structure must be reinforced with governance arrangements, executive and administrative supports, funding and other elements that are necessary for sustaining this kind of public service.
2019 A year of Transition: A group of ‘friends of MacGill’ have come together to assist Joe Mulholland in achieving two tasks; delivering another successful event in Glenties in July 2019 and putting in place the infrastructure for sustainability, rejuvenation and future development of MacGill.
To enable this transition, it is proposed to build a structure that will provide editorial and administrative support to the Director to organise the MacGill Summer School in 2019 and to lay the foundations of MacGill into the future.
STRATEGY AND ORGANISATION
– A board to be set up, drawn from a broad range of people involved in public life, the objectives of which would be to ensure the continuity of MacGill into the future and advise the director of the School as to choice of subject matter to be covered in any given year, and to propose any changes which its members deem necessary in terms of structure, fundraising etc .
– creation of a “Friends of MacGill” type body that would meet from time to time in Dublin or in Glenties, with a guest speaker to talk on some aspect of public life in Ireland or on political events elsewhere which would impact on Ireland. This group would ensure that the MacGill School is funded sufficiently to allow it to perform its role as a force for reform and change.
– Appointment of a Director to replace Joe Mulholland in 2020 and, if possible, to act as Assistant Director in the interim leading up to the 2019 MacGill.
– the creation of a post of part-time administrator to work from March to August to communicate with speakers and audiences, organise accommodation and facilities in Glenties, organise marketing of the School including renewal and improving of the MacGill website, facebook and twitter, and any other measures necessary to ensure the development, smooth running and efficiency of MacGill.
– the nomination of “curators” on a once-off basis to organise with the Director the daily content of the 2019 MacGill in terms of content, choice of speakers and formats e.g. panel discussions, one to one interviews/ lectures with a prominent speaker from Ireland or abroad etc.
– provision of bursaries to encourage and support young people to take a greater interest in public affairs.
– develop existing and other key external relations with as many sectors of Irish public life as possible and, where possible, work in collaboration with them.
FUNDING IS CRITICAL TO THE SUCCESS OF MACGILL
With regard to financing, MacGill is a voluntary community-based initiative and receives, apart from a few small donations from the public and private sectors, little sponsorship. Although attendances have steadily increased year on year, admission fees are maintained at ridiculously low levels in order to encourage participation and to allow the general public, irrespective of means, to participate in a forum which has been described by The Irish Times as ‘a seminar worthy of Harvard, Yale or Oxbridge’. Fees offered to speakers have been little more than reimbursement of expenses incurred.
It is important that MacGill retains its independence and develops, but it is time to put it on a more secure financial footing so that it can carry on with its mission and reinforce it to meet the need to counter the plague of fake news and populist sound bites with factual, accurate and well reasoned argument and debate.
It is to be hoped that citizens will identify with this mission and support it and become “friends of MacGill”.