‘A momentous year for Ireland’ – Minister Simon Harris addresses Inspirefest crowd

21 Jun 2018

Minister Simon Harris addresses the Inspirefest crowd at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. Image: Conor McCabe

Irish Minister for Health Simon Harris, TD, waxed lyrical about the transformation Ireland has undergone in recent years, represented in the momentous vote to repeal the 8th Amendment just last month.

Inspirefest 2018 kicked off this morning (21 June) at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre under a bright, blistering sun, a turn of good weather that had seemed unlikely given the muggy and occasionally overcast days that preceded it.

In the same vein, the Ireland in which this year’s conference kicked off is a drastically different Ireland to the one in which its inaugural event took place. This transformation has taken place amid mounting fears that Ireland was not ready for such change, amid uncertainty about what Ireland is and is not.

Today’s Ireland is “a new Ireland”, as Silicon Republic founder Ann O’Dea put it in her opening address before welcoming onto the stage the Irish Minister for Health Simon Harris, TD, who gave an opening keynote.

‘Inspirefest is about diversity’

Harris was quick to congratulate the Inspirefest team on “assembling a wonderful group of speakers”, particularly lauding the diversity of both the speaker line-up and attendees, which are 71pc and 65pc female respectively.

“As Minister for Health, I have the honour of attending a lot of conferences but I must say the panels tend to have a very familiar look,” said Harris. This look, he added, was “male, stale and pale”.

Disappointingly, this homogenous look can extend beyond conferences. “More and more women are pursuing STEM qualifications, but this does not translate in them working in their area of expertise.” While the blame can tend to fall on the shoulders of the women themselves, Harris said, it is in fact “the workplaces that do not work for 50pc of the population”.

“If we want to bring about change, we need to challenge the status quo, although I think we can all agree that we’ll never run short on areas that need improvement.”

An expectation-defying campaign

“2018 has been so far been a momentous year for Ireland,” Harris stated, referring of course to the recent vote to repeal the 8th Amendment, “ an outdated and oppressive article of the Irish constitution”.

Harris was quick to add that this vote came just three years after Ireland shepherded in marriage equality, also by plebiscite. This vote was “a movement and a moment that few will ever forget”.

“It defied the expectations created by an outdated national self-image. It forged a new mirror in which a reflection began to appear of the Ireland we are, instead of the Ireland that many assumed we still were.”

Many had also assumed that the Repeal campaign – a women-led grassroots effort primarily buttressed by crowdfunding and Herculean efforts from volunteers – could not possibly approach the success of the Marriage Equality campaign, yet by all accounts it did.

Harris was struck by how the diverse fields represented at Inspirefest are ones also at the heart of these kinds of movements: “perhaps because they are in various ways about connection”. These referendums were successful because people connected with them and, more importantly, connected with each other.

This connection came in spite of concerted efforts made to divide the people of Ireland on the issue of reproductive rights. There was an attempt to impose gender divides, generational divides or even geographical divides throughout the campaign, none of which materialised.

“Ireland’s image in that still-new mirror has now sharpened again and called some old certainties into question in a way that can only be positive for our country.”

Depart from safe harbours

Harris continued: “I truly hope that Ireland is now seen as a tolerant, open, inclusive country that people want to be a part of. We have opened a new chapter where women of all ages will have a truly equal place in Irish society.”

Harris pointed to the setting of Inspirefest, at Dublin’s Grand Canal Dock, a “terminus … which links this city with the River Shannon”. In many ways, the structure remains as a reminder of how drastically the landscape of this city has been altered by the rapid march of technological progress. “To me, this links right back to the importance of Inspirefest,” said Harris.

He quoted American computer scientist and navy admiral Grace Hopper, who once said: “a ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”

Inspirefest, Harris said, reminds us that remaining in a comfort zone is not conducive to any real progress and encourages us to move forward. “[It] wants us to leave that safe harbour, it challenges us all to embark on a voyage of discovery.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. To find out more about the best event for bright minds in Europe, please visit inspirefest.com.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic