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Address by Taoiseach Enda Kenny at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

5 June 2017

Address by Taoiseach Enda Kenny at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Chicago

Thank you very much Niamh. Thank you for the invitation, Ambassadors, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Yes I was at the concert last night. My favourite song was the one that says, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

I came here a few years ago to Chicago, really enjoyed the experience. When I went down to meet Mayor Emmanuel, he gave me a CD of Springsteen and on it was written from one boss to another. 

So after 42 years of life as a public representative and 15 years as leader of the party, 6 years as Taoiseach, I am happy to pass on responsibility to the next generation. Given the fact that we have retrieved our sovereignty, we have restored our economic independence and we have given our flag back to our people with a measure of dignity and respect. So that’s where the focus at home is for the moment. I might just say that this is an opportunity for me to express my thanks to the people of Chicago, a wonderful city, one of the great cities of the world. A sister city of Galway in Ireland, I am quite sure you will have a lot of collaboration here in 2020 with the European city of culture when that goes to Galway’s shores. But also it’s a hugely significant and important city in the context of Ireland, Irishness, and the cooperation and traditional links between Ireland and the United States for so many reasons.

And where I come from, in County Mayo on the West Coast of Ireland, this city had extraordinary links for two and a half centuries with the entire West. We greatly value and appreciate those contacts over the years and what America has allowed Ireland to do, and the part that Irish people have played and continued to play in this great city, this great state, this great country. We hope we will be able to continue to play that in the future.

We could choose different themes to speak about, global uncertainty - we live in a very fragile world now. The question of Brexit, what that means and the implications for the United States. The issues of global terrorism, the phenomenon of migration and what it means. Indeed the future of work itself, given the digitalisation and the fourth industrial revolution of the cloud… And I suppose the place of America in the world and the part it must, and should be able to play for the time ahead.

So a young man, a young boy, who grew up in Oak Park just a few miles west of this city wrote, “if you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast”. The writer of those words was Ernest Hemmingway, and he was right, because Paris is moveable, but Paris is not removable, neither for the planet, or those of us who call this planet home, as the people of this magnificent city of Chicago, and of this great country of America know really well. Because across the world now, if you look for degrees of certainty; then you have to look east to Europe – specifically to a Dutch man, and to a Swede, Daniel Fahrenheit and Anders Celsius. It’s regrettable that while our planet is heating up at an alarming pace, the politics of what we call the developed world has found an alternative for the science of what you might call exact thermometry. That is the interrogation of personal voters in a democracy about how warm or how cold, or even how tepid they might feel when they listen to certain politicians or hear certain political statements or encounter particular political brands. Because such thermometry packages people in democracies, in republics, as products to be graded and bought and consumed and discarded. And that grading of politicians, is degrading of politics and of public life, because it diminishes voters to the status of what you might call – passive consumers. It restricts courageous citizens within the fears of the old politics and the marketers of that old politics. It consigns citizens to having a role of the audience and spectators. So at a time when scientific facts determine very clearly that polar ice continues to melt and that glaciers keep shrinking and continue to shrink at an alarming pace… The grazing territories turn a little more to dust, more people become displaced – and Europe wonders, whether this might be another summer season, when parts of the Mediterranean will be hit with the kind of rainfall you would usually associate with the Philippines or the Himalayas. A very different world, even in this life time we grew up in.

At the same time here, in this, United States of America, men on a train were stabbed to death, for defending Muslim women from a white supremacist. Innocent citizens have been killed, murdered recently, in Manchester, London, following on what happened in Paris and Brussels and Stockholm and other places. The proud citizens of the UK, or here in the US, were catcalled in the streets, or told “why don’t you just go home”. Only in Paris, or Dublin, or London or Chicago, that’s exactly where they were. Or at least where they imagined themselves to be – at home. We forget the lessons of history, at our peril. The lessons of Nazism, the outbreaks of Communism, and all these things that have happened within the lifetime of our people. And if we don’t understand our history, if we don’t learn those lessons, we will take a continuous journey into the unknown. So it’s important that those lessons be understood, and taken to heart.

So what is our home? For me it has always been people who believe in democracy and I believe our home is at the centre of that democracy. If you leave people in ghettos, or banlieues as they say in France, and ignore them for 20 years or more, it is difficult to accept that they would turn out as model citizens. So the voices of government, the voices of democratic governments have to listen to other voices, distorted or otherwise and decide to act in people’s interest.

I believe our home is at the very centre, is the centre, which is why I believe that in the time ahead we have to seek to find common ground – a centre ground – and make that ground our own ground. And we must do that, not as some sort of abstract idea, or political positions, but as a community. A community of peoples – local to global. Ireland has been transformed by virtue of its membership to the European Union. If you were there fifty years ago, you would have found a backward, introverted, protectionist country, driven by a very traditional type sector. But because America decided to invest in Europe, because America decided to invest through Ireland into Europe, this is an English speaking country and because of the contacts and connections we have had over the last two and a half centuries, it was very fitting for America to do that. That is why there is now 700 American companies based in Ireland, that employ over 150,000 people directly, and have over the years given people the opportunity to grow and follow their dreams in our own country. And that has happened because 500 or more companies here in America are Irish and employ almost 100,000 people across 50 states. It shows you that when ideas and objectives meet, where people can collaborate and cooperate, the results can be beneficial on both sides.

So when we say, who is my brother and who is my sister? Our country has changed – you go to classrooms in primary schools now, you might find 20, 30 different nationalities. You might find 20 languages. It is not the way it used to be and it will never be the way it used to be, because the world is changing, with smaller and more spontaneous contact and connection.

So obviously, we have difficulties and challenges in Europe. The European Union, of 500 million people, 28 countries, is governed by agreed European Union treaties. Those treaties say that you can join the Union under certain conditions, but you can also leave. And when people don’t appreciate the extent of what democratic positions can mean, in Britain when the question was put – do you want to continue as a member of the European Union or do you not – the answer was to leave. When Article 50, which governs those treaties was written, nobody ever expected a country to leave the European Union. But now it is happening, and this process is a step into the unknown. Because so many things were not thought of, so many things were not considered.

The engagement of political parties was not the way it should be. Citizens were not informed of the truth of the facts and on so many issues they were being asked to decide on. And now we face clouds of confusion and consternation. Not just for Britain, not just for the relationship between Britain and Ireland, not just for the relationship between Britain and the European Union, but for Britain and the world. We have the closest possible contacts with the United Kingdom. We sympathise and empathise with Prime Minister May today and yesterday on the terrorist incident in London, last week in Manchester, and with all the other countries that have had these tragic occurrences in the past period. But Ireland will stay as a member of the European Union, and negotiate on the Brexit issue as a member of the European Union. And we have had full support from all our colleagues on the principal priorities that apply to Ireland. That is the relationship between our country and Britain – our biggest and nearest trading partner, the border question – where when Brexit is completed, the only internal land border in the European Union will be in Ireland. The Common Travel Area even since this organisation was founded back in 1922 – the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland means that Irish people or British people can go live in each other’s country, work in each other’s country, reside in each other’s country and draw social benefits in each other’s country – we want to retain that as a bilateral operation. But we negotiate from the European Union perspective.

So this is causing real challenges because it is going to be quite complex. We have had the priorities set out on those issues, such as the border, the common travel area, our relations with Britain and our place in the European Union in the future. So obviously if political parties do not explain to people what is the nature and the consequences of the question they asked, you can have unforeseen outcomes. The question to be decided over negotiations that will last a number of years is – what is that relationship going to be. Because Britain was never a country on its own, it was always the central part in an Empire, or part of the European Union. So these questions – unanswered – are steps into the unknown. And we negotiate now from a position of strength in where we are.

But if people are not heeded, if those discarded voices are not listened to, what happens is they get driven right or left, to the left by a rhetoric of rage that pretends to righteousness and unity but is in fact replete with cynical dismay, alienation and deliberate disillusion. They are being pushed to the right by this elitism, ignorance and hate – masquerading as values that pretend to be traditional or democratic, honest, liberating or popular. But if you miss all of the centre, where the vast majority of people are, and want to be… The challenge of politics is to explain that there is a better future and that is by collaboration, cooperation and by achieving the common objectives of our common humanity if you like. It is not just enough to claim that centre ground, you have to make that centre ground radical in its own sense. That is why I often describe it as the radical centre, where voices that might not normally be heard are listened to and acted upon. Because a radical centre can create jobs and prosperity, it can bring about renewal, pride and belonging and kindness that are rooted – if you like – in the generous values of community. Centred on the person who knows and feels that they are part, and vitally part of something actually bigger than themselves. It is the kind of radical centre that acts on the basis that nobody lives their lives within the confines of that balance sheet. That no man or woman or child can ever be consigned, or confined to a column that is marked profit and loss.

I believe that we have to return to politics at almost a philosophical plane, so that we can make it work for people and work with people, as they ask and live out the fundamental questions that people always ask themselves – what are we doing here? What is my responsibility? What is our role, what can we do as people who share a common thread? Obviously, before we leave this mortal world you are not going to say to yourself “I am thrilled I never had a holiday because I wanted to give that money to the bank”, or “I am so glad that I took my neighbour to court on that occasion”, or “I am so happy that I spent hours on the politics or the intrigue of the office”. What do people talk about when they get together? What do they need to talk about when they get together? What is happening now, in the shopping malls across America, as digitalisation and online shopping is creating situations where work is vanishing that was there for years. The future of work – robotics, data analytics, artificial intelligence – all of these things are changing the very nature of the world we live in. And that means that the best and most imaginative creative minds have got to get together, allied to effective politics, to provide futures for hundreds of millions of people. I think people live their lives reflecting on the question of family, their children, their broader family issues. And they remember with a great sense of pride and pleasure I’m sure the little incidents that brought about change in those young peoples’ lives, and rightly so. And isn’t that part of what we try to do, to lead, to demonstrate, to show that there is a better way on these things? So family occasions are so important in that sense.

It is in that centre space that we have got to stand and fight and deliver, because that is where the politics of the new and radical centre has got to be. And as we do, we have to have the courage and the humility to say that we have never had the certainty available to us to do everything right. And it does take in politics, a sense of understanding that you can’t be right all the time. You have to make choices, and many of them are very difficult, but you have to have the humility to say, I didn’t have all the answers, nobody has, because we don’t have that degree of certainty. Just like Fahrenheit and Celsius, when they were setting out the exactitude of thermometry, we don’t have that degree of certainty about what the future holds. In fact, we might not even have a nodding acquaintance of what the world might be like in 20 years’ time, or 50 years’ time, given the nature of how change can happen so effectively. Uncertainty can be shattering, shattering for peoples’ lives and that’s why politicians have got to work hard at what that certainty might be. So we have to have a moral duty here, and that applies to politics and in government and that is to reduce suffering and to provide opportunity for people. And if it’s not, then the centre that WB Yeats, one of our Nobel Laureates wrote about, he said “the centre cannot hold if it is all falling apart”, clearly we have to see that that centre does hold. And it can’t and it won’t if people don’t believe they can manage to achieve a good life of prosperity and opportunity, despite politics and government as opposed to because of it. They have got to be able to believe that they can manage that.

So I won’t be back again as Taoiseach here, and it is an opportunity to say thanks to Chicago and thanks to America, for the opportunity to explain what Ireland is about, what Ireland as part of Europe is about. And I have said this to European leaders, clearly there is a unique requirement now, for Europe to work with America, as the two most developed regions on this planet, to define where the opportunities are, to define the road ahead in terms of job opportunities and giving young people the chance to have their dreams. So if you haven’t been back to Ireland, and Niamh tells me that her father and my own father were trained as teachers many years ago in Ireland, if you haven’t been back there, the country has changed, and it will never be the same again. But you can go back to where your ancestors came from, you can find the spot, you can find the location, you can feel the spirit and you can understand, that it is from that location that people came to America.

I was in in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, and in Toronto in 1847, 34,000 people arrived from Ireland on what were called the coffin ships, filled with typhoid and fever. The population of Toronto then was only 20,000. And yet that country opened it arms, as did America, to people coming here, who have made such a difference. And that is what I tried to say down in Washington this St. Patrick’s Week, and I reminded people that when they listen to the words of the national anthem about the land of the free and the home of the brave, that many Irish, 50,000 estimated, live in the limbo land of shadows of undocumented Irish here. And you made the point that out of the 5000 medals of valour given out by the defence forces in the United States that 2,500 of those have gone to the Irish. You can understand and appreciate what that means. And as I reminded the President that just because they are here undocumented doesn’t mean that they are any less brave, or any less capable of contributing to America as their forefathers were. In fact, they are as brave but they are not as free, because if mammy dies or if daddy dies they can’t go back home. That requires political action, to bring those people out into the centre light and to give them their opportunity to play their part in the building up of this great nation. So in that sense, it was down in the White House just a few years ago, a performance was given at the lunch hosted by former speaker Boehner, in a song written by Brendan Graham, and Irish song writer, co-written by him, called “O America”, the words were “I hear you calling, I hear you calling me to be true to thee and true to thee I will be”.

I think it was President Kennedy who said, together we shall save this planet or together we shall perish in its flames. Here is an opportunity at a time of crisis in the world on so many issues, where we should be far closer together in the politics of what we have to do. The democratic politics of what we have to do, the democratic politics of the centre ground, of centre right and left, listening to the voices, all the voices and acting in the interests of our common humanity.

Thank you.

Address by Taoiseach Enda Kenny at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Chicago