It is a privilege to be invited to address you this morning. I retain warm memories of the gathering in St. Louis in Summer 2014, and I have greatly enjoyed the close working relationship with the AOH and LAOH over the intervening two years.
Your national convention is an important opportunity for networking and stocktaking, and for strategising for the period ahead. This year, in the case of both the AOH and the LAOH, I understand that the leadership batons will be passed. Let me express warm appreciation to both outgoing Presidents: Brendan Moore and Mary Hogan.
Brendan and Mary have been worthy leaders in every respect and have chalked up many accomplishments during their time in office. Both successors will have big shoes to fill, and my good wishes go to the candidates.
I want to focus this morning on three specific issues: (i) immigration reform, (ii) the aftermath of the British referendum, and (iii) how we might build on the experience of the 1916 centenary celebrations in the U.S.
First, however, a word about the context in Ireland.
These past couple of years have been good to Ireland in many ways. The economic recovery has gathered pace: we have had the fastest growing economy in Europe for two years in a row, and are firmly on course to hold on to that record in 2016. The economic indices are uniformly healthy – output, exports, foreign investment, tourism, are all showing record growth. And the most important figure, the unemployment rate, continues to drop steadily and is now under 9%.
Those of you visiting Ireland recently will have felt the uplift. I was there last month for Vice President Biden’s visit, and the buzz and the optimism was palpable - a real sense of the country getting back on its feet again.
At the same time, we have absolutely no basis for complacency. The election results in February showed how bruised many people feel by the austerity of recent years. Serious questions are being asked: how fairly was the burden of sacrifice distributed, and how evenly is the recovery being experienced? The challenges facing the new Government are considerable, particularly given current uncertainties in the European and global environment.
We all know the extraordinary warmth of the relationship between Ireland and US. There is no doubt as to President Obama’s special feelings for Ireland, and the Vice President has just spent six days with us: the longest visit to a single country he has made throughout his two terms in office. We are lucky to have a Speaker of the House – Paul Ryan – who is proud of his Irish roots. And the Friends of Ireland in Congress remain a committed and robust group, whose advice and support we greatly value.
And yet, immensely positive though this picture is, there is one area of continuing deep frustration: the lack of progress on immigration reform. We have knocked on so many doors; we have made our case over and over; we have felt ourselves on the verge of a breakthrough only to be set back again; and for months now, there has been an extended stalemate as the November elections cast their long shadow. The Supreme Court decision last month, which stymied President Obama’s executive action on immigration, was another grievous blow.
I am conscious of how deeply this frustration is felt in the community. All of us know people who are affected, who are trapped in their lives in the shadows, and who, every single day, feel and live the consequences of Congressional inaction.
As we try to predict the future, we have to soberly remind ourselves of the repeated setbacks and disappointments of recent years. Clearly there are no certainties: over the past months of the Presidential campaign, the anti-immigration rhetoric we have heard in some quarters has been shocking.
But yet, quite apart from any appeal to generosity of spirit, one has to hold on to the belief that logic, common sense, economic self-interest, will ultimately prevail. The November elections will hopefully prove a catalyst. Many of our contacts point to 2017 as the year of action, and suggest that Congress may finally be ready to legislate in the course of next year.
If things are indeed to move in 2017, now is the time to lay the groundwork. As far as the government and our diplomatic network are concerned, I can pledge that no effort will be spared. The Taoiseach and Ministers will continue to raise the issue at every opportunity; we will monitor the Presidential campaign platforms and robustly make our case to whatever Administration emerges; and we will continue to try to energise and enlist Members of Congress to our cause.
I know that, as always, the AOH and LAOH will be among our strongest allies. I have seen at first hand your dedication and commitment, led by such tireless advocates as Dan Dennehy. I am conscious of all your work at community level to extend a helping hand to the undocumented. Together, let us do everything possible over the months ahead to try to give this a final push forward.
All of you will have followed the outcome of the British referendum on 23 June, and I know that the implications for Ireland will be uppermost in your minds.
The “leave” decision is clearly not the outcome we wanted, or that the Irish government campaigned for. But it is the outcome we all have to deal with - with regret certainly, but without rancour, and with respect for democratic decision-making. Rather than “what ifs”, the challenge for our Government is to ensure that Ireland’s interests are protected in the protracted negotiations that lie ahead, as Britain moves towards withdrawal from the European Union.
Two things are crystal clear: firstly, Ireland will remain a deeply committed member of the European family. There is absolutely no ambiguity or hesitation on that score. Despite its imperfections, the European Union is our chosen home and has provided the setting and support system which has allowed us to develop and prosper over more than forty years. A very recent opinion poll in Ireland showed that 86% of those polled felt that Ireland should remain in the EU; only 9% believed we should follow the UK exit.
The second point is equally clear. Given the unique ties between the neighbouring islands, Ireland’s interest lies in having a future relationship between Britain and the EU that is as close and constructive as possible.
British withdrawal will undoubtedly have profound implications for Ireland’s economy, and it will take time for the full ramifications to become clear. But the implications for Northern Ireland lie at the heart of our concerns, as they do for all of you here.
There is a particular complexity about the referendum outcome – the fact that England and Wales voted to leave the European Union while majorities in Scotland and in Northern Ireland voted to remain. The Irish Government does not underestimate the level of disquiet felt by many people in Northern Ireland at the prospect of losing their connection to the European Union. Inevitably, and appropriately, a debate is under way about how this reality is to be factored into future discussions and arrangements.
For our Government, the priority is clear: we do not want a situation where the border between the two parts of our island hardens. We have come too far, and too much has been sacrificed, for that to be allowed happen. The focus of the Government’s efforts will be to protect all the progress achieved through the Good Friday Agreement and successor agreements, and build on it further. Even after the UK leaves the EU, the Good Friday Agreement will remain the foundation stone for relations on the island of Ireland and both the Irish and British Governments have again made it clear that they are fully committed to its principles and institutions.
Some of you will have heard calls for a new Border Poll, on the basis that the referendum outcome has created a new context for moves towards reunification of our island. I have read attentively the AOH statement on this issue last week.
The Government’s position with regard to a poll has been set out in considerable detail by our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan. As I indicated earlier, the concerns underlying these calls are well understood, and those concerns must be addressed in the forthcoming negotiations. Nevertheless, it is our belief that such a poll could be divisive at this time, that there is very little possibility of it being won in any event, and that it would distract from the absolute priority of protecting the gains of recent decades.
We believe that the immediate priority should be for the two Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive to work urgently and intensively together to find solutions to the various challenges that a UK exit will present. That work has now commenced and I anticipate that there will be intensive engagement over the coming months between the administrations in Dublin, Belfast and London
I know that Irish America, and the AOH-LAOH, will continue to follow with close attention all developments in the course of these critical negotiations over the next two and a half years or so. Let me assure you that – while we may not always reach the same conclusions - we will be ready at all times to engage in dialogue with you, to hear your concerns, and to share perspectives.
The third issue on which I would like to touch is the 1916 centenary commemorations, and how we can build on our work together.
I want to say how impressed I was by the work and dedication of the AOH and LAOH in marking the centenary nationwide. I was with some of your leadership in Dublin over the Easter weekend. The ceremonies were extraordinarily meaningful for us all, and those of us who gathered outside the GPO on Easter Sunday will never forget the emotion and dignity of that day.
A few weeks later, I was privileged to participate in the Mass and commemorative ceremony organised by the AOH-LAOH in New York on 23 April. That too was a huge organisational achievement, and it was a day that will live in our collective memory.
Throughout these past months, we have had a range of ceremonies in DC and right around the nation where many of your members were organisers and participants. In DC, the rededication of the statue of Robert Emmett was another important shared moment.
These centenary commemorations have been immensely important in honouring the 1916 legacy and helping us to examine our one hundred year journey. But beyond that, I believe that the experience of coming together to mark this centenary has been extraordinarily valuable of itself. We have all been energised and inspired by the partnership, and by the strengthened sense of purpose and identity. In the second half of this year, I would propose that we reflect together on how we can build on this experience.
In this decade of commemorations, spanning 2012 to 2022, there will be other centenaries that we may wish to mark, and it will be important to establish which of these is most meaningful to Irish America. But the reflection I have in mind goes beyond that. We have seen the energy that is generated when we come together around common projects, when there is a sense of connection to something larger. Let us consider how we might distil the essence of this, and examine whether there are ways we might apply that same energy and spirit in other shared causes and endeavours.
This reflection on how we build on the centenary leads me to a final, wider, point about maintaining the weight and influence of Irish America.
As we know, America is home to some 35 million people of Irish descent. The pride of these daughters and sons of Ireland is legendary – a legitimate pride based on everything that Irish people have contributed to the building of this great country.
We are heirs to a great tradition, and have carved out a unique space. There is every reason for confidence that this tradition will continue, and that the voice and views of Irish America will continue to resonate strongly.
At the same time, our stocktaking and strategising must take account of evolving realities. With the demographics in this country changing, the percentage of Irish Americans in the overall US population is shrinking. And, as avenues for legal immigration from Ireland have narrowed over recent decades, there are markedly fewer first and second generation Irish.
Especially against this background, the challenge for Irish America is one of constant renewal – valuing our roots and our past, but being ready to rethink and reimagine. This is what our forebears did: taking the emigrant ship, reinventing themselves in their new homeland, adapting and changing with each generation.
And this is also what is required today, if we are to ensure that Irish America remains vibrant and future-focussed. It means embracing equality and inclusivity; creating an environment that is generous and open, where all daughters and sons of Ireland feel equally cherished; and where young people will feel they can grow and breathe and connect to what it means to be Irish in the 21st century.
Faced with so many issues of substance, your Convention clearly has a very packed agenda over the coming days. I wish you a very productive conference, full of satisfaction and challenge, drawing strength from all your many achievements, and ready to write the next chapter.
Thank you. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.