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Address by Ambassador Anne Anderson

Address by Ambassador Anne Anderson
Flynn Centre for Irish Studies Gala, Houston, 4 November 2016

Deputy First Minister,
Consul General Farrell, Consul General Bell,
Cardinal Di Nardo, Bishop Cahill,
President Ivany,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is always invigorating to return to Texas and I thank you all for the wonderfully warm welcome extended to me this evening.

My primary purpose in being here is to honour Bill Flynn and to pay tribute to the sterling work being done by the Centre for Irish Studies. But permit me to bookend my tributes by making a few points of a more general nature.

This has been a momentous year for Ireland – momentous in a number of ways, but particularly because we have been commemorating the centenary of 1916, that iconic year in Irish history.

As the year draws to a close, we do not yet have the distance or detachment to analyse fully the impact of the hundreds of commemorative events held at home and abroad.

But I feel very confident that, when that assessment is carried out, the overall verdict will be immensely positive.

How to commemorate, how to remember, is always complicated. History reads differently, depending on how you experienced it, and how your community has shaped the narrative. The challenge of memory is experienced everywhere, including in this country, but is particularly acute on the island of Ireland, where there is still so much unfinished business from the past.

And so a great deal of careful thought was given to how we would mark this important centenary. We wanted our commemorations to be sensitive and inclusive, bearing truthful witness to the history of 1916, but not allowing ourselves to be imprisoned or straightjacketed by the past.

The themes we chose were: reflect, reconcile, reimagine.

Because of the layers of American connection to 1916, the impact of this centenary was bound to be especially strong in the United States. And Irish America rose magnificently to the occasion. More than 200 events have been held right across the country, including here at the Flynn Centre at St. Thomas University, and also in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio.

I was thinking about Bill Flynn as I travelled to Houston today. And one thing that struck me was how much Bill’s life’s work has embodied our centenary themes: reconcile, reimagine, honour the past but build the future.

Many of you will know Bill’s history. His parents arrived here from Ireland, from Counties Down and Mayo. He grew up in New York, achieving success there first with Equitable Life and then moving to Mutual of America and transforming that institution to become a national leader in its field. Throughout the years, he has served in many charitable organisations and has taken on a range of civic leadership roles.

All of that is indeed a great immigrant story. But, for us, it is his service in relation to Northern Ireland that truly distinguishes him. Bill worked selflessly to open channels for dialogue in Northern Ireland and to get people talking at a time when engagement, and trust, were in short supply.

Throughout the years, he has been absolutely tireless in his efforts. He succeeded in securing the backing of President Bill Clinton for his work. He supported the peace process through his extensive business contacts, promoting and encouraging US business investment and economic development in Northern Ireland.

Bill’s engagement, perseverance, commitment and charm made a major contribution to our peace process in the 1990s which led to the Good Friday Agreement. And throughout the intervening years, he has never faltered in his efforts to support and build peace on our island.

As I said: reconciling, reimagining, crafting a vision for the future.

And now a word about the Centre that bears Bill’s name.

As most of you know, the William J. Flynn Centre for Irish Studies here in Houston is the only institution of its kind in Texas and across this region. Over more than thirteen years, the Centre has provided a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes which study Irish history, politics and culture. The Irish Government is proud to support its important Irish Language teaching programme.

There is a roll-call of honour of those who have created this success. First and foremost of course, the dedicated staff: Lori Gallagher and her committed team. Members of the Centre’s Advisory Board. The University of St Thomas and its President, Dr Robert Ivany. Our longstanding Honorary Consul John Kane, who has contributed so much in founding the Centre and supporting its development.

And above all, I would like to thank the Irish and Irish-American communities in Houston. Many of you are here tonight, including the members of the Houston Irish Society, Irish Network Houston and Houston Gaels GAA. Without your support, the Centre could not have developed and continued to grow in the way it has.

And now, I want to return to my earlier remarks about this momentous year, and to tell you why people like Bill Flynn and centres like the Flynn Centre matter so much.

Now more than ever, we need people in this country who know and understand Ireland and care about Ireland.

Because for all the distance we have travelled, and it has been considerable, big challenges lie ahead.

Our centenary has been an occasion of legitimate pride but also a time to remind ourselves of where we have fallen short of the vision of the 1916 Proclamation. Despite all the undoubted progress and prosperity, we still have work to do to create a fairer Ireland, a country which genuinely treats all the children of the nation equally.

And in the midst of that national reflection and stocktaking, our island has been rocked by the implications of Brexit – the impending British exit from the European Union - with all the potential implications not just for our economy but for relationships on our island.

Irish America is deeply invested in all of these issues, and has a legitimate stake in them.

Because the road to the Rising was routed, in part at least, through America, you have every right to care about the 1916 legacy. And because America has been so deeply implicated in the peace process in Northern Ireland – through the unflagging support of Irish America, the work of successive Presidents, the engagement of Friends of Ireland in Congress, and key role of Senator George Mitchell in brokering the Good Friday Agreement, the generous US contributions to the International Fund for Ireland – you have every reason to be vigilant about any risk of setback to that process.

Without minimising the challenges we face, I want to declare my optimism. I believe that Ireland, and Irish America, have been re-energised by this year of commemorations. I am convinced that this re-energisation and rededication will stand to us as we map the way forward.
You can be absolutely reassured that no effort will be spared as we seek to confront the Brexit challenge. The all island Civic Dialogue held in Dublin earlier this week is testament to the inclusive approach to which the Government is committed.

And I know too that, as always, we will have Irish America at our side as we face these challenges. Helping us in the way true friends do: offering practical and moral support – helping to promote American economic investment in Ireland, North and South; encouraging the kind of political support which has played such a critical role at key points in our history.

As I said, that is why we need people like Bill Flynn – whose love for his ancestral homeland is humbling and heartwarming, and who has always, always, been ready to put his shoulder to the wheel. And it is why we need centres like the Flynn Centre, which help to shape the future of Irish America; centres which give us this incredible resource of people who are knowledgeable, connected, and deeply caring about Ireland.

Thank you all so much. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.