It is a great pleasure to join you this evening in Glucksman Ireland House, this jewel of Irish studies in New York. And thank you for giving me such a wide canvas for my talk: “1916 to 2016: Reflections”.
Just about six weeks ago, our centenary year came to an end. At home and abroad, the commemorations resonated beyond our greatest expectations. The impact in the United States was truly extraordinary – with more than 300 events, spanning every part of this country. I was privileged to participate in very many of them, across large cities and small towns, and so many scenes are etched on my mind. These include some glorious New York memories. Who among us will forget, for example, that beautiful blue sky day when we gathered in Battery Park and heard an Irish Army officer read the 1916 Proclamation against the backdrop of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty?
I would especially like this evening to pay tribute to the part played by Glucksman Ireland House in the New York centenary programme. I know that you had a rich cornucopia of events: symposia, screenings, panel discussions, musical programmes, lectures, and so much more besides. Our warmest appreciation to everyone involved.
While the calendar year 2016 came to an end on 31 December, we never envisaged it as a year to be packed up and put behind us. The legacy was intended to live on. We said from the beginning that the centenary was not just about commemorating the events of 100 years ago, but also about stocktaking where we have arrived as a nation and setting our compass for the years ahead.
The themes of the centenary year were threefold: remember, reflect, reimagine. And these are the themes around which I would like to frame my talk this evening. At a time of immense challenge in Ireland, in Europe, and in the United States, it is important that we draw on the perspective of memory, steady ourselves with reflection, and think boldly about the future.
We recalled and remembered so much in the course of 2016, but for me one of the most powerful messages was the reminder of the importance of America’s engagement in Ireland at critical moments over the past century.
The book produced by Glucksman House, “Ireland’s Allies: America and the 1916 Easter Rising” - conceived and brilliantly edited by Miriam Nyhan Grey - documents the layers of connection around the Rising. And the quotation from Professor Joe Lee, emblazoned on the back cover of that book, sums it up succinctly and powerfully: “No America, No New York, No Easter Rising: Simple as That”.
The 1916 connections of course were not the beginning; they continued a long-established pattern of engagement. The story of Irish American involvement in political movements in Ireland stretched back a century earlier: in the 1820s, Irish Americans were already sending back dollars to support Daniel O’Connell’s drive for Catholic emancipation and later in the nineteenth century, Irish American money supported the Home Rule campaign of Charles Stuart Parnell and Michael Davitt’s agrarian movement. And the engagement extended on beyond the Rising; already in the few years after 1916, Eamon de Valera came to the US to launch an Irish bond drive to fund the Irish Republican Army in the War of Independence. And on the story went.
One key point: it was never just about fund-raising. In the long and tangled history of Ireland’s relationship with Britain, Irish America always hoped and sought to get the American government involved on the Irish side, so as to help balance the scales as a small country sought to work out its relationship with a larger neighbour. Sometimes the attempt failed, as when President Woodrow Wilson refused all entreaties to bring the Irish case to the table at the Versailles Peace Conference. Sometimes there was a degree of success, as in 1940 when the US warned the British not to seize Irish ports as part of the war with Germany.
Fast forward from 1940 to some thirty years later. The dialogue with America became more complicated when the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland in the late ‘60s, and Irish America was deeply divided about how best to interpret what was happening and how best to engage. The subsequent fifteen years or so, culminating in signature of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, were long and agonising ones, played out against a backdrop of violence and terrible atrocities in Northern Ireland, perpetrated on both sides of the divide. For much of this period, the British and Irish governments battled for the ear of the US Administration, until the two governments finally came to a sense of partnership in dealing with Northern Ireland, with important concessions on both sides.
This partnership between the Irish and British governments has largely held over the past thirty years – not without differences of judgement and perspective, but with a broad sense of shared purpose and with evolving structures and institutions within which these differences could be addressed. The existence of such a partnership has freed the US Administration from trying to adjudicate between two friends and allowed it to throw its weight solidly and consistently behind the peace process. Through the involvement of successive US Presidents, and the role of successive envoys – most notably Senator George Mitchell, who brokered the Good Friday Agreement – as well as through America’s financial contribution to the International Fund for Ireland, America has established a critical stake in the Northern Ireland peace process.
It is imperative that this active American involvement should continue. For all the extraordinary progress that has been made, there is significant unfinished business in Northern Ireland. The fragilities continue; currently, the outcome of the Assembly elections on 2 March is awaited with some anxiety. As we look back at the long sweep of the past 100 years and more, and particularly at developments over the past decades, our message to the US government and to Irish America is clear: your involvement in the peace process on our island is still needed, still vitally important, and still capable of making a real difference.
The second theme is reflect. Here too, we have covered a great deal of ground in so many centenary discussions and get-togethers, and time permits me to draw out just a few threads. I will focus on three areas which have significantly shaped Irish-US relations over much of the past century: immigration reform; our European Union membership; and the evolving economic relationship. In each area, I would like to touch on the historical context and link it to the contemporary challenge.
We all know the foundation stories of Irish America: the Irish who poured into American cities before and after the Great Famine, until the middle of the 20th century. This narrative changed some fifty years ago. The immigration reforms in the US in the mid-‘60s were intended by the authors, and Senator Kennedy was principal among them, to end pro-European bias in immigration to the US and to bring greater diversity to the immigrant pool. It was a perfectly worthy and understandable objective, and succeeded possibly even beyond the authors’ expectations. Senator Kennedy subsequently admitted that he did not anticipate that the Irish would suffer quite as much collateral damage as they did.
Over the past fifty years, the channels for legal Irish immigration to the US have narrowed considerably. From time to time, there has been some temporary and time-bound relief, such as the Donnelly visas and the Morrison visas, but the trend has been inexorable. Today, we see the results: less than one fifth of one percent of all green cards issued in the US go to Irish people.
As the demographics of this country have shifted, Irish America is shrinking in absolute terms and as a percentage of the overall population. And the generational distance has grown: now we have fewer and fewer first and second generation Irish, and more third and fourth generation. Inevitably, this has consequences in terms of engagement and connectivity, and obliges us to think in new and creative ways as to how we nurture and sustain that connectivity.
This narrowing of the channels for legal immigration over the past decades has had another consequence: the number of undocumented Irish in the US has grown. While it is hard to arrive at a reliable figure, estimates from the Irish community suggest a number of 50,000 or so. It has been a longstanding objective of the Irish government –and one to which as Ambassador I have devoted a great deal of my time – to help bring about immigration reform that would allow our undocumented to emerge from the shadows and to take their place in American society.
Side by side with that, we have been trying for years to open up a better channel for Irish people to enter and work here legally. For a people who did so much to help build this country – its physical fabric of roads and railways and bridges, and its social fabric of teachers and police and firefighters – it is surely reasonable that we should seek to improve our position beyond the current one fifth of one percent of green cards.
We all know the current uncertainties on the immigration front, and we are acutely conscious of the heightened fears and anxieties in the immigrant community in the aftermath of the US elections. I want to reaffirm that the Irish Government will continue to relentlessly press the case, both for the undocumented and for improved legal access, drawing on all our friendships within the Administration and on both sides of the aisle in Congress. We will continue to set out the compelling human case for the undocumented. As regards improved legal access, our point will remain a simple but cogent one: there is no country which has a greater mismatch between its contribution to the building of America and its current level of immigrant access.
This past year has provided much scope for reflection on the various interlinked relationships: between Ireland, Britain, the European Union, and the US. As we look back over the past one hundred years, there is a significant point to be noted: for the first 50 years of the Irish state, prior to our joining the European Union, Ireland’s relationship with the US was a bilateral one; now it is a relationship that in some important respects is mediated through our EU membership.
Ireland and Britain joined the European Union together, on 1 January 1973. For Ireland and the Irish people, the experience of EU membership over nearly forty five years has been transformative - a subject deserving of a lecture by itself. This evening, I will limit myself to a point about relationships: our joint membership of the European Union has done a great deal to strengthen the British-Irish relationship, and also I would suggest, has conditioned our relationship with the US in a very positive way.
In terms of shared values and a shared world view, there has been no closer alignment than that which has existed between the US and Europe. Together, we helped construct the post-World War II international order; whether at the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation or the Bretton Woods institutions, we have built the scaffolding which supports and underpins that order.
Today, what has been so carefully built over so many decades is at risk. The unequal benefits of globalisation, and the tensions caused by the inexorable advance of technology and the consequent redundancy of some traditional forms of human labour, have been eating away at our societies. Populism is becoming an increasingly potent force, and we are seeing its outworkings on both sides of the Atlantic.
For us in Ireland, although of course we fully accept the democratic outcome of the British referendum, the Brexit decision was deeply unwelcome. Dealing with the implications of that decision - for our economy, for the relationships between North and South on our island, for Europe as a whole – will be one of the biggest challenges we have faced in the history of our state.
Brexit is also impacting the EU-US relationship in ways that are only beginning to be played out. President Trump and members of his Administration have made clear their sympathy for Brexit, and that indeed is their choice and prerogative. But it is crucially important that this is not seen as a zero-sum game: maintaining the US bond with Britain in no way requires or provides a rationale for loosening the US bond with Europe. Too much is at stake to allow that vital relationship to erode or fray.
For Ireland, our history and geography tie us closely both to the US and to Europe. In a well-known speech delivered seventeen years ago, our then Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney mused as to whether Ireland was closer to Boston or Berlin. In truth, we would never wish to be put in a position of choosing between the two. We want to see the continuation of a robust and firm friendship between Europe and the US, built on shared values of respect for human rights, rule of law, and working together towards a more peaceful and just world.
As the new Administration beds down here, as Europe prepares for key elections in France and Germany over the coming months, and as Britain and Europe work their way through the divorce proceedings which lie ahead, all of these relationships have the potential to become more brittle. Ireland has an important role to play, and multiple interests to protect. Britain is our nearest neighbour, with whom we share unique ties. At the same time, we are a deeply committed member of the European family, and we enjoy an exceptionally close friendship with the US. In this period of fluidity and shift, we will be working to protect and strengthen these various relationships and to try to ensure they do not come into tension with one another.
How things have evolved and changed over the past century. I mentioned earlier the fundraising for Irish political causes that was so much part of the Irish-American tradition in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Today, we still have a thriving philanthropy on the part of Irish Americans – through the Ireland Funds and other organisations – which support a tremendous range of worthwhile projects in both parts of our island.
We are gratified that Irish Americans are still, with great generosity, ready to offer such philanthropic support to their ancestral homeland. But I am also glad to say that the scales have evened up somewhat over recent years, with the Irish Government providing substantial financial assistance to our diaspora through the Emigrant Support Programme and other programmes.
In the classic area of economic relationships – investment and trade – the changes have been truly striking.
The first half of the twentieth century saw a succession of bleak economic decades for Ireland – the post war economic recovery which much of the rest of Europe enjoyed passed Ireland by. By the ‘50s, emigration was sky high and emigrants’ remittances from Britain and the US kept many families afloat.
From 1958, there was a radical reframing of economic policy in Ireland, when the then Finance Minister, later Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, launched the First Programme for Economic Development. Over the subsequent years, during the ‘60s and especially following our EU membership in 1973, we were transformed from an economic backwater, with domestic markets protected behind high tariff walls, to one of the most open and globalised economies in the world.
Throughout the past decades, foreign investment in Ireland has thrived on the back of a low corporate tax rate, investment in free education which gave us one of the best educated and most highly rated workforces in the world, and access from 1973 onwards to a European wide free market in goods and services. FDI, especially from the US, became a key driving force in our economy.
Ireland’s economic story since the ‘60s is certainly not one of interrupted success, and the experience of the post 2008 crash is still raw and recent. But though the pain of the austerity years has not been erased, Irish people have shown extraordinary determination and resilience in reaching for recovery. That recovery has now fully taken hold and our economic growth over the past few years has been healthy and broad-based.
Looking back over the past couple of decades, one of the critical points to underline is that the economic relationship between Ireland and the US has become a two-way street. In the earlier years, FDI was almost exclusively one-way traffic; the US was sending and Ireland was receiving. Now, with some of the more traditional Irish companies very active in the US, but also many young Irish-based companies – whose founders often got their start in US multinationals in Ireland- seeking to spread their wings in the US market, we have a very different equation.
Today, US multinationals in Ireland directly employ some 140,000 Irish people, and Irish companies in the US have tens of thousands of American employees across all 50 states.
Trade too has evened up – we remain a major exporter of goods to the US but are now also a major importer of US services. In other words, mirroring many other aspects of the relationship, there has been a coming of age in economic relations.
This is another area where we will need to stay vigilant and engaged. With the current fierce questioning of globalisation, it is important that Ireland be a voice for the kind of “good globalisation” we have experienced. Not an unthinking cheerleader for every aspect of globalisation, but a strong advocate for the shared benefits that flow from rules-based international investment and trade. We know from our own history the dead ends of protectionism, and we know that openness is the only viable choice for the 21st century. We will continue to make that case clearly and vocally.
I want to turn briefly to the third strand of our commemorative year: re-imagining the future.
Back in Ireland, the centenary commemorations have been a catalyst for some serious self-examination. There has been heartfelt and genuine pride in our 100-year journey, and all the undoubted achievements along the way. But we know too that there are areas where we have fallen short of the vision of 1916, and of the principles set forth in the Proclamation.
Again and again, throughout the past year, we have reminded ourselves of that most sacred promise of the Proclamation to cherish “all the children of the nation equally”. Great strides have been made, but we have yet to fully delivery on that promise. I believe the honest stocktaking of the centenary year has helped to strengthen our resolve, and our determination to reset our compass for the years ahead.
In Irish America too, the commemorations have given us all a lot of food for thought. Through the hundreds of commemorative events on this side of the Atlantic, there has been a great deal of re-energising of the community, and Irish-American organisations have come together in truly collaborative and innovative ways.
The question for us now is how do we harness that energy and sustain that collaboration? How do we best engage Irish America in the conversation back in Ireland about the direction of our country? And the challenge too of ensuring that Ireland and Irish America understand the contemporary realities and not live with outdated images of each other: that Irish America understands the modern, fast changing, multicultural Ireland; and that Ireland moves beyond stereotypes of Irish America and understands the dynamics that are shaping today’s Irish America.
Here in the US, we need to address the demographic challenge I talked about earlier: the shrinking Irish America and the need to maintain connectivity. In particular, there is need to reach young people and to create a meaningful set of ‘Next Generation’ projects – through cultural and sporting links, through educational and exchange visits to Ireland. We clearly are not starting from zero – a great deal is already happening - but we need to map the initiatives better and see where we can reinforce them.
As we speak about re-imagining Ireland, I want to particularly highlight the Government’s decision to make “Creative Ireland” an enduring legacy of the centenary year. “Creative Ireland” recently had its international launch here in New York; it is a five-year, multi-stranded, whole of Government initiative, designed to have a real impact both at home and abroad.
The Taoiseach summed it up: “Creative Ireland is about placing culture at the centre of our lives, for the betterment of our people and for the strengthening of our society . . . we can make an important statement to ourselves and to the world about the interdependency of culture, identity and citizenship.”
In this area too, I believe our centenary commemorations helped to remind us of something we were at risk of forgetting. The 1916 Rising was rooted in cultural nationalism; indeed, it has sometimes been dubbed the “Poet’s Rising”, given the number of signatories of the Proclamation who were published poets. And there is no doubt that the power and impact of the Rising was amplified through iconic poems such as Yeats’ “Easter 1916”.
This centrality of culture – its place at the heart of our identity – was obscured over much of the intervening century. In the grim economic times of the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, culture seemed a luxury; sadly, in the high-rolling ‘90s and early 2000s, we fed our materialism but not our souls. While there was the beginning of a rebalancing in the aftermath of 2008, the cutbacks of the austerity years fell everywhere, and the pitch for the prioritisation of culture was not an easy one.
I hope we will look back on 2016 as the year when culture reclaimed its rightful place in the life of our nation. At home and abroad, so many of the commemorative events were cultural in nature. We were reminded of the power of culture to interrogate and jolt, and strip away complacency, as well as its power to nurture and console and sometimes bring a smile to our lips.
Across the world, we saw the unifying and convening power of our culture. Here in the United States, one of the most exhilarating experiences of 2016 was the flagship three-week festival at the Kennedy Centre – “Ireland 100”- which was the largest festival of Irish culture ever held outside Ireland.
Overall, I find a wonderful fittingness and symmetry in this decision to make “Creative Ireland” one of the most tangible legacies of 2016, and I am greatly looking forward to helping take the initiative forward in the U.S.
Among the most telling ways of tracing our one hundred year journey is to contrast the fiftieth anniversary commemorations in 1966 with the centenary events of last year.
I was fourteen years old in 1966, living through those impressionable years of early adolescence. Looking back, I recall it as a pinched and joyless time in our country. Ireland was a much more claustrophobic and less generous place. We had yet to experience that opening wide our windows to the world which came with EU membership. The multi-ethnicity that characterises today’s Ireland was far in the future. Women were marginalised; contraception was banned; homosexuality was outlawed under laws dating from the Victorian era.
And so the pinched and joyless commemorations in 1966 were probably an accurate reflection of the country we then were.
As the planning unfolded for 2016, the limitations of the fiftieth anniversary commemorations were very much in people’s minds, and especially the lack of openness towards other traditions on our island. In the years since 1966, the grief and loss of the decades of the Troubles had burnt themselves on our consciousness, conditioning and tempering the way we approached the centenary commemorations. And so there was a much heightened sensitivity, and a strong emphasis on outreach to the Unionist tradition, including the careful embedding of the 1916 centenary within a decade of Commemorations.
Beyond that aspect, however, the approach to the centenary commemorations was different in almost every way, reflecting the different country we had become. We took full ownership of our history, and examined both light and shade. There was a constant mode of interrogation, rather than self-satisfaction or complacency. Women were back from the margins, definitively bringing to an end that “pervasive invisibility” which had been their fate in earlier narratives of 1916. Young people were much more to the fore; the “new Irish” were properly recognised as part of our story; and of course the whole year was bathed in the afterglow of the joyous Marriage Equality referendum of May 2015.
The commemorations were also more confident and outward looking in so many ways. We embraced the role that Easter 1916 had played in inspiring anti-colonial movements across the world throughout the twentieth century. And, as we saw in that moving and memorable Parade in Dublin on Easter Sunday, Irish people also came to a greater consciousness of, and took immense pride in, the role our Defence Forces have played in global peacekeeping over many decades past.
One final point. History has its coincidences: it has not escaped us that, just at the time we were commemorating the events of 1916 – the beginning of the end of British rule in Ireland – we found ourselves facing another radical adjustment in British-Irish relations: for the first time ever, one of us will be inside the European Union and the other outside.
There is no minimising the Brexit challenge that lies ahead, which will test us in very many ways. But I believe that all of our centenary experience – this process we have lived through of remembering, reflecting, and re-imagining – will have helped to fortify us to meet that challenge. We certainly do not have all the answers, but we are better grounded, with a surer sense of who we are, as we seek those answers. And so, in that very real sense, the centenary commemorations will have achieved one of their key objectives: looking back has also helped us to face forward.