It is a very moving experience for me to be here this evening, and to hear such warm and generous tributes. I am genuinely honoured that so many of you came, amid all the huge pressures on your time especially as we face into this long weekend.
Ireland is truly blessed by its friendships in Congress. Every time I walk up and down the corridors of Capitol Hill, as I have done innumerable times over the past four years, I marvel at the number of Irish names on the doors. And of course it’s not just the self-evidently Irish names – how often I meet a Congressman or Congresswoman with say, an Italian or German name, only to hear that the maternal ancestry was Irish and that an Irish heart is beating behind that non-Irish name.
I am regularly asked about this extraordinary affinity between the Irish and politics. I explain that it’s not just that the Irish love to talk and debate, although that is certainly true, and we tend to be good at it – witness the people in this room!
Fundamentally, I think it goes back to the circumstances in which the Irish arrived in this country. We came in our largest numbers at a time when Ireland was still a colony and opportunities for participation in public life were pretty well non-existent. In America, the Irish plunged into their new lives, seizing the opportunities that had been denied to them at home. They became local actors, champions of so many causes, and from there, it was a logical journey into politics – moving up through the ranks and eventually, the journey brought some of them to this citadel in Washington.
And that, I think, is the real story of the disproportionate number of Irish in American politics. It is rooted in an attachment to public service – and a knowledge built into our DNA that public service is a privilege never to be taken for granted.
The circumstances in which they left the homeland also helps to explain the continuing ferocious attachment to Ireland which is handed down from one generation to the next. When I engage here on the Hill, I am constantly gratified by the knowledge about Ireland, the deep and genuine interest, the appetite for detailed briefings and updates, whether it’s about our politics, our economy, our place in Europe, our take on the issues of the day.
The Friends of Ireland are a truly stalwart group, real friends who care, not just people who sign up because they’re asked to. I cannot express warmly enough my thanks for the dedicated leadership of Peter King and Richie Neal, and their wonderful teams.
One thing I have fully come to understand, is the constancy of your Irish hearts. Being Irish is not just something you take off the shelf for St Patrick’s Day. That is of course a day we all cherish. I will never, ever, forget the experience of my four St Patrick’s Days in DC: especially being at the Speaker’s Table for lunch – first Speaker Boehner and now Speaker Ryan – together with the President and the Taoiseach, and the room awash with a sea of green ties and green dresses. For any Irish diplomat, this is the stuff of dreams.
But beyond these wonderful and beloved rituals of St Patrick’s Day, it’s what all of you do year round that impresses me most. In the constellation of power here in DC, Congress has always seen itself in a special way as the custodian of Irish interests. Over the decades, your role in the peace process in Northern Ireland has been extraordinarily influential – whenever the scales needed to be evened up, whenever the participants needed to be reminded of a wider context for their actions, whenever there was need for champions for a financial commitment from the US so as to help create a peace dividend – you were there for us and for the process.
And, despite the huge progress in Northern Ireland, we continue to need you today and tomorrow. As we work right now to get the Executive up and running, and as we navigate the uncharted waters of Brexit over the period ahead, we will continue to rely on your advice and wise counsel.
As I know you all recognise, the Irish peace process is a success story for American foreign policy, something to be enormously proud of and to be nurtured and safeguarded.
Before concluding, permit me to say a word about immigration reform, and to say it in an unvarnished way. As I leave DC, my biggest disappointment is the failure to advance meaningful immigration reform. Of course we fully appreciate the complexities of the issue, the range of opinions in Congress, the need for every country to protect the integrity of its immigration system.
But so much effort has been invested by so many people over so many years to try to devise workable ways forward. We had such high hopes, especially around Summer 2015, when it seemed that Speaker Boehner might be ready to bring something to the floor. Then, for reasons you all know, it all came crashing down.
My work here has brought me into contact with many Irish undocumented. Yes, they undoubtedly took a wrong turn when they overstayed their visas – but there are so many decent people out there, paying their taxes and making a contribution in their communities, people whose lives you and I might be living if fate had dealt us a slightly different hand.
And how can it be, when the Irish did so much to build this country, that it is so difficult for the Irish today to immigrate here legally? - less than one fifth of one percent of green cards going to Irish-born people. Surely something can be devised that will better reflect our shared history and contemporary ties.
Most of you know the Irish salutation: “Keep the faith”. My profound hope is that you will keep the faith on immigration reform, and find a way forward.
But to finish: above and beyond all else, I want to say thank you – for all your many courtesies and kindnesses to me personally, but above all for everything you do for Ireland.
It is poignant to recall that exactly fifty four years ago, precisely in these final days of June in 1963, President Kennedy was in Ireland for that never to be forgotten visit. Beyond any partisan politics, all of you bear witness to that extraordinary, enduring, bond between our countries. I have been honoured and privileged to work with you, and I hope I can continue to count many of you among my friends.