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Remarks by Ambassador Dan Mulhall at the Ireland Funds Young Leaders Dinner

Ireland’s horizon for our 2nd century of independence:  Remarks at the Young Leaders Dinner

Washington DC, 27 January 2018


I want to express my thanks to the Ireland Funds for the invitation for me to be here this evening.

I would also like to pay tribute to all who have come to Washington this week for the Young Leaders Summit. Your commitment to the Ireland Funds, and the ethos they embody, is invaluable and augurs well for the future.

I admire the Ireland Funds for its capacity to bring together the many friends of Ireland in this country and elsewhere in support of its important work.

Support for the Ireland Funds represents a tangible, practical expression of the enduring concern of Irish America for Ireland and all things Irish.

I know that you have been busy this week reflecting the 50th anniversary of the Funds, 8 years hence in 2026, and on the organisation’s future direction.

I have a slightly shorter timeline in mind. I refer to the fact that our Irish decade of centenaries will come to an end in 2022.  By that time, we will have marked all of the great events that paved the way for the creation of a sovereign Irish State - from the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14 to the Easter Rising, the war of independence and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.   

In 2022, we will enter definitively into the second century of Irish independence. While the recent centenaries provided an occasion for reflecting on the past - on what happened, on why it happened and on its implications - I hope that 2022 will encourage us to seek to imagine and re-imagine our future.

As we look at our future directions, it is important to be clear about the enormous distance we have traveled as a nation in the past century. Probably, no other country in Western Europe has changed as dramatically as Ireland has in recent decades. I recently came across a copy of Facts about Ireland, a Department of Foreign Affairs publication from the year 1972 as we prepared to join what we now know as the European Union. It reveals that Ireland’s GNP at that time was £1.9 billion which is approximately 1% of what it is today. Annual exports were £430 million, which is not much more than Ireland now exports on a normal day.  

These figures illustrate the fact that, while the first 50 years of Irish independence saw us consolidate our sovereign democracy (a not inconsiderable achievement in that durable political stability could not have been taken for granted when the State was established in 1922), Ireland’s economic advancement occurred primarily in the second half of the past 100 years.

Ireland is now, undeniably, a developed European economy endowed with a tolerant, outward-looking, pluralist ethos as witnessed by, among other things, the absence of populist, anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic sentiment in our domestic public sphere.

The economic gains we have registered have made us more critical of our failings than would have been the case decades ago when we saw ourselves as a less prosperous country with an emerging economy and a steep hill yet to climb.

There is a strong strand of idealism in our body politic, which is a product, I believe, of the ambitious aspirations that run through the 1916 Proclamation. This means that we will continue to need to strive to combine economic dynamism with a focus on fairness and combating inequalities in our society.

By 2022, we can expect to have enjoyed peace in Ireland for a full 25-year generation. This ought to focus attention on the continued cultivation of a climate of reconciliation and mutual respect – in Northern Ireland, in Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. We have come a long way since the Good Friday Agreement but there is a road still to be travelled.   

Our Taoiseach’s commitment to doubling our international footprint in the coming years can be a game changer for Ireland.  It points to a desire to make a greater impact and a greater contribution to world affairs through an enhanced diplomatic and promotional presence around the world, a doubling of our development aid, and a further enhancement of our humanitarian and UN peacekeeping profile.   

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union poses genuine challenges for us and by 2022 Ireland will be a member of the EU without our nearest neighbour as a partner country.  That will break a decades-long partnership between our two countries and we will need to put in place arrangements to compensate for the loss of engagement at EU level.  Furthermore, in the years ahead we will need to consolidate our position in a changing Europe and this will require us to be nimble and flexible, and forge even deeper alliances with like-minded EU partners.       

The decision to pursue a seat on the UN Security Council for 2021-22 is an expression of an ambition to mark the beginning of our second century of independence by taking our place in the premier forum for addressing threats to international security. We aspire to make a distinctive mark on the world around us in keeping with our national values and interests. We will be looking to our global diaspora to row in behind us as we seek votes from the 190 plus UN member countries.    

Our economic environment is also subject to change and the favourable standing we have developed in recent decades cannot be taken for granted. As a relatively small country, we will always be vulnerable to changes in our environment driven by the interests of other, larger players. We will have a continued stake in a global system that facilitates the free flow of trade and investment and will need to coalesce with others, inside and outside the EU, to defend the rules-based economic order that has evolved over the decades.

One of Ireland’s undoubted strengths over the past century has been the flowering of Irish culture. Our literature and our traditional music and dance have all helped to give Ireland a degree of recognition internationally that we would not otherwise have enjoyed. Will we, in the 21st century, be able to match the four Nobel Prizes for Literature won by Irish writers during the 20th century? Can we continue to combine traditional and contemporary cultural currents into a unique Irish blend as we have done so adeptly in recent decades? And can we find a way to reflect in our art forms the experience of the 17% of our population who were not born in Ireland?

And finally, what lies in store for Ireland’s interaction with Irish America?  Just as Irish-US relations seem to me destined to be increasingly a two-way street. After Britain leaves the European Union, we will be the only English-speaking country in the Union and that will allow us to play a more prominent role in the Trans-Atlantic sphere as a bridge between the EU and the US, and as a premier location for US investment in Europe.  

During the 19th century, Ireland gave its people in large numbers to the United States. They left Ireland in circumstances of strife and privation and through their efforts over the generations they helped to make America the country it is today. 

In the 20th century, the trend was reversed and Ireland became an importer of know-how and influences from the US.  This has resulted in a strong US economic presence in Ireland, more than 700 companies employing some 150,000 people. In more recent years, this US activity in Ireland has been matched by increased Irish involvement in the US economy, with some 400 Irish firms employing up to 100,000 Americans.

The Irish-US relationship I envisage for the 21st century should be one of give-and-take collaboration, with continued two-way flows of trade and investment, but also of people, of ideas, and of innovations. We now have much to offer each other and we possess a shared set of interests and values to look after.  

We will need to continue to take Irish America seriously, to invest in this relationship and to listen as well as to say our piece. I would like to see more Irish Americans studying, living and working in Ireland. Such engagement would help to give new life to this old and highly productive set of family ties between Ireland and Irish America.

Ultimately, it’s over to you to determine the direction of travel for Ireland in the period, post-2022. Your time has come. The Ireland that will come to pass during the second century of Irish independence will be your Ireland. And remember that the people who led Ireland to independence a century ago – Pearse, MacDonagh, Plunkett, Collins and de Valera etc. - were not much older than most of you are today!                                          

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador in Washington                

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