Dublin Castle, Sunday 10 July 2016
Your Excellency, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps,
Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Honoured guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today we remember and honour all Irish men and women who lost their lives in war or in the service of the United Nations. This year, which sees the centenary both of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, Ireland's National Day of Commemoration has a particular poignancy and a special significance.
Let me at the outset welcome each and every one of you, especially those of you who may be here for the first time and those of you who have travelled to be with us. Allow me also to salute the diplomatic profession; your capacity to understand another point of view, your skill with words and your patience. The diplomatic vocation can play a crucial role in addressing the bitter animosities, the conflicting interests and indeed sometimes the mere misunderstandings which make occasions like this Day of Commemoration necessary around the world.
And at a time when migration is once again a subject dominating much of the public discourse, it is important to remember that it is not only diplomats who build bridges between countries and cultures. Ireland is particularly aware of the positive role that migrants can play in building understanding, respect and friendships around the world. I am thinking not only of our own diaspora of whom we are so proud but also of the newcomers who have come to our shores, many of them from the countries you represent, and who enrich both our society and our culture.
And when it comes to building bridges, a special mention must be made of the Irish football fans who recently made new friends for themselves and for Ireland, North and South, in France. It’s hard to imagine better ambassadors. It’s also hard to imagine better hosts – our friends in France have done a fine job. Ambassador Thébault, I’d like you to convey our warm congratulations to your Government. On Thursday, I was in Berlin when France defeated Germany, much to the dismay of all I met there. We wish tonight’s finalists well and I can’t help but note that Ambassador Futscher Pereira is represented today by his Chargé d’Affaires – I suspect he may be in France...
As I mentioned, two particular centenaries are in our thoughts today.
I believe that in commemorating the Centenary of our Easter Rising this year we struck the right balance. We recognized the contribution of the Rising to Ireland’s long journey to self-determination and its legacy around the world, including in many of the countries you represent. At the same time, we remembered the events of 100 years ago in all their complexity. We honoured those who died on all sides and on no side. Importantly, we respected other traditions and identities. Our commemorations were neither to be commandeered nor disparaged, but taken as opportunities to remember, reflect, reimagine and increase our understanding of different points of view.
Likewise the Irish Government is very pleased to have been involved over recent days in joining with our British and French friends among others in remembering the beginning of the Battle of Somme in which human courage, on both sides, knew no bounds and in which so many Irish, from North and South, were amongst the dead and wounded.
Two points seem to me to be of particular importance as we remember both of these conflicts. The first is that the “pity of war” is indivisible. None of us look back to those events with triumphalism or with divisiveness in our hearts. People of good will look back not to fight old wars but to avoid repeating them. With Wilfred Owen we can all share “the eternal reciprocity of tears”.
The second crucial point, it seems to me, is the nature of our remembrance. One of the best-known phrases from the poetry of the Great War, often quoted at the commemoration ceremonies in which the Irish Government now wholeheartedly participates, is “we will remember them”.
As we remember those who died in wars, including our Irish dead, we do not remember them merely as we would remember an event in the distant past or long dead friends. Our remembrance also embraces, I believe, a commitment to do everything we can to ensure that others will not have to suffer as they suffered and a promise that the epitaph of those we are remembering will be written in our own hearts. And the best epitaph we can write for the millions of young men whose “name liveth forever more” is that the phrase “never again” does not become an easy platitude but remains a call to action.
Against that background and in the challenging context of recent weeks, my message to you today is optimistic, simple and as clear as scripture. The Irish Government reaffirms its unqualified support for, and profound belief in, two of the truly great peace processes of our time.
The first is the European Union. The second is the precious peace which has been achieved on the island of Ireland.
The European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for having contributed over six decades, as the Nobel Committee put it, to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe. Self-evidently the EU is imperfect as every human institution necessarily is. But any fair and honest assessment must conclude that the Nobel Prize was richly deserved. One thinks, for example, of the consolidation of democracy across so much of our continent including in many countries which had recently experienced dictatorships of the right or left, the reconciliation between countries which had fought so many bloody conflicts, the social progress of our societies and the relative prosperity of our people. And we think of the decent and enlightened values which the European Union advocates and promotes in the wider world on each and every issue that matters.
Let me say very briefly why I am so optimistic about the European Union at this challenging time. The fundamental reasons for Union’s existence are as convincing as ever. Its ethos of respect and accommodation is as strong as ever. Its institutions remain effective and adaptable, even if their bureaucracy and complexity are easily criticised and sometimes scorned upon.
The response of the EU to the unprecedented and unexpected events of the last few weeks has been typical of its resilience and its dignity. Following a few days of understandable confusion, the discussion between Prime Minister Cameron and his colleagues at the European Council on 28 June was calm, respectful and business-like. The meeting of the 27, at the same level, the following day produced an initial response which was coherent and united as well as respectful of the United Kingdom in its absence. An organisation which has the capacity to bring together 27 democratically elected Governments, each with its different but legitimate perception, interests and priorities and reach sensible agreement together on an issue of such profound complexity and importance is alive and well.
As we remember the conflicts which have scarred the European continent and wiped out successive generations of its young men, destroying the lives of families everywhere as we commemorate the Somme both yesterday in Dublin and in France last week, it is uplifting to note the maturity and ease of political relationships in Europe today; relationships which would have seemed literally incredible to the men in the trenches a century ago.
Without doubt, the period ahead will be very challenging for the European Union as it seeks to ensure that the United Kingdom remains a close partner while at the same time working to deliver even more effectively on the priority concerns of its citizens.
Having witnessed again recently how easy it is to misrepresent the European Union, it is also essential that increased efforts be made, including by national Governments, to explain how the EU works and the huge advantages it delivers for and on behalf of our citizens.
The Irish Government has made clear that it deeply regrets but fully respects the course on which the recent referendum has set our British friends, even if the detail of their approach still remains largely to be defined. We regret the decision for the many reasons that we explained during the referendum campaign.
Today let me emphasise today just one of the reasons for our deep regret. The context for the development of the warm relationship between our islands, which has transformed one of the great enmities of the past into a great friendship, has been our shared membership of the European Union over the last forty years. I strongly believe that the foundations of this friendship are strong and it will endure.
As Ireland works with its EU partners to frame a negotiating stance for the forthcoming discussions between the EU and the UK, our aim will be to encourage a stable, prosperous and outward-looking UK which has as close a relationship with the European Union as its own negotiating stance will allow.
I have spoken to several of my EU counterparts in recent days and I will continue these conversations over the coming weeks. I know that our EU partners understand well the uniquely close nature of Ireland’s relations with the United Kingdom and that, in the spirit of accommodation which characterises the European Union, they will be sensitive to our concerns which include the exceptionally close relationship between these islands, the sharing of a land border, the unique status of our citizens in the United Kingdom and, of course, the implications for the peace process to which I now turn.
The second great peace process to which I referred, some of the authors of which also of course received the Nobel Peace Prize, is that in Northern Ireland. The Government’s continued support for that process is unquestioned and unqualified.
While also warmly recognizing the immense contribution of the United States and of our other friends around the world, the European Union to a large extent provided the wider context for the peace process. One thinks, for example, of Europe’s immensely generous financial contribution over many years which went well beyond any objective allocation criteria, a contribution effectively from the taxpayers of other European countries to assist and support our peace process.
However, that benign EU context was and is much more fundamental than money. The fact that Ireland and the United Kingdom shared a common EU citizenship provided a space for reconciliation that transcended the zero-sum equation of British or Irish sovereignty. The Irish Government does not underestimate the sense of disquiet now felt by many people in Northern Ireland at the prospect of the loss of their connection to the European Union.
That sense of loss was poignantly expressed by Colette Bryce, a poet from Derry who lives in England. She wrote of how our shared EU membership– “has made it easier to live with a fractured identity. “
While it is therefore very important to understand and acknowledge the European contribution to the peace process, and to address the complications and challenges which will arise in the new situation, I haven’t the slightest doubt that the peace process is embedded and irreversible. The Irish Government will continue to work intensively with the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to see how best collectively we can work to ensure that the gains of the last two decades are fully protected. Ireland, Britain and Northern Ireland share the common objective of preserving the Common Travel Area and an open border on the island of Ireland. These are the types of issues we are highlighting and, in due course, will be discussing in detail with our EU partners as we seek together to design arrangements to protect the peace process.
It seemed timely and appropriate on this day of commemorations to emphasise to you in these remarks the Government’s continued commitment to peace and prosperity in Europe and in Northern Ireland. At the same time, I wished to emphasise that our friendship with our closest neighbour is now deep and unshakeable and will remain crucial in both of these contexts.
In summary, our hope is that the UK will aim to remain close to the European Union and that the European Union will remain fully engaged, as I know it will, in support of the peace on this island to which it has already contributed so much.
I know you will understand that, although today I have focussed on these particular issues, other aspects of Ireland’s foreign policy are important and unchanged.
At the United Nations, and in other multilateral fora, working insofar as possible with our European partners, we will continue to devote high priority to advancing not just the priorities of our diplomacy but also the values of our people and the lessons of our history.
We will continue to prioritise and optimise our assistance to the poor and hungry of the world through the Irish Aid programme.
And, course, we will continue to deepen our relationships with each and every country represented here today and, with your diplomatic experience and assistance, to resolve together any issues that may arise.
I would like to wish you and your families every fulfilment and happiness in your present assignments and in the future.
Diplomacy is often about the important challenge of promoting trade and culture; and about the crucial responsibility of looking after our citizens abroad. But sometimes diplomacy can actually be about life and death as it has proved on this continent and later on this island.
In conclusion therefore, in a world in which many see compromise as a weakness, I would like to quote WH Auden. In his poem Embassy, Auden describes the polite seemingly superficial conversation of diplomats drifting across the lawns at a diplomatic garden party before ending on a different note:
And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste, with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping and its towns in terror.
Thank you again for your presence and for your work. I would like to propose a toast to all the Heads of State represented here today.