HomeNewsArchived Speeches and Press Releases

UN International Year of Volunteers in Ireland


Speech by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern TD

At the presentation of a sculpture to mark the closure of

UN International Year of Volunteers in Ireland

Monday 10th December 2001 at 3.00pm

Thank you Chris for your warm words of welcome. It is always a pleasure to come to Croke Park ! It is a special pleasure to be here today in the Cusack Club for this, the last, event of the programme to mark the UN International Year of Volunteers in Ireland.

I am very glad of this public opportunity to say thanks to all the people who worked so hard to make the year such a great success. As result of your efforts, far more people now recognise the important contribution that voluntary work and community groups make to Irish life and overseas communities. In the long run, I hope your work will encourage more people to lend a hand to support the many civil organisations and good causes that are part and a parcel of national life.

I think it is very fitting that we gather here in Croke Park the headquarters of the largest national voluntary organisation for this event. The GAA and our national sporting bodies are shining examples of the difference which community service has made, and continues to make for people, all over this country. A commitment to serving others is also the hallmark of the excellent work of community development groups and non governmental organisations across the full range of national life. Volunteering takes many forms - mutual aid, helping the less fortunate, caring and service, participation and campaigning.

These activities are expressions of people's willingness and capacity to freely undertake to help others and improve society. Hundreds of thousands of Irish people engage in voluntary activity in their communities every week. Volunteers make an enormous contribution to people's quality of life and to the care of our most vulnerable people - it is one of our greatest national resources. The national scale of voluntary work means that volunteering is part of what we are. It is a key aspect of how we relate to one another and to people in other countries too. From old traditions of meitheal, and neighbourliness as well as religious values, volunteering our time to help others is a value we have made our own. And I think after the hard weeks since 11 September, I think we can all agree that service in the name of compassion and tolerance is a value which we need to defend and promote, now more than ever.

Congratulations to the National Committee on Volunteering for the idea of working with our local authorities to promote those ideals and to encourage people to come forward. I am delighted that you have chosen to present a specially commissioned sculpture by Alan Ardiff to each of Ireland's Local Authorities in acknowledgement of the great tapestry of local voluntary work which exists all over this country.

Johns work is rightly acclaimed at home and abroad and he did a wonderful job on the Irish Millennium Pound coin. I cannot claim to be an expert on sculpture, but John has done a great job with his piece which is cleverly named "Taking a Step Forward". Well done John ! . It is a great piece of work and reminds us of our duty to serve the common good and to "tip the balance" in the public interest in our work.

I am delighted to see so many old friends from local authorities here today. Mr. Chairman, I think it fair to say that we are passing these fine sculptures into good hands. Anyone who is involved in politics as long as I am, and who gets to travel the country as much as I do - will agree that it is at local level that the great partnership between voluntary groups and local government takes place. That partnership is for everyone's benefit and I am sure that local authorities will appreciate having a permanent public tribute to volunteers in their communities.

Some may even choose to have a celebration back home - which seems a fitting - and a festive thing to do ! But, I would sincerely urge all the local representatives here to continue the strong partnership with local voluntary groups and do all you can to encourage people to get involved in community service.

As the UN International Year of Volunteers draws to a close, I am glad that voluntary service seems at last to be getting the recognition it deserves. At government level, we certainly value the important work of volunteers. The National Committee on Volunteering was set up last December by Dermot Ahern T.D., Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. With a budget of just over £ 1 million, and a new blueprint in the White Paper on Supporting Voluntary Activity, the Committees work moves forward now to devise strategies and actions for supporting and developing volunteering in Ireland for the long term. This is a very important job - a vibrant community and voluntary sector is a vital part of a thriving democratic society.

It is fitting that we meet today on UN Human Rights Day, just three months since the attacks of September 11. The last three months of the Year of the Volunteer, certainly remind us that the challenge of the UN charter and the Declaration is timeless and that we take democratic values for granted at our peril.

It is probably true to say that the UN Year began against the backdrop of great cynicism about democracy and politics in recent years and a belief , or a suggestion, that perhaps there are no great causes worth fighting for anymore. However, recent events remind us that democracy is one of the great causes, along with justice and peace.

Our own history here shows that democracy and social and economic success go hand in hand. Politics, public service , community bodies all have played a key role and have achieved very significant benefits for the lives of all sections of society here. This year has really raised the profile of volunteer work and volunteers with the public.

Perhaps one day soon, political parties and political activists of all parties will get a greater credit for the contribution they have made and continue to make ! But the truth is that a partnership approach here at home has brought state and voluntary agencies together in a very strong partnership for development. That keeps us all on our toes and makes sure that we recognise that yesterdays victories are not at all as important as meeting tomorrows challenges at home , and abroad.

Irish voluntary workers have always seen an international dimension to their work.. For decades Irish NGOs and our Missionaries have been at the forefront of development and emergency humanitarian assistance, particularly in Africa. They have been in the refugee camps in Goma, helped the poor and starving of Ethiopia, worked for the victims of war in Angola, helped save the flood victims of Mozambique and in countless other emergencies. They are now also playing a crucial role in helping to fight the scourge of HIV/AIDS and in caring for the infected and the orphans.

Irelands tradition of voluntary service in Africa has provided the foundation of our national programme of development assistance. In 2002, there will be a 55% increase in this programme which will reach £455 million or 0.45% of our GNP. You can see how far we have come when you realise that in 1992, our aid budget was a mere £40 million. We are on track to meeting the UN target of 0.7% of GNP by 2007, a commitment I made last year to the UN Millennium Summit.

Our increasing development aid programme provides us with the resources to ensure that our long tradition of voluntary service overseas is strengthened. In 2000 the Government, through APSO, supported 1,375 assignments of volunteers in 85 countries. We also doubled our contribution, to £762,000, to UN Volunteers, the UN agency which supplies volunteers for all of the UNs development activities.

Support for the work of NGOs and Missionaries will remain a key priority for our national programme of development assistance and the new Aid Strategy will set the framework to deepen our excellent partnership with them, particularly in the fight against poverty and HIV/AIDS.

I am fond of saying that politics is the national pastime in Ireland. It certainly is lively and part and parcel of Irish life. The voluntary sector and community know that more than most ! . At every level, local, national or global , all politics is about managing change and co-operation. It is about rolling up your sleeves to try to solve problems and above all it is about making sure that whatever we do serves the common good. I have always admired the way volunteers always seem to be people who believe in lighting a match rather than cursing the darkness . Or as Dennis O'Driscoll, one of the commissioned poets, says so eloquently

"As long as lights like these stay beaming, the world will seem less dark".

That is why I am glad to be here to support this event which shines an important light on the ideal and practice of voluntary service.

I congratulate Chris and the National Committee on the wide range of activities it has organised at both local and national level. I wish the committee members well as they move forward with the next phase of their activities, which will lead to a report to Government. I hope the report will point the way towards putting measures in place to ensure that volunteering in Ireland is strengthened, supported and recognised for the future. You can count on my support.

Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.