HomeNewsArchived Speeches and Press Releases

Speech on acceptance of an Honorary Degree of Laws at Fairfield University, Connecticut, USA


It is an enormous honour and privilege for me to accept the Award of an Honorary Degree of Laws from Fairfield University.While I humbly and gratefully acknowledge the personal recognition that this Award signifies, I see it also very much in terms of underlining the depth and closeness of the ties that bind our two nations together. Indeed, the nature of those ties will be a recurring theme of what I wish to say to you today on this very special occasion.

Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen, forty years ago this Summer, John Fitzgerald Kennedy visited Ireland as President of the United States. To say that he took the place by storm would be an understatement. It was a truly extraordinary occasion. I myself was a young boy growing up in Dublin at the time and the vivid memories of those golden days in June of 1963 will stay with me forever.

Looking back on it now from the distance of forty years, it is clear that a number of things were happening in that Kennedy visit. For one thing, it was obvious that the occasion was profoundly important to John Kennedy himself. Ted Sorensen, the Special Counsel to the President and, of course, one of his closest aides,wrote in his account of the Presidency that the visit was, in JFKs own words, "one of the most moving experiences" of his life. For our part, as his hosts, the feeling was mutual. There was an extraordinary sense of excitement and a sense of magic in the air.

In some respects, it was as if the story of Irish America and the story of the relatively new, independent Irish State were coming of age together. Both had been difficult struggles. Both had involved journeys of imagination, courage, perseverance and self-belief in the face of tough odds. But here in the sunshine of the Summer of 1963 was tangible proof that both journeys were working. The almost electric inter-action between John F Kennedy and the huge crowds that greeted him everywhere he went seemed somehow a statement of mutual affirmation and validation. Kennedy, the first Irish American to make it to the Presidency of the United States, back among the roots that made him. We in Ireland witnessing one of the fruits of those roots and what they could achieve. In both cases, something profound was being communicated and understood.

It will be for the historians to judge the ultimate significance of the occasion, but my own view is that that visit, forty years ago, was a critical psychological milestone in the journey of modern Ireland. And that is why I have chosen it as the focal point of the opening section of my remarks to you this afternoon.

What is beyond debate is that the visit underlined something that has been an absolute constant in the story of my country in the intervening forty years and that is the central importance of the inter-relationship with the United States and with Irish America, a fascinating subject and worthy of study in its own right.

Ladies and Gentlemen, these certainly are exciting and hopeful times in Ireland. Economically, we have made huge strides forward. Building on the vision, sacrifice, wisdom and hard work of previous generations, Ireland has, over recent years, achieved a level of prosperity unparallelled in our history. Our GDP per capita is one of the highest in the world, we have more people in employment than we have ever had, and relatively low inflation. Emigration, which as many of you will know and perhaps have personally experienced, had long been a central reality of Irish life, has become a life choice rather than an economic necessity. Indeed, we have a growing population and Irish expatriates have returned and have been joined by a significant number of people from other countries who see Ireland as the place to secure their futures and prosperity.

Of course, the United States has played a key role in this transformation. Well over 500 US companies have plants in Ireland, employing over 100,000 people and spread over sectors such as ICT, pharmaceuticals and health care, and international financial services.

Why do they come? Well, the bottom line has a lot to do with it figures published by the US Department of Commerce show that the average return on capital investment in Ireland is 24%, which is substantially higher than can be achieved elsewhere. Our location as an English-speaking country inside the huge European Single Market is also undoubtedly a key factor. In addition, we offer a young, well-educated and skilled work-force. According to the IMD World Competitiveness Report 2003, our education system is now ranked fourth in the world in the way it meets the needs of a competitive economy, and the same Report ranks our university education fifth in the world. Moreover, our Corporation Tax rate of12.5% is the lowest in Europe and a significant instrument in attracting investment as well. And, of course, the work of the IDA in promoting Ireland particularly here in the US has been a major factor in our economic success.

Apart from the bare statistics, the presence of so many top US companies has also had a strong psychological impact. The list of those with operations in Ireland is impressive by any standards -Intel, Microsoft, Wyeth, Schering Plough, Merrill Lynch, Citibank, Xerox, General Electric - to name but a few. You will know, of course, that the headquarters of Xerox and General Electric are here in Connecticut and we are delighted to have this further important connection between your State and Ireland.

All of these companies and the many hundreds of other US firms involved have made, and continue to make, a huge impact in terms of promoting an entrepreneurial and "can-do" spirit in Ireland. I have no doubt that the American influence has been a major factor in the development of a strong indigenous Irish business community.

Speaking of Merrill Lynch, I am delighted that among us here today is an old friend, Dan Tully, former CEO of Merrill Lynch and a man who played a key role in bringing Merrill Lynch to Ireland.He was also a founding member of the Irish-American Economic Advisory Board, a group of prominent Irish American business leaders who provide invaluable economic advice to the Irish Government. Dan, your legacy is strong and deeply appreciated.

One of the consequences of the emergence of a strong indigenous Irish business community is that investment flows between Ireland and the US have become a two way street. It will surprise some to learn that Ireland was the ninth largest investor in the United States in 2001. Investments by Irish companies in the US amounted to about $18.5 billion. Moreover, other figures show that in 1999, Irish companies employed some 65,000 people in the US, which is not that far behind the number of workers employed by US companies in Ireland. So be warned folks we may be small, but we are catching up! I wonder what John Kennedy would have made of those statistics.

But underlying and underpinning all of this is what has happened in terms of tackling the historic divisions on our island, divisions that have cost thousands of lives. I want to devote the remainder of my remarks to the story of the Good Friday Agreement and of how we are seeking to build on the peace that it has brought.

In his remarkable inauguration speech in January 1961, John Kennedy spoke about his hopes for the relationship between the US and the Soviet bloc, against the background of the dangerous increase in tensions taking place between them. Although the context was different, his words are in fact a good summation of where we stood as we entered the negotiations that were to lead to the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998:

"So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."

The weeks leading up to Good Friday were difficult. But my British counterpart, Prime Minister Tony Blair and I sensed that there was an opportunity for a fresh start, to put the past behind us and build a better future for all.

Everybody accepted that there were three key relationships at the heart of the conflict those within Northern Ireland, those between North and South on the island of Ireland and those between Ireland and Britain. Any solution had to address these relationships and come up with structures to take them out of the strait-jacket that history and geography had placed them in and put them on a new footing.

With the enormous help of another great American, Senator George Mitchell, we succeeded and on 10 April 1998, what became known as the Good Friday Agreement was concluded by the British and Irish Governments and eight political parties representing all traditions within Northern Ireland.

The Agreement defined the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. It provided a framework of institutional arrangements which would reflect the three sets of relationships an Executive with Northern Ireland Ministers and a Parliamentary Assembly in Northern Ireland, a North South Ministerial Council and a British Irish Council.

The Agreement also addressed issues of fundamental human rights and equality and critically the requirements for transition from paramilitary conflict to a normal peaceful society through the decommissioning of illegal arms, demilitarisation of military installations and the creation of a new police service and a criminal justice system accepted by all strands of society in Northern Ireland. A particularly important feature here was the decision that the Agreement had to be endorsed by the people of both parts of Ireland, voting in simultaneous referenda, before it could become valid.

Like the outcome of all successful negotiations, the Good Friday Agreement was a compromise. Nobody was happy with every aspect of it and there was pain to be taken by all sides. But overall it represented an honourable accommodation on very difficult issues,which had long roots in history, and in the name of which, during the previous 30 years, over 3,000 people had been killed and thousands more injured and maimed.

On 22 May 1998, an overwhelming majority of the people voted Yes in a historic day for our island. The Good Friday Agreement thus became, and remains, the sovereign will of the people of Ireland.

George Mitchell had always wisely observed that implementation would be as difficult and important as negotiation and, once again,he was not wrong. The five years since April/May 1998 have indeed been difficult, with many setbacks along the way.

On 2 December 1999, the Northern Ireland Executive came into being, bringing together in common cause representatives of Nationalism and Unionism, pledging to work together on the everyday economic and social issues of concern to their constituents and reporting to a new, inclusive Northern Ireland Assembly.

Also established was the North/South Ministerial Council,bringing together representatives of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government in Dublin to take forward co-operation on practical matters of concern and benefit to both parts of Ireland.New Agencies were established to implement such co-operation.Uniquely, these Bodies were to work on a single, all-Ireland basis,reporting to Ministers from North and South sitting collectively in the North/South Ministerial Council. The Bodies cover areas such as tourism, trade, food safety and so on.

On the East-West track, the British Irish Council was established to bring together representatives of the British and Irish Governments and other devolved UK Administrations under British rule, such as Scotland and Wales, with the aim again of promoting co-operation to mutual benefit on issues such as transport links, environment and so on.

All of these institutions have made much progress since their inception. While it is true that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly are suspended at the moment because of continuing difficulties in terms of trust between the political parties there, I am convinced that the will is there to resolve those difficulties and that all the institutions will be able to get back to carrying on the excellent work that they have started and to realising their full potential.

Critically, the situation on the ground has continued to improve. The paramilitary ceasefires and the historic acts of IRA decommissioning have made a valuable contribution, and, while the peace has not been perfect, life today in Northern Ireland has vastly improved for everybody. The atmosphere on the streets is better. Belfast is thriving.

Much of the tension has gone out of the Marching Season, the period between Easter and Summer when traditional marches of the Orange Order take place. In previous years, these marches had been the focus of clashes between marchers and Nationalist protestors,who objected to them taking place through their areas without consent or consultation. This years Marching Season has been the quietest for many years.

Peace is bedding down. My own belief is that a number of elements have combined to provide a means of drawing a line under the past. The most important of these, of course, is the Good Friday Agreement itself with its carefully balanced framework for away forward - in constitutional terms, in terms of its architecture for fairness and equality, and in terms of its inclusive institutions which provide the means for those from differing traditions to work together on the practical, everyday matters of running a society. A further, less tangible factor, is the sheer length of time that has now elapsed since the first ceasefires going on ten years. This has helped increase and deepen confidence that the new era is for real and here to stay.

But, there are no grounds for complacency. There is much unfinished business. Trust has been difficult to build. Change has brought many challenges for all sides.

The work of healing and reconciliation and the building of trust and understanding in the face of the bitter hurts and isolation of the past will take a long, long time, perhaps generations, to complete. We must recognise that reality and give that work the time, space and respect it needs. That is not to say that we must not immediately be about the business of that work and that progress cannot be made in the short-term but it is essential that we recognise that much of what is involved cannot be forced and will simply take time. Patience, therefore, has to be an important part of the journey forward.

But there are other things which we must be impatient about and reject. Such as the efforts of those who would seek to turn back the clock and away from partnership, who continue to strive for absolute victory for their own side. For them, the Agreement is a defeat, something to be brought down. They cannot and will not be allowed to succeed, to overturn the sovereign will of the people, as expressed in the Agreement.

History and geography have dealt us a particular hand on our island. Let me say to you very clearly today in the beautiful setting of Fairfield University the legacy of that history and that geography dictate that the only rational future lies in the path of partnership, agreement and mutual respect between the two great traditions of Nationalism and Unionism.

One cannot speak about the peace process in Northern Ireland without paying tribute to the role of Prime Minister Blair. He and I have worked in close partnership over a long number of years. His support and commitment is indispensable to all of us who share the goal of lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement provides a structure for co-operation and partnership between the people of Ireland, North and South. There was a glimpse of what that potential can achieve when Ireland hosted the Special Olympics World Games in June of this year. Organised on an all-island basis, the Games, which involved athletes from over 160 countries, and which are, of course, the brain child of another remarkable Kennedy, Eunice Shriver, were a huge success. Billed as the largest sporting undertaking in the world in 2003, Ireland, North and South, demonstrated what we are capable of when we work together in common cause.

It goes without saying that the United States can play a huge role in helping us to realise that potential. But my hope is that you can do so in a way that wins for you as well.

Firstly, we can work with each other on the economic front. Building on the good work of the Clinton Administration, President Bush and his team have already been very supportive in the business area. For instance, the US Ireland Business Summit held in Washington last September, which the Administration supported, and which drew together leading figures from North and South with key players in the US, was a big success and follow up initiatives are underway.

I believe also that there are particular synergies available between the US and Ireland, North and South, in terms of Research and Development and Innovation. One of the keys to what has become known as the Celtic Tiger Era in Ireland was the fact that in the global economy of the late 20th and early 21st century, knowledge and information and the means by which they are carried and transferred became king. That fitted exactly where we were in Ireland. No, we did not have huge industrial plants and huge infrastructure. But we had brain-power and knowledge, education, flexibility and a young population hungry to learn. Put those together with the information technology revolution and you had a very powerful package.

That is why so many of the top US companies such as Intel and Microsoft have placed key strategic pieces of their operations in Ireland. Those companies recognise that in todays global economy nobody can sit on their laurels. You must always strive to stay at the cutting edge. You must stay innovative. You must be flexible.Our education and university systems North and South are geared for this.

In the company here today of so many people who work and study in a university institution, I am very pleased to acknowledge an important development in the university system on the island of Ireland. The Presidents of the nine universities on the island have recently announced the formation of a new strategic alliance called Universities Ireland.

Its objective will be to further harness the potential of the universities North and South in terms of enhanced co-operation, particularly in terms of linkages with business. We in Government are supporting that initiative. I believe that an enhanced partnership between universities on the island further underlines the potential of Ireland for US companies in terms of their own strategic development over the next 10 to 20 years.

Secondly, I see the US role as continuing to be critical in the political arena. Could I take this moment to pay specific tribute to the enormous contribution that the United States has made thus far in supporting the peace process in Ireland. It has truly been a bi-partisan journey. President Clinton and his Administration were immense in their unstinting support and solidarity during the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement. I am sure that history will record that fully and rightly. The role of Congress and our many friends in Irish America was also crucial.

Somebody who belongs to both categories is with us today and I would like to acknowledge him particularly. Senator Chris Dodd, your representative in the Senate, has made an outstanding and sustained contribution to the peace process in Ireland. Chris, we thank you for that and for being a real friend through good times and bad.

And, of course, I have already acknowledged the indispensable contribution of George Mitchell. President Bush and his Administration have continued in the same vein and the President has been a tremendous support to the process as we seek to finish the course we have embarked upon, something we deeply appreciate.

I take this opportunity today in the great state of Connecticut to ask the United States to continue encouraging the parties to make the final steps towards full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Yes, we have made great strides, as I have already pointed out. But now it is time to close the deal.

Last May, Tony Blair and I published a document called the Joint Declaration, which set out what the two Governments would do in terms of finalising implementation of the Agreement.

But the parties have to play their part as well. The IRA, with the encouragement of Sinn Fein, must make clear in unequivocal terms that paramilitary activity is at an end and will not be resumed, and do so in a way that convinces Unionists and the rest of us that this is the case. Unionists must be able to reassure Nationalists that once this is done, they will resume participation in the institutions in a full and sustained way. Time is short and we must all act soon to get politics back on track.

I have made clear elsewhere that I believe that elections at an early date in Northern Ireland are a key part of the way forward. It has been five years now since the last time the people have spoken in Northern Ireland. It is time for them to have their say again.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it has been a great honour for me to receive this award from Fairfield University. I hope that in my remarks of acceptance, I have helped you understand a little of where we stand in Ireland today and, in particular, of ho w we are seeking to build on the precious gift of peace that has been placed within our grasp.

I am very hopeful for the future. We have made huge progress in these past few years and I sense an overwhelming desire on both parts of the island that there be no going back.

John F Kennedy talked in his inauguration speech about the torch having been passed to a new generation of Americans. I believe that something of that nature is happening in its own way in Ireland today. In the land of his forebears, we in this generation have been given a golden chance to begin again. We do not intend to let it slip. I believe that he would approve.

Thank you.