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Speech at a Gala Reception to mark his visit to Newfoundland


It is a real pleasure to be here with you this evening.  Since I accepted the Premier’s kind invitation, I have been looking forward to this visit but I did not visualise quite such a magnificent setting - looking out, as we are, over the City of St. John’s, the capital city of this great Province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Like many an air traveller on the transatlantic route, I have touched down briefly in Gander on a number of occasions over the years.  I have read and heard much over the years about this Province and about its deep and historic connections with Ireland.  Regrettably, my first official visit must be a short one.  But it is already a memorable occasion for me as it represents the fulfilment of a childhood ambition that I would like to share with you.

The place that I call home is Drumcondra, just a fifteen-minute walk from the centre of Dublin.  I was born and reared there and have not moved very far, even to this day.  Despite being a city boy, I spent many long summer days with my late father on a nearby farm.  My Dad managed the farm and maintained the grounds at All Hallows College.  As many of you know, this was a Catholic seminary.  It focused on training priests for what were known as “The Missions”.

As a young boy playing and working in the College grounds, I first met young citizens of Newfoundland.  These were men barely out of their teens, who had travelled to Dublin to study for the priesthood.   They talked with deep affection of the communities from which they had come – towns on the Avalon Peninsula and other parts of Newfoundland, ports and outports round the coast of the place that they called home. 

I was to learn that Newfoundland is one of the oldest settlements which formed part of the overall pattern of Irish emigration.  Our people have strong ties of blood, of culture and kinship which reach back over three hundred years. Around the 1750s, people from Waterford and Wexford and all over the South East of Ireland sailed back and forth to a “Newfound Land”.  Some of these migrants were merchants.  Most were workers who made their living on the great cod fisheries off the Grand Banks. 

Later, they wintered here and finally, many stayed to make a new life for themselves.  Most of the migrants came from within a one days-walk of Waterford city and they sailed from the Waterford Estuary and settled within 100 miles of St. John’s.  This intensive migration has resulted in the Irish ancestry of half the population of Newfoundland.

 The Irish who came to this Province brought with them their language, their folklore, their music and dance, their names, their customs, their social practices and their way of life.  The legacy of those Irish migrants clearly remains active and visible in your Province today.  Even though I am here just a few hours, I am already struck by a strong sense of belonging here, of being at home away from home.  I have heard so many Irish names and seen so many familiar looking faces.  A roll call of the names here this evening would authenticate more than any words of mine the strength of the links between Ireland and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Of course, I know that the people of Newfoundland form a complex and diverse ethnic mix.  I know that the gene pool has a healthy share of English, Scottish, Welsh and maybe some French as well.  We Irish, however, have no qualms about claiming credit for those strands of your DNA that have given you your well deserved reputation for outstanding hospitality and warmth.  And we will also claim parentage of your musical talents! 

But you know, it is useful to recall how the different nationalities came together here and managed to forge a thriving new community in difficult circumstances.  In doing so, I reflect on the challenges that lie ahead for the island of Ireland.  As you probably know, we have seen enormous progress in recent years in Northern Ireland and we now look to the future with renewed expectation.  In particular, we are hopeful that the IRA has ended its campaign and that it will shortly put all of its weapons beyond use under the supervision of Canada’s General John de Chastelain. We greatly appreciate his role and the enormous support which Canada has given to the peace process over the years.  I thank you for that and I hope that we can take inspiration from the way your Province, and other diverse peoples in the New World, came together to build a new community. 

Inevitably, as the centuries and decades move on, the memory of early traumatic migrations fade.  We rightly tend to turn our eyes and our energies to the future.

Like you, Premier Williams, I take a keen interest in economic and business development.  In the type of high value-added economies on which both our countries now depend, this means a huge emphasis must be placed on science and technology as the lynch-pin of our future economic growth. 

In this context, our Irish universities and research institutes have successfully partnered with their Canadian counterparts over many years.  We have had several promising developments over the past number of years with your own prestigious Memorial University.  All this gives me great optimism about our future together.   

Not suprisingly, our cooperation programme also has a strong arts and culture element.  Indeed, in this very building, at the present time, are two prestigious art exhibitions that have travelled here from Ireland.  One is an exhibition drawn from the collection of the Irish Museum of Modern Art.  The other is called Limestone Barrens, an exhibition which is part of a three-way exchange between Ireland, Newfoundland and Ontario. 

All of these activities reflect the fact that, in the last nine years, positive and practical steps have been taken to build on the historic ties that exist between our islands. 

The real challenge for political and business leadership in our respective homelands is to build on the common ties to enable us to grow and develop in the future.  From the contacts which have already been established under the Memorandum of Understanding, I am convinced of the potential that exists for joint enterprise development and business investment in both jurisdictions. 

The Ireland-Newfoundland Partnership Board (INP) has been doing important work with your equivalent body - the Ireland Business Partnership - for the last number of years.  I know that many of you here this evening have been involved with the activities of these boards, and I thank you all sincerely for your efforts.  If I may, I would like to give a special mention to Wally Kirwan, a former senior official in my Department who is now Vice Chair of the INP, Agnes Aylward the Director of the INP and Newfoundland’s own Andrea Thompson who ably assists her. I would also like to say a special word of thanks to our Honorary Consul, Craig Dobbin, for his tireless efforts on Ireland’s behalf.

Much has been said and written in the economic literature about the Celtic Tiger.  Naturally, as Taoiseach and as a member of Government during the past two decades, I am very proud of our recent economic success. The future for our island is brighter than at any time in its past. We are enjoying prosperity and growth unknown to previous generations of Irish men and women.  There are many parallels with your own situation in Newfoundland. 

I know, Premier, that you have worked tirelessly in office to stimulate the growth engine in your own economy and I want to congratulate you on the positive direction now taken by the key economic indicators: employment growth; capital investment; and rate of inflation. I would particularly like to congratulate you on the recently agreed Atlantic Accord which I understand will result in a significant financial injection to your economy.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

I want to close my remarks by saying again what a pleasure it is to be here in the beautiful city of St. John’s, in this wonderful building.  This great new public space must be a source of pride and confidence in the future for the City of St. John’s and all the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

I am also looking forward to having a closer look tomorrow at the Basilica of St John the Baptist, which I know celebrated its 150th Anniversary just last week.  I was sorry to miss out on the celebrations because this great Basilica is undoubtedly the most significant and prestigious visible manifestation of the historical ties between Ireland and Newfoundland.  It was the dream of Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming who was born in 1792 in Piltown, Co. Kilkenny and many Irish men had a hand in its construction, with material comprising Galway limestone and Dublin granite. 

I want to assure you, Premier Williams, distinguished guests and friends of Ireland, of the esteem and affection that we in Ireland feel for your Province.  More importantly, I want you to know in the clearest terms that we want to continue to develop the economic, cultural and business links between our two parts of the world in the common interest of our citizens.

Premier Williams, as a lawyer, and as a political leader operating within a confederation, you will have an interest in Constitutions.  Article 2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of Ireland, states that:

“…the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”.

I know, from the depth of your welcome, that nowhere in the world is this affinity deeper or more cherished than in the place where I stand today.  May our friendship and our cooperation at all levels prosper and grow over the years to come.