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Address by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, T.D., at the European Movement Ireland European of the Year Award 2016


Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.

Before starting, I’d like to pay tribute to Noelle O’Connell, Maurice Pratt and all the staff of European Movement Ireland - EMI - who do such great work in highlighting and promoting the positives of the European Union to Ireland. Their work is facilitated by the EMI membership – many of you – and of course generous sponsorship from a variety of sources - in particular, the Award’s sponsor, Zurich, and their CEO, Patrick Manley, without whom this event would not be possible.

I should also acknowledge the winner of last year’s award, Catherine Day, who was honoured for her outstanding commitment to Europe over a long and distinguished career. I understand that Catherine is an honorary President of the EMI and is putting her invaluable experience to good use.

So I’m delighted to be here today in the Shelbourne Hotel, where EMI’s journey first began back in 1954 as the Irish Council of the European Movement. There have been many twists and turns along the way, not least Ireland joining the EEC, as it was then, in 1973. And quite clearly, there is more change to come.

But we are here today to honour the recipients of the 2016 European of the Year Award and it is a particular pleasure for me, not just in my capacity as Minister for defence but also as Taoiseach, to be presenting this to Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Defence Forces. This past year has seen exemplary service displayed to Ireland and globally, often in very difficult circumstances. There have been many journeys but, to provide just one illustration, this year alone, over 7,000 lives have been saved in the Mediterranean by the Naval Service. This is a sobering thought but also testament to their achievements. It is no less than what we have come to expect, but no less remarkable for that.

Challenges facing the EU
The migration crisis is among the most pressing challenges facing Europe today. But there are a myriad of others and I think we have to recall that the European project is itself a journey. The word ‘movement’ in EMI’s title is an acknowledgement of this. So what are we facing as we progress on our journey?

Well, in addition to the migration and refugee crisis, and concerns about Russia, the UK decision to leave the EU poses very significant challenges for us all.

Irish Commitment to EU
Ireland and the UK, along with Denmark, joined the EU at the same time in 1973 and we regret that our paths will now diverge. EMI, like the Irish Government, was active in the lead-up to the UK referendum, making sure our voices were heard as friends. The ‘Phone A Friend’ campaign was especially notable, and EMI should be commended for that.

However, we respect the decision of the UK electorate and Ireland, like other EU partners, is now focusing on what comes next.

It’s important to highlight Ireland’s own, ongoing, strong commitment to membership of the EU and the eurozone. The Irish people have consistently endorsed this, including during the financial crisis when we faced our most difficult economic challenges since independence.

I believe this reflects an appreciation of the values we share, as well as the positives of EU membership. Membership of the EU has been central to the success of our open, competitive economy and has been the foundation for much of the social progress since we joined over forty years ago.

We benefit greatly from the EU’s existing trade agreements and – notwithstanding current difficulties - we look forward to others. The social dimension of the EU, with its focus on workers’ rights, gender equality and non-discrimination reflects distinctly European values, which are shared in Ireland. The Union also allows us the chance to address shared problems, such as climate change or - particularly relevant to the Defence Forces - international peace and security, in an integrated way.

Brexit preparations
But there is no doubt that the UK’s departure from the European Union will pose enormous challenges for Ireland, as Britain’s closest neighbour. In preparing for the negotiations, the Government’s headline priorities are the impact on the economy and our citizens; Northern Ireland; the Common Travel Area; and of course, the future of the EU itself. We have been engaging with our EU partners and the EU institutions to highlight and explain these concerns in the hope that they will be factored into the negotiations when they finally commence.

In Ireland, because of our historic, geographic, political and economic links to Britain, we have been aware for a long time of the potential implications arising from Brexit. There was therefore extensive activity in response to the referendum result, and this work has stepped up further in recent months, with all Government Departments developing risk analysis and scoping out priority issues in advance of the negotiations. To bring this all together, a new Cabinet Committee on Brexit has been established, which I chair, and this has been meeting on a regular basis.

We intend to play an active and constructive role in the negotiations, when they start, and we hope that the future relationship between the EU and the UK will be as close and positive as possible. However it is important to state that we will be very much part of the EU 27 team and that we adhere to the principles agreed in June – essentially the indivisibility of the four freedoms and no negotiation without notification.

Future of Europe
Clearly there are many challenges facing the Union. We need to address these head-on and recapture a sense of purpose for our journey.

The debate on the future orientation of Europe, which began in earnest in Bratislava in September, will continue over the next few months. I firmly believe that, rather than thinking of further integration which would require protracted negotiations or changes to the treaties, we should focus on implementing measures in areas which have a direct and positive impact on the lives of our citizens and on communicating more effectively with our citizens.

We need to have a balanced approach here. Addressing migration and security concerns is of course important, but economic issues remain central to the Union. In addressing these – generating employment, growth and investment, pushing ahead with the Digital Single Market and Capital Markets Union, completing the Single Market, and completing trade agreements - the lives of EU citizens can be transformed in a real and tangible way.

The Government is committed to safeguarding and promoting Ireland’s place at the heart of Europe, and playing a full part in developing our response to the challenges, as an active and constructive EU member state.

And that very point – playing our full part in Europe – brings me to today’s award and its very worthy recipients.

Defence Forces
Since the foundation of the State, the Defence Forces have been a lynchpin of our democracy and a manifestation of our values. The work of the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann has brought great honour to Ireland and has enhanced Ireland’s reputation and influence in international affairs

Part of our commitment to Europe means working together with our partners to respond to the many challenges we face. The work of the Defence Forces is the clearest practical fulfilment of that commitment. From the first foreign mission by an Irish naval vessel, which repatriated the remains of W.B. Yeats from Nice to Galway, through the early peacekeeping missions and the dangers they faced, the Defence Forces have always done Ireland proud. Ireland’s participation in UN and UN mandated missions illustrates the very positive and practical difference that small countries, like Ireland, can make in the world’s trouble spots.

There are representatives from all branches of the Defence Forces here today. However, it is perhaps, particularly fitting that the current Chief of Staff is from the Navy, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett. I hope I won’t be stoking any rivalry between the different branches of the Defence Forces by highlighting the Naval Service. Maybe I should simply say that, like myself, Vice Admiral Mellett is from Mayo, and let the rest of you here in Dublin talk about other rivalries in Croke Park?

The current humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean is a particularly vivid example of the professionalism of the Naval Service, and indeed of Ireland’s solidarity with Europe. In response to the needs of people on the frontier of Europe, the six vessels which have patrolled the sea over two years have saved a total of 15,600 lives. While it is a tragedy that so many people attempt these dangerous crossings – and we are working to address that - the achievements of our Naval Service are indeed remarkable.

But more broadly, across the Defence Forces, we have around six hundred and sixty personnel serving across eleven missions overseas. These include UN missions and a number of EU operations, as we continue to develop the Union’s ability to respond to global needs. We have soldiers as far afield as Mali, engaged in crucial training tasks, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our current largest deployment of 379 personnel is to UNIFIL where we work in partnership with military personnel from Finland and Estonia as part of the IrishFinnBatt. These are some of the Missions which draw our attention but there is also daily work in close cooperation with all our EU partners on planning and coordination of international operations in support of the United Nations. I can personally confirm the esteem in which all the Irish participants in these operations are held. They serve us all with great distinction.

So in commending their work, I am delighted to ask Vice Admiral Mellett to accept, on behalf of all of the Defence Forces, the 2016 European of the Year Award.

Thank you.