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Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., At the Ireland Fund Gala National Building Museum, Washington DC, 14 March 2018

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening. I am delighted to join you tonight for the Ireland Funds 26th National Gala.

In Ireland we never have any difficulty starting a party early, so as we approach Lá Fhéile Pádraig let me offer a special St. Patrick’s Day greeting to you all!

I would like to mention John Fitzpatrick, Kieran McLaughlin, and the entire team at The Ireland Funds on another record year for this extraordinary organisation.
I also want to thank all of you here this evening. The phenomenal work of ‘The Ireland Funds’ is made possible thanks to you.

Your generous support is a powerful expression of your commitment to peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland for more than forty years.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to take a moment to remember three people who sadly passed away over the last twelve months, who have left a significant legacy, not least through their support for ‘The Ireland Funds’.

Foremost in our thoughts tonight is your co-founder and someone I got to know as a colleague, Ambassador Dan Rooney, who passed away last April. Dan was an extraordinary man who made a huge impact during his time as America’s Ambassador to Ireland.

Just before Christmas, we lost Dr. Maurice Hayes, another stalwart of the Fund from its earliest days. Maurice made a contribution to building a better, more inclusive Ireland, north and south.  We remember him.

In January, Peter Sutherland, long-time Chair of the Ireland Funds in the UK passed away. In the course of a uniquely distinguished career, Peter never forgot those less fortunate.  For example, through his work with the Ireland Funds he championed the cause of the older Irish living in Britain.  

We remember all three with a mix of great pride and deep sadness. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is well known that one of Ireland’s greatest exports to the United States has been the art of politics.

Tonight we honour two very distinguished practitioners from that tradition, two great Irish-Americans - Congressman Richard Neal of Massachusetts and Congressman Peter King of New York.

Both have been steadfast in their commitment to the peace process. For successive Irish governments, they have long been two of our 'go to' people on Capitol Hill. Their unstinting support and wise counsel has been appreciated by many of my predecessors.

Their joint role as co-chairs of the ‘Friends of Ireland’ in Congress is a pivotal one. The organisation they lead has always been a vital pillar of US involvement in Northern Ireland.

So, I want to thank Richie and Pete for their incredible commitment to Ireland and to the continued development of our ties with the United States.

I would also like to pay tribute to the two honourees tonight, Anne Finucane, Vice Chairperson of Bank of America and Sean McGarvey of the North American Building Trades Union.

Anne, whose grandfather hails from Cork, has blazed a trail in corporate America and in philanthropy and has been a long-time supporter of the Funds.

Bank of America has been present in Ireland for over a half-century, employing some 700 people, and I am delighted that the bank is moving its principal EU entities to Dublin in response to Brexit, in doing so, confirming Ireland’s newly enhanced role as the gateway to the EU and its market of 500 million people.  

I am delighted also to pay tribute to Sean McGarvey, whose family roots are in Derry.
Through Sean, the proud tradition of Irish involvement in the American Labour movement - which dates right back to the struggle to secure decent employment and workers’ rights - continues today.

Every Irish person who sees the dramatic skyline of Manhattan takes pride in knowing that it was built largely by their forebears. It is wonderful to see this great tradition continued through the work of people like Sean.

We are proud of the achievements of our Irish diaspora.  And we are also proud of the contribution of our Irish citizens abroad, and we want to do something recognise it formally.  So, next year we will have a referendum to give votes in Irish presidential elections to our citizens oversees.  So no matter how far away people are, they will always be connected to home.  The Presidency we imagine, is a presidency not only for the Irish state but for our global Irish nation.

The theme of this Gala is the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

The United States has consistently been an outstanding friend and supporter of Ireland. This was never more evident than during the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Although there have been many bumps on the road during the past two decades, the hard-won peace that George Mitchell helped deliver in 1998 has been maintained.

He taught us, as he said, that ‘compromise is not a weakness, but a virtue necessary to serve the well-being of future generations’.  

The Good Friday Agreement was so painstakingly put in place to bridge Northern Ireland’s divisions, and set us on a path towards lasting reconciliation.

In the face of difficulties, we are resolute in our determination to protect all that has been achieved.  Blessed are the peacemakers, and blessed are those who work to make the peace last.

So we greatly appreciate the support of the many friends of Ireland in this country who have played such an important role over the decades.  You have helped achieve the new Ireland your ancestors could only imagine.  

Your influence and encouragement will continue to be crucial in the coming period.

Protecting the Northern Ireland Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement is an over-riding objective for Ireland in the negotiations on the UK’s departure from the EU. It’s more important than any other consideration for us.

I think the British Government acknowledges this, and we will work to ensure that the commitments that they have been made will be honoured in full.

Earlier, I mentioned how Ireland exported a new way of doing politics.  I believe the greatest export in the history of the United States is the American dream.  

It is a dream that has crossed oceans and continents, inspiring men and women to believe it is possible to strive for a greater life, and leave a better world for their children.  Democracy, freedom, the pursuit of happiness, individualism – American ideas that changed the world.

It is a dream which inspired Irishmen and women to fight for freedom, for the modern Irish Republic we have today.

American ideas and American values that spread around the world meant that a young boy growing up in Ireland, with an Indian father and an Irish mother, could dream of one day becoming the leader of his country, believing that the time would come when people would be judged on their principles and their ideals, on the content of their character and the quality of the work, and not on their sexuality or the colour of their skin.

These are our Irish values today.  We believe in equality before the law for all citizens, irrespective of gender, religion, race or sexual orientation.  We believe in free trade and free enterprise.  

We champion free speech and freedom of association.  And we are proud to assert that democracy and multi-lateralism are the best way of solving the world’s problems.

This will all sound very familiar to you, because these were American values before they were ours.

America was born to be a city on the hill, with the eyes of the world upon you, sending out a message of freedom and hope to all who could see it.  This great country became the Land of the Free, the nation founded by pilgrims seeking to practice their religion freely, where Lincoln fought a war to end slavery, and where the greatest generation defeated facism.  

The home of the brave, which raised the Iron Curtain and freed millions from communism.  

The dream which first made America great, was passed from generation to generation.  

And in each new era, when faced with great new challenges, America responded by becoming greater, again and again.  

It was here in the United States, in New York City at Stonewall, that citizens made a call for freedom that lit a spark that resonated around the world.   A country that welcomed migrants from all over the world – Jews, Catholics, Irish – and so many more who were drawn to your beacon of hope.  

These are the values that inspired me growing up.

This was what your founders intended.  The American dream was designed to travel the world.

It reminds us of George Washington who urged the citizens of a new Republic to do whatever was necessary to ‘keep alive that little spark of celestial fire’ he was also speaking directly to us.  

He was warning us that sometimes fires can be extinguished, and sometimes dreams can die.

The history of the United States is the story of how the dream of freedom, opportunity, and hope for all citizens – regardless of race, gender, sexuality or religion – must always survive.

Ladies and gentlemen, in these challenging times it is our responsibility to keep that dream alive.  

The celestial fire that has inspired people around the world will never be extinguished, because the American dream has now become a universal one.  And for that we thank you.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.