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Speech by the Taoiseach, Mr. Leo Varadkar, T.D., At the Washington Ireland Programme Voices Conference


Thank you Heather for the kind introduction, and thank you Martin for your opening remarks, and thank you especially to the Washington Ireland Programme for inviting me here today.

Before I begin, I would like to welcome B.R. McConnon back to Ireland and wish him the very best in his term as Chair of the Programme. Bryan, and everyone involved have put together an excellent line-up of speakers this morning. It is inspiring to see so many young, enthusiastic and idealistic students from the Class of 2017 – today’s thinkers who are tomorrow’s leaders.

One of the most formational experiences of my life was in 2000 when I was accepted on this programme, then called Young Leaders.
I spent a great summer in Washington DC as an intern in the office of Jack Quinn, a Congressman for the 30th District of New York, a district that no longer exists because of demographic changes.

I will always be grateful to Kathleen Barger and her family in Alexandria, Virginia, for their wonderful hospitality and kindness.

Back then it was great to be able to see close-up how a political office worked, and to be able to meet with fellow interns and people on both sides of the political divide, Democrats and Republicans.

What I learned most of all is the lesson that real leadership is not about following the crowd and hoping to channel their feelings. It is about doing what you believe is right, regardless of the consequences, standing by your vision and hoping to inspire people to share it.

I know it is a lesson that your distinguished guest, Jake Sullivan, understands very well. A few years ago Jake spoke to a group of students and quoted Bob Dylan on the virtue of young people interrupting more senior people and saying ‘I have an idea’. He reminded us that what can be perceived as impertinence may not always be so.

I think we need more young people to be disruptive and constructive in the world today.

The Economy
The government is working on a number of challenges and our approach is underpinned by a strong economic policy based on five key principles.

A prudent fiscal policy, balancing the budget and reducing the national debt.

Ensuring that work pays by reducing personal taxation.

An ambitious programme for infrastructure investment.

A foreign policy that supports free trade, managed migration, keeping Ireland at the centre of Europe and embracing multi-lateralism as the best way to solve the world’s many problems.

Achieving full employment, a job for everyone who wants one, and more than that - good jobs that pay the bills, improved employment rights, and pensions.

Taken together, we want to ensure that in the future people are able to plan for themselves and their families, confident about where they work and where they live, how they travel, and about growing old securely.

Ireland and the World
Central to our view of the world is the belief that we are not an island at the edge of the continent, we are an island at the centre of the world - at the heart of the common European home we helped to build - confident about our place in the world at a time when so many other countries are not.

When it comes to the challenge of Brexit, our approach is based on ensuring we are shaping our own destiny, rather than relying on others to do it for us.

Ultimately we are working to secure three key things. We want the gains of peace process and the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement to be protected; we want no new barriers to trade, north/south or east/west; and we want to maintain the Common Travel Area and the reciprocity of civic rights between Britain and Ireland.

Northern Ireland
By helping to build bridges between north and south, and encouraging old mindsets to give way to a new spirit of hope, the Washington Ireland Programme has played its part in helping to build peace on this island.

The challenge of the next decade is to ensure that we continue to build bridges not borders, that we avoid a return to sectarianism or head counts and focus on bringing people together. Power-sharing is the way forward and the constitutional status of Northern Ireland should only change if there is cross community support for doing so. We will continue to play our part in promoting peace on this island.

Ireland in 2040
Today you will debate and discuss Ireland and the world in 2040. We are similarly engaged with these issues in government. Of course we are occupied with current issues and problems like the economy, education, the budget, health and housing, but we also recognise that a longer perspective is needed.

The government is also engaged in long-term contingency planning and is also preparing for the unexpected. Five years ago no one would have predicted that Brexit would be the challenge facing our generation, nor some of the other political changes which have taken place in the world. We cannot future proof against everything, but we can ensure that responsible, strategic planning insulates us against the most serious external threats.


I remember only too well that when you are a student you think you know all the answers to the problems of the world. You soon find out that you don’t have all the answers, it’s still right that you want to solve them. And so we should.

I think if more leaders and politicians and businesspeople around the world were infused with the spirit of the Washington Ireland Programme we would be a much better place.

Over the summer I read John F. Kennedy’s book ‘Profiles in Courage’ and one of the senators he admired was Daniel Webster. Webster once said that ‘anger is not an argument’. It is something worth remembering as we attempt to make sense of – and respond to – the challenges we face in the world. Webster believed that our democratic representatives should be the sentinels on the watch-tower of liberty. 
I think in the 21st century we should now extend that to our WIP students and alumni and everyone who has a passionate interest in our future. Society needs us all to be sentinels watching over the world.

Back in 2000 the Washington Ireland Programme allowed me to test ideas, challenge my pre-conceptions, and open my mind. It helped make me the politician and leader I am today.

Thank you and good luck.