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Speech of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., at the Museum of Orange Heritage, Cregagh Road, Belfast, 8 June 2018

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to extend my thanks to the Grand Orange Lodge and the Rev. Mervyn Gibson for the kind invitation to visit today.

I believe this is the first time an Irish Taoiseach has visited this place and it is long over-due. I want to thank you all for the very warm welcome I received today.

 

And, I am delighted to be here in Schomberg House.  Last year, when I paid my first official visit overseas I visited Canada and I went through the small town of Schomberg as we travelled through Ontario.  I must confess that the name did not mean anything to me, and I was embarrassed to discover afterwards it was named after someone who had played an important part in the history of these islands, and who is buried in St Patricks Cathedral in Dublin, my home city and a place I know well. 

 

So before I came here, I did some reading about Schomberg. I discovered he was described as ‘the ablest soldier of his age’ by Daniel Defoe, and that his death at the battle of Boyne brought tears to the eyes of King William, who called him his father.  He was someone who fought heroically in his eighties – and died in a foreign land - for what he believed was the cause of religious freedom.

 

His story brought home to me of the importance of knowing our own history in all its complexity, and learning from it.

 

So, I’m delighted to be here today on my first visit to the Museum to learn about the history and heritage of the Loyal Orange Institution.  It’s an important part of the story of this island – the whole island – past and present - and is a history which should be shared and embraced by everyone.

 

The museum is on the course of joint initiative with the museum of Ireland’s Heritage so is it’s house in Loch Gall in county Armagh, which I hope to visit sometime in the future. Certainly, what I will do when I go back to Dublin, is to encourage anyone who visit Belfast from all parts of the island and indeed all parts of the world to add this place to their itinerary. Especially, if they’re already planning to come to East Belfast for the Titanic Experience or any other visit.

 

The museum is a really good experience, it teaches us about our history, and it also builds connections with its neighbours.

 

I was delighted to hear about an exchange scheme to bring young school students from the south of the border to the museum. This is exactly the kind of cross-border initiative that makes a difference, and I would really to see an agreement put in place between the Orange Order and the Irish Government in the coming months to develop this to encourage many more school children to pay visits to Belfast and to make this part of their itinerary.

 

I am a regular visitor in Belfast as you know it in Northern Ireland and I think this is my 6th visit as Taoiseach but I have been here many times before that. But the first time I ever came to the North was when I was 18, we just didn’t cross the border enough and I love to see that as every school child’s experience to visit Belfast, visit Dublin, to visit the different parts of the Island and to understand places like this.

 

For those of you who haven’t, I would also like to take this opportunity to encourage you to come and visit the battle of the Boyne site in Oldbridge, County Meath, and other historical and tourist attractions in the Republic. I know a lot of people haven’t been to the battle of the Boyne site but it has been planned to be restored and I know some of you were involved in that project. I’d really like to encourage more people to visit it. 

 

If you visit Dawson Street in Dublin a stones throw from Dáil Éireann you can see the bronze plaque that was unveiled almost 20 years ago to commemorate the meeting of the first Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. 

 

As we all know, there are Orange lodges all over the island. In the past on my visit to Enniskillen, I the pleasure of meeting people from lodges in Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal and Leitrim.

 

Another place that is definitely worth the visit and that’s very much part of our heritage too, is the Bank of Ireland on College Green where we still have the old House of Lords chamber intact, perfectly preserved from the 18th century. 

There you can see two magnificent tapestries from our history, one of the siege of Londonderry, the other of the battle of the Boyne.  If you look closely at that tapestry in College Green you can see where Schomberg fell.

 

I was interested to read before I came here and see his picture on the Hall of Fame on the way in that Ernest Blythe, a member of cabinet in the first Irish free state Government and a founding father of my party, Fine Gael, was once a member of the Orange Order himself, though given that he was a member of the IRB at the same time – I’m not sure of his loyalty. 

I think it does speak to an inner truth which is that the DNA of Irish history is composed of billions of strands of different traditions, beliefs, and identities.  It is the most remarkable tapestry of all.  We should be proud of the strands that make us who we are, and the values we have fought for, and it does not lessen or devalue our respect for any other strand of that identity. 

 

The Orange Order is a perfect example.   Your history - like the history of Ireland and Britain - is not without loss or controversy.  

 

 

Here in Northern Ireland, I am conscious of the difficult and tragic legacy of those members of the Order killed during the Troubles.  I acknowledge that loss and to acknowledge the grief of those left behind, as I do for all lives lost during that terrible time that none of us ever want to return to.

 

I am also conscious of the often difficult relationship between the Orange Order and the nationalist community here in North. There are painful memories on all sides.

 

 

 

But I firmly believe that through interaction based on mutual respect and gracial understanding new relations can be forged and old difficulties overcome.  I don’t think any of us underestimate the task but it is essential for everyone that this work, step by step, be carried out and be done so successfully.

 

On all of my visits to Northern Ireland, I have been deeply struck by the appetite of people on the ground to engage with me and discuss with respect differing viewpoints.  I’m delighted to say that is also very true of my interactions yesterday evening and also today as well. I always feel very welcome.

 

As Taoiseach and head of the Irish Government, I appreciate and recognise the work of the Order as a community and a religious organisation, and the essential role that you have to play in reconciliation between the two communities – a role I know you will play into the future.

 

I believe that the building of a better future is the best way to honour the losses and tragedies of the past.

 

I come here with no hidden agenda.

 

The only goal of the Irish Government and our only policy is to respect the primacy of the Good Friday Agreement except in a referendum in both parts of the Island and everything it represents: 

  • Power sharing here in Northern Ireland
  • Ever closer cooperation between North and South
  • Peace in Britain and Ireland

 

That includes the protection of rights, freedoms and identities for all communities here and ensuring that we do not return to a hard border on this island.

 

That is the spirit of the 1998 Agreement and something that I am absolutely committed to maintaining. 

So, it is in that spirit that I am here today to learn more and to reflect on the history, to understand our different identities and traditions that are such a precious part of that history and heritage.

 

I want to ensure a future where identity in all of its complexity, whether Irish or British or Northern Irish and all of these things, is respected and celebrated across this island.

 

I know that there is more that we can do to build a greater understanding of each other, past, present and future.  

 

We share an island, we are neighbours and friends.  We are family, cousins at the very least, and I am committed to building on our engagement here today and into the future. 

 

 

If there had been religious toleration in France in the late 17th century, Schomberg would never have come to Ireland. He would’ve remained there and would have been a marshal there. Instead he decided to fight for religious freedom elsewhere.  I am glad to have had the opportunity to learn about him and about your history.

 

I believe we can all learn from each other.  We have a shared past and, I hope and I’m sure, a shared future. 

 

Thank you for the warm welcome here that I and my team have received here this morning and I look forward to keeping in contact on building this relationship into the future.