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Speech by the Taoiseach Mr. Enda Kenny T.D., at the Aisling Awards Belfast


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Thursday 17 November 2011

Distinguished Nominees;

Ladies and Gentlemen;

A Cháirde;
It is a great honour and pleasure for me to be with you at the Aisling Awards here in Belfast this evening.

These Awards honour and pay tribute to the people who have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of others in their own communities and beyond, and who scale exceptional heights in sport and in business.

Most important, they celebrate those with a vision of Belfast city at its best, and what it can be.

And what a city Belfast is!

What a great time to be in Belfast, just a short few days after the city was showcased to the world, when it played host to the MTV European Music Awards.

The image presented by the coverage of that event was one of a beautiful, vibrant and modern city. Somehow it seems appropriate too, that the images were overwhelmingly those of a celebration of positivity, of energy, and above all, of young people.
I will not pretend to be a member of the MTV generation; let me just say instead that I know a few of them!

The past.
Many of us here tonight can remember a different Belfast - a Belfast of a more troubled past.

It is wonderful to think that there are young people, at home and abroad, whose experience of this city, and of Northern Ireland more broadly, is one of celebration, of a life untainted by violence and sectarianism.

What a powerful message of looking to the future that Belfast sent out to the world.

Unfortunately, there is a small minority who want to disrupt the peace and harmony that has been forged.

But the vast majority are committed to peace, to reconciliation, and to a prosperous future. That is what we owe to ourselves, and above all that is what we owe to our young people.

I am pleased that the Irish Government has been able to use its Reconciliation and Anti-Sectarianism Funds to support some of tonight's nominees, including the Belfast Interface Project and the East Belfast Mission.

The economy.
The sad history of so much of this island is not the only shadow against which the light of youth and energy radiates brightly.
In more recent times, we have been faced with economic challenges of unprecedented scale.

My Government took office a few months after Ireland had entered an EU-IMF programme of financial support.

National debt had ballooned; the budget deficit was enormous; the banking sector was in disarray. Unemployment rocketed; emigration was back on the agenda for many.

Despondency might have been an easy option. But that is not my way.

We immediately set about the tough but necessary decisions to put our economy back on the right trajectory.

We restructured and recapitalised the banks. We negotiated improved terms on our external funding. We launched a new jobs initiative and set in train a comprehensive spending review.

Many people have had to make big, painful sacrifices. I don't pretend it is easy, but it is necessary. And in the long run, it will help us to build a better future.

Last week we announced our revised capital expenditure programme. Some projects have had to be ended, others have been postponed.

I know that news of deferral of our funding contribution to the A5/A8 road projects has come as a big disappointment to many in Northern Ireland.

But I want to stress - it is deferral, not abandonment. My Government remains fully committed to delivery of this important project, even if it must now be on a slower timeline.

I made this clear to the First Minister and deputy First Minister when I met with them in Dublin last Friday, and we agreed that we would work together on a new funding and implementation plan, including at tomorrow's North South Ministerial Council meeting.

These difficult decisions are a necessary part of the correction of our public finances. That, in turn, is needed in order to recover the trust of the financial markets, to turn the economy around and to foster growth and employment.

My Government is not the only one facing challenging economic circumstances. North and South, money is tight, jobs are scarce. I believe we can do more together to help each other.

We remain fully committed to further North-South cooperation across a full range of economic and social policies.

We are determined to work closely with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and the rest of the Northern Ireland Executive, to ensure that we achieve the greatest possible mutual benefit.

When I took up office I said I wanted to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to live, to work, to study and to do business. I believe the aims underpinning that aspiration can and should apply equally to all parts of this island.

And I can think of no finer ambition for us all to have, for the future of the young people I spoke about a few moments ago.
As we seek to move from the shadows of a tragic past and our current economic challenges, I believe we should have our eyes firmly on twin goals of peace and prosperity for all of our people.

Ladies and Gentleman, those goals of peace and prosperity can also be uppermost in our minds as we approach 2012 and a decade of commemoration of the centenaries of major events: ones which defined the relationship between the different traditions on the island of Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain, for the next 100 years.

Events such as the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the 1913 Lockout, the First World War, the 1916 Rising and those leading to the partition of Ireland and the establishment of the Irish Free State.

Our approach to each of these commemorations should be guided by the principles of historical accuracy, mutual respect, tolerance and inclusivity.

I am convinced that we can work together to ensure that we do so in a manner that builds on what has been achieved since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The strengthened relations between us mean that we can now acknowledge, more comfortably, the threads that weave the tapestry of our shared past.

The first signatory of the Ulster Covenant was a Dub! Edward Carson was born, reared and educated in Dublin.

Jim Larkin, who led the trade union movement in the Dublin Lockout in 1913, first developed his trade union skills in Belfast.

Tens of thousands of Irishmen, from North and South, fought and died in British uniforms during the Great War.

These are just a few examples of the extent to which we share a common past.

Today, our interconnectedness is once again more evident, more comfortable.

Perhaps the most remarked about expression of this was the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland earlier this year. But in many ways, what was most remarkable about that visit was its ordinariness, its normality.

The Queen and President McAleese participating together in ceremonies at the Garden of Remembrance and the National War Memorial was exactly what you would expect if our relationships were to be considered normal.

But there is other, less remarkable, evidence of how normalised our relations have become.

Just to take the last week alone, we saw the First and Deputy First Ministers attending the inauguration of Michael D. Higgins as our new President in Dublin Castle last Friday.

On Sunday, in his first official functions, President Higgins attended a Remembrance Day wreath-laying ceremony in Dublin, before travelling to Derry to attend the Cooperation Ireland Schools Choir Competition.

Even my own presence, as Taoiseach, here in Belfast tonight to participate in these awards would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.

I hope to visit Belfast City Hall tomorrow morning - something that might equally have been hard to contemplate in the recent past.

These are just examples but, in a way, highlighting them almost misses the point: the fact is that we now have enormous interaction and cooperation across the island.

This will stand to us now as we approach the job of commemorating so many significant events.

Working together, we can remember and reflect on the turmoil, conflict and tragedy of 100 years ago through the prism of peace and progress in the 21st century.

Academic enquiry has an important role to play in this endeavour, to help ensure that commemoration is carried out in an historically accurate manner.

But our artists, writers, musicians and other creative talents also have a major role to play. Commemoration is as much an act of imaginative engagement as of recollection.

Community groups, too, can help to make history come alive for ordinary people. Often the most vivid memories and recollections are those passed on within communities, by word of mouth, from generation to generation.

I know that much valuable work is already underway on this. I look forward to seeing a blossoming of local history and community commemorative initiatives in the decade to come.

I have asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, to lead a cross-party committee to ensure an inclusive approach to commemoration with the active participation of all relevant sectors of society, from across the island.

A panel of eminent academics and historians is being established to ensure historical accuracy and to contribute to context sensitive commemorative events, again including participants from the North.

I look forward to close engagement between North and South at all levels as we work together to deliver a commemoration programme that will be received and appreciated by all.

Working together, with the kind of energy and dedication we honour here this evening, I am sure that is possible.

Concluding comments.
In that regard, ladies and gentlemen I would like to conclude by paying tribute to all of the nominees in each award category here this evening. I know you are all worthy contributors to your community and are fully deserving of the recognition that nomination implies.

Finally, I would also like to thank Máirtin O Muilleoir and the Belfast Media Group, for your hospitality this evening at this wonderful awards ceremony.

The success of these awards mirrors the growth of the Belfast Media Group which now stretches from its origins in Andersonstown across this city, and even across the Atlantic to New York with its ownership of the Irish Echo.

Once again, it is a great privilege for me to be here among you tonight.

I wish the best of luck to each of the nominees, and I thank you all for your attention.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.


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