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Address by President Michael D Higgins to the Scottish Parliament

Edinburgh, Scotland, 29 June 2016

Presiding Officer,

First Minister,

Members of the Scottish Parliament,

A Cháirde,


Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, is mór an onóir dom é aithéasc a thabhiart i bparlaimint ár gcomharsa agus ár gcairde.

[As President of Ireland, it is a great honour to address the parliament of our close neighbours and dear friends.]

It is also a great pleasure to address this House, not merely because of its already-proud history which makes this august institution worthy of the respect of all democrats, but because of the people who have served in it and who incarnate and perpetuate the ancient political and democratic tradition of the Scottish people, giving it full contemporary expression.

The bonds of kinship and history between our peoples are woven thick, finding expression today in a deep affection and empathy between Irish and Scots wherever our paths cross. Ours is a friendship which I deeply value as I know you do.

You might even say that, given our shared and complex history, it has often been difficult to say where ends and where begins, or the other way around. Fundamentally, we are all intermixed migrants, whose shared existence owes more to the transience of our migrations than to the sedentary experience of possessions or property.

From the ancient tribes who passed between our nations to farm, to fish, to trade, to preach and to pray, or to make war and to conquer – from the Celts and Picts to the Scots and Gallowglass – the patterns of migration between Ireland and Scotland are dense and overlapping. They even extend back before history, to the Age of Legend.

By the time Scotland emerged onto the pages of written history, Gaelic culture was thriving and gave this land its very name – Scotia, the land of the Scotti, the original preferred Latin name for the Irish. So, whilst there may have been quite stark differences between Scotland and Ireland from the Middle Ages onwards, there is no escaping this one overriding link that, for many centuries, the Irish and the Scots (that is to say, the dominant political élite within Scotland) traced their ancestry back to a common Gaelic origin.

We see this expressed, for example, in a letter in Latin that Robert Bruce sent to Ireland (probably in 1315), as he was seeking an alliance with the Irish so that ‘our nation’, nostra nacio, the Scots and Irish nation, might be able to recover her ancient freedom.

“The king sends greetings to all the kings of Ireland, to the prelates and clergy, and to the inhabitants of all Ireland, his friends. Whereas we and you and our people and your people, free since ancient times, share the same national ancestry and are urged to come together more eagerly and joyfully in friendship by a common language and by common custom, we have sent over to you our beloved kinsmen, the bearers of this letter, to negotiate with you in our name about permanently strengthening and maintaining inviolate the special friendship between us and you so that with God’s will our nation may be able to recover her ancient liberty…”

Thus, in this defining, the Scots and Irish themselves as being of the same nation and spoke a common Gaelic tongue.

Over the centuries, we have both come to add the English language to our spoken tongues, but there too, we have taken that language and moulded it in our own unique ways – gifting it back to the world chaged, enriched and enlivened with our own sounds and syntax. Burns and Yeats, Heaney and MacDiarmid, Stevenson and Joyce, Wilde and Duffy, Welsh and Doyle – all have shaped the English language as it is known today.

The intertwined nature of our shared past has had a reciprocal influence on the destiny and the fabric of each of our countries – perhaps more than we realise.  Perhaps, we have both too often been defined, and too often defined ourselves, through the prism of our relationship with our other neighbour, England, to the detriment of a full appreciation of the rich historical links that unite our two lands across the North Channel.

We are, after all, creatures who carry multi-layered identities – identities which do not imprison us from new imaginative worlds or curtail, either, our curiosities, our courtesies our hospitality.

Of course, our overlapping histories have not always been characterised by harmony. Our national stories have been marked by discord, divisions, and at times great tragedy. In the 17th century, the plantation of Ulster by mainly Scottish farmers would irreversibly alter the history of Ireland and Scotland.

In the 18th century, one of Ireland’s best known and best loved laments Mo Ghile Mear captured the sorrow felt after the Battle of Culloden and the flight of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The sadness of exile, the sense of loss experienced by those left behind, captured in so many of our songs, stories and poetry, are feelings which will always resonate with nations such as ours.

The intense pride that we take, today, in our diasporas has some of its roots in the tragedies and suffering of past centuries. When famine devastated Ireland in the 1840s, the Scottish Highlands were also being brought low by hunger. The Great Irish Famine – An Gorta Mór – did not just reshape the Irish nation; it reshaped our relationship with Scotland. In 1841 the Irish represented just 4.8% of the population of Scotland. Yet by 1848, it was estimated that an average of a thousand Irish people arrived in Glasgow every week, and by 1851, 7.2% of the population of Scotland was Irish, whereas in England and Wales, it was just 2.9%.

The story of these movements of peoples is complex. The 19th century, with its economic upheavals and ideologically driven policies, pitted settled poor against the impoverished migrant, often using confessional difference as a wedge to sow enmity. he work of Professor Bernard Aspinwall is among those on which I have drawn, in the past, when examining the

The famine memorial planned for Glasgow promises to sensitively memorialise that time when famine stalked the land and both peoples were sorely afflicted. This is appropriate, for I believe that an informed and respectful recognition of the complexities of our common past, an ethical remembering, can help us build a better future.

Today, we do stand together in very different circumstances, as with shared challenges that are both regional and global. Divisions of creed or allegiance have, to a very great extent, melted away and we can appreciate more clearly the long history, and above all its often neglected migratory quality, that we share.

We can see before us now the enormous potential for partnership and cooperation, grounded in the values that we share, as we are both now seeing creativity as a departure point for policy, rather than in any narrowly residual or utilitarian sense. Before I became President of Ireland, in my role as a member of Dáil Éireann, I had the opportunity to discuss these issues with some of your cultural institutions and communities, and I am pleased to see that cultural and intellectual institutions continue to enjoy strong support and prioritisation in Scottish public policy.

In 2013, I had the privilege of making my own personal pilgrimage to the island of Iona, where I was able to pay tribute to St Colmcille, a Derryman and the founder of the island’s greatly influential abbey a monk who valued the creation and acquisition of knowledge, but more importantly, its dissemination – values which both Ireland and Scotland have taken to heart and have made manifest across the centuries through a commendable commitment to education.

Building on that shared tradition of education and learning, Ireland and the devolved Scottish Executive and Parliament are identifying exciting new areas for co-operation, where our two nations their unique skills and talents, can combine to meet the challenges and opportunities of our technological age. 

As two yet highly skilled countries, with highly skilled workers on the periphery of Europe, we share a belief that our combined resources, expertise and experiences can create a dynamism that is greater than the sum of our two separatee conomies.

Today we see great progress in trade and cooperation in areas such as the creative industries information technology, renewable energies and, of course, in the agri-food sector and in  tourism. 

The ease with which citizens of both our countries can place the economic and material within a frame of culture and social cohesion, accepting the value of mutuality, is an old, and in contemporary teams, powerful asset.

We are both committed to deepening this bond. In the past year alone, Ireland has grown its diplomatic representation in Edinburgh, and the Scottish Government has established a representative office in Dublin. The potential for growing our work together is, I believe, endless – in culture, in economic and social development, and in promoting the peace, stability and prosperity that have marked the transformative recent decades between these two islands.

Indeed, in the last fortnight, the First Minister hosted a meeting with the Taoiseach and representatives of all administrations in the British Irish Council in her home town of Glasgow, in which key challenges of today were to the fore – social inclusion, educational attainment and the provision of housing. This is work we must continue together, and I commend Scotland’s leadership in this body and the work of all of the developing structures for cooperation between our governments and peoples.

We see, too, how Ireland and Scotland, nations on the world stage, can also play an important role in addressing issues which are of a global nature.

Scotland has long been a source of illumination for the other nations of the world, from the lighthouses of the Stevenson family to the dazzling early promise of the Scottish Enlightenment,groundingin a balance between science and ethics. Ireland, too, has for long been an outward-looking nation, committed to the principles of internationalism and multilateralism

The key issues of our time – global development, climate change, peace and the resolution of conflicts – demand all of our engagement. All of us with and resources must challenge ourselves to come up with solutions to the unresolved issues of global poverty, food insecurity, desertification, unsustainable levels of debt, distorted trade and well-documented abuses of power.

We have, in recent years, in all regions of the world, seen the consequences of unsustainable economic models, which have fomented instability and widening inequalities. We live in an unjust world, where those who consume are not the same as those who suffer the consequences of excessive consumption, where the burden of climate change falls all too often on those least equipped to bear it, where conflicts rage while the outside world looks on, a world the rhetoric of reason while living with irrationality

Insatiability had been unleashed with consequences that flow from a fractured relationship between nature, science, economy, and ethics. The quenched voices of the spirit and the heart that informed political economy at its best moments, including its Scottish moments, are a mere echo, too often dismissed as normative and therefore easily excluded from our discourse.

We may be at a turning point. The Sustainable Development Goals which were recently agreed upon by the UN, are both an opportunity for engagement and an urgent exhortation to action. They call for new economic and development models to be brought forward, ones that are aimed at ensuring that development, be it here in Europe or in Africa, serve the basic needs and human rights of communities rather than being subservient to unrestrained and unaccountable financial markets, assumed ideologically to be self-balancing. Taken with the Paris Agreement on climate change, governments and parliaments now have a blueprint towards which to direct the radical shift in thinking that is so pressingly needed.

In addressing issues like global poverty, it will be insufficient to rely on what, however palliatively, philanthropy has to offer. We must summon all of our creative and innovative capacities to find new solutions, technological, social and political, to the problems afflicting our planet in order to meet the basic needs of our populations – and these solutions must be delivered as a question of right rather than as a concession of charity or an imposition of unsustainable models of consumption. This means challenging entrenched ways of thinking, and understanding the world in a different way, allowing the space for pluralist discourse and scholarship.

Ireland is committed to playing its part in re-imagining our approach to these questions. I believe that Scotland will have an invaluable role in addressing these great issues as well.

The great intellectual tradition of this country, grounded in a fine appreciation of the necessary balance between reason and morality, is an invaluable wellspring from which we can draw. It was a Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith, who, in his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, argued that ethical concerns must underpin our social and economic systems. His later work The Wealth of Nations has, unfortunately, generated the most abused account of text and intention.

Indeed it was Smith who argued that our understanding of what is right and good is formed by living in communities, alongside other people, by learning to value their happiness and to share in their sorrows, to feel as they feel – to cultivate what Smith called ‘moral sympathies’. There is the atmosphere of Scottish moral thought, and his words glow like coals. Regrettably, the international economic order

Yet, Smith’s idea of moral sympathy resonates powerfully today. Our Irish and Scottish communities can be conceived of as participating in a series of concentric circles. The innermost circle is made up of the national collective, with whom it is easiest for us to empathise. The next layer is the European collective, people who are bound together by values, lifestyles and institutions. Next then are our diasporas, those with whom we share, not only a culture and a history but our shared aspirations.

We must challenge ourselves to extend our moral sympathies beyond these proximate circles, to those with whom all we share is our common humanity. As Smith wrote, “Our good-will is circumscribed by no boundary, but may embrace the immensity of the universe”[1]. The challenge, then, is to take that good will and translate it into action.

“Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn”. If we imagine ourselves in the position of those currently fleeing war-torn Syria, or trapped in an unending cycle of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or in the position of future generations living in toxic and hostile environments, we could not acquiesce to inaction.

For a long time, the Irish and the Scots found that our own were forced to seek sustenance abroad. The strength and vitality of our diasporas be attributed to the bravery and indomitable spirit that motivated our ancestors to seek better lives for themselves and their families, but also to the welcome received on foreign shores.

Perhaps, then, with our traditions and values, we might both be expected to play leading parts in showing the ethical leadership that is so needed at this moment in our history.

Finally, may Ispeak directly to you as parliamentarians. I congratulate you on the recent landmark of the fifth election to the Scottish Parliament. I wish the new members to this House well and I wish you all every success in the next parliamentary sessions which will see additional powers devolved to Scotland, and I am sure many new challenges in your work.

French philosopher Michel Foucault tells us that three things were key to the functioning of Athenian democracy. Isonomia, which means that all are equal before the law; isegoria, that all have equal right to speak; and finally, parrhesia, perhaps the most complex of all. Usually translated as “free speech”, Foucault understood it as something else, an imperative to speak the truth even – perhaps especially – if you suspect your words will not be well received.

It is not surprising to me that in this city, the Athens of the North, we find such a fierce commitment to equality, to allowing people to use their voices to speak their mind, and to having the tough conversations. We Irish and Scots have a reputation for this, and we should not shirk from it! We must assert the necessary importance of critical thinking pluralist scholarship, emancipatory living. 

As I have previously stated in addresses to the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, parliament is where the invaluable tradition of deliberative politics is put into practice. In parliament, it is imperative that we engage in robust debate and discussion – we must be unafraid to challenge outdated policies, received wisdoms, and inequalities which have ceased to shock us by how widespread and familiar they have become.

The democratic tradition was most recently exercised on the question of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. While these votes were explicit expressions of support for one of the two sides, they were also affirmations of the democratic system.

It takes bravery to commit to governing co-operatively collaboratively, with respect. The growth of a temporary, inchoate populism in Europe and America shows that the values we have strived so hard to put into practice in our democratic systems, and the forms of communication and connection upon which they relied, are not impermeable.

We must respond to demagoguery with an informed, open, respectful, tolerant and engaged discourse, and with respectful debate. to do democracy better rather than resile to old and divisive myths based on exclusion, and thinly veiled hate or racism. This is where Scotland has led by example – but our responsibility is greater than ever.

We are all of us as parliamentarians, as democrats, and as citizens, shocked by the recent death of one of our number, Jo Cox, who was murdered while carrying out her democratic functions as a representative of the people. Jo exemplified the very best of principled public representative politics, and we, all of us who share her fearless commitment to principled and respectful political debate, owe it to her memory to work harder than ever at this crucial moment to strengthen our democratic system and make it work to meet the needs of our people

Agus sibh ag cur tús le bhur dtéarma parlaiminteach, is mian liom gach rath a ghuí ar bhur n-iarrachtaí ar son bhur dtoghcheantar agus ar son mhuintir na hAlban.

[As you begin your parliamentary term, I wish you well in your efforts for your constituencies and for the Scottish people.]

May I conclude by saying that the welcome I have received in Glasgow and now in Edinburgh has touched me deeply, and I take it as a mark of the warmth of the relationship between our peoples, a relationship that has such as rich history and such a promising future.

We may be two at the edge of Europe, but we are both, to borrow MacDiarmid’s line “infinite, multiform”. We share a moral vision and an ethical impulseunrelated to any we might wield. We can be influential advocates for those who struggle to make their voices heard in our world and, strengthened by our ancient democratic traditions and our present institutions, we can ensure a prosperous and peaceful future for all of our people.

Thank you.




[1] Smith, Adam. 1759. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie (eds.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976. p. 235