ADDRESS BY THE PRESIDENT OF IRELAND, MARY MCALEESE TO THE PARLIAMENT OF NEW SOUTH WALES
ADDRESS BY THE PRESIDENT OF IRELAND, MARY MCALEESE TO THE PARLIAMENT OF NEW SOUTH WALES ON TUESDAY, 8 SEPTEMBER, 1998
Mr Speaker, Madam President, Premier Bob Carr, Opposition Leader Peter Collins, Ministers, Representatives, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
On this, the first State Visit of my Presidency, I am particularly honoured to be the first President of Ireland to have been asked to address both Houses of the Parliament of New South Wales - the first Parliament of Australia. I am told that the only other Irish leader to have been invited onto the floor of this Parliament was the late President Eamon de Valera when he visited Australia as the then leader of the Opposition in the Irish Parliament in 1948. Half a century separates us, decades of remarkable change for our two countries. I am conscious in addressing you today that I do so in the presence of many of Irish heritage - including both your Premier and your Opposition Leader - who are here in this place in their own right as elected representatives of the people of New South Wales. Their contribution to this great state is something of which we in Ireland are particularly proud, for the building which houses a Parliament is surely the proudest institution of any democracy.
Mr Speaker, Madam President, I feel that today, I am truly in a place which epitomises in a special manner the essential nature of the relationship between Ireland and Australia. In this place we are surrounded by history and heritage, common values and shared experiences, and above all by a unique friendship, which spans not only the lifetime of this great institution - this peoples’ house - but goes beyond that to the very earliest days of the European settlement. For here in Sydney, when the tall ships first sailed into Botany Bay over two hundred years ago, the Irish Australian relationship was born - and Sydney, and the State of New South Wales, remains the heartland of that relationship.
From the very beginning of this new nation, Irish women and men have so often been at the forefront of the decisive events which have shaped its destiny, enhanced its personality and promoted its democratic institutions. Many of the Irish who came here were themselves restless spirits who had a profound and abiding faith in the ideals of freedom, justice and human dignity - a faith which they bequeathed to their new homeland. I think especially - in this 200 Anniversary year - of the leaders of the Great Irish Rebellion of 1798 who sought for their homeland, civil rights, Parliamentary reform, religious emancipation and ultimately the right for its people to choose their own destiny. The defeat of that rebellion led to the first major transportations to the then colony of New South Wales and earlier today I attended an Ecumenical Prayer Service at the National Memorial at Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery which is the largest physical monument to that pivotal period in Irish history. But in addition to commemorating the United Irishmen and their noble ideals, the National Monument at Waverley honours the contribution of Michael Dwyer - the Wicklow Chief who is buried there - and his generation to the creation of the modern Australia we celebrate today as one of the leading and progressive democracies in the international family of nations.
In the Australia of that time those who were transported - and indeed a subsequent generation who were sent into exile a half a century later in 1848 - were treated in a distinct and separate manner. They were, as Robert Hughes has said, the carriers of a dangerous contagion. That contagion was a profound belief in the values of democracy, an unshakeable belief in the equality of every human person, an unswerving opposition to oppression and injustice. It was a contagion inspired by the American and French Revolutions and it left them with a firm determination that the highly ordered class structures of the old European order, which they were leaving behind, should have no place in the great egalitarian society they wished to build with others in this, the lucky country under the Southern Cross.
The opportunity of planting the land and of helping to develop the natural resources of this great nation coupled with the opportunity to start afresh allowed the sons and daughters of Ireland to make their contribution to every aspect of the life of New South Wales and of Australia as a whole. I was therefore particularly pleased to commend and to enthusiastically support those ventures, which I have had the opportunity of visiting since my arrival, which provide new opportunities for present and future generations to foster a greater understanding of the part which the Irish have contributed to the making of modern Australia over the last two centuries. Here in Sydney I was very moved to have met with the descendants of the Irish Orphan Girls during my visit to Hyde Park Barracks on Wednesday last and I am grateful for the practical support and encouragement of your Government and of this Parliament for the construction of a permanent memorial to that harrowing period in Irish Australian history. I am also grateful for the scholarship of the distinguished Professor Patrick O’Farrell and others who have researched and recorded the story of the Irish in Australia and I welcome the efforts of Mary Lee and her friends to promote the Centre for Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales. At the Lansdowne Club I was delighted to present the first Business Awards to people and to companies who are promoting and enriching our rapidly developing mutual economic relationship.
In the days I have been across Australia - and tomorrow I conclude my final official engagements in Brisbane - I have been profoundly impressed by the graphic and frequent demonstrations of the strong and passionate interest which Australians have in Ireland. This interest is not only confined to that section of the population, large though it is, which can claim Irish ancestry and heritage, but stretches throughout the entire society. I have seen the importance of the academic and cultural resources being utilised to deepen and expand the present-day relevance of the profound bonds of history and heritage which link Ireland and Australia. But we should be mindful that the connections which bind our two countries and peoples are not just confined to the pages of history, or they will soon lose their meaning and value. They are alive and vibrant - through our expanding economic and trading partnership - through our growing tourism relationship - through the working holiday programmes for young people - and they are being kept alive - through the rhythms of Riverdance and the Lord of the Dance - through the writings of David Malouf and Tom Keneally - through the poetry of Seamus Heaney - through the art of Andrew Boyd - through television, cinema, and theatre, and above all through these precious personal and family reunions which bring us together in dialogue, discussion and debate.
I chose as the title for my address today “take a fresh look at Ireland”. I am honoured to have been elected to my high office by the people of a young, energetic, complex and confident society. Ireland is a country which combines a rich and ancient tradition with a dynamic and outward looking vision for the future supported by a strong sense of its own identity and a firm belief in its destiny.
Above all today’s Ireland is a place of optimism - an optimism which is fuelled and sustained by a number of important developments. The first is that strong sense of who we are - of the intellectual and cultural traditions of the nation - and our renewed determination to celebrate those qualities and characteristics which are often identified as our special contributions to the modern world - our love of language and poetry, of music and song, our imagination - all that has contributed to the great Irish cultural renaissance of recent years.
Secondly, our economy is performing better than it has ever done in the history of the State. We are experiencing a period of rapid growth - this year of some 7.5%. Our inflation is one of the lowest in the OECD region. Unemployment has been reduced by almost half since the early years of the decade. Indeed, we can now look with confidence to a future when there will be sufficient job opportunities to offer our young people and to provide them with the option of staying and working in Ireland, unlike all too many from previous generations who were compelled to seek employment beyond our shores, including of course here in New South Wales and elsewhere in Australia.
The third key development is the courageous and widespread endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement which represents that historic compromise for peace embraced by our two great Irish traditions. This Agreement is the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful Ireland which recognises that the future will be one based on partnership, equality and mutual respect. The reaction of the great mass of the Irish people to the appalling massacre at Omagh has made clear their determination not to allow the Agreement to be subverted by a violent minority.
The historic Good Friday Agreement is the beginning of an inclusive process designed to address the problems and issues of concern to both communities in Northern Ireland. It will enhance the character and quality of the relationship between the North and the South and advance the historic relationship between Britain and Ireland. But I should also say in this Parliament that while the Good Friday Peace Agreement was the outcome of detailed and demanding negotiations by a group of dedicated political and community leaders, it was also the outcome of many years of sympathetic support and understanding by those around the world who love and care for Ireland and its people. On so many vital occasions your interest and concern gave us a voice as we sought political progress and peaceful reconciliation. Here in Australia that concerned interest and compassionate understanding was always forthcoming and your support has taken practical as well as moral form. I am thinking of the efforts of your former Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, to achieve an agreement earlier in the decade and of your Government’s support for the International Fund for Ireland, which promotes practical cooperation and reconciliation between both traditions on the island.
However, it is relevant to any remarks about contemporary Irish society to note that, in addition to the great challenge of Northern Ireland, the issues which concern the people of Ireland would probably feature on the list of concerns in every nation on the planet - a reminder that the challenges which we face at this point in human history are increasingly global ones, which we must all face together.
At a time of economic progress as our horizons widen and our expectations understandably increase, one of the important challenges for society is to strive for the greatest level of social inclusion in sharing the wealth of the nation. A good economic performance and a rising standard of living must be shared across the community to ensure that the gap between rich and poor continues to close, and that people do not feel distanced from the mainstream of society. Over the last months of my Presidency I have been deeply impressed by the many State agencies and voluntary organisations across Ireland, who are endeavouring to ensure that all our people should have the opportunity to participate fully in the economic and social life of the nation. There is an impressive and welcome consensus to address the issues of social exclusion, marginalisation and disadvantage. Today’s prosperity was hard won, built on the backs of generations who knew only poverty, emigration and despair. The little they had they shared. The ethos of sharing was their enduring legacy to us. Today’s prosperity challenges us to commit ourselves to using it well, to develop ourselves humanly, to obliterate greed and embrace generosity.
Over the generations and indeed even from the time of the early monastic settlements, the Irish have had a keen appreciation of the importance and value of education. Even during the most challenging of economic difficulties, Irish people have insisted that a clear priority should be given to the education of our young people. With the arrival of the information super highway and the transformation of communication technologies a key objective is the goal of universal computer literacy. This year we will reach a stage where every young person of school-going age in Ireland will have their own e-mail address and access to the World Wide Web - the most comprehensive library in human history. No other country in Europe invests as much in education as we do. We do not begrudge a penny of it. It is our gift to the future, our guarantee that today’s prosperity will be sustained.
Education is a vital element underlying all of our present economic success. It remains of crucial and central importance in all serious strategies to address the numerous social problems afflicting all modern societies: including crime and drugs. It is essential to encouraging a more responsible attitude towards the environment. Indeed, deep in the Irish consciousness and arising from our own experience as a people there is a profoundly held belief that although transient we may be as individuals, nonetheless while we are here, in our few moments of existence, we are custodians and protectors of all the life we know and of the earth which sustains it. Our parents and grandparents taught us, as mine taught me, that one life lived well can make a difference. We were also taught in the lovely Irish saying “Ní neart go chur le chéile” – that we are at our best and strongest when we work with each other, for each other.
Rising to these challenges and maintaining the level of economic development which we are achieving are not mutually exclusive objectives. In fact there are precise synergies between these twin objectives. In the case of Northern Ireland, it has long been accepted that economic development is an important factor in creating the conditions for peace, while it is also self-evident that peace can only bring economic benefits, most directly through further investment and tourism opportunities.
There are also the challenges which all of us face as we look beyond the confines of our own national preoccupations and seek to contribute to the many pressing problems on the agenda of the world community. Ireland and Australia have worked closely together in seeking the protection and promotion of human rights, we contribute directly and through international agencies to international relief and development and we advocate and support the political and economic rights and freedoms we have worked so hard to achieve at home. Like Australia, Ireland also has had a proud record of service in United Nations Peacekeeping and Observer Forces and our soldiers have often stood side by side in many of the major troubled areas of our globe. Indeed over the last forty years there has hardly been a day on which an Irish solider has not been on United Nations duties in some part of the world. We have been pleased to work with Australia in promoting the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The other great partnership which has enabled us to contribute of our own experience as a people to the life of the international community is our membership of the European Union. Indeed, our membership since 1973 of the European Economic Community, now the European Union, has impacted on every area of Irish life. The commitment of the Union to the balanced economic development of its regions has assisted the dramatic improvements in Ireland’s transport and communications infrastructure - new roads and bridges, improvements in rail, sea and air linkages, a vastly improved electrical and telecommunications network. The development of the Single Market has given Irish business unfettered access to a market 100 times the size of that which exists within our own State, and has made trade with the rest of the world much easier. Membership has also greatly enhanced Ireland’s attractiveness as a destination for inward investment, and many American, Asian and indeed New South Wales companies have chosen Ireland as a place to establish their European operations. The opportunities for Ireland can only increase further as we approach the date of the commencement of European Economic and Monetary Union on 1 January 1999. It is indeed a measure of our success and of the entire European adventure that we will, at least initially, be the only English-speaking country in the newly created Euro-currency zone when it is launched on 1 January next. But Ireland’s membership of the European Union extends beyond markets and financial transfers, important as these are. Legislation on equality and equal opportunities, health and safety, social, educational and environmental issues will have all been influenced by decisions taken by Ireland and our partners at the European Level.
The European experience and our global perspective has profoundly influenced the way we look at ourselves and the way in which we relate to others. Membership of the European Union has also provided us with an opportunity to contribute on the world stage in a unique way. During our most recent Irish Presidencies of the European Union, in 1990 and 1996, it has been Ireland which has produced drafts of the comprehensive Treaties which govern the shape of the Union, and Ireland has also advanced important proposals and agreements in many other areas including ways of tackling the problems of drugs and unemployment in Europe as well as specific aspects of Europe’s external relationships, including cooperation between the European Union and Australia.
For Ireland, the relationship with Australia is both special and vital.
With some 40% of the population of this country able to claim Irish ancestry, Australia is proportionately the most Irish country on the planet outside Ireland. Not surprisingly therefore, the relationship between our two countries is an excellent one, based on more than two centuries of shared history and heritage, and close bonds of family and friendship.
But as I remarked earlier the relationship between Ireland and New South Wales is not just a historical one, nor is it based exclusively on the nostalgic emigrant trails of the past. Today’s relationship is a vibrant one, constantly strengthening and deepening, operating on many different levels. I have mentioned that the economic relationship is a particularly impressive one, especially given the distance between our countries and the relative sizes, structures and orientations of the economies. Bilateral trade between Ireland and Australia has an annual value of around three quarters of a billion dollars. Investment in both directions is significant and growing. In 1998, 100,000 Australians will visit Ireland, while an estimated 20,000 Irish people will travel to Australia. Tourism experts are forecasting that the volume of traffic will have increased by a further 40% by the time we enter the new Millennium, with a particular surge expected in both directions at the time of the Sydney Olympics in the year 2000.
And indeed, if I may say in conclusion, those New South Wales/Australia strengths are the very same elements as Ireland’s strengths. It is those same resources which will help our countries to take full advantage of the opportunities of the new Millennium, while at the same time overcoming the challenges posed - the optimism, spirit, warmth and humour of our people, a young and outward-looking population; the strength of our history, our heritage and our culture; the openness of our economy and the dynamism and flexibility of our business sector. We have much to look forward to in the rising tide of opportunity and optimism which will lift our peoples into the next century. We are entitled to have a joyful curiosity about each others future and a certainty that we will share and celebrate many things together.
Thank you again for your invitation and let me look forward with confidence and optimism to the enduring and constant celebration of this truly remarkable relationship between Ireland and Australia.