Speech at a Reception on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Concern
Áras an Uachtaráin, Tuesday 27 March 2018.
It is a great pleasure for Sabina and me to welcome you all here today to Áras an Uachtaráin to celebrate this, the 50th anniversary of Concern, to pay tribute to all that you have achieved and to thank you, most profoundly for the work which you continue to do in the present.
Despite the great distance in time and space, many of us will still vividly recall the images of starvation and suffering in Biafra broadcast on to our television screens fifty years ago. It brought, through the medium of our television screens, in a manner that had never occurred before, the scale and depth of a humanitarian crisis to the attention of citizens around the world.In Ireland, the understanding of the nature of that crisis was deepened and resonated through the presence of so many Irish members of the missionary orders in Nigeria, and in particular by the very strong presence of the Holy Ghost Fathers and Holy Rosary Sisters in Biafra.
Even as the blockade of Biafra began to take shape in late 1967, a gathering of people took place in the home of John and Kay O’Loughlin in Northumberland Road, where they heard the first-hand testimony of John’s brother, Father Raymond Kennedy, who, as a Holy Ghost Father, was one of those who had borne witness to the suffering in Biafra. The interdenominational group of trade unionists, clergy and citizens in attendance resolved then to establish an organisation, Africa Concern, to raise funding and send supplies through the blockade to the starving people of Biafra.
Within a fortnight of the appeal commencing in June 1968, over £10,000 had been collected; within a month, that figure had risen to over £62,000. By the middle of August 1968, the target of £100,000 had been reached; and by February 1969, over a quarter of a million pounds had been raised, a testament not only to labours of the organisers of the appeal, but also to the spirit of generosity and solidarity which they had awakened in the Irish people. With the fall of Port Harcourt in May 1968, Biafra was completely isolated from the outside world by a Nigerian Federal Army armed with advanced Soviet and British weaponry. It was Father Tony Byrne and two remarkable and courageous brothers from Limerick, Fathers Jack and Aengus Finucane, who organised the transportation of supplies through this most dangerous of blockades, risking their own lives and, indeed, drawing upon themselves the censure of officials from a number of governments, to deliver life-saving food and medical supplies.
All those of us who had the fortune to know Jack and Aengus Finucane can recall what two unstoppable forces they were, people whose vision was truly global in scope, and whose vocation to help the most vulnerable - irrespective of their religion, ethnicity or nationality - knew no bounds. I was so deeply honoured to be presented with the ‘Concern Worldwide/Father Aengus Finucane Award for Services to Humanity’ by Father Jack Finucane in January of 2014.
The excitement of those early days and the decades that followed have been vividly captured in Tony Farmer’s account of the first thirty years of Concern, ‘Believing in Action’, a truly important piece of Irish social history. It is a great sadness that Tony recently passed away but I am delighted that his widow, Anna, is with us and I would like to acknowledge Tony's contribution to telling the story of Concern this evening.
Since those foundational actions, Concern has gone from strength to strength, responding first to the devastating Bhoka Cyclone of 1970, providing medical assistance and training in what were most difficult conditions in the newly independent Bangladesh, and then to so many countries in which people faced the most desperate of circumstances, from the refugee camps of Kampuchea to a Syria wracked by civil war and foreign military intervention. It was Concern who first alerted the BBC to the effects of the terrible famine in Ethiopia in 1973, and it was Concern who brought the return of famine in Ethiopia to the attention of the international media a decade later.
Your CEO, Dominic MacSorley, and former CEOs David Begg and Tom Arnold, have gone on to build on the great achievements of those who went before. It is a testament to the dedication and perseverance of all those who have worked for and with Concern over the years that Concern has grown to operate in 27 countries, with more than 3,900 staff representing over 50 nationalities, expanding access to education, nutrition and healthcare, and making vital interventions in crisis situations. Our former colleague here in the Áras is among those delivering its mission for Concern.
Concern has been to the forefront of addressing the great issues of our time: the vital necessity, now more than ever, for just and sustainable development; the challenge of mitigating and adapting to climate change; the need for us to oppose, all of us together, all forms of contemporary xenophobia and racism; and the imperative to welcome those fleeing famine, war, disease, persecution and increasingly, the consequences of environmental degradation.
There are the challenges which remain, and as they intensify with population expansion, desertification and forced migration, will shape this century. Future generations will judge us by how we respond. They will test our response by the standards of what Pope Francis has called ‘a new and universal solidary’, representing values as it does that Concern personnel have been demonstrating these past fifty years, not only through its humanitarian workers but also by its advocates with a sophisticated knowledge of both public policy formulation and execution.
I had the opportunity to meet some of you at the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development in New York in September 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals constitute an important moral milestone in the development of our planet. They represent perhaps the most comprehensive statement of a shared international commitment. If the Goals are pursued and realised, it will represent a new global solidarity. For 193 states to resolve to end poverty and hunger, combat inequalities in income and opportunity, to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies, and to create conditions for a shared prosperity, was a very significant achievement.
More significant still was the decision to pursue the goals universally, without distinction or resort to what can be false and misleading typologies which simply divide the world by reference to ‘developed’ and ‘developing’, or ‘North’ or ‘South’. In our world today, both between and within countries, great wealth exists beside great poverty in the nations of both North and South, and tackling these patterns of unequal and uneven development requires a mobilisation of resources, and a change in thinking, that is truly global in scale and ambition.
The achievement of the ethical commitment, the scholarship, the literacy and the participation, necessary for us to build an accountable, transparent version of a global economy that takes account of a diversity of peoples and cultures, seems at times to disappear beyond the horizon of our multilateral institutions, governments, and public discourse. Yet we must continue. I would like to acknowledge the contribution made by Concern and other Irish NGOs through your intellectual work and informed advocacy. Humanitarian organisations with an experience of working in countries across the globe often have a valuable and most practical experience of the effects of structural inequalities, whether they manifest themselves through moribund national institutions or through an international economic order that continues to privilege the freedom of multi-national corporations over peoples. Entrenched inequalities and injustices yield only slowly and painfully to change, but experience has shown that they will, with persistent and patient activism, give way.
The Sustainable Development Goals were followed a number of months later by the agreement at the Paris Climate Conference, another enormous step forward, one that recognised the demands of climate justice, and, as you all know so well, the imperative for survival for so many people in this century, particular in so many of the countries in which you are active.
The decarbonisation of our societies demanded by the pledge to pursue efforts to limit the global temperature increase to one and a half degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will not be easy, nor can it be made without sacrifice in the countries of what I believe it is appropriate to call, in this context, the ‘Global North’, for we know that continued greenhouse emission here will have far more devastating effects elsewhere, particularly on the continent of Africa.
Through your work you crafted a vital bridge between the Irish people and some of the poorest people in our world, that will not only continue to provide the material resources and the capacity for sustainable development in other countries, but that will, I hope, also equip our country with sufficient mental resources to make the necessary changes to our own patterns of production and consumption to ensure that the needs of all the peoples of our shared and vulnerable planet are met.
When I spoke to you in January 2014, I recalled the words of your patron, the late Seamus Heaney, who spoke of the vital solidarity that you have demonstrated:
“It stands as a magnificent answer to all the negative thoughts conjured up by the words Biafra, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Sudan, Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, to all the dismaying facts about the materialism of the developed world that causes our belief in the reality of disinterested efforts and altruistic vision to falter.”
There is no greater tribute than this so may I, once again, thank you all those of you who have worked for and with Concern over the years for your compassion, your courage, and your dedication to supporting the lives and building the capacity of the poorest people of the world.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.