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SPEECH BY PRESIDENT OF IRELAND, MARY MC ALEESE,  AT A LUNCH/RECEPTION HOSTED BY A FEDERAL MINISTER

SPEECH BY PRESIDENT OF IRELAND, MARY MC ALEESE, AT A LUNCH/RECEPTION HOSTED BY A FEDERAL MINISTER, CHARLOTTETOWN

Minister, I am very pleased to join you at this reception today and I am particularly grateful to you for your consideration in hosting this event on a Sunday as part of my visit to Canada.

Last night I had a very enjoyable dinner with the Minister of Labour, Lawrence Mac Auley; I spoke a little about the history of the Irish settlers on Prince Edward Island and the similarities between the two islands. Both of course are famous for their potatoes - both have had traditions of shipbuilding and fishing - and both have important and developing tourist industries.

As islands we have in the past experienced the pain of emigration and sometimes isolation. In the case of Ireland, our membership of the European Union has moved us from the periphery of Europe to the centre.

Prince Edward Island is, of course, now linked to mainland Canada by the Confederation Bridge or as one wit has named it, “Span of Green Gables”. Undoubtedly this will have an effect on the future development of Prince Edward Island. I know there has been some debate over the issue and that psychologically it is a big step for an island. While the debate may have focussed on the possible economic benefits and environmental considerations, it is the psychological level which I think is most important.

I come from a society which has been fractured and separated over centuries and generations, a society where people, though physically close to one another, have become divided in ways that cannot be bridged by steel or concrete. There is a famous bridge in my home county of Antrim, the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. It is a fragile construction of rope and wood which is rebuilt each year and for a few months connects the mainland to a tiny island used by fishermen. Situated close to the Giant’s Causeway, the bridge has become a major attraction for tourists.

Some people are excited by bridges and need no prodding to step out onto them. For others crossing a bridge is a frightening experience - they find it easier to stay on one side and convince themselves that there’s really nothing worth seeing on the other side. That has been the situation for many in Northern Ireland. They have felt that it is safer to stay with the people and situations they know, that there is no good reason for crossing the bridge; it is too risky and not worth the journey.

Attempts at reconciliation have often seemed like that bridge - fragile and precarious, to be crossed by only a few - and sometimes having to be rebuilt. As more and more people, however, make the journey, we build stronger bridges - and that is what has happened in the peace process.

Politicians and journalists alike used to talk about the “two communities” in Northern Ireland and in doing so divided the people with words. Words make their own reality and ideas become fixed. When we talk instead about “the community”, even if we qualify it by referring to different sections, we begin the process of drawing people together. When people who have never met or spoken begin to do so they become real to each other. Human relationships can and do develop - talking replaces shouting, names take the place of labels.

It has been said that “nothing divides like violence and nothing unites like grief”. During the ‘Troubles’ the one thing which has been common throughout the community has been the experience of suffering, highlighted recently and most starkly at Omagh when grief touched Catholics and Protestants, on both sides of the border - and beyond into Spain. A German poet poignantly describes how grief unites:

 

“The knife cuts our bread

into equal pieces.

Where your lips touched the glass

I drink too.

Walk in my shoes,

when winter comes,

your coat will warm me.

We share our grief.

To be alone

we close the door at night. Sleeping

your dreams reach into mine.”

 

We hope and pray that there will be no more grief and that the dream we share will become a reality. We are working to make that happen.

We thank the Canadian people for the support which they have given over the years. Prince Edward Island has always been a place where people of different languages and cultures and faiths have lived together in peace.

May the land which nearly was “New Ireland” inspire us as we move towards our own New Ireland.