Tuesday, 21st February, 2012
A dhaoine uaisle, a chairde. Tá an-áthas orm agus air mo bhean chéile Sabina bheith anseo libh tráthnóna.
Sabina and I are delighted to have the opportunity of joining you on this my first official visit overseas as President of Ireland. Thank you for that warm and generous welcome.
Returning here today, this time as President, is a source of real pleasure as it gives me a most welcome opportunity to renew past friendships and to meet others, new friends, for the first time. It is also heartening to learn more about the activities of the organisations that you represent.
Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago this month. He once commented that “no one is useless in the world who lightens the burden of another”. There could be no better description of the invaluable work that you do for, and on behalf of, our fellow countrymen and women.
In the course of our visit, Sabina and I will have the opportunity to meet many parts of the diverse Irish community in Britain. It is very appropriate that our first engagement is here at the London Irish Centre which has been at the heart of supporting the Irish Community in London in so many, many ways for more than 50 years.
I would like to wish Sean Kennedy, David Barlow and everyone else associated with the Centre all the best as you take forward the work of this Centre.
And I would like to take this opportunity to compliment you on the superb refurbishment of the Centre.
On an occasion such as this, I think it appropriate to reflect on the past, as it informs our present and guides us for the future.
When we think of the past, we should remember those Irish who came to Britain in vast numbers and in more difficult times. To give some idea of numbers, a witness before the British Parliament’s Select Committee on Emigration commented as long ago as 1827 that he would not feel the least surprised to find that of a hundred men employed as labourers, ninety were Irish. Sadly a similar pattern of emigration continued into more modern times. Ultan Cowley has documented eloquently how many of those who came to Britain met with hardship, suffering and disappointment.
In the 18th Century Irish workers were the diggers of the canals. In the 19th Century the layers of railway tracks. In the 20th Century they helped build the motorways and the Channel Tunnel. Irish women staffed the hospitals and Irish men and women entered every form of work and profession from factories to politics.
We should remember also the spirit and achievements of the Irish in Britain. Many of them, through sheer hard work and determination, made good lives for themselves and their dependents.
Ultan Cowley reports an Englishman’s comment on his Irish co-workers more than a hundred years ago: “they were more robust”, he said, “and strong as bloody lions - the salt of the earth”.
We should also remember the unbroken affection for Ireland of generations of emigrants, and the important support they provided through their hard-earned remittances.
We should remember in particular, I suggest, the sense of community of so many of our emigrants, their determination to remain united and happy to support those of their friends and neighbours who were in greatest need. It is such determination which led to the establishment and development of this Centre and so many like it.
We should also, I suggest, remember the British neighbours who so often welcomed their new Irish friends and helped them to make a home in this country. Half of my own family worked, married and reared their families in Britain. A further generation moves between Ireland and Britain.
Turning to the present, it is heartening that relations between Britain and Ireland have never been better or closer. The endless ranks of our ragged compatriots fleeing famine who passed through Liverpool’s Clarence Dock Gates during the famine would probably find it unbelievable if we could tell them about
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s enormously successful visit to an independent Ireland last year, or that she laid a wreath in honour of those who died for Irish freedom, or that an Irish President, my immediate predecessor, Mary McAleese, joined the Queen in laying a wreath in honour of Irish soldiers who died in British uniform. Nor would they believe the extent to which Irish people have today achieved success across every part of British society.
The warmth of today’s relationship between our islands is no less remarkable for being now self-evident. After a history which has known its series of conflicts, we can now look forward to a decade of sensitive centenary commemorations in the knowledge that the British and Irish people respecting each others’ versions of history and memories can now remember together, to borrow Wilfred Owen’s words, whatever shares the eternal reciprocity of tears”.
I would like to pay tribute to the important role of the Irish community in this country over many years in improving relations between our countries and ultimately in making possible Her Majesty’s visit.
It is heartening to see that this Centre is still thriving like so many other Centres around the country which are represented here today. These Centres are often a place to meet, to make friends and to celebrate Irish culture. But they also embody the particular virtue of so many Irish people that, faced with challenges, we try to ensure that nobody will have to walk alone.
The experience of migration has been recorded by many writers such as
Donal Mac Amplaigh. There are always challenges in a life characterised by transience. Despite the success enjoyed by many Irish immigrants, there are also those for whom life here continues to be a struggle or for whom loneliness, uncertainty and social isolation still shape their daily lives. Now more than ever, we need to maintain, and where necessary rekindle, the spirit of those who founded this Centre and so many other centres and organisations throughout Britain.
I would like pay warm tribute and express my thanks and admiration on my own behalf and on behalf of all the Irish people, to you for your work.
The establishment in 2004 of the Irish Government’s Emigrant Support Programme, to help the most vulnerable members of our overseas communities, was and remains a timely and important initiative. Last year more than 200 organisations in 20 countries received funding amounting to over €11 million.
The vast bulk of the Government’s funding goes to supporting welfare projects, to assisting front line agencies in their social outreach programmes, and to helping them to assist our most vulnerable fellow citizens. The projects also included support for Irish culture, including securing the future of the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, assistance towards the GAA’s overseas community development programme, and setting up groups for young families trying to make a new life in Australia or Canada.
I would like to say a few words about the future also. The work that all of the organisations represented here do and the services you provide will continue to be of the greatest importance.
I am delighted therefore that, despite the many conflicting demands currently on Ireland’s budgetary resources, the Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, has been able to ensure that Emigrant Support Programme funding, although reduced for 2012, should allow funding for frontline organisations to be maintained close to 2011 levels.
Against the current economic and budgetary background, this is a loud and clear message about the value of your work. I know that it will continue to be a high priority of the Embassy to support you in your work and I thank the Ambassador and his team for their efforts.
I also want to thank all the members of the Emigrant Services Advisory Committee, chaired by the Embassy, many of whom are here, who devote considerable time, energy and effort to ensuring that Government funding goes where it can be used most effectively.
As I face into my Presidency, the Irish abroad will always be in the forefront of my thoughts. In order to give practical expression to the importance of the Irish community here and further afield, and to give a voice to that community, one of my first decisions on coming into office was to appoint Ms Sally Mulready,
a tireless ambassador for the vulnerable Irish in Britain, to my Council of State. Sally embodies the spirit of all that is good in our diaspora and I am looking forward to her support and advice over the coming years.
Sally symbolises all of you who share her commitment to enhancing the wellbeing of the Irish community in Britain. Her voice will be your voice.
As Ireland faces significant economic challenges, that we can today call upon the goodwill and support of some 70 million people who claim Irish ancestry is an enormous resource.
In addition to meeting you today I am delighted that Sabina and I will have the opportunity during our visit to London to meet with representatives of other parts of the diverse Irish community in Britain, including those working in business and in the cultural area.
The very successful Global Irish Economic Forum held in Dublin Castle last October further harnessed the goodwill and energy of our Global Irish Network. Over 270 of the most influential members of the Irish Diaspora from 37 countries came together to lend their experience and influence to assist with Ireland’s recovery and to help to restore Ireland’s reputation abroad. Tomorrow I will have opportunity to meet the British-based members of the Network,
President Clinton recently offered to host an event in New York to engage with key business and economic leaders with a view to encouraging them to invest in Ireland’s economic recovery. This initiative took place just a few weeks ago and the principal message to potential investors was that Ireland is open for business, and now is the time to invest in our economic recovery. It was heartening to see yet again the enthusiastic support and commitment from our diaspora.
I look forward to meeting also many Irish people who contribute so much to every branch of culture in Britain. Tomorrow I will have the opportunity both to visit the Olympic Park, where I will meet Lord Coe, and to attend a lunch to celebrate Ireland’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad.
The work that the Irish Centre and so many other centres do to promote and teach and present Irish culture is of immense value.
This reception has given groups from all over the country an opportunity to forge deeper cooperation with each other and with the Embassy. I am extremely proud and appreciative of the work that each and every one of you does.
Tomorrow evening Sabina and I look forward to seeing the Abbey/National Theatre joint-production of Juno and the Paycock. Sean O’Casey once commented that “every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity”. The leaders of the Irish community in Britain, including those of you who are here today, have touched many chords with your generosity and commitment.
On behalf of myself and the Irish people, go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.