Your Excellency, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps
Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps of Ireland, Ladies & Gentlemen,
Thank you for joining us in such numbers for this annual National Day of Commemoration, honouring all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in time of war, working for peace. We remember, with respect, those who lost their lives, those who were injured and those who suffered. And in remembering we re-commit ourselves to the noble causes of peace.
- through the UN
It is appropriate on this National Day of Commemoration to recall Ireland’s long and proud tradition of service in UN peacekeeping operations. From our first peacekeeping mission in the Congo in 1958 to the most recent deployment of observers as part of the UN mission in Syria, and during continuous service in the intervening decades, our peacekeepers have steadfastly responded to a wide array of international challenges.
Their professionalism and dedication are universally recognised. But so, too, is their ability to engage and work with local communities. And nowhere is this more evident than in South Lebanon, where over 350 Irish peacekeepers are currently serving with UNIFIL.
The participation of Irish Defence Forces in UN-mandated peacekeeping operations has been complemented in recent years by the involvement of Irish civilian experts in EU and UN crisis management missions in the Middle East, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans.
Through the active contribution we are making to both civil and military operations, we are ensuring that Ireland continues to play an important part in the maintenance of international peace and security. I salute all those serving on active duty today.
This is no less important today than it was 70 years ago. While Europe has enjoyed a period of relative peace, ongoing conflicts in our immediate neighbourhood pose a constant threat not only to the countries directly involved, but to the European and the wider international community.
- in Syria
We remain gravely concerned at the spiralling violence in Syria, at the appalling loss of life there and at the growing assaults on human rights, for which there must ultimately be full accountability. We hope that recent efforts by the international community to chart an agreed way forward will enable concrete progress to be made now towards the peaceful and democratic transition to which all Syrians aspire.
- in the Middle East
The search for peace in the Middle East is a key foreign policy priority. Even if the inability to get talks restarted is frustrating and dispiriting, there is much the EU can do to provide momentum and leadership on this issue. I was very glad that the Foreign Affairs Council considered the Middle East peace process in depth at its May meeting, focussing on policy issues which we believe are standing in the way of political progress towards a negotiated settlement.
- through the OSCE
This year, Ireland’s multilateral engagement has been given new impetus by our Chairmanship-in-Office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. We are approaching the mid-way point of our Chairmanship and can register some progress in a number of areas.
As you know, one of the fundamental aims of the OSCE is to support efforts towards the peaceful settlement of the so-called ‘protracted conflicts’ in the OSCE area. The Irish Chairmanship has worked hard to encourage movement in the Transdniestria settlement process.
We have also been actively supportive of the conflict resolution processes in the Southern Caucasus.
Last month, as Chairperson-in-Office, I visited Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan to meet with key stakeholders and to assess what contribution we might be able to make. We have seen value in sharing our own experience of successful conflict resolution in Northern Ireland with those striving for the peaceful settlement of conflicts in the OSCE area. While of course no two conflicts are identical, there may nonetheless be insights or lessons from our own experience which are helpful in other contexts – just as we ourselves drew on conflict resolution efforts in other parts of the world to assist our own. The initiative which we have taken has, I am happy to say, generated a lot of interest on the part of OSCE participating States.
Our Chairmanship has also broken new thematic ground. For example, we hosted a major Conference on Internet Freedom in Dublin Castle a few weeks ago.
At the start of our Chairmanship, we indicated our intention to prioritise Internet Freedom, reflecting the increasing importance of the Internet as a platform for the exercise of fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly.
The Conference attracted a high-level of participation, which included regional and international organisations, civil society and the ICT and media sectors. The discussions were engaged, lively and highly interactive. We will now consider how best to reflect the issue of Internet Freedom in the ongoing work of the OSCE.
In early December, I will host the 2012 OSCE Ministerial Council in Dublin. This will be a major event, the largest ever gathering of Foreign Ministers in Ireland, and intensive preparations for it are underway. I look forward to stimulating and fruitful discussions and to the adoption of a number of important decisions across different areas of the OSCE’s work.
- promoting Human Rights
As you will be aware, the promotion and protection of human rights is a cornerstone of Ireland’s foreign policy, complementing the strong emphasis we place on efforts to maintain international peace and security.
As a small state, Ireland is actively committed to multilateralism and to the strengthening of international protections for human rights, using the tools and potential of the United Nations. We are proud of our record in the promotion of human rights at the UN and in other frameworks.
That is why we are seeking election, for the first time, to the UN Human Rights Council. I hope that we will be given the opportunity by the Governments you represent to serve on the Council and to make our own distinctive contribution to the advancement of human rights and to the safeguarding of the values at the heart of the UN Charter.
- a Commitment to help the Poorest
Our aid programme and our development policy are central to Ireland’s foreign policy. Our commitment to the world’s poorest people reflects our values as a people, but also our interests as a people. This year, the Government has provided a total of €639 million. Despite the economic pressures, we are keeping our ODA at a level above 0.5% of GDP.
The success of our aid programme cannot, of course, be measured solely on the volume of expenditure. We have made determined efforts to maximise the effectiveness of this aid and to measure the sustainable change it is bringing to the lives of some of the poorest people and communities in the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Our programme is focused on achieving results and providing strong international leadership in making aid more effective.
In the coming months, we will publish our Review of the 2006 White Paper on Irish Aid. The report will set out a clear vision and priorities for the aid programme for the years ahead, at a time when we are preparing, with our development partners, for a major international debate on the, post-Millennium Development Goals which is to take place under UN auspices in September 2013. This will also be a feature of, a priority for our EU Presidency.
In the period of our presidency we will also work to draw international attention to the vital linkages between thematic issues including hunger, nutrition and climate justice. We will promote efforts to link relief, recovery and development work by forging stronger connections between the development and humanitarian agendas of the European Union.
Later this month, I will visit Uganda and Kenya, to see the impact of our programme at first hand and the reality of a changing Africa, a continent in need, a major focus of our aid programme since the 1970’s.
As Africa develops, our relations with African countries are developing. We are committed to maintaining our assistance, but we are also committed to working with the countries of Africa to build mature political and economic links, which are enabled by inclusive and sustainable economic Growth.
Our Africa Strategy, which I launched last September, provides a framework for a much more coherent approach to our relations with African countries. I look forward to meeting as many African Ambassadors as possible – those based in Ireland and those based elsewhere – at the second Africa-Ireland Economic Forum, which we will hold in Dublin on 22 October, 2012.
Deepening our Relationship with Asia and with Latin America
The last year has also provided significant opportunities to look beyond our traditional markets and further our engagement with our friends in Asia and Latin America.
The significant visit to Ireland of China’s Vice President – Xi Jinping – and the Taoiseach’s subsequent visit to China resulted in the agreement of an Ireland China Strategic Partnership. We have stepped up our interaction with ASEAN, both as a region and as an organisation, and will continue to participate in the Asia Europe Meeting. Most recently, Aung San Suu Kyi, visited Ireland as part of her historic visit to Europe, her first since the recent taking of important, and, we hope, permanent steps towards democracy in Burma, the country for which she has fought for so long.
In the context of our relationship with Latin America, I was pleased to receive the vice-president of Colombia in January, and I am delighted that President Higgins will undertake a visit to South America later this year, encompassing Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
Our ever deepening relationship with the countries of Asia and Latin America – with their huge diversity and range of opportunity – is an important conduit for the development of Irish economic and business interests as we continue to face the current financial challenges, and stands testament to the importance of these regions in our engagement with the wider world.
Of course our closest and deepest relationship is with our neighbours and partners in the EU. As you are aware Ireland will assume the Presidency of the Council of Ministers in less than six months.
We will begin a new Trio, together with Lithuania – also for the first time - and with Greece. And, of course, our Union of 27 will become a Union of 28 during that period; we look forward to welcoming the newest member of our Union, Croatia, in the middle of next year.
This will be our seventh Presidency and, once again, our ambition will be to manage the agenda of the European Union impartially and efficiently, working in close cooperation with the European institutions and with our partners.
Our overriding focus will be on driving forward the growth agenda - creating the conditions for growth and job creation across the Union. The Single Market, especially in the digital area, and research and innovation will be particularly important as sectors capable of delivering the jobs of the future.
We see trade as absolutely central to this effort and are committed to advancing the external trade dimension of the EU, including in making progress on important EU trade negotiations, as signalled at the recent European Council meeting. We will have a particular emphasis on the EU/US trade relationship. To further this work, we intend to hold a meeting of EU Trade Ministers in Dublin during our Presidency.
Equally, it is vital that Europe retains and develops its social dimension
I greatly look forward to assisting the work of the High Representative for Foreign Policy, Cathy Ashton, in the vital role she plays as head of the European External Action Service.
Of course, despite the best planning in the world, what have sometimes been called ‘events’ can come to dominate a Presidency agenda. This has certainly been the case in recent years where the need to respond to the economic crisis has dominated our work at European level.
We have seen those who have held office in recent times, including the successful Danish Presidency, showing remarkable flexibility in dealing with a rapidly changing environment.
We offer our particular support and best wishes to Cyprus as it takes on the Presidency for the first time and we look forward to carrying the torch forward at the end of the year
They have set the bar high and I hope that we can live up to their achievements. We will certainly give of our very best.
Peace on our Island…
This island of Ireland has as you know, experienced its own share of conflict.
It is timely to reflect today that we have entered upon a defining period of commemoration in recent Irish history. Over the next ten years, we will recall momentous events which led to the foundation of this state, and the partition of Ireland.
That period in Irish history defined political structures and national identities across these islands which remain with us to this day.
Already this year, we have marked the centenary of the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill. In September, we will remember the mass mobilisation of resistance to Home Rule in Ulster, with the signing of the Ulster Covenant. Next year will see the centenary of the 1913 Lockout, and the establishment of the Irish Defence Forces, in the form of the Irish Volunteers. And over the decade, we will mark the anniversaries of the First World War, the 1916 Rising and the independence of Ireland.
All of these events will be commemorated in a spirit of inclusiveness, mutual respect and tolerance. We will be conscious of the shared nature of the past, and the North-South and East-West interconnections of history. While we do not and will not deny our history, we recognise that others will view the events of the past differently. We are as interested in listening to the stories of others as we are in telling our own.
However, we also recognise that the period in question was one of intense conflict, violence and bloodshed, across this island and across Europe. This should not be forgotten. Commemoration is not the same as celebration. It is a solemn and deep engagement with the past, all of the past.
As much as we honour the sacrifice of those who died for Ireland – and we do honour it – we must also remember those who lived and worked for Ireland. We should remember those who did not directly participate in the events of the decade, but whose lives are no less affected by them. This decade of commemorations will be as much about victims as victors, and as much about those who simply wanted to make a living, as it is about those who made history.
…and Hope for the Future
When we met on this occasion a year ago, I emphasised our Government’s determination to get the economy moving again.
Since it took office last year, this Government has it an absolute priority to ensure that Ireland successfully exits its EU/IMF Programme as soon as possible, enabling us to return to borrowing on the open markets.
That prospect was given a significant boost at the end of last week by the important decisions taken at the meetings of the European Council and of the Euro Summit.
The imperative need to break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns has now fully accepted. In this, it is made clear that similar cases will be treated equally.
Specifically, the Eurogroup will, on Monday, begin to examine the situation in the Irish financial sector with a view to improving the sustainability of our Programme.
This is a very welcome recognition of the scale of the burden that the Irish people have taken on in the national and wider European interest.
In taking this commitment forward, the Government will be working to ensure the best possible outcome, one that contributes most to our recovery. Europe needs a success and, with the assistance of partners, we are determined to deliver it.
Last week’s meeting also made it clear that leaders would continue to do whatever is necessary to ensure the financial stability of the euro area, using the tools available to us as flexibly and efficiently as possible. To exit the crisis, we need creative thinking and innovative solutions. We are now closer to achieving those goals.
But Ireland will only recover if Europe recovers – and for those of you from outside the Union, it is important to acknowledge that European recovery has wider global and systemic implications also.
In supporting ratification of the European Fiscal Stability Treaty in our recent referendum, the Irish people endorsed the Government’s strategy of restoring fiscal and economic stability as a platform for sustainable growth and job creation which, as I mentioned earlier, is the theme which will underpin our efforts in our forthcoming European Union Presidency.
There is no greater challenge facing the country than getting our people back to work. We have put in place a number of strategies, including the Action Plan for Jobs and Pathways to Work, to achieve that objective. We are working with the European Institutions to promote investment in Ireland, and we will use some of the proceeds from the sale of state assets to achieve this end.
The restructuring of our financial sector is proceeding well. Following the outcome of the referendum, and of the summit, the notional yield on our Government bonds has fallen significantly. Last week, we were able to make a modest return to financial markets, auctioning short-dated Government paper.
What is now critically important, is that we follow up on this success, by ensuring that the technical discussions arising from the summit, result in a significant improvement in our debt sustainability.
The Irish economy returned to modest growth last year but, as everyone knows, that growth is fragile. The "Compact for Growth and Jobs" agreed at the European Council last month is not just welcome; it is vital.
A number of key principles have now been established that will aid recovery, not just here but across the Union.
Ireland’s favourable demographics, with the youngest population in Europe, help boost our long term growth prospects, but we continue to depend on a return to growth in Europe. This reminds us once again of how much there is to gain from a strong, united Europe, a Europe in unison, a Europe in union.
So many of those we commemorate today gave their lives in bloody wars to shape the future of Europe and the world. It is a measure of how far we have come that today we decide the future of our continent in the conference rooms of Brussels, and the parliamentary chambers of Strasbourg and not on the battlefields of Flanders or the Somme.
I thank you all once again for joining us here to mark the National Day of Commemoration.
I would now like to offer a toast to the Heads of State represented here today.