First address to Houses of the Oireachtas by Mary Robinson

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Address by President of Ireland Mary Robinson to the Joint Houses of the Oireachtas  (1992) 
by Mary Robinson

First presidential address to both houses of the Oireachtas by Mary Robinson on Wednesday, 8 July 1992.[1][2]

A Cheann Comhairle, A Chathaoirligh an tSeanaid, A Comhaltaí na Dála agus an tSeanaid — De réir an Bhunreachta "Tig leis an Uachtarán, tar éis comhairle a ghlacadh leis an gComhairle Stáit, teachtaireacht no aitheasc a chur faoi bhráid Tithe an Oireachtais i dtaobh aon ní a bhfuil tábhacht náisiúnta nó tábhacht phoiblí ann."

Tá sé de phribhléid agamsa mar Uachtarán na hÉireann leas a bhaint as an gceart sin chun labhairt libh inniu ag pointe suntasach i stair na tíre seo atá ar imeall na hEorpa agus atá san am céanna mar chuid de chroílár na hEorpa.

I speak to you today as a constituent part of this Oireachtas. I have exercised my right to address you because this seems to me a unique moment in our history. You as elected representatives and I as President of Ireland have witnessed the people we are privileged to represent vote in favour of the move towards European Union. But I want to say at the outset that I have very much in mind today those who voted against. Through you, who are representatives of all the people, I speak of them also. I feel for the conscience and concern they brought to their decision. I know, as you do, that the dissent of one time is the dialogue of another. All of us today in Ireland — those who voted "Yes" and those who voted "No" — now face the future. And it is that prospect, both bright and challenging, which I want to speak about.

Under the Constitution the President can exercise a right of address. It can be exercised in two ways. Either the President can speak to the nation, or to the Oireachtas. I very deliberately chose the second. First of all, I was for many years a Member of the Seanad. I think of those years and my time there with affection and gratitude. But more importantly, it seemed to me that by coming here and talking to you I could hope to participate with you in a process of reflection; and we need to reflect. This is a crucial moment in our history. It is vital that we consider it: that we bring to it all the Irish gifts of insight and argument. We need to reflect not simply on how we perceive and move towards European Union but on how we perceive ourselves in it. We need to reflect not merely on the shape of the emerging Europe, but on how we shape ourselves within it. I think we owe to coming Irish generations, something we received in abundance from past ones: articulate self-definition at a time of redefinition.

It seems to me that this Oireachtas — which has played such a vital part in building and sustaining a modern, democratic Irish state — is central to that process of reflection. This assembly of elected representatives, from its beginnings in a time of upheaval and danger, has always caught the attention of the country by stating its concerns. Now, as it considers the next context of Europe, I know it will do the same. And as part of that Oireachtas I feel that now, once again, our obligation is also our opportunity. To borrow the words of Éamon de Valera, whose name is so associated with this Oireachtas: "We of this time, if we have the will and the active enthusiasm, have the opportunity to inspire and move our generation".

The more we reflect on it, the more I think we can see how vital this moment is. "The Irish race" said Michael Davitt, "have a place in the world's affairs." Today — through the signal given by our people in favour of a move towards European Union — that place has been confirmed and one perspective has been created from two aspects of our identity: our early heritage as shapers of European civilisation and our contemporary achievement as a modern State within it. Today as never before we are able to heal the distance between those opposite ends of our history. Once, we reached out to Europe to sustain its Christian flowering. We were part of that remarkable outward-bound adventure of Irish scholarship which Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich has told us of in his book Gaelscrínte San Eoraip. That extraordinary initiative as he describes it — lasting from the 6th to the 12th century — has left a shining mark on the Continent to this day. I think we can note the fact that it was by their openness to Europe that our forebears enriched the Irishness of our tradition. And that they did so by performing — to quote Davitt again — "the great humanising service rendered to society by the Celtic people of Ireland in the childhood of European civilization." I find it poignant and appropriate to quote these words in the Parliament of a sovereign State, where our presences witness the existence of a contemporary democracy, and on an occasion which recalls the fact that we have come to a new context with our oldest values intact.

James Connolly formulated a central question for us. "Who are the Irish?" he asked. The question remains with us, challenging us to find new answers, which will retain what was best and most distinctive in our past. We have long known better than merely to look inward and to interpret ourselves in the framework of historical stresses. From the foundation of this State — from the League of Nations to the European Community and to our recent participation in the UN environment conference in Rio de Janeiro — we have been ready to play our part internationally. And I think this is the moment to stress that our presence in Europe itself is not simply a presence in the Community. It is also our involvement as a founder member of the Council of Europe, with its concern for social issues, for education and the environment, and its commitment — through the Court of Human Rights — to protection of individual rights, and its value as a framework which has a particular relevance to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In these roles we have shown that we can be at our best: a nation which has learned from history but it is not limited by it.

The Irish legal system, has responded well to the significance of Community law as an integrating force. Indeed we have a strength in our legal system that we should not underestimate. Alone among the twelve Member States we combine a common law tradition with a written Constitution. Given that Community law functions both at the European and national levels, the Irish legal system provides a legal bridge to other English speaking jurisdictions such as the United States, Canada and Australia.

Nevertheless the Europe which is unfolding will not be a place of tidy assumptions or quiet acceptances; and I think we should be prepared for that. It is a theatre of concerns where diversity will bring tensions, and where tensions can lead on to the enrichment of mutual understanding. These are not smooth issues: but since the answers will shape the new Europe, we should not shirk questions. We are, for instance, a country which has held on principle to a policy of non-involvement in military alliances; yet we have a proper sense of responsibility to our partners. How do we balance these things? We need to debate this honestly, aware that the balance we strike and the approach we take can be both constructive and exemplary. Nor should we be afraid that our debate on this — or any other — issue will be interpreted as an un-European attitude; in fact the reverse. An open debate which takes as its fundamental point our history as a small country with a tradition of neutrality and an instinctive sympathy for the Third World, and which takes into account the changing context in Europe, our growing commitment to our partners and our distinguished record of service in UN peace keeping, cannot but be valued and valuable.

Our honest reflection on this matter which is central to our concerns can be of importance not just to us but to those who might be applicants, potential applicants or those who are neighbours of the Community. We have to remember that this is not a static Community we are members of; it is also one we shape and define by our participation. The more of its particular values each country brings to it, the more it becomes a Community which can show its respect for differences of tradition; and the less likely it is to be a place where conformity takes precedence over conscience. We have deep concerns about peace-keeping and peace-making. Let us debate those concerns openly; and let us not assume the debate will be unwelcome.

But what of the additional anxiety that we run the risk of losing a treasured and hard-won cultural identity in the European monolith? Again, why not face this issue squarely? It is not negligible, this worry about whether the distinctive and individual, or even the eccentric and quirky, will survive a powerful centre. Each one of us in Ireland understands what John Hewitt, the Northern poet, meant when he wrote: "This is our country also, nowhere else". Nevertheless I believe that the answer to these fears is around us in the everyday witness of where our nation has its deepest roots. If identity was rooted only in language, if it was rooted only in history, if it was defined purely by a version of events, then perhaps we might have cause for concern. And if the Irish experience were a matter of abstract belief we might have something to fear. But our identity is all these things with one addition. That addition is the Irish people and so our abstractions have a human dimension. Rooted in that source, I do not think we have anything to fear from the larger context. In fact the opposite.

I want to put this in the most practical way possible. I think we have a special characteristic of life in this country which is both an outcome of history and remains a profound resource of life in Ireland. If I had to describe this characteristic I would say that we do not divide the purposes of our nation from the values of our community. And this is nowhere more evident than in the powerful continuum of voluntary effort which is so much part of the texture of Irish life. Indeed I can say from my own observation that it is a striking feature of day-to-day life in all parts of this island. Over the past year and a half I have witnessed the strength of this effort: in education, in health, in the care of the disabled and the elderly. I have been in towns where sports halls seem to have gone up overnight, magically; where children have been taught skills and self-sufficiencies which reveal their natural independence; where the unemployed train in centres which respect their individuality and worth; where the terminally ill have found care and dignity in their last hours.

This voluntary commitment has one of its move moving dimensions in human care. But it goes well beyond it into the cherishing of the environment as well as the person. I have been astonished and delighted to see how the silences of our past are being reversed in town after town, day after day, in heritage centres, museums, libraries, local histories. Buildings are being restored, plant life is being recorded, historic events are being dramatised for schoolchildren. And all of this has implications not just for our past heritage, but for our most important heritage-in-the-making: our young people. It is in this area that we see an optimistic conjunction of different resources: of voluntary effort, of the input of State and semi-State agencies such as FÁS and Bord Fáilte and of European funding. I would also want to mention here the International Fund for Ireland which has become a sustaining presence in Border areas. In these interdependences, as they come into play in projects which have enormous meaning for our regional and national life, we see an imaginative interaction of resources and human commitment.

It is usual to lay these voluntary efforts at the door of pragmatic necessity: to say that scarce resources make them essential. I believe this is an inadequate explanation. Having seen them, I am sure they come from something much deeper and more constant in our identity. I see them as bringing together within a single vision of action both strong community values and distinctively Irish ones. I also believe these efforts form an important element of the initiatives we can take in Europe. They are a factor in the balance between the centre and the margins, between the individual and the bureaucracy, I do not think it is any coincidence that Irish men and women hold key positions in vital European voluntary networks: the Transnational European Rural Network, the European Women's Lobby, the European Council of Aids Service Organisations, the European Anti-Poverty Network, the European Network for the Unemployed and the variety of European networks representing those of all our populations with disabilities. These names are not abstractions; they are signs of compassion, generosity and problem-solving. And the linkages these networks establish cannot but humanise bureaucracy and create dialogue rather than paperwork, consultation rather than anonymity.

These networks have a further implication. In the ratio of our size to our resources, the contribution of Irish voluntary organisations and individuals to developing countries has been outstanding. Working often in difficult conditions, under considerable stresses, Irish individuals, and the organisations they represent, have provided friendship and a voice for many defenceless people. I want to pay tribute to them today. The witness of love and compassion given by our priests and nuns, our doctors, nurses, teachers and other voluntary workers of all denominations, and by all those who commit their energies unselfishly to working for a more equal world, is something we can be proud of. At a practical level, their expertise provides a necessary lifeline of communications and understanding. Through their organisation, they already have a working relationship with other such agencies in Europe. Just as they have made us understand here in Ireland the needs of developing countries, now they continue that process in a wider context. The relation between a powerful community of nations and an afflicted and struggling part of our world can never be easy and will falter if such communicative skills and imaginative sympathies are missing.

I think it helps to realise that the influence of Europe works in both directions. The reality of modern Ireland is that there is, at this moment, a young and well-trained Irish workforce in European capitals. They bring with them the visible distinctions bestowed on them by our educational system. But this is not all. They themselves are just part of a wider traffic of young people to and from the Continent: students at primary and secondary level; at third level through the Erasmus scheme. They go there in the care of teachers who have a generous appreciation of what that traffic will mean for all our futures. Through them, through the new emphasis on languages, our students are now part of a Europe they can lay claim to as well as visit. Most importantly, they also bring with them something less visible: an imaginative feel for suffering and the quick sympathies which are the bright offerings of a dark history.

We also have a business community whose enterprise and improvisation has been crucial on the eve of the opening of the Single European Market. And how exciting that we are beginning to talk about an economic corridor between North and South, where promotions and industrial commitments can draw on common resources: where industry becomes part of understanding.

But in this matter, as in every other one to do with Europe, our attitude is vital. We need to realise we will not be subsumed by Europe; we will not be diminished by a wider theatre of action. Albert Camus was a great presence in post-war literature. Nevertheless his statement that "the opposite of a civilised people is a creative people" is not one I agree with. In the Europe of which he was an ornament I believe we will prove him wrong: we can be both civilised and creative.

And new friendships will never replace old ones. I realise how important it is, in the new setting, that we do not forget past loyalties and traditional enrichments. When James Joyce went to Europe, he set out on a historic paradox of exile and recall. He reclaimed his birthplace by leaving it. He went away with the purpose, so he wrote later, of creating "the uncreated conscience of my race". We stand at a distance from that time; but we can still be struck by that phrase. I had in mind all our exiles, all our emigrants — past and present — when I put the light in the window at Áras an Uachtaráin. I was not prepared for the power and meaning which a modest emblem would have. But we have reason to know in Ireland how powerful symbols are; that they carry the force of what they symbolise. Joyce's words remind us — that light reminds us — that the community of Irish interest and talent and memory extends far beyond our boundaries, far beyond Europe's boundaries.

The dreams and insights we foster on these shores, the images of landscape which enter into people's hearts, and the friendships and family ties, are carried forever beyond them. Through this absent community, our national constituency and culture are present in wider ones. I put the light in the window to show that the dialogue between the absent and the present is one of remembrance at all times. This presence of the local in the spacious context; this strengthening of a sense of home by the fact of absence is itself an emblem of how strong our national experience is, how much it is cherished by those who take it with them. I know we can take that emblem with us to the new Europe, never forgetting in those surroundings how strong our bonds are with other countries, and other continents.

When we reflect on the constituent parts of the modern Ireland, I think we find ourselves at the heart of the European debate. Ireland is the first country to signify its willingness to ratify the movement towards European Union — whatever shape that may finally take. As a modern State, we have the democratic right to do so. But of course it can be argued that we are not only a modern State. As a people we reach back in time to hardships and dangers. At some mysterious point, time becomes history and a people becomes a nation. Few of us, however scholarly, would venture a guess as to when that happened. But I know that most of us would feel our Irish language was deeply and intimately involved in such a transformation. It remains today an index and register of our nationhood. Through its continuance we avoid the desolate spectacle of Máire MacEntee's eloquent lines:

Níl cuimhne féin ar a ainm
Fiú cerbha díobh ní feasach ann
His name is not even remembered
Nor is his kindred known there

I know there are fears that this Irish possession may be eroded in Europe. But this is the very moment when fear must not become fatalism. Why should the Irish language be threatened by Europe, when what we have, in fact, is an opportunity to take it with us as a precious and enduring frame of our self-perception. Providing, of course, that within this self-perception is also our sense of tolerance, our love of diversity, our cherishing of other traditions. Provided we always have in mind that no one is less Irish for not speaking it. And on the other hand, we can never presume to know who will speak it, or to whom it will be dear. From the poets of Slieve Luachra in Kerry in the 18th century to those like Edward Bunting in the North of Ireland in the 19th, the language has had powerful friends and unpredictable ones. Now we must look for those friends in this generation. After all, the new environmental movement has caught the imaginations of young people everywhere. Their sense of the vulnerability of this planet has moved and persuaded us all. Now we need to persuade our young Irish people that a language also is a part of our environment, is a living thing, subject to stresses and neglect, likely to be mourned if it becomes extinct and entitled — I believe — to the same excited sense of care and protection.

In this context — of the Irish language and Europe — it seems to me particularly appropriate to quote one of my predecessors, Douglas Hyde: "The Ireland of today" he said, "is the descendant of the Ireland of the 7th century, then the school of Europe and the torch of learning." It is our language which makes that link and proves that descent.

San aitheasc a thug mé ar mo insealbhú mar Uachtarán, cuimhneoidh sibh gur dhúirt mé go raibh aistear cultúrtha le déanamh agam leis an saibhreas iontach atá sa Ghaeilge a bhaint amach dom féin. Dúirt mé freisin go raibh súil agam go leanfadh daoine eile mé a bhí ar mo nós féin, beagán as cleachtadh sa Ghaeilge agus go rachadh muid ar aghaidh le chéile le taitneamh agus pléisiúr a fháil as ár dteanga álainn féin. Thosaigh mé amach ar an aistear sin agus tá sé ráite ag go leor leor daoine ó shin liom gur thug an deashampla sin misneach dóibh mé a leanúint. Agus mhéadaigh sé sin mo mhisneach féin. Tá muid ag dul ar aghaidh le chéile ag cabhrú lena chéile agus ag tabhairt cuireadh do dhaoine eile muid a leanúint ar an aistear cultúrtha seo is dual do Éireannaigh.

Ach tá níos mó ná dílseacht d'ár noidhreacht Éireannach i gceist leis an dea-shampla seo — tá dílseacht d'ár noidhreacht Eorpach san áireamh freisin. Is cuid de oidhreacht an Chomhphobail an saibhreas atá i bhféiniúlacht gach pobal ar leith, agus is cuid de oidhreacht gach pobal ar leith an saibhreas atá sa gComhphobal le chéile. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach go ndéanfadh muid an fhéiniúlacht a chaomhnú agus an éagsúlacht a chothú i ngach ceantar den Chomhphobal.

We bring with us also our wealth of expression in the English language. I find it poignant that in a private letter Maria Edgeworth once lamented the bitterness of Irish life. "It is impossible to draw Ireland as she now is in a book of fiction" she wrote, "realities are too strong and party passions too violent". And like so many other citizens of this country, I am grateful that this did not deter our writers in the end. In novels, short stories, poems and plays, they have added immeasurably to the self-realisation of the Irish people. It is to them, to their obstinate sense of their art, that we owe a wider concept of Irishness. They persuaded us, through the beauty and force of their expression — often controversially received — that nationality is something which admits of the rebellious affections of a James Joyce, of the dual-language lyricism of Samuel Beckett, and the anarchic intelligence of a Myles na gCopaleen, that it encompasses the subversions of our artists as well as the steadfastness of our patriots. Our writers have truly — as Patrick Kavanagh said — lived in important times. And their self-questioning is something which lives with us as a challenge and a bequest. "For all my searching back" says Kate O'Brien of her portrait of her relatives, "and for all my will to reach them, I have not found the heart of any one of them".

In fact it is our writers, our artists, our composers and our craftsmen and craftswomen who have been at the heart of the Irish identity — often before any of the rest of us. Even as I speak, a new generation is continuing to do this in a new golden age for all kinds of Irish creativity which I have referred to with pride on my visits abroad. Because of them we bring to Europe the important argument that a community and a nation need not be a smooth or acceptable continuum. It can also be an assembly of valuable and shifting tensions.

But no act of cultural possession or self-possession precludes change. Our receptiveness to change is a mark of our confidence as a modern State. There are changes all around us today which are an enrichment of our national life and which are going to serve us well as we take them into the fast-changing European environment. There has been, for instance, a radical change in the role and status of women. Because of legislative and economic advances women now play a greater part in the structures which sustain the community. I have observed, and stated on other occasions, and I will state it again tomorrow at the opening of the Global Summit on Women, that as they take more of a part in our national life women are actually changing the institutions and occasions they participate in. They bring to their various commitments — and they are a great part of the voluntary effort I spoke of — an exemplary relation between the individual and the group. They are often open, consultative and progressive in institutions which especially benefit by such attitudes.

In all this talk of a new circumstance and a challenging future it would be quite wrong to minimise the fact that there are tensions and sorrows in this country even as I speak. They come from oppositions and traditional sources of misunderstanding. They also come from the profound inhumanity of protracted violence. I know the violence in Northern Ireland grieves every one of you as elected representatives, just as it grieves me. I know I speak for you in assuring the people of Northern Ireland, of all traditions, of our deep commitment to dialogue and to friendship. It gives me a chance to say how deeply I appreciate the welcome I received when I went there. It also allows me to say that of all the occasions of my Presidency I do not think any has moved me more than the visits I made to Northern Ireland and the visits made in turn to me by community groups — by young people, by women, by business people, by representatives of rural and urban concerns from Northern Ireland.

I said at my inauguration that I wanted Áras an Uachtaráin to be a place of storytelling. And I assure you that it was never more so than on these occasions. These different groups, with all their diverse interests and areas of expertise and their deep cross-community respect for one another, brought their stories to one another, not just to me. I found that open-mindedness both moving and challenging.

I want to finish by saying how grateful I am for the opportunity you have given me today to reflect on our Irish identity at an important moment. It has been a privilege to do so in the presence of elected representatives and in this place which symbolises so much of what we have achieved. Having said that, I am deeply aware that I have given you just one perspective, just one individual witness on a complex and vital subject. I also know how much this whole reflective process will benefit from the expert views and observations, the insight and concrete evidence you in this Oireachtas will bring to bear on it.

The generation which founded this State could not have foreseen this occasion; and yet by their courage they helped to guarantee it. I know we have them in mind today — these forebears of the modern Irish State and all those others who by their efforts and dedication brought it about. I believe if they could see us — a sovereign democratic State reflecting on our place in a community of European nations, they would be satisfied. It is right, by way of honouring their memory, that we remember James Connolly's question today. Who we are as Irish people is about to be challenged and confirmed by new circumstances. I believe we are ready. Nevertheless it seems important that we continue to reflect on that challenge with a sense of what we bring to Europe, rather than what we lose by being part of it; that we assert our future in terms of the best values of our past; that we do not take a passive view of our role in Europe. Today, we answer that question about our Irish identity much more confidently because of those in the past who asked it. And I believe that future generations on this island have an equivalent right.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.


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