"Check against delivery"
Honourable Members of the Dáil and Seanad,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A dhaoine uaisle, thank you so much for this honour. Today, as I join you in this home of Irish democracy, I do not feel like I have travelled to the edge of our Union. Because while that may be true geographically, Ireland lies at the heart of Europe in every other way. This is a country of proud Europeans. And today, all other Europeans look up to Ireland. Because you show Europe's best face: innovative and inclusive; loyal to your history and traditions; open to the future and the world. This is the country that you have built, in one century of independence, and half a century of European membership. It is the country your ancestors fought for and dreamt of. Exactly 50 years ago, Taoiseach Jack Lynch made a prophecy about Ireland's future in the European Union. He was campaigning for Ireland to join the European Economic Community. And he explained that not only was the future of Ireland at stake but the future of Europe. Because he had faith that the Irish people could ‘help fashion for themselves and for future generations a better Ireland in a better Europe.' And this is what I would like to talk about today.
Most Irish people will agree that EU membership has made Ireland a better place. But the other side of the story is just as important. Ireland has made Europe a better place. Europe owes you. And today, I have not come here to praise our Union and its achievements but to thank the Irish people for everything you have brought to our Union in these 50 years, and everything you will keep bringing in the many years ahead. Go raibh maith agaibh, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Let me start with how Ireland has changed, before I talk about how you have changed Europe. We all know the Irish success story in our Union. Joining the EU has unleashed Ireland's immense potential, and has profoundly transformed this country. In 1973, Ireland's GDP per capita was around half the EU average. Today, it is double the average. This is thanks to our unique Single Market and thanks to the ingenuity of the Irish people. You have made the best out of the opportunities that come with the freedom to trade, travel, study and work across the EU. And Irish society has blossomed, too. 50 years ago, married Irish women were banned from working in the public sector. But because of your accession to the European Community in 1973, this Parliament passed its first gender equality legislation. Since then, the rights of women in Ireland have come such a long way. Already in 1990, Mary Robinson became the country's first woman President. In her words, the women of Ireland went from ‘rocking the cradle' to ‘rocking the system.' And now, Ireland is one of the best countries in Europe for female employment levels, or women in science and technology jobs. And you were also the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in a referendum. Powerful grassroots movements led to powerful legislative changes. You have become a beacon, for Europe and the world.
Let me, again, take you back to 1973 for a moment. The troubles were blazing, and attempts at bridge-building between communities would founder by the following year. However, far-sighted Irish politicians also understood that European membership could establish new economic and personal ties, and gradually help remove the tensions which were obstructing the quest for peace. This is, indeed, what happened. Of course, the conflict on the island of Ireland did not end overnight. And yet: Slowly but surely, trust was built both between Dublin and London, and between communities that lived on different sides of a wall. Europe was an incentive to look beyond the barbed wire, to build bridges and reap the economic benefits of cross-border cooperation. The great European John Hume described Europe´s role as being ‘both practical and inspirational' for the peace process. Our Union was once founded as a peace project. Here, on the island of Ireland, Europe demonstrated this unique power to bring about peace. Europe's role in the peace process brought Europe right back to its roots.
This has made Brexit even more painful for all of us. Its consequences are most deeply felt on this island, well beyond the economic dimension. But Brexit has also thrust Ireland and the rest of the EU closer together. Ireland has benefited from the ironclad solidarity of the Union and all its Member States, big and small. All Europeans immediately understood how important it was to preserve peace on the island of Ireland. And after Brexit, our Union has doubled down on its commitment to peace. For instance, we are now providing EUR 1 billion to the border counties in Ireland and to Northern Ireland with our PEACE PLUS programme. Since it was created in 1995, together with the Irish and UK governments, the EU's PEACE programme has replaced border checkpoints with sports venues, schools and community centres. It has brought together people from different communities who lived side by side but had never met each other. Brexit will not become an obstacle on the path of reconciliation in Ireland.
And I am glad that today our talks with London are marked by a new, more pragmatic spirit. Because the European Union and the United Kingdom are still members of the same extended family, even if we no longer live in the same house. I can promise you that whenever the European Union sits down with our British friends, we will do so with ‘an honest heart, and an open mind', to quote the great Irish band The Saw Doctors. By applying common sense and focusing on the issues that really matter in Northern Ireland, I believe we can make progress in resolving the practical matters surrounding the Protocol. We are listening closely to business and civil society stakeholders in Northern Ireland. But the consequences of Brexit and the kind of Brexit chosen by the UK cannot be removed entirely. The solutions we find must ensure the Single Market continues to function, in Ireland and elsewhere in the EU. If both sides are sensitive to this careful balance, a workable solution is within reach. I believe, we have a duty to find it. My contacts with Prime Minister Sunak are encouraging and I trust we can find the way. And one thing is clear: Ireland can always count on the European Union to stand by the Good Friday Agreement. There can be no hard border on the island of Ireland.
European membership has done Ireland good. But that is only half of the story. Today, I would also like to reflect on what Ireland brings to our Union. And what it could contribute in the years to come. Because Europe is what we all make of it. And indeed, we can all benefit from a bit more of the Irish approach to life, as John F. Kennedy pointed out, when speaking here almost 60 years ago. He quoted George Bernard Shaw, another great Irishman: ‘Other people see things and say: why? But I dream of things that never were – and I say: why not?' Ireland´s future is built on opportunity, optimism and openness. And Europe needs this positive vision, for a competitive economy, for a green, digital, trade-oriented EU. With a global role, reinforced by Ireland's strong links across the Atlantic and with the English-speaking world.
Today, I would like to dwell on five Irish virtues that will help our Union to face our common challenges ahead. First, the Irish passion for freedom. This country knows what it means to struggle for the right to exist. Today, another European nation is fighting for independence. Of course, Ireland is far away from the front line in Ukraine. But you understand better than most why this war matters so much to all of us. Just like our friends in Eastern Europe, you know that in Ukraine there is more at stake than the future of one country alone. Ukraine is fighting for freedom itself; for self-rule; for the rules-based global order. And Ireland has gone above and beyond in its support to Ukrainians. In these months, tens of thousands of Ukrainians, fleeing from Putin's bombs in the East, found the famous Irish welcome here in the West. You were also an early supporter of Ukraine's application to join the European Union. And I want to thank you, Taoiseach, for being such a vocal and determined supporter. When the citizens of Kherson raised the EU´s blue and gold flag, as well as the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine, to greet their liberators, it was a powerful visual confirmation about a people´s desire to belong to our Union. We have shown that our Union is the home of all European countries thriving for freedom and democracy. And our support to Ukraine must continue, for as long as it takes. Until Ukrainians fully recover what Russia has tried to take from them. Their freedom. A Saoirse.
This leads me to my second point. Europe should learn the Irish resolve – or some may say, the Irish stubbornness. History has never been easy on Ireland, but you have never surrendered your soul. And whenever history hit you, you fought back. A country of emigrants has turned into a magnet for global talents. After each crisis, you have risen up again after the Troubles; after the financial crisis; and then again after COVID-19. Ireland has constantly transformed its economy, to make it one of the most successful in Europe. But now, a new crisis is hitting Europe. The fallout of the war in Ukraine is weighing on households and businesses across the EU. The whole of Europe needs your stubbornness today to keep supporting Ukraine for as long as necessary, and to break free from our dependency on Russian fossil fuels. Since the start of the war, Russia has cut 80% of our pipeline gas. But Europe has managed to replace most of it. Our storages is full at 95% – and we are safe for this winter. But let us look beyond. It is no exaggeration to say that we stand at a crossroads: Either we ignore the lessons of this crisis and fall again into the trap of a carbon lock-in for the future, or we use this crisis to leapfrog to clean energy. Renewables are not only good for the climate, but they are home-grown and thus also good for our independence and energy security. And here, too, Europe has much to learn from this green island. Even though you are far away from Russia and Ukraine, you are making an essential contribution to overcoming this energy crisis. Ireland is a wind energy superpower, and a key player in our European Green Deal. Last year, 31% of Ireland's electricity came from wind turbines, a share only topped by Denmark. And you are now doubling down on your commitments. Your landmark Climate Act of 2021 set the ambitious goal to cut emissions by 51% by 2030, and to increase your renewable share to up to 80%. This is good for Ireland. And it is good for Europe. Because you can become an energy exporter, and help the rest of Europe replace Russian fossil fuels. The new electricity interconnector to France, supported by European funds, will become yet another engine of growth here in Ireland.
This also leads to the third Irish contribution I would like to mention, that is ingenuity. This country of poets and artists has now become a country of start-ups, too. Several Irish start-ups have become global players. From Stripe – the multi-billion-euro payment processing platform founded by two Limerick brothers – to Flipdish, digitising restaurants and bars for instance, by setting up their online orders and QR codes at the table. Access to Europe's Single Market, amplified by Ireland's supporting policies and qualities, helps indigenous start-ups to grow. It has also made Ireland hugely attractive to foreign investment. Ireland has become a hub for the world's most innovative companies, from pharma to high tech. And you are taking up the responsibility to regulate this crucial sector. Europeans depend heavily on Irish authorities to ensure that the many tech giants based here comply with our common privacy rules. Ireland can be the home base for the human-centred internet Europe wants to build. And the European Commission looks forward to working closely with Ireland in implementing new EU digital legislation – the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act. This will keep the digital economy fair and competitive.
This brings me to my fourth point: openness. Ireland is Europe's springboard over the Atlantic. A gateway to the world. Two centuries of emigration have given Ireland an unparalleled soft power and diplomatic network. Right now, both the US and Australia have leaders with proud Irish ancestry. And there are few countries more skilled than Ireland at leveraging the influence and friendship of a historic diaspora. But it is not just that. Ireland is an exporting powerhouse, and a staunch supporter of free trade. Europe has an unparalleled network of trade agreements – 46 deals with 78 partners. And as we confront a more fragmented global order, the value of trade agreements is increasing. This is why in the coming years, Europe will need to invest even more in its trade with the world. It is not just about energy. We must also supply the essential raw materials we need for the green and digital transitions. Over the next year, we aim to sign trade deals with New Zealand, Chile and Mexico, and to advance ongoing negotiations with Australia, Indonesia and India. Trade is once again at the heart of Europe's foreign policy agenda. And I count on Ireland to support a new generation of trade deals, both in Europe and through your famed global outreach.
The last and most important contribution is your optimism. Let me go back to 1972 again, when 83% of Irish people voted ‘yes' to joining the European Community. The Irish were by far the most pro-European of the three applicant countries that held referenda. And today, 50 years later, the exact same percentage of people in Ireland – 83% – are optimistic about the EU's future. Once again, the highest percentage of any country in the EU. The story of Ireland in the EU is a story of optimism. You, the Irish people, have built your own good fortune, through thick and thin. Jack Lynch was an optimist, when he said that you could make Ireland and the EU a better place. The heroes of the Easter Rising, and the architects of the Good Friday Agreements were optimists, because they believed that they could change the course of history. That is their greatest lesson for us. They dared to look beyond the imperfection of what is, to see the beauty of what could be. This is what Europe needs today. We need to believe that Ukraine can win this war. We need to believe that we can break free, once and for all, from the enslavement of Russian fossil fuels. We need to believe that a climate-neutral future is within reach. And we must do everything in our power to turn this hope into reality. Because it depends on us.
Long live Ireland, and long live Europe.
- Publication date
- 1 December 2022
- Representation in Ireland