An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, became only the fifth person to address both the joint Houses of the British and US Parliaments when he gave his valedictory address to a joint Senate and Congressional session yesterday in one of the final acts prior to his retirement as Irish Prime Minister next week.

As a former (occasional) speech writer myself, I am more than usually interested in the format and content of such events, even if I share the popular cynicism which is de rigueur when discussing political speeches in general.  Sometimes, however, a speech by a political leader can signal an important shift in a nation’s self-perception to a wider audience.  Obama’s speech on race, for instance, signalled an important determination to move beyond race and racism in the conduct of US politics, both formally, and as part of the unspoken agenda.  So why was Bertie Ahern’s speech notable and worthy of at least a little attention by Booman readers interested in EU/US affairs?
(Cross posted from the European Tribune) 

Firstly, it wasn’t primarily about Bertie Ahern himself, because he is about to retire and may choose not to take up any further formal political role – although the EU could do much worse than appoint him the first President of the EU Council post the Lisbon Treaty.   The speech was mainly a progress report of where Ireland has come from over the past 10 years and how it viewed its future role in international relations.  But what was striking was the self-confident tone adopted by a leader of such a small nation more used to adopting a “begging bowl” supplicating stance when seeking an audience with the great and the good in world affairs.

True enough, the speech included all the usual ingratiating Plámás of which such speeches are usually redolent.  But that is simply good manners – to compliment your host – and in this case Ahern had genuine cause to give formal thanks to the US for the role played by President Clinton and Senator Mitchell in the Peace Process.  Politeness required that President Bush also be included in the thank-yous, although his role extended no further than appointing some moderately competent emissaries.  (For those interested, Hilary Clinton’s virtually non-existent role didn’t merit a mention!).

Ahern also made the usual reference to the contribution of Irish Americans in building the USA, and gave special mention to the President Reagan and the Kennedys’ in this regard.  However there was also some real meat in his speech.  For the first time he included the “Scots-Irish from all corners of our island, and from all creeds” in his tributes.  This was no Irish Catholic Nationalist tribute to his own tribe.

He made a pointed and very direct request that the issue of “undocumented” Irish immigrants to the US be addressed – and pointed out that Ireland too now had issues of large scale immigration to address – and thus understood the difficulties involved.

He pointed out how Irish America, and Ireland, had shared in the tragedy of 9/11, but went on to make a strong plea for multi-lateralism, the United Nations, and an EU soon to be strengthened, he hoped, by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.  He was particularly effusive about the EU: – The Irish Times – Thu, May 01, 2008

I ask you to consider what has been achieved in Europe in the past 50 years.

We have put aside hostilities that led to countless wars over the centuries, and to two world wars in the last century alone.

We have created a European Union of 27 democratic states, committed to democracy, peace and freedom. We are committed to an open market and to a single currency that benefits hundreds of millions of European citizens.

We all recall two great Irish-Americans – President Kennedy in 1963 and President Reagan in 1987 – standing at the Berlin Wall during the Cold War and calling out for freedom in Germany and in Europe.

That call was heard, as freedom’s call always will be. Berlin is now at the heart of a united, democratic Germany.

On the 1st of May, 2004, in Dublin, 10 new members formally joined the European Union. Many of them were emerging from behind the Iron Curtain after decades of oppression.

I remember the intensity of the emotions. For many of these countries, this was a moment that was unthinkable only a few years before.

Along with Berlin, the great cities of Prague, Budapest and Warsaw have joined Dublin, London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Vienna as capital cities within a free and democratic European Union.

The European Union now stretches from the beautiful west coast of Ireland, where the locals say that the next parish is America, to countries with a land-frontier with Russia and Ukraine.

I passionately believe in Europe and I passionately believe in the European Union as a force for good in the world. It is profoundly encouraging that we are seeing the members of the European Union continuing to rise together as a force for development, for stability, for peace in the world.

Soon, the Irish people will vote on a new reform treaty that aims to make the European Union work even more effectively, both internally and in the wider world. I trust in their wisdom to support and to believe in Europe, as they always have.

And there was a spirited defense of human rights, development aid, and UN Peace Keeping: – The Irish Times – Thu, May 01, 2008

 My friends, between America and Europe there is contrast, but not contradiction. Energised by a common framework of values and imbued by democratic principles, together we can and we shall be a beacon for economic progress, individual liberty and the dignity of all mankind.

Acting in partnership, there are few limits to the good we can do.

We are all citizens of the world. We must therefore develop a true spirit of global citizenship.

This cannot and should not be an alternative to national pride and patriotism, but rather a complement to it.

We should care for our planet as much as we care for our country. We should champion peace, justice and human rights across the globe as well as at home.

It is an affront to our civilisation that there are children, anywhere in this world, who will die of hunger or of a curable disease.

In this year of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it angers us that some corners of the world remain hidden from the light of the universal principles expressed so eloquently in that document.

Although a small country, Ireland has always sought to play a full part on the international stage. We have consistently advocated acting in accordance with the principles of democracy, the rule of law, human rights and human dignity.

Ireland believes in multilateral institutions. We believe in the United Nations. We believe in the European Union. And we believe in multilateral action.

For over half a century, Irish men and women have served the cause of peace under the United Nations flag.

They have served in the Congo and in the Lebanon, on the borders between Israel and Syria and between Iraq and Iran, in Cyprus, in Eritrea, in Liberia, in East Timor, in Bosnia in Kosovo and in Afghanistan.

Tragically, some have paid the ultimate price and they have given their lives in that noble service.

Madam Speaker, never has the expression “the global village” been more appropriate. The great challenges that we face in the 21st century are truly global.

Falling financial markets, rising food and energy prices and climate change are global phenomena.

Eradicating poverty, starvation and disease, countering international terrorism and containing nuclear proliferation are not national but international issues. They cannot be overcome except by countries working together.


Madam Speaker, in Ireland today, we are looking out from our own shores more than ever before – no longer with thoughts of exile, but to be part of the world. Connected to it, contributing to it, learning from it.

The long and proud tradition of Irish missionaries, of teachers, of nurses and of doctors working around the globe to combat poverty, hunger and disease continues today.

For us, famine and oppression are not tragedies that could only happen elsewhere.

They happened to us at a sad time in our history. They happened to those who fled here and helped build America and to the many who did not survive that fateful journey across the ocean.

For that more than any other reason, we recognise our obligation to share what we have with the poor of the world.

That is why Ireland is committed to reach the United Nations aid target by 2012.

Today, we are the sixth-largest per capita donor of development assistance in the world.

The strength of our efforts to tackle poverty, to cure disease and to feed the hungry in the developing world is a measure of our common humanity.

At this moment in our history, that common humanity is being tested in parts of the continent of Africa – in countries like Sudan and Chad, where lives have been lost on a terrible scale, where countless families have been driven from their homes, where conflict threatens a whole region with chaos and destruction.

Today, Irish soldiers are in Chad as part of a United Nations-mandated force, led by an Irish officer, protecting hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from conflict in that country and in neighbouring Darfur.

No mention of Afghanistan, Iraq, torture, Katrina or market solutions to poverty, but he wasn’t exactly singing from the neo-conservative hymn sheet, and not afraid to set out a stall which would have a US Presidential hopeful in some trouble for its complete disregard for militarism, unilateralism and US exceptionalism.

Turning to the greatest achievement during his period in Office, Ahern had this to say of the Peace Process: – The Irish Times – Thu, May 01, 2008

Madam Speaker, this year, in Ireland, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It was a defining moment in Ireland’s history.

In the years since then, some doubted that the agreement would endure. I never did.

I knew it would last because it is built on the highest ideals of democracy – the ideals of liberty, of equality, of justice, of friendship and of respect for our fellow men and women.

Above all, the settlement of 1998 will flourish because of one simple and unalterable fact. It represents the will, democratically expressed, North and South, of all of the people of Ireland to live together in peace and harmony.

That is far more powerful than any words of hatred or any weapon of terror.

In 1981, in much darker days for my country, the Friends of Ireland in the United States Congress were founded. Their simple purpose was to seek a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland.

The statement, placed on the Congressional Record during a session chaired by Speaker Tip O’Neill, read: “We look forward to a future St Patrick’s Day, one that we can foresee, when true peace can finally come and Irish men and women everywhere, from Dublin to Derry, from Boston and New York to Chicago and San Francisco, shall hail that peace and welcome the dawn of a new Ireland.”

On St Patrick’s Day 2008, a few short weeks ago, I came here to Washington. I came with a simple and extraordinary message. That great day of hope has dawned. Our prayer has been answered. Our faith has been rewarded.

After so many decades of conflict, I am so proud, Madam Speaker, to be the first Irish leader to inform the United States Congress: Ireland is at peace


Many of us found inspiration in the words of Dr Martin Luther King, whose life we recall this year on the 40th anniversary of his death.

We believed, to borrow Dr King’s immortal phrase, that we would be able to transform the jangling discords into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

His dream, born of America but heard by the whole world, inspired us through its unanswerable commitment to justice and to non-violence.

We discovered that peace can be found without suspending your moral judgment, without sacrificing your identity and without surrendering your most deeply held political aspirations.

Today, as I stand before you in this great democratic assembly, I struggle to convey the enormous good that was done by so many people in my country, with your help.

Do not underestimate the good you have done.Do not forget the legacy you have forged. And if ever you doubt America’s place in the world, or hesitate about your power to influence events for the better, look to Ireland.

Look to the good you have done. Look at the richness of so many individual futures that now stretch out before us for generations, no longer subject to conflict and violence.

Look to the hope and confidence that we now feel on our island. The healing of history. Look and be glad.

A feel good message for a Nation that may be doubting its place in the world – and perhaps a veiled warning against isolationism.  Speaking of future challenges, he said: – The Irish Times – Thu, May 01, 2008

Madam Speaker, there is, of course, no ending to history. We will always have new problems, new challenges and new opportunities. We are seeing an ever-increasing range of new technological and scientific developments, which are created and diffused at ever-greater speeds.

Our societies are increasingly diverse. Side by side with great wealth and prosperity, we still see social exclusion and poverty.

We endeavour to help families and communities ravaged by a minority who engage in crime or deal in drugs. We strive to deliver quality, affordable healthcare to all our people. We want the best education for our children.

We seek to provide social protection and security for our older people, to recognise what they have given to help create our successful societies.

These are the challenges for modern Ireland, just as they are throughout America and across the developed world. These are the very essence of politics.

That is why, with all our faults as human beings, we seek the honour of representing the people. We believe that diversity does not have to mean fragmentation or discord.

We believe that wealth and prosperity do not have to be accompanied by poverty and inequality. We believe that evil or injustice need not – and will not – triumph.

With the Irish health care system, in particular, in an ongoing crisis, these words will ring hollow to many – but he is also setting out the agenda that his “worthy” successor will have to address.

He ends with an appeal to the common democratic and republican values that underpin Irish and American political culture, but in an American context, the content of his messages could not be more different to the neo-conservative rant against social welfare, multilateralism, human rights, development aid, the EU and the UN.  He seeks to encourage the progressive forces in the US with their successful contribution to peace in Ireland, whilst giving no recognition whatsoever to military adventurism, unilateralism, and the indifference to poverty and injustice that is at the heart of the neo-conservative, and often the neo-liberal agenda.

That he can do all that, as the leader of a small nation, to a Joint session of Congress, and receive several standing ovations is some achievement.  This is a case of Ireland dealing with the US on its own terms, not as an equal, but confident enough to put out a very different vision of the world, and of the responsibilities of statesmen than has been current in the US of late.  

The traditional bowl of shamrock presented to the US President by an Irish Taoiseach on St. Patrick’s day is a begging bowl no longer.  We stand on our own vision of the world, even if we have much more to do to fulfill it. And he didn’t mention the Celtic Tiger once.  The real test is whether that vision will outlive the Tiger – or was it born merely out of economic success? The next few more difficult years will tell a tale.

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