Remarks at an Irish Community Reception
Embassy of Ireland, Villa Spada, 14th September, 2021
Ambassadors, A dhaoine uaisle, Friends,
It is a real pleasure for Sabina and I to return to the Villa Spada, this historic house that has served Ireland so well over the past seventy-five years, both as the Embassy to the Holy See and more recently as the Embassy to Italy.
We are grateful to Ambassador Ó Floinn and his wife, Madeleine as well as to Ambassador Derek Hannon.
We all must continue to live and work within Covid-related constraints, but I am delighted that it has proved possible to meet this small group of friends of the Embassies of Ireland to Italy and the Holy See while the impact of the limitations necessitated by the current public health guidelines is well understood. I am aware, too, that all of you based here in Italy have experienced so many difficult consequences of the pandemic for over a year and a half, including of course prolonged separation from family in Ireland. I hope that this situation is now easing somewhat and that you can look forward to renewed contact with those closest to you.
This is our first visit abroad since the beginning of the coronavirus health emergency and I am very conscious that it is to the country which suffered the most in the European Union from the pandemic, particularly in the early months last year when we all witnessed the tragic images of the coffins of the deceased being moved by army trucks in Bergamo. More recently, we have seen the scenes of fires and flooding in other parts of the country and our hearts have gone out to those affected.
We in Ireland, together with many other countries, learned from the Italian experience and we owe a debt of gratitude to Italian doctors and other professionals who shared their learning of dealing with this dreadful disease with us. However, while the progress on Covax is very welcome, it has been shown to be insufficient in addressing the supply programme in Africa in particular. I believe that Europe, for so many reasons – for not only practical reasons but moral – should respond to the Covid-19 Technology Pool
(C-TAP) launched by the WHO last year, by indicating a willingness to overcome any obstacles to participation. Time is running out to save lives on the African continent.
All of us have had to adapt our way of living in the face of coronavirus over the past year and half. While we are still dealing with the ongoing threat of the disease and its variants, it is the case that the European Union and its Member States have had great success in facing the medical and economic challenges caused by the virus and in developing the measures necessary to fight it.
I salute all those who have led the way in this regard in Italy and it is appropriate that this country will significantly benefit from the economic solidarity and recovery measures being taken by the European Union.
I am visiting Rome this week, at the invitation of President Sergio Mattarella, in the first instance for a meeting tomorrow of the Arraiolos Group of Presidents from those Member States of the European Union whose constitutional arrangements encompass a non-executive Head of State and an executive based on a parliamentary system.
This informal Heads of State group aims to meet annually to reflect on issues of European and international significance.
The importance of such dialogue and reflection among the thirteen Presidents who will be present tomorrow is, I feel, even more critical, in the face of the diverse threats faced by humanity in our contemporary world, which, in addition to the coronavirus emergency, range from climate change to the changing nature of work and the impact of largely unregulated technological change has an urgent need to recover trust in the European Street.
Developing a vision of our European Union that is not confined to the market or economic forces is, as I have argued consistently over recent years in various public addresses, an essential task for contemporary leadership.
When I spoke to the Global Summit of the International Labour Organisation in July 2020, I spoke of how the pandemic had exposed a contradiction which was being evaded, that we were operating within a paradigm of economy, and social connection that was failing, even though we had available to us, the 20 principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights. For an ILO meeting in June 2018 I wrote:
“From this demonstrably failed model of economic assumptions, we must free ourselves, make a new balance, between economy, ecology, society and culture.
I am pleased to note that the solidarity that gained momentum as the Union built its response to the pandemic over the past year appears to have strengthened pro-European opinion in Italy, the guardian of the Treaty of Rome, and indeed in other Member States. That opinion is now following a Social ;Europe of economic sufficiency with ecological enmity.
A Union, which is values-based not only in rhetorical terms, but also consistently in practice, is surely an essential requirement for maintaining and engaging the support of our peoples and guarding against the siren calls and false promises of populism.
At the Arraiolos meeting tomorrow in the Quirinale Palace, we will focus in particular on our vision for the future of the European Union in a post pandemic world.
Our two countries continue to demonstrate our shared commitment to international peace and security in a variety of concrete ways, including the issues we will share during Ireland’s current membership of the UN Security Council. Our shared values will, I know, inform Italy’s leadership of the G20, as well as in practice, for example, in UNIFIL in Lebanon where the women and men of our Defence Forces serve alongside each other.
In restating the readiness of Ireland, Italy and our partners in the European Union to playing our part in ensuring peace and security we must always insist that an international order that is not based on the human rights of all women and men can never be acceptable. Unfolding events in Afghanistan surely give emphasis to the importance of basic human rights being protected and vindicated.
I spoke earlier of the success of the European Union and its Member States in rolling out vaccination for its citizens. This is a source of encouragement to us all.
But this success must also be accompanied by a genuine commitment to ensuring effective vaccination programmes in the developing world, if our exit from the pandemic is to be a long-term one.
Later this week, I will also have the opportunity to discuss some of the challenges I have mentioned with Pope Francis, whose deep reflections on issues such as development and climate change, have been such an inspiration to us all.
I also look forward to meeting with the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, QU Dongyu, to discuss the leadership role Ireland is playing and can develop in the preparations for the Food Systems Summit later this month in New York.
We in Ireland can have a significant role in helping to achieve food security and in particular in helping to find ways to adapt agricultural systems and practice to the needs of development and the climate agenda.
I mentioned earlier that this historic house, the Villa Spada, had served as Ireland’s Embassy to the Holy See – in fact from 1946 to 2012.
In its own way, this building – originally built in the seventeenth century – also reflects the complexities of our shared European history and space.
It was here, in June 1849, that Garibaldi made a last stand against French troops who had come to the assistance of the Papacy. Despite the defeat of Italian forces on that occasion, it would not be very long, as we all know, before a unified Italian state would emerge.
A little down the aptly-named Via Garibaldi beside this Embassy, lies the church of San Pietro in Montorio which is the burial place of an earlier generation of Irish leaders, Hugh O’Neill and Ruairí O’Donnell, who had sought assistance from European powers of their day.
Beside that church, we find the wonderful masterpiece of high renaissance architecture, Bramante’s Tempietto which had such an influence on the evolution of architectural styles in succeeding centuries.
Last Friday morning, I received the Ambassador of Italy at Áras an Uachtaráin where we walked to view the beautiful sculpture of the Pieta, given to the Irish people in recognition of assistance during the Second World War.
These few examples I recall this evening, serve, of course, to remind us of earlier connections across our common European space. It is a space we must meaningfully use along with colleagues across Europe. I have addressed the issue of the need for much greater social cohesion, for the need for respect for the intimacy of the local, of language and place and a vision for a progressive Europe, to “Reclaim the European Street”.
The challenge for the future of Europe is to connect with the street, to show solidarity with all its citizens, and to sharing and communicating a vision for a ‘Social Europe’ that involves no contradiction with what is valued as proximate or local.
I cannot finish without referencing a great European of universal significance.
We are marking the seven hundredth anniversary this year of the death of one the greatest literary figures in European culture, the poet Dante Alighieri, father of the Italian language, whose gifts to humankind include the Divina Commedia or Divine Comedy which has had such an influence on literature and wider culture through the ages.
In February 2018, Sabina and I were very pleased to welcome President Mattarella and his daughter Laura on a State Visit to Ireland.
It was a very successful visit with one last minute addition to the President’s programme, at his request, of a visit to the National Gallery to see Caravaggio’s painting of the “The Taking of Christ” which Laura had seen earlier in the visit.
This is yet another wonderful example, both of those uplifting links between our two countries in the cultural sphere which we share, and of what this great country of Italy has given to universal culture.
So, in the language of the poet Dante, let me wish you all ‘una bellissima serata.’
Sabina and I look forward to having the opportunity of speaking with you some more in a few moments.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh agus beir beannacht do’n todchaí.