Speech at a Garden Party to acknowledge the Organisations and Volunteers working with Refugees and Asylum-Seekers
Áras an Uachtaráin, Wednesday 19 June 2019
Sabina and I would like to welcome you and thank you all for coming to the Áras today to our garden party. The garden party season is a special time of the year when Sabina and I welcome to Áras an Uachtaráin many citizens who have contributed, or are contributing, in their unique way to Irish society. Today we are delighted to have the opportunity to recognise the many families and volunteers who assist, in so many ways, those living in Direct Provision throughout Ireland.
Sabina and I wish to extend a special cead mile fáilte to those of you who have travelled long distances to be with us. I am delighted you are here, and I hope you will enjoy your visit to Áras an Uachtaráin, home of all of the Presidents of Ireland since 1938. This year is the eighth year that Sabina and I have welcomed our citizens in their diversity to Áras an Uachtaráin.
Today is an important occasion as we take the opportunity to acknowledge the special contribution made by the volunteers and host families who assist those in Direct Provision and refugees across the country, as well as the contribution of some of those who have arrived in Ireland and who are playing their own special role in the crafting of the contemporary Ireland which is a source of richness for us all.
I also wish to welcome Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Equality, Immigration and Integration David Stanton to today’s garden party.
It is highly appropriate that the theme of today’s garden party focuses on Direct Provision given that tomorrow is World Refugee Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world.
Indeed, only today the United Nations Human Rights Commission produced the shocking statistic that the number of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict exceeded 70 million globally last year – the highest number in the UN refugee agency's almost 70 years of operations. The 70.8 million people forcibly displaced is 2.3 million more than the previous year, according to the agency's annual Global Trends report, highlighting the growing scale of the challenge we face in helping refugees, asylum-seekers and those internally displaced.
As President of Ireland I have welcomed the opportunity to visit and meet with many of those living in Direct Provision. Most recently, having ensured that the Gaisce Presidential Awards are open to young people living in Direct Provision, I attended these awards in the Mosney Accommodation Centre. It was a privilege to celebrate and acknowledge the dedication, perseverance and commitment of those Gaisce recipients who undertook this challenge in trying circumstances, where resources are scarce, and conditions are testing.
Theirs was an important and prestigious achievement, that highlighted the idealism and passion of so many young people living in Direct Provision, and of all they have to offer our society and their community.
Some of you here today came to Ireland seeking refuge from war, natural disasters or persecution, turning to your fellow global citizens for protection and shelter, with the hope for a better future and increased opportunities for yourselves and your families. Some of you here today have had to grapple with a foreign language, a different climate, and a new set of social customs.
Others among you may have experienced prejudice and stereotyping born of ignorance and fear. As President of Ireland, this deeply saddens me, and as President of Ireland I offer you an apology for it.
Many of you may have made enormous sacrifices, leaving family behind, taking risks to leave your homeland in order to create new and better lives that will undoubtedly result in your making valuable contributions to your new communities, wherever they may be.
Reflecting on your journey, I cannot help but think that the qualities that you have demonstrated, above all your courage and generosity of spirit, have not always been met by answerable hospitality in this country. In 2016 we, as a nation, reflected on the founding moments of this State, a century after the Easter Rising, and we recalled the great project of our revolutionary forebearers. That project is in-the-making in this country, a republic of equals, one that is inclusive, open, generous and committed, not only to common good of the citizens of the nation, but of all humankind.
This challenge – the building of a real republic – is very much a challenge that remains, and I do want to acknowledge, as President of Ireland, that we have too often faltered, and too often continue to falter and fail to reflect on why and what it means to be insufficient in our hospitality, and have often neglected our duty and our obligations to others.
There are many of you here today who have helped, in a voluntary capacity, and continue to do so, and I wish to pay particular thanks to you all.
Groups like Fáilte Isteach, Localise, New Communities Partnership, and Refugee and Migrant Solidarity Ireland, to name but a small few of those present today, all possess the practical engaged citizens of a meaningful republic. Your work as volunteers, promoting equal rights and equal opportunities, and in assisting and encouraging migrants to participate in the political life of this nation, is a true example of the republic in action, expanding, as it does, the boundaries of our democracy and the frontiers of our hospitality.
May I acknowledge in a special way the work and leadership of Justice Bryan MacMahon in the completion of the Report to Government Working Group on the Protection Process on Improvements to the Protection Process, including Direct Provision and Supports to Asylum Seekers. I am delighted that he and his wife Mary are present today.
That report is a greatly welcome development and represents an important and urgent agenda for work as we commit to treating those who are displaced, who have come to our shores seeking shelter, with empathy and a sense of shared humanity. I also strongly support Justice MacMahon’s recent proposals in relation to facilitating the application for driving licences, and other forms of interaction with Irish life.
Ireland of the 21st century is a dynamic and cosmopolitan place, a country that embraces the innovation, opportunity, dynamism and creative energy that cultural diversity brings.
People who have chosen to aspire to become Irish nationals bring with them a distinct and unique cultural background that has shaped and formed them and to which they remain profoundly connected. We should welcome the opportunity it gives us to widen our horizons, embrace other cultures and other lives, and my message to those in Direct Provision is to ensure that you add your stories and experiences to ours in order to create an interwoven tapestry of rich cultural heritages, all of which are playing a vital part in our shared identity.
As a society, we can be deeply grateful to all of you, and in a particular way to those who volunteer, who work so generously to ensure the sharing of the valuable range and mix of traditions which I have spoken of that have immeasurably enriched our society to the benefit of all.
I cannot speak of this without feeling, now even at such a distance of time, a gratitude to those who helped the Irish over the centuries who at great human cost fled from oppression, exclusion, prejudice and famine to foreign shores where they by their turn faced difficulties in language, employment and housing. We Irish are a migrant people and we always must recognise both the responsibility and blessing that it is to respond to the needs of migrants wherever they may be.
Before I conclude, I would also like to thank our superb MC Ryan Tubridy this afternoon. May I also thank our entertainers this afternoon the many bands and soloists we will hear from shortly, including traditional musicians Colm Ó hArgáin, the Harmony Federation Choir, Jafaris, Wild Youth, the Atkinson Family, Denis Scully, Leo Osio and Gavin James, as well as the Band of the 2 Brigade. Thank you again to my staff here at the Áras for your hard work and good humour – and special thanks to OPW and our wonderful household team, not only for their wonderful treats, but for their kindness and friendliness, all things which contribute in no small part to making this garden party a very special event for you.
Thank also to our friends in St. John of God’s, the Gardaí and our Civil Defence colleagues, the tour guides, and all who have worked so hard to make today such a joyful and happy occasion for us all.
I wish you all a Summer of happiness. I hope you have much fun and good times together, creating happy memories that will remain with you throughout your lives. Enjoy your day here, explore the house, the gardens, and make yourself at home.
I hope that you are all enjoying your visit; the gardens are perhaps at their best around this time of year. Our thanks to all those who work in the gardens and the staff of the Áras, who are responsible for the hospitality you are all enjoying.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
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