President and Sabina receive Ambassadors from Small Island Developing States

Tue 11th Jun, 2019 | 15:00
location: (Dublin) Áras an Uachtaráin

(Dublin) Áras an Uachtaráin

Tuesday, 11th June, 2019

Speech at a reception with Permanent Representatives of Small Island Developing States

Áras an Uachtaráin, Tuesday, 11th June, 2019 at 3pm

It is surely helpful to think of our world as a collection of related communities, of peoples separated, and at the same time connected, by our vast oceans and our great continents – all of us are inter-connected, voluntarily or involuntarily, sharing our humanity, our terrible failings, but also our great potential for good and, of course, our innate fragility on what is now an ever-more perilous planet.

Ambassadors and Distinguished Guests,

It is a great pleasure to welcome you this afternoon, and to have the opportunity of meeting again with representatives of Small Island Developing States and low-lying coastal states and communities, of having the opportunity of building on our conversations in New York last year, and thus further deepening the bonds between our island nations. May I thank all of you who have travelled to Dublin today and may I wish you a céad mile fáilte, especially to those for whom this is their first visit to Ireland.

It is surely helpful to think of our world as a collection of related communities, of peoples separated, and at the same time connected, by our vast oceans and our great continents – all of us are inter-connected, voluntarily or involuntarily, sharing our humanity, our terrible failings, but also our great potential for good and, of course, our innate fragility on what is now an ever-more perilous planet.

Speaking as an islander in a room of islanders, I believe that our experience as islanders defines us, not just in our physical geography, but in the geography of our minds, of our communities, our societies, our political outlooks, of how we see and relate to the world beyond our coastal horizons, thus Ireland finds it easy to understand the specific challenges that an island context and existence brings.

Island life and proximity to the sea has historically created a special form of vulnerability of contact that has left island communities and low-lying coastal communities open to, not only the forces of nature, but to the ravages of expansionist and acquisitive empires. While some arrivals may have been benign many were of exploitative or dominating purpose.

Many of the island nations that you represent, like our own, have learned, through often and unrelenting harsh experience, that what comes from foreign shores can be the source of danger and unwelcome attention.

Today the shared island experience is happening within a context of a financialised global economy with its specific pressures, threats that are now perilous from climate change and which are largely sourced in what are described as ‘developed countries’.

Many of us have been the victims of colonialism and still carry its legacy and the challenges that it brings, but Island peoples are now bearing new reconfigured versions of that legacy of colonisation.

This new circumstance has been recognised and is borne out in valuable island insights such as that of the Minister of Finance, Economic Planning, Sustainable Development, and Information Technology in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Camilo M. Goncalves, in his book, Globalised, Climatised, Stigmatised. His powerful demonstration as to how islands are inherently more vulnerable in a new set of challenges and economic environment is a presentation of issues that cannot be ignored and must be addressed.

In facing these new challenges I strongly believe that a shared, concerted determined strategy within the multi-lateral institutions and in diplomatic practice is a vital tool.

One could not, too, but be deeply moved by his clear irrefutable presentation of the consequences of broken promises on the part of institutions in which trust has been placed, of multi-lateral obligations avoided or commitments reduced to rhetoric.

It cannot be denied that so much of our insatiable accelerating, and unregulated, economic growth is primarily for the benefit of the North, in development terms, and that this is, at a wider level, creating havoc and destruction through a climate change that is impacting on the lives of those who are the least contributors to our climate crisis, but who are its most proximate victims.

Such a set of circumstances are sometimes presented as unavoidable, the inevitable results of global markets over which control is impossible. Such a view of course sets democracy itself at global level into tension with the role of the market.

It suggests a cage within which we are trapped as peoples. The multi-lateral voices must, as Gonsalves puts it:

“be required to acknowledge that island states played little role in constructing the cage we now inhabit”.


I agree with Gonsalves. We must all, North and South of our shared vulnerable planet, muster the courage to free ourselves from the cage of those narrow assumptions of a destructively limited version of economics that has condemned us to such insufficient action. We must expose and oppose the obdurate continuation of what has been shown to be unsustainable. We must resist any evasion or quietism. Should we not respond and with urgency and craft we will be correctly regarded by future survivors of our planet as having been in collusion in the destruction of the lives and life-worlds of some of the most vulnerable peoples of our human family and the biodiversity on which our planetary life depends!

Island nations are, of necessity perhaps, outward-looking, interested in the world beyond, in its promises and its dangers, and yes, their culture emphasises a warm welcome for a stranger. This value placed on hospitality is understandable perhaps amongst people who are familiar with setting sail themselves, across oceans to new destinations, of appreciating a welcome where they come ashore.

There is a realisation amongst islanders, I believe, from their literature and lived experience that the world is something that is encountered, closer to us than our maps and charts might suggest, that what happens thousands of miles away will have its say much closer to home.

As John Donne most famously put it 400 years ago about one of the regions of our connected world:

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less…….”


From such an insight comes a version of interdependency that is the very antithesis of any forced exploitative interconnection, historic or contemporary, be it of extractive industries, resources or trade. Acknowledging such an interdependency creates an ethical, normative obligation on international policy and diplomacy.

We are now interdependent and reliant on each other in a new way, one of, not only a shared, but a deeper vulnerability as we are called upon to deal with the threats to the very future of life on our planet. We have undeniable impacts on each other’s environments and communities and we have an effect, by our actions and practices, on each other’s capacities, not in any terms of human flourishing but of possibilities for existence itself.

In reality, it might be useful at this point in human history for us not to consider ourselves, because we are islands or continental nations, as cut off by oceans from each other but rather as sharing a fragile space as vulnerable inhabitants of Island Earth, a global community that is struggling for the capacity to reflect on what we are leaving as legacy to future generations, and make the changes that are necessary.

Inaction is not an option. It will be a great failure if our response is to acquire with, or settle for, a resile to a rehearsal of old prejudices based on our nationalities, religions, races or of power and aggression. A much deeper sense of our common humanity, an invocation of hope and authentic commitment is needed to create an engaged consciousness of the impact of our present practices such as will drive a global acknowledgement of our shared vulnerabilities, our kinship to each other in the common threats we face, achieve such a realisation as might allow us to transcend all barriers and boundaries.

Together we have to repair the often broken and dysfunctional relationships that exist across lands and seas, the results of destructive social and economic practices that saw nature and resources that might have been for renewal as something that constituted an infinite mine for insatiable extraction. Our task is now so urgent in light of the existential threat facing humankind in terms of the climate change and biodiversity crises, that it now requires a co-ordinated global response.

You have been having your important meetings and we are all here today because we believe in our interconnectedness, in our closeness, not distance from each other. We accept that we are bound together, and that the often-manipulated spaces between us are illusory, a construct that is imposed and which is dwarfed relative to all that we share – experience, empathy, a common voice.

As islanders, we should inherently understand and respond to the immutability of that which binds us. Our shared humanity must become our motivation for understanding and be our bulwark against the consequences of the destructive course on which we have seen released during the past three centuries of the Anthropocene in particular.

A sense of justice not only for now but for the future requires that our residual sense of a shared humanity must be invoked to reconnect our lives through a balanced relationship between ecology, ethics, economy, culture and lived experience.

It is depressing that lessons from history, fundamental to co-existence on our planet, have not only too often been forgotten or are fading, are treated with a lazy disregard or are consciously hidden from us. There are rarely present in the discourses of even the very academies and institutions in which trust has been placed for enlightened critical thought, pluralism of method.

There has to be a space, an agreed forum, where we can transcend self-interest, engage with the other and the United Nations has been our best effort at achieving that space. The United Nations, whatever its shortcomings has, for more than 70 years, been a beacon of values, a platform for us to come together to share perspectives and principles.

Our discourse, when we have had an opportunity of sharing our experiences with authenticity and respect for difference, has been able to be informed by hope, has sought to elevate the universal, sought to reject the false fragmentation of our common humanity. Such progress, as has been made, has been hard won, and any easy pursuit of our new issues should not be taken for granted as fixed as a Cold War rhetoric is renewed and multi-lateral institutions are increasingly threatened and starved of resources.

Unfortunately, today we see our very universality of commitment to sharing together our response to our greatest challenges under attack. We are experiencing a resile to narrow versions of sovereignty, extreme theories of interest in diplomacy and rejections of previously agreed common purpose. 

Suggestions of shared sovereignty are often responded to with the pejorative suggestion that sharing sovereignty is somehow contrary to democracy. We can, of course, if we choose, share sovereignty to deepen democracy.

Our language itself is often corrupted. We are living with the consequences of what has been a concerted effort to make democracy, and freedom, synonyms for an unrestrained unregulated version of capitalism, and the will of the people has been defined grotesquely as some abstract, aggregated will of the insatiable person.

Human rights which have traditionally been correctly sourced, centred, on the I, on the individual rights that must be protected irrespective of religion, ethnicity, gender, or other categorisations used for so long to define our existence, are in a clear abuse of philosophical and moral principles, sometimes presented as being inherently in opposition to wider social rights.

However, our collective action, our will to create a world free from want, one which meets basic needs, a sufficiency for participation and which leaves no one behind, cannot be predicated on any narrow will to power based on extreme individualism or the long peddled, but always insufficient, even destructive, assertion that what raises the I above the other will eventually benefit all.

What a price has been paid one might ask for the acceptance of the old cliché that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’? Such platitudes are simply dangerous when they become a substitute for policy, and when they ignore the swell of inequalities which are growing between and within our nations and societies.

Your discourse while in Ireland is part of a wider conversation and movement to celebrate what joins us, not what divides. This coming together of islands has, at its core, the truth that while our world is in crisis – ethically, ecologically, with widening and deepening economic inequalities – the shared challenges we face can be overcome by working together to create and implement shared solutions.

There is nothing abstract about what challenges are now facing us as you representatives of island peoples know so well. The humanitarian crises which are the grave and tragic consequences of climate change, and which impact so tragically on the lives of millions of our fellow global citizens, require interlinked, global solutions. When our voices together are truly representative of the vulnerabilities and care for the future prospects our citizenries, we are empowered, we become aware that we can create a resonance of truth which will give much needed direction to our global actions.

A new agenda of eco-social gendered political economy can be made to prevail if we are willing to work and unite for it. We have done so before, 2015 was a year of enormous significance for the United Nations and the peoples who fall within its membership. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was agreed with the consensus of 193 nations under the united stewardship of Ireland and Kenya, which, let us remind ourselves, was aimed at achieving nothing less than the transformation of our fossil fuel-dependent world by the year 2030.

The Paris Climate Agreement similarly identified a pathway to protect our planet, mapping a way forward towards sustainability.

These were landmark achievements, representing a vital step towards a sustainable future.

It is critical now that we do not allow the steps taken on this journey which the representatives of the people of the world undertook to falter, almost before it has begun, rather instead that we continue to work together as one global community that accepts responsibility for the future that we renew our commitment to put in place a strong and unified global response to the threat of climate change.

Within that unity there can, of course, be a specific instrument, a unity of co-operating island voices at diplomatic level. That voice at the UN can be a shared resource, made more powerful by its collective strength and application, one that is resistant to any inducement to be split apart.

Yes, of course, there have been disappointments since 2015. The United States has signalled its highly regressive intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which could take effect in November 2020, but we must remember that 195 UNFCCC members have signed the agreement, of which 185 have become party to it, member states representing some 85% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is important, I believe, in making our renewed commitment to recognise and respond to the specific vulnerability which characterises your island and costal communities’ experience.

As Gonsalves reminds us,

“There are 33 independent small island states that enjoy membership in the United Nations. Collectively they are home to 40 million people and have a gross domestic product of $650 billion. Those rough measures of financial weight, population and economic power point to a need for greater study, analysis and understanding of small island states, as seen through their own eyes, and the prism of their unique circumstances, our exceptional nature”.


May I, therefore, thank all of you gathered in this room today for your efforts in striving to sustain that ambition. Small Island Developing States and low-lying coastal communities which you represent I acknowledge are giving leadership on the international stage in making sure we all deliver on our commitments and on our global responsibilities.

This is the year too in which we must continue our work on the implementation arrangements of the Paris Agreement, and may I assure you that Ireland stands with you in recognising the broader moral authority of Small Island Developing States, whose very existence is threatened should we fail to respond collectively, as we work to build on the progress achieved since Paris in the Climate Summits held in Poland, Germany and Morocco.

Ireland and the Marshall Islands will be co-chairing a session at the Climate Summit in New York this September. The Marshall Islands have played a significant role in highlighting the climate crisis thanks to figures like Tony deBrum, the Marshall Islands’ Minister and political activist whom I met, and who sadly passed away almost two years ago. DeBrum spoke with an impressive urgency and understandable passion on climate change, and he participated in numerous conferences and demonstrations, including the People’s Climate March in New York City in September 2014.

To structure the process of identifying the transformational initiatives for the Summit, nine interdependent tracks have been defined. I am delighted to inform you that the Youth and Mobilisation track will be led by the Marshall Islands and Ireland with the support of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, and will focus on mobilising youth and civil society in support of the UN Climate Summit in December, and will seek to achieve a significant youth participation across all tracks.

For over sixty years at the UN, and for decades before attaining membership, Ireland has sought to speak with this resonant tone, first as a nascent state taking its place amongst the nations of the world, but more recently with an assertiveness driven by the need to defend the value of building unanimity and respect, driven by the understanding that all voices must be respected, as the Charter assumes, as equal members and stressing that often, in the history of the UN, it has been the smallest voices which have been the ones that have performed as disinterested partners in advancement of the common good. The UN flourishes when such voices are heard.

We must also be authentic. A UN that privileges the strong and neglects the weak betrays its own founding principles. A UN that confines the moral purpose of its Charter to discussions and decisions at the General Assembly and then going on to ignore the voices of the world defines the purpose of the UN narrowly as being content with an under-labourer role of mediating the frequent abuses of the powerful on the Security Council. We must save the UN from such a fate of impotence.

There are initiatives we can take at every level, including regionally. For us in Ireland, membership of the European Union has provided us with an opportunity to give voice to our global views. The EU, born out of the ravages of war and conflict, we believe can offer the value of a new type of shared sovereignty on new and urgent issues which embraces unity and shows that a nation can become stronger through partnership and cooperation, not weaker, as together we share advances through education and by regarding shared knowledge and skills as a shared currency. This is how Ireland also perceives the United Nations, a vision I know that is shared by all of you in this room today.

For example, it was the UN that provided the platform for Ireland to help bring together so many when championing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. It is the UN that has facilitated small nations such as ours in playing a significant role in building sustainable peace through the efforts of our women and men serving in peacekeeping missions worldwide.

When the UN turns its focus on creating a transformative agenda, as it did through the Sustainable Development Goals four years ago, member states such as Ireland are called upon to lead. Small but principled nations, such as ours and yours, have the ability to work together to build consensus and support, based on identifying the collective good and rising above any narrow priorities based on self-interest or impulses to dominate, control a discourse that must, after all, be a discourse of the many.

Ireland will always value how the UN brings out what is best in us. We will therefore continue to seek opportunities to test ourselves against what we aspire to be, including the requirements of a new paradigm that combines ecology, social justice and economy. These are the values that make the driving force behind Ireland’s candidature for the UN Security Council for the 2021–2022 term.

We do not seek the support of the nations of the world to progress any narrow version of enlightened self-interest. We seek support for the opportunity to again be measured against aspiration, the ideals of the Charter and our ability to contribute and help shape progressive societies that are seeking to achieve equality, deepen democracy, and do so with a shared purpose and practice.

I understand your time in Ireland included visits to Our Ocean Wealth Summit as well as SeaFest 2019, both in Cork, our second city. These events will have provided an opportunity to accumulate knowledge of, in particular, our marine resources and practices and to consider linkages we can make deeper under all of the dimensions of sustainable development: environment, society and economy.

The future of our oceans and islands has a special importance in environmental terms if we are to mitigate and adapt to climate change, extreme weather events, sea level rises, and deal with the horrifying increases in ocean contaminants (such as plastics).

It is of the utmost importance to contemplate the oceans’ roles in our lives and the social functions it makes possible and provides within societies, including cultural learning and a tourism that is marine-related ecologically responsible, and with regard to economy, we must together do things in a new way, including how we can best, and with responsibility, foster and enable the renewal of the potential of our ocean wealth – the so-called ‘blue economy’ – in a sustainable manner.

Many aspects of Ireland’s Integrated Marine Development Strategy may have been of interest to you, as were those aspects relating to ocean mapping, use of data for marine development, marine resource management, and capacity building. Ireland, you will have heard, is a supporter of regulation. Within our 200-mile limit we have 2,000 Irish registered fishing vessels and over 200 approved seafood processing establishments.

Hearing the perspectives of Small Island Developing States will, I know, have been very important for Irish participants. I hope, indeed I know, that they have listened with the appropriate sense of urgency as our times demand.

There is such a strong role for ongoing partnership as we seek to explore areas for further co-operation where Irish experience merges with yours on all those issues I have mentioned. You I know will have added many other issues including the assistance you need in defending, monitoring and sustaining your own legally acknowledged marine resources.

There is a saying in Irish: is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine. It means that we all live in each other’s shadow and in each other’s shelter. John Donne knew this. He concluded his poem “No Man is an Island” with the following lines:


“any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”


May I wish you all, fellow islanders, an enjoyable and fruitful visit to our island, Ireland. May it be both challenging and enriching in equal measure, and may your visit and future meetings go on to develop and enhance the linkages between our islands as we continue to work together in playing a strong role as we tackle the enormous challenges facing us in the coming decades.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.