Speech by President Michael D Higgins presenting the Defence Forces Values Awards
Áras an Uachtaráin, 21 September 2021
As President of Ireland and Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you here today to Áras an Uachtaráin. Indeed may I say how refreshing it is to once more have the opportunity to receive our citizens into the Home of the President of Ireland which Sabina and I are so delighted to share with you all.
May I, at the outset of our gathering pay tribute to outgoing Chief of Staff Mark Mellett who will be retiring this month after a long and distinguished career in the Defence Forces.
Throughout that time his achievements have been many, and he leaves a legacy of public service for which we can be deeply grateful. Vice-Admiral Mellett embodies and gives such an example of the qualities and values which we celebrate and honour today. He has been a true and generous role model to so many in Óglaigh na hÉireann, and I know that he will be greatly missed by all those privileged to have worked with him.
Today we are gathered, of course, for a most important occasion as we recognise very special and outstanding service offered by seven members of our Defence Forces.
It goes, perhaps, without saying that Óglaigh na hÉireann make a profoundly important and positive contribution to the lives of people across the globe, constantly displaying the bravery and professionalism which makes us so deeply proud of our Defence Forces.
It therefore takes a remarkable person to stand out as an exceptional member of an Organisation so deeply rooted in a spirit of active participation and human solidarity. I am delighted that one of our first gatherings, following Covid restrictions, here in Áras an Uachtaráin is one in which we pay tribute to seven such people, whose actions have exemplified the qualities of moral courage, respect, integrity, physical courage, selflessness and loyalty which guide and define the work of the Irish Defence Forces.
It gives me the greatest pleasure thus to commend and thank Comdt. Liam Halpin, Able Mechanic Kieran Moynihan, Company Quarter Master Sergeant Pat Jordan, Sergeant Leona Houlihan, Able Seaman Eoghan Keegan, Chief Petty Officer John Fenton and Private Damien Greene for those brave and generous actions which have made them such deserving recipients of today’s awards.
May I also take the opportunity of thanking your family members, some of whom join us today, for the unwavering support and personal sacrifices which make your exemplary service possible.
I am also delighted that we are joined this afternoon by last year’s award recipients Corporal Paddy Bradshaw, Commandant Michael Cullen, Petty Officer Daire Mulvenny, Flight Sergeant Brian O’Keefe, Retired Sergeant Brendan Fennell and Sergeant Paul Halpin.
You are all most welcome. Two of lasts year’s recipients were unable to attend today – Corporal John Murphy and Retired Sergeant Major Philip Hayden - and I would like them both, and their families, to know that we acknowledge them also today.
All of those receiving awards today have displayed that instinct for original thinking, moral courage, and human solidarity, and an impressive refusal to shy away from challenges, that marks out the exceptional human being. Yet each of the achievements we honour here today are singular in nature, reminding us of the many ways in which we can make a real and positive difference to our society and to the lives of those with whom we share that society.
Whether risking their life to save the life of another; showing compassion and concern for those undergoing a difficult or worrying time; gallantly offering their skills and qualifications for the greater good; making a courageous and split level decision in order to respond to a crisis; or be it in the selflessly offering the life changing gift of organ donation; or using their own experience of overcoming personal difficulties in order to help others, each and every recipient has displayed the high ethical standards and integrity that motivates those who not only imagine, but also work to realise, a better world.
This gathering is not only a joyful and celebratory occasion, but an important reminder of the integral role that Óglaigh Na hÉireann occupies in Irish society, and the valuable contribution it makes to the cause of peace and justice across the globe. Time and again, as President of Ireland, I have witnessed the professionalism and commitment of your members, and their profound expression of solidarity with fellow citizens around the world.
Your admirable work across many years as UN Peacekeepers, the vital role you have played in many humanitarian search and rescue operations, your protection of the safety and rights of our citizens and your consummate and dignified performance at ceremonial events has won you widespread respect at home and abroad.
Most recently we witnessed your generous sense of solidarity through the key role you undertook in our nation’s battle against Covid 19. Your vital support to the Health Service Executive during this time and your compassionate help to those attending health centres across the country has earned you our deepest gratitude.
To all of you, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude.
While there were times in recent years when the reputation of Ireland and its institutions were being called into question in a number of areas, there was one area where Ireland’s reputation remained intact, and would continue to be enhanced, and that was in the contribution and reputation of our Defence Forces.
This reputation was built, of course, on the work of the many exemplary men and women who have gone before you, and enriched by the invaluable contributions of all those who have continued that noble work. You do so at a time when humanity is faced with unprecedented challenges of a global kind –including climate change, the achievement of a just and sustainable development, global poverty, hunger, and of course bitter conflict.
As Officers of the Defence Forces you play a critical role in protecting human rights; in providing the secure foundations of peace on which civil society, human rights and equality can flourish.
The importance of your work and the positive impact which it has in this country and beyond our shores must be valued, recognised and supported. As always, on occasions such as this one, I wish to also acknowledge the sacrifices made by your families. I am deeply aware of how much they must forfeit in order to support the critical work of their loved ones, and the great anxiety many of them must experience during long separations, particularly when a spouse or parent is working in a dangerous part of the world.
Today, as we pay tribute to seven outstanding members of our Defence Forces, let us also acknowledge all those who work with such dedication to uphold the values on which Óglaigh na hÉireann is built.
May I, at this point, express my concern too for the welfare of the women who so generously and courageously recounted their experiences on the recent and greatly distressing Women of Honour programme. My concern is, I know, shared by those who have responsibility for the safety and welfare of our Defence Forces personnel. I welcome the fact that a review will now take place of the contents of the programme and of any issues surrounding bullying, harassment, sexual harassment or discrimination within the Defence Forces. I hope the review is wide, thorough, independent and inclusive of all issues irrespective of gender.
It is vitally important that our Defence Forces continue to uphold those values, and are inclusive places, according to each and every member the dignity and respect that defines a truly ethical workplace, and enabling them the confidence to know that their talents and contribution are recognised and that false barriers are not erected on the basis of gender, religion, sexual orientation or ethnic background.
Our reward recipients remind us that active citizenship will always call us to face challenges and obstacles with original thinking, great humanity, flexibility, and moral courage, if we are to play our part in the creation of a more equal society and a better world.
I thank and commend them for that, and I wish them every deserved success in the future.