ADDRESS BY PRESIDENT MARY ROBINSON AT LUNCH CO-HOSTED BY THE EMPIRE CLUB & THE CANADIAN CLUB TORONTO
ADDRESS BY PRESIDENT MARY ROBINSON AT LUNCH CO-HOSTED BY THE EMPIRE CLUB & THE CANADIAN CLUB TORONTO, 22 AUGUST 1994
When I took on this office I said that the Ireland I sought to represent was open, tolerant and pluralist. I made this statement in the awareness that my own election was a signal of those very things. And yet I want to emphasise that this is neither an abstract nor intellectual statement. I was deeply conscious of taking office in a beautiful and historic country, with a powerful tradition of suffering and a striking narrative of overcoming that suffering. A country which is now a modern European state which has yet retained the capacity, through that suffering and that history, to reach beyond its own borders, and beyond its own cultural frontiers, to enter imaginatively into the distress of a famine in Africa as well as taking enormous pleasure in the music and the literature of other countries.
It has been my enormous privilege in this office to see the energy and vitality released by the constant dialogue between a past we cherish, but are not confined by, and a present which is enriched by all sorts of experiments and innovations. In a single week I may be asked to open a heritage centre in a small village west of the Shannon where careful excavation has revealed the wonderful sight of a medieval monastery and the stone walls of the earliest settlers. But at the same moment, sometimes on the very same day, I may find myself opening a modern sports hall or a women's resource centre. And what binds both kinds of projects, what brings together these apparently contrary intentions of honouring a past and servicing a present, is always the same thing which I find most moving and impressive on these occasions. It is the sophisticated, integrated method of approach, and the deeply generous co-operation, through which communities define themselves - across different tasks and diverse backgrounds - finding in the end an identity of spirit which is inclusive.
In Ireland we have a word - the Gaelic word "meitheal" -which may have no exact translation but has a profound meaning for us. Roughly explained it means the spirit of co-operation and sharing between neighbours which is that wonderful mixture of downright common-sense and imaginative understanding by which communities survive and thrive. It has always been there in the rural communities, in which each farmer saved the other's hay and therefore had his hay saved before the weather turned. It may well be something in fact - to reverse the usual process - which the town has learned from the country. In any case I see it as a radical and informing spirit in so much of what is new and innovative and exciting in the modern Ireland.
It is there in the cultural sense in the way our classical violinists co-operate with our traditional fiddlers to explore the boundaries of Irish music. It is there in a practical sense in the place I come from, County Mayo, where a local enterprise centre in Kiltimagh has been resourced by the local people, who have also restored a forge, made a playground, using the materials they have to secure a future which could have been in doubt. It is there in the way our local computer bulletin boards are opening the information highway to young Irish people, while making available to them information about theatres and services for those with disability and opportunities for employment.
This neighbourly spirit seems to me not only radical but I have seen with my own eyes just how resilient it is. In my visits to Northern Ireland I have been present at the opening of the inner city development in Derry, of a heritage centre in Dungannon and an enterprise centre in Belcoo. In all these places the concept of "meitheal" has been truly tested. And it has stood the test. All these projects are the outcome of cross-community co-operation in circumstances where great stress has been put on the very idea of co-operation.
In the same way some of the most moving occasions of my Presidency have been the opportunities I have had to meet representatives of women's groups and voluntary organisations from Northern Ireland who have visited me in Dublin. It would need someone more eloquent than I to tell you just how poignant I found it sitting in a room with a woman from the Falls and one from the Shankill, and with others from similar neighbourhoods, listening to them discover and emphasise how the bond and the concerns they share as women have survived and continue to survive the enormous pressures of division and conflict.
I come before you today, therefore, as a direct witness of the constructive energies and exciting changes which are happening in the modern Ireland. I do believe they tell a story of that plural and open and tolerant society I was elected to represent. But of course it is not the whole story. We live in a society and a country which has been scarred by violence for a quarter of a century. Whatever else we can say about that violence I think we have to recognise that it marks - in the broadest sense - a failure of dialogue between diverse cultures, and viewpoints and traditions. And rather than dwell on the griefs of the present, which every one of us who has the interests of Ireland at heart must feel, I think it is right to look to the future and reflect in the widest sense on how we can encompass a respect for difference in our democratic values. How we can commend to our children the view that cultures, traditions, and histories are deepened and not diminished by sharing. I am far from complacent about such a process, but I think we should undertake it as a challenge and a responsibility. Let me therefore start that process with a few of the demanding questions I believe we in modern societies need to ask.
To start with, we cannot commend any view to our children merely as an imposition of opinion. They need to be encouraged and persuaded. But what steps are we taking in our schools - in our history classes, in our school projects - to make them understand realities which are different from their own? How can we make them see the enormous and simple wisdom in Alice Munro's line from her story "The Progress of Love": "I saw that I had to give up expecting people to see it the way I did".
And then, what steps are we taking to provide a legal and political framework to protect and affirm the rights of cultural and ethnic minorities? I was particularly struck on a recent visit to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg to see that the protection of rights there has widened from the protection of individual rights, in which they have been so successful, to developing a framework for the protection and enforcement of minority rights. The need to do this has been made more urgent by the accession to the Council of new members from Central and Eastern Europe, countries which stand in need of such a framework, many of them having substantial minorities within their own territory or within a neighbouring state. The Joint Declaration adopted by the British and Irish governments last December represents an agreed set of principles recognising the aspirations and cultures of both traditions - nationalist and unionist - in Northern Ireland and the equal respect due to them.
Apart from the formal frameworks of a legal or political system, how are we to develop a vernacular in our society - which advances a pragmatic vision of history? A vision in which the interests of people are placed before the allegiances to ideology or group. And where concession or compromise is not regarded as an abandonment of the past but a way in which it can be translated into a hopeful and constructive future. I think the recent events in South Africa show that this is possible, if there is goodwill and a creative view of change. I think the new developments in the Middle East hold out a similar hope.
Perhaps I can return to that word vernacular and with it to the start of my speech. I have seen through this office that the true vernacular of change is not found in books, nor does it come from traditional pronouncements or by holding on to the customs of the past. The true vernacular seems to me to be what is being achieved by the local self-development I have described: the small, yet powerful neighbourly acting together. There is a widespread yearning for peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland - which the two Governments are working so hard to achieve - and yet a difficulty in opening up the very dialogue which would facilitate this. Perhaps, after all, the key lies in our midst. It may be that the way of doing things of the local groups and communities and networks can point the way. They listen to each other, respect each other, are open to each other and seek ways forward that accommodate each other.
There is a powerful and poignant statement by the Ulster poet, John Hewitt, in a poem called "The Scar". I quote it here because I think it conveys the force of the random act of humanity out of which new understandings come. He tells the story in the poem of his Protestant great-grandmother who opened her window in the famine of 1847 to help a Catholic famine victim. She contacted typhus and died. And in that suffering Hewitt found an emblem of the shared suffering out of which imaginative understanding often comes.
There is not a chance now that I might recover
One syllable of what that sick man said,
Tapping upon my great-grandmother's shutter
And begging, I was told, a piece of bread;
For on his tainted breath there hung infection
Rank from the cabins of the stricken West,
The spores from black potato-stalks,
The spittle mottled with poison in his rattling chest;
But she who, by her nature, quickly answered,
Accepted in return the famine fever;
And that chance meeting, that brief confrontation,
Conscribed me of the Irishry forever.
Though much I cherish lies outside their vision,
And much they prize I have no claim to share
Yet in that woman's death I found my nation,
The old wound aches and shows its fellow scar.