Speech at a State Dinner in honour of Their Majesties King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden
Áras an Uachtaráin, Wednesday, 22 May 2019
Your Majesties, Taoiseach, Excellencies, Ministers, Distinguished Guests.
May I extend a céad míle fáilte on behalf of the people of Ireland to Their Majesties King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden on this the occasion of their second State visit to Ireland.
I have had the pleasure of meeting King Gustaf previously on a very special occasion when I was honoured to be Seamus Heaney’s guest at his Nobel Prize award ceremony in 1995 a prize awarded “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.
Our cultures share much in common. The Viking period and the clear influence of the Norse–Gaels in our culture and language is manifest. We credit the Vikings with establishing our principal urban settlements, including our capital city. Our love-affair with the written word ensures that the Irish Annals – a series of manuscripts compiled by Irish monks over a millennium – comprise one of our richest sources of knowledge about Viking sites.
The importance of mythology in the history of our two cultures is one form of Séamus Heaney’s “exalting of the living past” – and the scholarship of both our peoples shares a deep and extensive interest in this subject. Norse mythology consists of tales of various deities, beings, and heroes derived from numerous sources from both before and after the pagan period, including what is suggested from medieval manuscripts, archaeological representations, and folk traditions. Central to both Irish and Norse mythology are the plights of the gods and their interaction with various other beings, both their benign and malignant touching of the Earth and earthlings. Our shared interest has had an institutional expression.
Sweden has long had links with the Irish National Folklore Collection, held in University College Dublin. This archive – which owes so much to the work of the late Séamus Ó Duilearga, the former Professor of Folklore at University College Dublin and Director of the Irish Folklore Commission – has performed and continues to perform an essential function, I suggest, in ensuring access to our forebearers’ intensity of vision and imagination, to the diversity of their beliefs and practices, and their extraordinary inventiveness. It enables us to approach that unique combination between the particular and the universal that is characteristic of vernacular culture.
The late Bo Gunnar Almqvist, former professor of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin, who was born in Alster, western Sweden, and who studied at Uppsala University, a university I have had the privilege of visiting when I served as Minister for Culture is perhaps one of the most well-known Swedes among academics in Ireland. He made a remarkable contribution to the study of Irish folklore, including more than 90 articles and numerous books on Irish and international folklore. Among the innovative courses Prof Almqvist instituted during his career in University College Dublin was a module on “The Folktale and Medieval Literature”.
I am delighted that we are joined this evening by other distinguished scholars from the world of Irish folklore, including Professor Seamus Ó Catháin, former Head of the Department of Irish Folklore in University College Dublin.
Another shared near contemporary interest of our two countries is the area of film and indeed the arts more generally. For two countries with relatively small populations, Ireland and Sweden can be proud of the significant contributions that the creative citizens of both our nations have made to the world of arts.
When one thinks of Swedish film, of course, the work of the great Ingmar Bergman immediately comes to mind. Bergman was, without doubt, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. He made, through literature and film, a unique and seminal contribution to our understanding of the human condition.
Working often in a symbolic and emotional language that was deep to the very core, yet accessible, his influence on modern-day directors remains immense, including on Irish directors.
There are a myriad of variable connections. Tomorrow at the National Library we will hear of the influence of August Strindberg to James Joyce’s work. Indeed, my wife Sabina, in the past, has acted in two plays, Miss Julie and The Father from that great prolific Swedish playwright and author.
Turning, briefly, to contemporary issues – we must all now be concerned for the future of our shared European Union. We must not forget the importance of the European project, and the enormous benefits that have resulted for both of our peoples from its existence and particularly its impact on social and environmental conditions for our people. In this regard, Sweden has often played a central role.
Developments such as the European Pillar of Social Rights were signed in Gothenburg in November 2017. The Pillar was aimed at delivering new and more effective rights for citizens through a set of 20 principles and rights – from the right to fair wages, to the right to health care, from lifelong learning, a better work-life balance and gender equality, to minimum income.
The EU continues to have the capacity to be an area where the rights of citizens in a fast-changing world can be secured and advanced.
For example, inward migration continues to be an important and I suggest in parts of the discourse and for malignant purposes, an abused issue in Europe, Sweden and Ireland have on this issue some common experience. May I suggest that our experience of managing inward migration into our two countries is something, at our different levels, of which we can both be proud. Future historians will acknowledge the humanitarian and practical example of Sweden in this regard. Historically, of course, our countries can both claim to have similar experiences of outward migration during the 19th century, especially to the United States.
We all are now living in the world of a new economic order where productive capital is so much lesser than new speculative flows, a development that has exacerbated the conflict of ecological, social and business models, leaving us a challenging legacy that threatens human survival itself. We need to discuss a new path to symmetry between those dimensions of our lives. We might, with benefit, recall the pivotal role that certain Swedish figures played in attempting to shape a socially responsible economic order that secured peace. Figures such as Olof Palme, whom I had the fortune to meet many years ago and who played a hugely significant role in international politics from the 1960s, with his policy of non-alignment towards the superpowers, accompanied by support for numerous Third-World liberation movements following decolonisation, including an informed, idealistic yet practical economic and vocal support for a number of developing country governments.
Of course, when one speaks of a morally inclined political economy there are so many Swedish scholars including Gunnar Myrdal and Göran Therborn.
In so many global challenges Sweden has given a lead. Sweden has been at the forefront of climate change policy and sustainable development since the 1980s when it was one of the first countries to apply economic instruments, such as carbon taxes, and other policy measures aimed at climate change mitigation. A Swedish Climate Act in 2018 established targets for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Ireland’s Government has announced that we will be following such Swedish example with an ambitious climate change plan in the coming months to ensure we are on a path of decarbonisation across the economy.
May I also pay tribute to Sweden's contribution to human rights legislation. In 1766 Sweden became the first country to introduce freedom of the press and today, human rights are central to Swedish foreign policy – and our own foreign policy.
In 2008, Sweden chose eight prioritised areas to be advanced in its foreign policy work for international human rights, including: building democracies, strengthening freedom of expression, abolishing the death penalty, combatting torture, combatting summary executions and arbitrary detention, protect the rule of law, protecting human rights and international humanitarian law, and fighting discrimination.
At the United Nations we share leadership on disarmament issues. Ireland and Sweden have a shared vision of a world where the production, storage and use of all nuclear weapons would be banned. This aspiration is given tangible form in our consistent support for multilateral institutions, and through them for disarmament and non-proliferation, and in the determination of our peacekeepers to prevent conflict.
Ireland’s peacekeeping has always been strongly predicated on our neutrality. As members of the UN, we are committed to maintaining international peace and security, and in honouring that commitment our position as an independent and neutral state has been greatly valuable. For over sixty years, United Nations peacekeeping has served as the standard-bearer of the world’s shared commitment to international peace and security. Membership of the United Nations has, for both our countries, been a central pillar of our foreign policy.
We have worked together within that framework to promote global peace and security, and both our countries have sought to be neutral mediators in the pursuit of international justice and peace and the promotion of global welfare.
Our history of serving together as UN peacekeepers has created a profound connection between our two nations. Today we continue to serve on a number of UN missions – including in the Middle East, Western Sahara and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and we are proud of our record of six decades of unbroken UN service in peace support missions all over the world, and the Irish men and women who make it possible.
I know that you share with your cousin Prince Charles a concern for nature. During your time here, you will visit the Burren, an area of outstanding natural beauty on our Western Atlantic coastline. The Burren is renowned for its gentians but also for its unique agricultural traditions, and considerable thought and effort has been expended on ensuring that our farming tradition can continue in that region with simultaneous protection for priority habitats for conservation. The Burren Farming for Conservation Programme we regard as an exemplary project which shows a great understanding of the role that must be taken by local farmers if we are to merge the urgent demands of environmental concerns with sustainable economic and social factors.
You will also be undertaking a visit to the Marine Institute whose research is so important to us in developing policies which will support the sustainable development of Ireland’s marine resources. The connection between Ireland and the ocean is, as in the case of Sweden, as old as time itself.
The sea has played a fundamental part in both of our social and economic histories and it is to be recalled that, as an island nation, Irish people and, in particular, our coastal communities have always depended to some degree on the bounty that our seas provide.
The fishing sector plays an important role in some regions and communities across Sweden, and I know we share a common concern for the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and their resources, and an understanding that the world can no longer continue testing them to their limits.
Celebrating all that we have been sharing and will share in friendship and ever closer relations assisted by this visit may I now invite you all, distinguished guests, to stand and join me in a toast:
To the good health of Their Majesties, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden;
To the happiness and prosperity of the people of Sweden;
To the continuing friendship and affection between our two peoples,
Sláinte mhaith, Skål