Speech at a State Dinner in honour of Their Majesties King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands
Áras an Uachtaráin, Wednesday, 12 June 2019
May I first of all extend a céad míle fáilte on behalf of the people of Ireland to Their Majesties King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands on this the occasion of their first State visit to Ireland. I hope that this State Visit will rekindle memories of his Majesty’s childhood holidays in Sneem in County Kerry.
The people of the Netherlands and Ireland have much in common and share strong values on a broad range of issues, among them social inclusion, tolerance and respect for human rights, and a strong history of scholarship in a wide range of disciplines. Our outward-looking foreign policy, human rights emphasis, economic and trade policies facilitate our ties, and our common European Union membership underpins and supports our strong bilateral relationship.
Our country has traditionally been referred to as the “land of saints and scholars” and one of the earliest links between our two peoples was indeed a scholar from across the water who studied in a monastery in Ireland in the seventh century before departing for what is now the Netherlands. Willibrord became the first bishop of Utrecht and was later canonised. His legacy is still remembered by historians in Carlow who travelled to Utrecht just last year to celebrate the connection.
The Irish language has been influenced by ancient Dutch, demonstrating the powerful effect of other nations’ tongues on the words we use and the fluidity of language. It was recently reported that a new word of Old Dutch had been discovered in an ancient Irish manuscript, dated to the seventh century, which is quite remarkable for historians of that language given that only one other Dutch text survives from that period. This represents one of the earliest milestones in the study of the Irish language and the beginnings of Celtic linguistics, and it suggests that some early Dutch speakers may have come to Ireland as exchange students to study in our famous monastic schools.
Our peoples share a thirst for knowledge and have a great respect for scholars. That Your Majesty’s illustrious predecessor, Stadhouder Willem the Silent, chose to found a university in Leiden during the earliest days of the Dutch Republic is the tangible demonstration of this belief in the importance of education and of providing an environment where critical thinking is welcomed and nurtured.
The critical thinking by those first scholars in Leiden started a tradition of asking questions to which there was as yet no answer. Within a relatively short period, Your Majesty’s alma mater provided a forum for leading thinkers from the seventeenth century right up to the present day. I am delighted that in 2019, many Irish students make the decision to broaden their education through graduate and post-graduate study in Leiden and other great universities in The Netherlands.
It is fitting that the EU programme which has enabled young people pursuing university studies to live and experience life in other member states is named after the great Dutch humanist Erasmus. These exchanges and opportunities have offered the young people of our Union, and many Irish amongst them, the chance to explore cities, cultures and identities.
Programmes such as the joint Masters in Food Science run between universities in France, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands are striking demonstrations of the different skills and attitudes that each of our countries bring, and how the European Union is at its best in allowing each of the Member States to combine perspectives, values and skills for the common good.
The Erasmus programme is just one tangible expression of the benefits that the European Union offers to our peoples. At a time of great threats to multilateral cooperation, we must not ignore the importance of the European project, nor take it for granted.
Our shared European Union has brought enormous benefits for both our peoples, especially in terms of its impact on the democratic, environmental and social standards, living conditions and expectations of our peoples.
The threats posed by Brexit and the challenges to the core values of our Union which are posed from within and without by populism. The exploitation of the gap that has been allowed to grow between our European Union and the European street, by an invocation of old hatreds and divisions embedded in a narrow uncritical manner, have drawn a heavy price from the peoples of Europe. We must ensure by our joint efforts that intolerance and illiberalism are not allowed to once again take root on our continent.
In the Netherlands, we see a consistent thread of striving for the better regulation of interaction between states through law - from Hugo Grotius, the father of international law, source of the contemporary human rights discourse and distinguished alumnus of Leiden, to the Hague Conventions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
This continues right unto the present day whereby The Hague is rightly known as the International City of Peace and Justice, as the seat of the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. In the fight against impunity and the fight to rid the world of the scourge of chemical weapons, the Netherlands will find in Ireland a strong partner.
Our cooperation on the multilateral stage is not however limited to The Hague or Brussels. We work closely in the United Nations, in Geneva and New York where our representatives collaborate on the most critical issues of our time – on the protection of human rights, the promotion of sustainable development and the promotion of peace and security.
We hope to build on the recent solid performance of the Netherlands on the UN Security Council if we are elected next year, and we greatly appreciate the political, technical and moral support that the Netherlands has offered us in our campaign for membership. The Dutch are famous for being direct and we are confident that this trait will be brought by the Netherlands to the Human Rights Council because challenges to and breaches of human rights must be challenged in the most direct manner.
As Your Majesties visit Trinity College tomorrow, you will see a statue of Oliver Goldsmith, yet another Irish alumnus of Leiden University, though records of his attendance have been lost to history. There you will also have the opportunity to see the Fagel Collection and to hear of the work being done between Trinity College and the Royal Library to make this wonderful resource available to a much wider audience.
Linkages in the arts between our two countries have been long and varied – from Nathaniel Hone the Elder, the son of Dutch immigrant, to his Irish ancestor Evie Hone, one of our most cherished artists whose captivating use of the medium of stained glass teaches us how to look at light.
If our present generations have a special feeling and respect for the world of nature it owes much to the creativity and passion for nature of another Dutch artist – Gerrit van Gelderen who, through his nature film work, showed Ireland to the Irish in a new light. His partnership with the late Éamon de Buitléir on the series – Amuigh Faoin Spéir – in the earliest days of broadcasting on Raidio Teilifis Eireann – showed Irish people the wonders of our own country. Later on, his own series “To the Waters and the Wild” helped to inspire a generation with respect for our own natural heritage.
Another Dutchman who has been a wonderful friend to Ireland is Prof. Matthijs Schouten and I am very pleased that he is in a position to be with us tonight, A younger Matthijs, a student of wetlands ecology came to Ireland in the 1970s to study Ireland's raised bogs. His observations of the ongoing damage being caused to our bogs at that time left him profoundly worried that Ireland would follow the Dutch experience which had led to the almost complete destruction of its peatlands.
In 1978, a determined Professor Schouten was instrumental in saving Mongan bog in Westmeath, a bog that was earmarked for peat harvesting. Instead, with the cooperation of Bord na Móna, a state agency and An Taisce a conservation organisation, the bog was saved. Professor Schouten did not stop there - soon after, the Dutch Foundation for the Conservation of Irish Bogs was formed which gathered funds and garnered support to acquire a number of our threatened Irish bogs for conservation purposes.
In 1987, as a member of parliament, I was privileged to have been invited by Dr Schouten to Baarn to be present when Prince Bernhard officially handed to an Irish Government Minister the deeds of three Irish bogs that had been saved through Prof. Schouten's work and the work of his colleagues in the Netherlands and in Ireland. We owe him a great debt.
While the sea has served as the highway which has connected us since the earliest of times it also poses a threat. Not just to those who make their living from it but for those living in coastal communities with the threat of rising sea levels from global warming. Just as the people of the Netherlands are famous for coming together to build defences against the sea, the global community must also come together and adopt that “Poldermentaliet” to face that common threat together.
One area where both our countries have much to learn from and share with each other is in making our agriculture even more sustainable and I hope that Your Majesties will find the visit to our National Botanic Gardens tomorrow stimulating. Making our agriculture ever more sustainable is good for our own communities but is a way in which we can contribute to help ridding the world of the scourge of hunger. Though due to very different causes and separated by almost a century, both our countries have experienced the horrors of famine and this has driven both of us to prioritise nutrition in our development cooperation policies.
The Netherlands is the world leader in the development of the ‘Fair Trade’ movement. The independent certification enabled customers and distributors alike to track the origin of the goods to confirm that the products were genuinely benefiting the producers, allowing goods from peripheral developing economies to be sold into mainstream markets. Importantly, producers are offered a fair price for their crop, often significantly above the market price to disadvantaged producers that adhered to various social and environmental standards. This initiative reaches a large consumer segment, while raising awareness among the citizenry about ethical trading. Fair Trade commands a significant market share across several product lines in Ireland today.
This socially grounded economic model, based on the principles of equity and ethics, is sadly all-too lacking in modern trade and globalised supply chains with their narrow focus on profit maximisation often to the detriment of labour rights and working conditions.
Whereas relations between our countries stretch back over many centuries, formal diplomatic relations were not established until 1949 and it is a matter of pride that the first ever woman appointed as head of an Irish diplomatic mission, Josephine MacNeill, was appointed as Minister to the Netherlands in 1950.
Now, almost seventy years later, more than ten thousand Irish people call the Netherlands home, with nearly one thousand of those being students.
Serving as ambassadors for our country, they have brought their passion for our culture, music and traditional sports with them and shared it with people of many other nationalities. It may interest you to know that the Netherlands home to one of the oldest Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA) clubs in Europe – den Haag which was founded in 1984 and also one of the youngest Groningen which was founded in 2018.
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 Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands;
To the happiness and prosperity of the people of the Netherlands;
To the continuing friendship and affection between our two peoples.
Sláinte mhaith, proost!
Go raibh míle maith agaibh