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Speech at the John F. Kennedy Arboretum and Memorial Park 50th Anniversary Dinner

New Ross, County Wexford, Saturday, 8th September, 2018

A Chathaoirligh,
A Airí,
A Theachta Dálaí,
A Sheanadóirí,
A Chomhairleoirí,
A dhaoine uaisle,
A chairde,

Ar an gcéad dul síos is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leat a DhochtúirJebb as d'fhocail deasa tosaigh, agus as an cuireadh caoin a fuair mé ó Oifig na nOibreacha Poiblí. Is mór an phléisiúir dom a bheith libh ar fad anseo iRos Mhic Thriúin.

This magnificent Park and its visitor centre is a testament to the dedication of public servants in the Office of Public Works to preserving not just our own natural heritage but also the natural heritage of other countries too.

Ever since the Continental Congress of 1776 at Philadelphia promulgated the Declaration of Independence, American democracy has exercised a profound and sometimes decisive influence on our own long and unremitting struggle for democracy and independence.      This stretches from the United Irishmen and the Irish Republican Brotherhood to the New Deal and on to the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century.

During nearly all of that period, the United States has been a refuge for Irish migrants fleeing hunger, poverty, political and social oppression so much so that in the nearly two and half centuries since it was established millions of Irish people have come to call the United States their home. Today over 34 million United States citizens identify their Irish roots as part of their identity.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were nearly as many Irish-born men and women living in the United States as in Ireland. The census of 1901 shows that more Irish born people were living abroad than on the island of Ireland. There is now perhaps no deeper relationship between two peoples than that which exists between the peoples of Ireland and the United States, and there is perhaps no other family which better represents all the strands of that relationship than the Kennedys, who have rendered so much service to our two republics.

It is therefore a great honour for me to join with you all as we close the 6th John F. Kennedy Summer School and to have the opportunity of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy and Arboretum Memorial Park.

It is very likely that it was my predecessor as President, Éamon de Valera, who conceived of the idea of honouring President Kennedy through a National Arboretum here in New Ross, the ancestral home of the Kennedy family. It was and is a most fitting way of giving recognition to the vital contribution that President Kennedy made to the advancement of scientific knowledge and to the conservation of public lands and resources in the United States.

From its inception, the Arboretum was international in its reach and reputation. Twenty-two countries sent gifts of trees representative of their own distinctive environment to grow in the rich soil of the south-east.

The last Ice Age had left Ireland with very few native species of tree, a consequence of the land bridge flooding as the ice receded and the oceans rose. Yet, our mild, temperate climate and our long summer days are perfect for trees from almost every corner of the global, and the Arboretum today now sustains over 4,500 varieties of tree and shrub.

Growing here are over 190 different plots of forestry trees, for which detailed measurements of growth and size have been gathered over the 50 years since they were first planted. This provides us with an invaluable resource amd scientific knowledge with which to support our national endeavours in forestry. It is of vital importance in a country that has, in the past, experienced the felling of its great forests to meet the needs of imperial conquests and wars, but then in its early independence, and despite some fine scholarly injunctions, the new state was scant in fulfilling its duty in restoring our forest cover in an ecologically sustainable manner.

In the General Election of 1948-1951 forestry was a major theme. Seán McBride insisted, as a member of Government, that Ministers travel to gather information on the European forests. At the present moment, we are still struggling, as a nation, to protect our native habitats and our native species, to achieve the balance required, for example, between agricultural production and sustainability.  

We live in challenging times. In Ireland and across the globe, we are now witnessing some of the most damaging manifestations of humanity’s influence upon our planet. We are experiencing the unpredictable effects of the alteration of the phosphorus, sulphur, and as we know so well in Ireland, the nitrogen cycles, each one an ecological process vital to life on our planet. To continue uncritically with a form of development, through an industrial process that was initiated 250 years ago is not an option for us and indeed would constitute an incredible breach of intergenerational justice.

We are only now beginning to understand the effect of disruptions to the terrestrial water cycle, so vital to rainfed agriculture in pastoral economies from Ireland to the Sahel, and we now confront what will be the greatest challenge of this century – the catastrophic effects of climate change produced by the emission of greenhouse gases and its exacerbation by changes in land-use such as by the drainage of bogs and wetlands.

When a future generation of Irish citizens assembles to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy Arboretum, they shall do so in an environment radically re-shaped by human action, the responses we in our times make to changes in policy and practice required for sustainability and the need for an adequate, and urgent, response to the impact of climate change will be judged in terms of the their adequacy for the necessary change that was needed.

What shall be the fate of a tree planted today in that future environment, its rate of growth, the health of its branches and roots? Will it thrive or shall it whither? These will be questions of profound importance for our future, and the work being undertaken in the Arboretum will be vital for informing policy optins on the future of forestry in Ireland.

It is ultimately the actions of those alive today that will determine the answers to these questions. Three years ago, the nations of the world met in New York and Paris to conclude two unprecedented agreements: the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord. These two remarkable demonstrations of global solidarity will serve to organise and measure our success and failure in this century. If pursued with vigour, imagination and authenticity, they have the potential to be the twin pillars upon which a more inclusive, just, peaceful and sustainable world can be built.

These tasks will not be easy to accomplish. The decarbonisation of our societies demanded by the pledge to pursue efforts to limit the global temperature increase to one and a half degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will not be easy, nor can it be made without sacrifice.

Yet if we are to truly deliver the efforts demanded of us by the Paris Climate Accord it will require courage not only of a political kind, but little less than the mobilisation of all members of society, as farmers, workers, producers and consumers, and, the most important category of all, as citizens. It will require new forms of behaviours, forms of consumption, skills and methods, the opening of new frontiers of science and technology, and their delivery for universal citizen benefit, the cultivation and the exchange of technical expertise.  

It will demand, from all of us in terms of both leadership and moral courage, the courage to ensure that we bring publics with us if we are to fulfil the pledges we made to one another and to future generations in New York and in Paris. The greatest courage will be required in advocacy for ensuring that the burdens are borne by those best able to bear them. It will demand, in the words of Pope Francis, nothing less than a ‘new and universal solidarity’.

We meet on the anniversary of a most fateful year in world affairs, a year in which universal solidarity was both awakened and ignored.

When Éamon de Valera opened this Park fifty years ago, he did so only a month after the most powerful voice for peace, social justice and a renewed global solidarity, both in the United States and on our planet, was silenced by the bullet of an assassin.

Dr Martin Luther King Jnr., who had dedicated his live not only to the cause of civil and legal equality in the United States, but to the cause of justice throughout the world.

In that most revolutionary of years, 1968, the movement for Civil Rights had widened to encompass a demand for economic and social rights, and for the end of the war in Vietnam. It was a call, above all, to envision  a future of responsible freedom, inclusion, belonging, and the responsible use of science and technology.

Just as the Declaration from Philadelphia in its day had echoed around the world, inspiring great movements for liberty and freedom, from France to Ireland and to Haiti, so too did the words and example of those such as Dr King. From the students in Paris and Berlin to the brave citizens of Prague and Derry, there sprung up, across the globe, a demand for democracy, justice, and human rights, and a version of human rights that went beyond personal or individual rights, a demand that stretched to collective rights, to shared rights.

In the age of the Cold War, when cynicism as to the balance of power and self-interest alone seemed to rule in Moscow and Washington D.C., the example of the American Civil Rights Movement, which was    multi-faceted in its battle for justice in its own country, recalled and reinvoked the emancipatory potential of American Democracy.

In 1968, that struggle, informed by the values of the Civil Rights Movement, was carried into the sphere of electoral politics by that most unusual of pragmatists – Robert F Kennedy. There is a saying (often incorrectly) ascribed to Winston Churchill: ‘Any man under thirty who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over thirty who is not a conservative has no brains’. I know that many of you who have attended the Kennedy Summer School this past few days are seasoned political observers, so I trust that you will not be surprised that I very much prefer, to this bogus Churchillism, George Bernard Shaw’s formulation: ‘the most distinguished persons become more revolutionary as they grow older’.  

It is the latter statement that most accurately described the trajectory of Robert Kennedy. He famously began his career as young attorney working as legal counsel to the infamous committee chaired by   Senator McCarthy. He later developed the reputation as a tough political strategist during his brother’s Senate and Presidential campaigns.

For that, we may perhaps thank aspects of his Irish inheritance, for it was the Irish influence which gifted the United States, for good or ill – and I think there has been both good and ill in it – with a genius for district party politics. But it should not be forgotten that the post-Famine wave of Irish migration to the United States found many of the opportunities of commerce and capital closed to them and it was through their public service - employment as first-rank members of the police and fire service, for example – that they sought collective power through election to City Hall.

As Attorney-General of the United States, Robert Kennedy confronted both organised crime and entrenched segregationist state authorities. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he would further distinguish himself by advocating the path of peace.   

As a United States Senator, Robert Kennedy travelled his country, condemning the poverty of Appalachia and supporting, for example, the struggles of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. Informed by those experiences, in 1968, it was Robert Kennedy too who, in a characteristic spirit of pragmatic idealism, proposed nothing less than moral renewal of his country in terms of principled policy, and of the role of the United States in world affairs.

That campaign came to represent, for those who believed in what was then called the American Way, an expression of faith in the power of public action to achieve change in society, of the importance of the ideals of the public realm over those of the insatiable excesses of private greed, and of the demands for justice from many of those communities excluded from society.

Only two months after the opening of this Garden that campaign ended in a single and horrific moment, when Robert Kennedy was taken from his family and from a fearful world that was yet still hopeful for change.

It was one of many blows suffered in that fateful year of 1968. History is replete with reversals at times of promise in relation to needed change.

In the scale of global change and fervour for change, the closest antecedent of that momentous year 1968 in the public imaginary remains 1848, the Springtime of Peoples, the first great pan-European assertion of the right to national self-determination – a year that would inspire the creation of so many of the nation-states of Europe today.

Yet 1848 was not a story of victory, but of defeat – the democratic French Republic declared in that year yielded to eighteen years of Bonapartist authoritarianism, many of the most progressive German liberal nationalists were forced to flee to the United States, the First Italian War of Independence ended in defeat, and the leaders of our own Young Ireland movement were exiled to Australia.

So too 1968 was a year, in so many ways, of tragedy, not of triumph – the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement was met with coercion, not conciliation, Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Prague, nearly 400 students were massacred on the eve of the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and the war in Vietnam only intensified as thousands more American soldiers, many of them unwilling conscripts, were deployed to South-East Asia.

‘Success, in the eyes of the vulgar, fixes its merits’, Wolfe Tone reminded us. May I suggest that, today, we sorely need to recover not only the utopian and emancipatory vision of that extraordinary year, but also the pragmatic idealism of Dr King and Robert Kennedy.

There is always a price to be paid. Martin Luther King Jnr endured years in the wilderness for his opposition to the Vietnam War and for his conviction that the Great Society programme embarked on by President Johnson represented only the beginning of social and economic reform in the United States. Robert Kennedy had the courage to question a War to which his own Party had been committed for many years.

The challenges that confronted Dr King and Robert Kennedy in their time remain to be addressed in ours: the requirement for just, sustainable, development through the world: the resolution and prevention of conflict and war: the urgent need to welcome those fleeing war, persecution, and famine: and the great imperative to repair the great inequalities of wealth, power, income and opportunity that so divide our societies.

This Arboretum reminds of the new and no less defining challenges of our age: biodiversity loss; environmental degradation; and above all, climate change.

We know what must be done. We now possess two global agreements by which our authenticity and commitment shall be judged by future generations: the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord.

We in our time live in an age that demands the same qualities of energy, devotion, idealism and optimism that Robert F Kennedy brought to his campaign for peace, for social justice, and for equality fifty years ago. We are summoned to display the same global solidarity that Dr King evoked by his actions and in his sermons.

So, as we celebrate today 50 years of the John F Kennedy Arboretum and Memorial Park, and the close of the 6th Summer School and scholarly gathering, let us commit to recovering anew the spirit of    John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Dr King, and let us re-dedicate ourselves to the ideal of justice, equality and freedom for which, in their own time, they made such an exemplary stand.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh agus beir beannacht.