Speech at a State Dinner in honour of H.E. Dr. George Vella, President of Malta, and Mrs. Miriam Vella
Áras an Uachtaráin, Wednesday, 1st March 2023
President Vella and Mrs Miriam Vella,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Fíorchaoin fáilte romhaibh uilig agus go háirithe roimh ár n-aíonna speisialta: Uachtarán Phoblacht Mhálta George Vella agus a bhean chéile Miriam Vella.
It is a real pleasure to welcome you to Áras an Uachtaráin, home of the Presidents of Ireland since 1938, as you begin your State Visit as President of Malta to us in Ireland. President, your State Visit provides us with an opportunity to reciprocate the warm welcome that you extended to Sabina and myself and the Irish delegation when we visited Malta on two occasions last year.
Occasions such as your State Visit represent an opportunity to celebrate all that our two countries share, our mutual interests and values, those ties we have worked together to establish, sometimes over many centuries, and to discuss challenges that we both face, with others, in contemporary times, further strengthening our shared relationship as island nations which, while far apart geographically, remain close in experience.
I know, President Vella, that we both appreciate the experiences of those of us who are members of the Arraiolos Group have shared, valuable opportunities as the meeting you hosted in Malta last year clearly exemplified.
We both have also been aware of how such visits occur in a global context. Both of our countries have a record of concern and activism in international affairs. As neutral countries, over the years we have defined that neutrality as positive neutrality, and worked for peace in the multilateral order.
I suggest we have much to offer the world as it grapples with so many interconnected crises – the consequences of wars, breaches of international law, invasion, breaches of humanitarian law in military action in an increasing number of cases of conflict, and increased militarisation, in so many places. The promotion and achievement of sustainable peace are tasks on which countries, such as ours, have in the past given valuable support, and must continue to lend valuable support.
It is one of the consequences of war, illegal invasion, climate change, unresolved global hunger crises, that in recent times many countries have witnessed the arrival of displaced people seeking asylum and refuge, many of whom are desperate and vulnerable and, tragically, used as prey for exploitation by unscrupulous predators of human suffering who offer to facilitate their passage. There are, too, and it must be acknowledged, others at the point of destination who use the language of fear and exclusion to present such people as a threat. Such hostile and intimidatory behaviour may not reflect the views of the vast majority, but it is real and must be confronted.
Over a year on from the invasion, the people of Ukraine remain foremost in our minds. It is heartening to see the welcome that so many have extended both here in Ireland and in Malta and who continue to provide sanctuary to the tens of thousands of displaced Ukrainian citizens who now call our islands home. Over 75,000 Ukrainians reside here today, having fled the conflict. Over 6,000 Irish homes have welcomed these war refugees. Schools in every part of the country have opened their arms to new pupils and shown a deep commitment of respect and solidarity.
As we meet, the plight of the people in Türkiye and Syria no doubt must also be at the forefront in our thoughts this evening as they work to rebuild in the wake of last month’s devastating earthquake. That horrific event reminds us all of our utter vulnerability, and the humanitarian response required reminds us, too, of our interdependence and the need for mutual solidarity.
As members of the international community, it is our responsibility to demonstrate solidarity by doing all we can to aid the reconstruction efforts, but also to address the structural challenges that are global, the new circumstances that interacting crises have created, the insufficiency of our global institutional responses, the obstacles placed, for example, before humanitarian responses.
It is our longstanding history of migration that is perhaps one of the most powerful, tangible experiences that our two countries share. The shared stories of our migration are stories that have proven to be both sorrowful but also at times enriching.
We both are migratory peoples. Our experiences as emigrant nations with all the voluntary and most often involuntary emigration, with large number of our citizens leaving, has instilled the importance to act in solidarity, of demonstrating empathy to those fleeing persecution and war and seeking refuge.
We in Ireland must allow our hearts break as we read of 59 deaths, including children and a new-born baby, drowned off the coast of Italy.
Ireland has witnessed periods during which there was significant losses of its young generation from its people. Indeed, in the 120 years between the Act of Union in 1800 and the founding of the State in 1921, 8 million Irish people had emigrated, while in 1901, of those born on the island of Ireland, a majority lived abroad. Later, during the 1950s, around 500,000 Irish men and women left Ireland largely to Britain as entry to the United States was largely closed.
Much has changed. We have benefitted from those who have come to live with us and rely on their contribution for some of our vital services. Today Ireland is a country with over 17 percent of its having been born overseas.
Malta and Ireland are, I know, anxious to respond to this contemporary humanitarian challenge of migration with compassion, and in a manner that respects the dignity of the migrants involved.
Malta has been amongst those frontline countries that have received the most applications for asylum relative to its population size, a receiving country for significant inward migration, and it must be recognised that Malta has taken on a significant duty and introduced innovative measures to ensure the principled and humane treatment of those seeking refuge and asylum.
Offering protection to those seeking it when fleeing war or persecution is an international legal obligation, but more importantly a test at the very core of the values of every free democracy. We recognise the challenges that Malta has faced, challenges that should have been, and must be, shared.
Malta’s position geographically is just 300 kilometres from Africa – that great continent of the young which constitutes 17 percent of the world’s population, 20 percent of the young people of the world, a continent of over 1.4 billion people, with its young people accounting for 40 percent of its population. It is a continent upon which so many of our hopes for a sustainable future rest. The neglect of African issues, be it in responding to the effects of climate change, conflict, food insecurity, unsustainable debt, will affect countries such as Malta in a disproportionate way to the rest of the European Union.
In the Horn of Africa, the harsh reality of hunger is stealing the future, the potential, the dignity, of millions of our brothers and sisters every day, with a person dying of hunger every 48 seconds in drought-ravaged Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.
Tens of millions of people face extreme hunger in the Horn of Africa. Despite having two-thirds of remaining arable land, Africa still imports 100 million tonnes of food at a cost of $75 billion annually. Yet Africa has the potential to be self-sufficient in terms of food production and to make a contribution to feeding the world. We have an obligation to end its multiple form of dependency promoted in such measure by structural adjustment, programmes of the 1980s that left it dependent on three staples – wheat, maize and rice – and a handful of suppliers.
Living off the land is being made increasingly untenable for a quarter of a billion people on the continent of Africa. At least 36 million people have been affected by the severe drought centred in Ethiopia, Northern Kenya and Somalia. Over 1.3 million people have been forced to leave their homes in search of food, pasture, water and alternative livelihoods. Moderate to severe food insecurity affects approximately 60 percent of Africans today.
As extreme hunger and famine risk sweeps across Eastern Africa as a result of severe drought, made more likely by climate change, we have an urgent moral imperative to co-operate together to end, once and for all, the chronic food insecurity that has plagued the continent of Africa for so long.
Progress on reducing hunger has been stagnant since 2014-15 and has gone into reverse. In 2020, 40 million people more than the previous year went into food insecurity, according to OECD and EU sources.
During my recent visit to Senegal at which I addressed the second Dakar Food Summit, I highlighted that there is an urgent need to tackle poverty and hunger in Africa through providing security in the basic necessities of life, delivering universal basic services including education and healthcare, and creating a lasting, sustainable future built on security in its most inclusive sense, one grounded on a food security and informed, too, by indigenous wisdom.
As global issues, these are issues in the neighbourhood of our European Union that should concern us, basic to global security. There is an opportunity for Europe to create a new relationship with Africa, undo the legacy of history, achieve sustainability, create new partnerships of respect and responsibility for global challenges.
In recent decades changes in international stock exchanges have made grain an item for commodity speculation. This has imperilled efforts to build regional grain reserves as well as a global food aid apparatus fit for the protracted crises we face. Diversity of food production and trade systems, cutting harmful dependencies through a new model that will include holistic agroecology, should be a global urgent task that we share. There is global institutional inertia on these issues.
The issue of debt must be tackled. How shameful it is that, even in recent Covid pandemic times, 64 countries in the developing world, many of which are in Africa, are being forced to spend more on debt repayments than on funding public healthcare.
Our planet burns, is scared by climate change. On this issue, may I commend Malta for hosting the Security Council debate last month on sea level rise and international peace and security. This is an issue for us all, but it is of existential importance for some of the world’s Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States – States that, after all, are amongst those which have done least to contribute to the causes of climate change, yet which are most impacted by it.
President Vella, our two nations, at the geographical peripheries of our European Union, understand how the great challenges that we must address, and with urgency, must be done together within a Union of shared values of peace and mutual respect, employing the tools of multilateralism that have stood us well and continue to offer us our best hope for a sustainable, harmonious, shared future on our vulnerable planet in peril. Both of our peoples see themselves as proudly European, and in a sense that includes the cultures and intellectual heritages of the world, with much to offer the European project as it continues to evolve. We have much to share from its long philosophical tradition and our vibrant diverse culture in all its forms.
In a recent Encyclical, Pope Francis remarked,
“the widespread problems of inequality, injustice, poverty and marginalization continue to fuel unrest and conflict, and generate violence and even wars. […] We must promote actions that enhance peace and put an end to the conflicts and wars that continue to spawn poverty and death” .
Our challenges are connected, and our shared response must reflect that complexity. Recognising the link between poverty, conflict, migration and displacement is essential.
As Ireland celebrates the 50th anniversary of European Union membership, and Malta approaches its 20th anniversary next January, the accession ceremony for which having taken place here at Áras an Uachtaráin, together we recall the positive, indeed transformative, effects which EU membership has proved for both our countries, allowing us to work together to strive to shape a cohesive, inclusive, forward-looking Union based on fundamental values of social justice, multilateralism and respect for the rule of law. The challenge of course remains.
Both Malta and Ireland value how international engagement and multilateralism have transformed our nations, helping us in Ireland, above all in our efforts, to deliver peace and security on this island.
Strong bonds exist between the Irish Defence Forces and the Maltese Defence Forces, including an annual training programme of Maltese cadets alongside their Irish counterparts which has been taking place for many years in the Curragh. Ireland is proud that personnel from the Armed Forces of Malta have deployed on a number of occasions in recent years to UNIFIL in Lebanon as part of the Irish Battalion.
Our shared commitment to international peace resonates with Ireland’s recent membership of the UN Security Council which ended in December, and may I take this opportunity to congratulate Malta on its recent successful election to the Security Council for 2023-24.
May I say how pleased I am that higher education links between our two countries are continuing to thrive, with 13 Erasmus programmes in operation between the University of Malta and Irish Universities. It is heartening, too, that cultural exchanges are flourishing between Malta and Ireland, with artists from Ireland regularly exhibiting their works in Malta, and vice versa, while Irish Film Days are bringing the best of Irish cinema to Maltese audiences.
May I conclude, valued guests, by inviting you, our distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, to raise your glass and toast to the good health of President and Mrs Vella and to the enduring friendship between the People of Ireland and the People of Malta.