Bertie Ahern addresses US Congress
Bertie Ahern addresses US Congress

The following is the full text of a landmark address made by the outgoing 26-County Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to a joint session of the US Congress this week.

MADAM SPEAKER; Mr vice-president; members of Congress; chairman and past chairman of the Friends of Ireland, Mr Neal and Mr Walsh; my distinguished predecessor as taoiseach, Ambassador Bruton; distinguished guests, thank you for your kind introduction.

Your invitation to address this joint meeting this morning honours my country and honours me also.

It reaffirms the enduring bonds of friendship and esteem between our two peoples and between our two republics.

Those bonds have been built and nurtured and refreshed over the centuries.

America and Ireland have something that goes beyond a friendship between countries. To be an Irishman among Americans is to be at home.

So, Madam Speaker, I stand here before you as a proud son of Ireland. And I stand with you as a steadfast friend of the United States of America.

I know, Madam Speaker, like so many others assembled here, you share many links with Ireland and with Co Wicklow in particular.

A famous son of Wicklow, the son also of an American mother, Charles Stewart Parnell, stood in this place 128 years ago, the first Irish leader to do so.

Parnell turned to the United States, as have many Irish leaders since, as we strove to emulate the achievements of America and to vindicate the principles that inspired your founding fathers: the principles of liberty, of equality and of justice.

In the early part of the last century, Eamon de Valera came here seeking help as Ireland struggled for her independence.

In more recent times, many Irish leaders have come here in the quest for peace in Northern Ireland.

Whenever we have asked for help, America has always been there for us - a friend in good times and in bad.

From the very outset, Ireland gave to America presidents, patriots and productive citizens of a new nation.

Beginning with the Scots-Irish in the 17th and 18th centuries, they came from all corners of our island and from all creeds.

The Irish helped to build America. The very bricks and stones in this unique building were quarried and carried by the hands of Irish immigrant labourers.

A sculptor of Scots-Irish descent, Thomas Crawford, created the figure of Freedom, the statue later raised to the top of this famous dome here on Capitol Hill.

It reminds us all of the shared values of democracy and freedom which inspired both our journeys towards independence - the values that shine as a beacon of light and that stand strong as a city upon the hill among all the nations of the earth.

That statue also tells our Irish immigrant story - a story which is an indelible part of America’s own story of immigration, of struggle and of success.

The great waves of Irish immigration in the 19th century carried millions to your shores in flight from famine and despair. They carried little with them as they arrived on these shores, except a determination to work hard and to succeed.

In the words of the poet Eavan Boland, that eloquent voice of Ireland and America, they had “Their hardships parcelled in them. Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering in the bruise-coloured dusk of the New World. And all the old songs. And nothing to lose. “

To them, and the legions of others who came before and after, America was more than a destination. It was a destiny.

We see that same spirit in the New Irish at home today - the many people from beyond our shores who are now making new lives in Ireland. They too had the courage to come to a foreign place, to find their way and to provide for themselves, for their children and, in many cases, for their families far away.

The New Ireland - once a place so many left - is now a place to which so many come. These newcomers to our society have enriched the texture of our land and of our lives.

We are working, as are you, to welcome those who contribute to our society as they lift up their own lives, while we also address the inevitable implications for our society, our culture, our community and our way of life.

So we are profoundly aware of those challenges as we ask you to consider the case of our undocumented Irish immigrant community in the United States today. We hope you will be able to find a solution to their plight that would enable them to regularise their status and open to them a path to permanent residency.

There is of course a wider issue for Congress to address. And it is your definitive right to address it in line with the interests of the American people.

I welcome the wise words of your president when he addressed you on the State of the Union earlier this year and said he hoped to find a sensible and humane way to deal with people here illegally, to resolve a complicated issue in a way that upholds both America’s laws and her highest ideals.

On this great issue of immigration to both our shores, let us resolve to make the fair and rational choices, the practical and decent decisions, so that in future people will look back and say: they chose well. They did what was right for their country.

Madam Speaker, for millions across the globe, the great symbol of the freedom and the welcome of America is the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline.

The promise inscribed there says so much about this country: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Annie Moore was one of those who heard that promise.

She was a young Irish girl, aged only 15, from Co Cork. She was the first immigrant to pass through the Ellis Island Immigration Station when it was officially opened in 1892. She came here with her brothers to make a new life in America. Her story is one among millions.

The Irish are to be found in the police departments and the fire houses, in the hospitals, the schools and the universities, in the board rooms and on the construction sites, in the churches and on the sports fields of America.

Their contribution is seen in much of the great literature, film, art and music that America has given to the world.

Each of them is a green strand woven into the American dream.

In all of America, there is Irish America.

My friends, on September 11th, 2001, some of the most terrible, evil events in world history occurred. Close to Ellis Island, near this very building and in the skies and fields of Pennsylvania.

It is a day that is etched into the memory of all humanity.

On that day, Fr Mychal Judge, the chaplain of the New York Fire Department and the son of Irish immigrants from Co Leitrim, rushed to the World Trade Centre to help those who were in danger and to minister to the injured and the dying. Along with so many other good, innocent people, Fr Mike died inside the Twin Towers that day.

He was officially designated Victim Number 1.

Of course, he was no more important than any other victim. He was just a simple man of faith and of courage trying to help others.

In recognition of the bravery of all who died on that terrible day, I am deeply honoured to be joined here today by some of Fr Mike’s comrades from the New York Fire Department and New York Police Department.

I honour them and all of their fallen comrades - those who fell on that day and all who have fallen doing their duty to serve the people.

There was a day of national mourning in Ireland after 9/11. Every city, town and village fell silent in remembrance of the dead.

The names on the casualty list of the terrorist attack included Boyle, Crotty, Collins, Murphy, McSweeney and O’Neill - our names, the names of our families and our friends, the names of our nation.

There are many other names too, from many other nations. Those attacks were an attack on the free nations of the world and on humanity itself.

No words of mine then or now can adequately address such an immense tragedy. But I could not come to this place today without pausing to reflect and to remember and honour those who died on that day. Our hearts and prayers remain with their families. Ar Dheis De go raibh a n-anam dilis go leir.

Madam Speaker, the relationship between Ireland and the United States continues to grow from strength to strength.

It proceeds from all that has gone before, but it also thrives on the changes and new challenges we must face together.

In Ireland, we firmly believe our experience of hardship and of forced emigration is at an end. For that achievement, too, we owe so much to America.

Our two countries are reaping the rewards together. We are investing in each others economies, bringing together our entrepreneurial energy and creating employment across Ireland and across the 50 states of America.

That is the true measure of our economic achievements together. It points to a friendship every bit as strong in the future as it is today.

Our relationship is also part of a broader relationship between Europe and America.

The Atlantic Ocean will always bring Europe and America together. I do not see the Atlantic as something that keeps America and Europe apart. Ireland, as Europe’s most westerly state with so many ties to the United States, is a bridge between Europe and America.

I ask you to consider what has been achieved in Europe in the past 50 years.

We have put aside hostilities that led to countless wars over the centuries, and to two world wars in the last century alone.

We have created a European Union of 27 democratic states, committed to democracy, peace and freedom. We are committed to an open market and to a single currency that benefits hundreds of millions of European citizens.

We all recall two great Irish-Americans - President Kennedy in 1963 and President Reagan in 1987 - standing at the Berlin Wall during the Cold War and calling out for freedom in Germany and in Europe.

That call was heard, as freedom’s call always will be. Berlin is now at the heart of a united, democratic Germany.

On the 1st of May, 2004, in Dublin, 10 new members formally joined the European Union. Many of them were emerging from behind the Iron Curtain after decades of oppression.

I remember the intensity of the emotions. For many of these countries, this was a moment that was unthinkable only a few years before.

Along with Berlin, the great cities of Prague, Budapest and Warsaw have joined Dublin, London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Vienna as capital cities within a free and democratic European Union.

The European Union now stretches from the beautiful west coast of Ireland, where the locals say that the next parish is America, to countries with a land-frontier with Russia and Ukraine.

I passionately believe in Europe and I passionately believe in the European Union as a force for good in the world. It is profoundly encouraging that we are seeing the members of the European Union continuing to rise together as a force for development, for stability, for peace in the world.

Soon, the Irish people will vote on a new reform treaty that aims to make the European Union work even more effectively, both internally and in the wider world. I trust in their wisdom to support and to believe in Europe, as they always have.

My friends, between America and Europe there is contrast, but not contradiction. Energised by a common framework of values and imbued by democratic principles, together we can and we shall be a beacon for economic progress, individual liberty and the dignity of all mankind.

Acting in partnership, there are few limits to the good we can do.

We are all citizens of the world. We must therefore develop a true spirit of global citizenship.

This cannot and should not be an alternative to national pride and patriotism, but rather a complement to it.

We should care for our planet as much as we care for our country. We should champion peace, justice and human rights across the globe as well as at home.

It is an affront to our civilisation that there are children, anywhere in this world, who will die of hunger or of a curable disease.

In this year of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it angers us that some corners of the world remain hidden from the light of the universal principles expressed so eloquently in that document.

Although a small country, Ireland has always sought to play a full part on the international stage. We have consistently advocated acting in accordance with the principles of democracy, the rule of law, human rights and human dignity.

Ireland believes in multilateral institutions. We believe in the United Nations. We believe in the European Union. And we believe in multilateral action.

For over half a century, Irish men and women have served the cause of peace under the United Nations flag.

They have served in the Congo and in the Lebanon, on the borders between Israel and Syria and between Iraq and Iran, in Cyprus, in Eritrea, in Liberia, in East Timor, in Bosnia in Kosovo and in Afghanistan.

Tragically, some have paid the ultimate price and they have given their lives in that noble service.

Madam Speaker, never has the expression “the global village” been more appropriate. The great challenges that we face in the 21st century are truly global.

Falling financial markets, rising food and energy prices and climate change are global phenomena.

Eradicating poverty, starvation and disease, countering international terrorism and containing nuclear proliferation are not national but international issues. They cannot be overcome except by countries working together.

In many ways, the modern world is a much better place.But it remains a dangerous place.

The values we share are our strength and our protection.

Forty years ago, the threat of nuclear war hung over the world. Not least through the wisdom of America’s leaders at crucial moments, we no longer live every day under that shadow. Ireland was at the forefront of efforts at the time to agree the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Today, there are new possibilities for mass devastation. The need for concerted international action to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology is no less urgent now than it has been in the past.

Madam Speaker, in Ireland today, we are looking out from our own shores more than ever before - no longer with thoughts of exile, but to be part of the world. Connected to it, contributing to it, learning from it.

The long and proud tradition of Irish missionaries, of teachers, of nurses and of doctors working around the globe to combat poverty, hunger and disease continues today.

For us, famine and oppression are not tragedies that could only happen elsewhere.

They happened to us at a sad time in our history. They happened to those who fled here and helped build America and to the many who did not survive that fateful journey across the ocean.

For that more than any other reason, we recognise our obligation to share what we have with the poor of the world.

That is why Ireland is committed to reach the United Nations aid target by 2012.

Today, we are the sixth-largest per capita donor of development assistance in the world.

The strength of our efforts to tackle poverty, to cure disease and to feed the hungry in the developing world is a measure of our common humanity.

At this moment in our history, that common humanity is being tested in parts of the continent of Africa - in countries like Sudan and Chad, where lives have been lost on a terrible scale, where countless families have been driven from their homes, where conflict threatens a whole region with chaos and destruction.

Today, Irish soldiers are in Chad as part of a United Nations-mandated force, led by an Irish officer, protecting hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from conflict in that country and in neighbouring Darfur.

America has shown the way in its commitment to healing the conflict in Sudan and to Africa as a whole.

You have shown the way also in your enormous investment in the fight against HIV, Aids and malaria.

And you have given huge support and leadership to the peace process in the Middle East.

That terrible conflict has been a central challenge to the world, and a cause of pain and suffering to the Israeli and Palestinian people, for far too long.

We must succeed in our collective international efforts to secure a peaceful future for the people of Israel and of Palestine.

Madam Speaker, this year, in Ireland, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It was a defining moment in Ireland’s history.

In the years since then, some doubted that the agreement would endure. I never did.

I knew it would last because it is built on the highest ideals of democracy - the ideals of liberty, of equality, of justice, of friendship and of respect for our fellow men and women.

Above all, the settlement of 1998 will flourish because of one simple and unalterable fact. It represents the will, democratically expressed, North and South, of all of the people of Ireland to live together in peace and harmony.

That is far more powerful than any words of hatred or any weapon of terror.

In 1981, in much darker days for my country, the Friends of Ireland in the United States Congress were founded. Their simple purpose was to seek a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland.

The statement, placed on the Congressional Record during a session chaired by Speaker Tip O’Neill, read: “We look forward to a future St Patrick’s Day, one that we can foresee, when true peace can finally come and Irish men and women everywhere, from Dublin to Derry, from Boston and New York to Chicago and San Francisco, shall hail that peace and welcome the dawn of a new Ireland.”

On St Patrick’s Day 2008, a few short weeks ago, I came here to Washington. I came with a simple and extraordinary message. That great day of hope has dawned. Our prayer has been answered. Our faith has been rewarded.

After so many decades of conflict, I am so proud, Madam Speaker, to be the first Irish leader to inform the United States Congress: Ireland is at peace.

Madam Speaker, our dream, and the dream of all of the friends of Ireland in America and across the world, has come true.

To you, to your predecessors and to all of the American leaders from both sides of the aisle who have travelled with us, we offer our heartfelt gratitude.

We also recognise the steadfast support of President Bush, of President Clinton, their administrations, their envoys and of their predecessors.

Beyond Washington, there are so many others, whether amongst the dedicated leaders of Irish America, or in the smallest towns and communities across this nation, who have supported us and who never gave up hope that a solution would be found and that peace would come.

We have all shared that journey together. When we needed true champions of peace, when we needed true friends, when we needed inspiration, we found them here. We found them among you.

Many of us found inspiration in the words of Dr Martin Luther King, whose life we recall this year on the 40th anniversary of his death.

We believed, to borrow Dr King’s immortal phrase, that we would be able to transform the jangling discords into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

His dream, born of America but heard by the whole world, inspired us through its unanswerable commitment to justice and to non-violence.

We discovered that peace can be found without suspending your moral judgement, without sacrificing your identity and without surrendering your most deeply held political aspirations.

Today, as I stand before you in this great democratic assembly, I struggle to convey the enormous good that was done by so many people in my country, with your help.

Do not underestimate the good you have done.Do not forget the legacy you have forged. And if ever you doubt America’s place in the world, or hesitate about your power to influence events for the better, look to Ireland.

Look to the good you have done. Look at the richness of so many individual futures that now stretch out before us for generations, no longer subject to conflict and violence.

Look to the hope and confidence that we now feel on our island. The healing of history. Look and be glad.

Madam Speaker, there is, of course, no ending to history. We will always have new problems, new challenges and new opportunities. We are seeing an ever-increasing range of new technological and scientific developments, which are created and diffused at ever-greater speeds.

Our societies are increasingly diverse. Side by side with great wealth and prosperity, we still see social exclusion and poverty.

We endeavour to help families and communities ravaged by a minority who engage in crime or deal in drugs. We strive to deliver quality, affordable healthcare to all our people. We want the best education for our children.

We seek to provide social protection and security for our older people, to recognise what they have given to help create our successful societies.

These are the challenges for modern Ireland, just as they are throughout America and across the developed world. These are the very essence of politics.

That is why, with all our faults as human beings, we seek the honour of representing the people. We believe that diversity does not have to mean fragmentation or discord.

We believe that wealth and prosperity do not have to be accompanied by poverty and inequality. We believe that evil or injustice need not - and will not - triumph.

We believe - we insist - that all that is good and just is also possible. We believe in our republics and our forms of government, in which the sovereign power resides in the whole body of the people, and is exercised by representatives elected by the people.

An American president once said: “The supreme purpose of history is a better world.”

Making a better world is also the supreme purpose of representative politics in our two democratic republics.

Madam Speaker, I will shortly step down from the office of Taoiseach after almost 11 years. I am honoured to have been elected by the Irish people to serve them in that great office.

Tomorrow, as I journey home to Ireland for the last time as Taoiseach, I will travel to the great city of Boston in Massachusetts.

There, I will join our great friend Senator Edward Kennedy and pay tribute to President Kennedy and to Robert Kennedy - great Irishmen, great Americans and great leaders.

In doing so, I will pay fitting tribute to all the Irish in America.

On the 6th of May, I will go to that famous field on the banks of the river Boyne in Ireland where, over three centuries ago, fierce and awful battle was waged between the Protestant King William and the Catholic King James. It was not just an Irish battle. It was part of a wider European struggle of power, of politics and of religion.

For centuries after, the two sides on that field remained apart and remained divided.

Today, both sides, proud of their history and confident of their identity, can come together in peace and part in harmony. They can offer each other the open hand of friendship.

They will reaffirm again what Ireland has achieved and what we know in our hearts to be true.

Centuries of war, of strife and of struggle are over, and over for good. The field of slaughter is now a meeting place of mutual understanding. Our children will live in peace. And their children will enjoy the fruits of their inheritance.

This is the triumph of people and of politics. This is the achievement of democracy. The great achievement of Ireland and the great blessing of peace.

On that same day, I will go to the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese - a woman who rose from the conflict-torn streets of Belfast to be elected our head of state and our first citizen.

I will offer her my resignation as Taoiseach. I will humbly hand over the seal of office which I have so proudly held.

Finally, on the morning after, in the hours before my worthy successor steps forward to stand in my stead, I will stand silently at the simple graves of the patriot dead who proclaimed Ireland’s republic and who fought for Ireland’s freedom at Easter 1916.

There I will discharge my last duty as Taoiseach and pay the homage that Ireland owes to those men and those women.

And I will recall the words of the 1916 Proclamation, so resonant of the United States Declaration of Independence and so relevant to humanity around the world: “the Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.”

These are the values on which Ireland stands. These are the values by which I strive to live.

The vindication of these universal values is the highest tribute we can pay to those who have gone before and the greatest legacy that we can bequeath for those who are yet to come.

There are no finer words with which to finish and upon which to say: in history, in politics and in life, there are no ends, only new beginnings.

Let us begin.

Go raibh mile maith agaibh.

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