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His Excellency Mr Dominick Chilcott, The British Ambasador, Saint Patrick’s Day 2015

March 17, 2015  Posted in: Addresses

Good morning to you all.There can be no better place for an ambassador to Ireland to speak than in this magnificent and historic cathedral on St Patrick’s day. It is a great honour to stand where Dean Jonathan Swift once stood.

Being the British ambassador, I would like to offer you some modest reflections on relations between the United Kingdom and Ireland. I won’t be quite as concise as Boris Yeltsin was when John Major, then Britain’s Prime Minister, asked him how he’d describe the state of affairs in Russia in a word. ‘Good’ said Yeltsin. Thinking that reply somewhat laconic, John Major asked how he would describe them in two words, to which Yeltsin replied, ‘Not good’.

Relations between Britain and Ireland, these days, to sum them up in three words, are better than ever. But they are not, of course, without a lot of contested and sensitive history, the 800 years of oppression no Irishman forgets and no Englishman remembers. Someone once button-holed me at dinner in Dublin to complain about Britain’s foreign policy. Fair enough. But, to begin with, the precise nature of his complaint escaped me until at last the penny dropped. My interlocutor wasn’t concerned with Afghanistan or Syria or British policy toward Europe or other contemporary international topics. He was taking issue, in all seriousness, with the foreign policy of King Henry II.

We can’t, of course, change the past, however much, in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s words at Dublin castle four years ago, with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all. But though we can’t change the past, we have, in Mary McAleese’s words, chosen to change the future. Living in Dublin, British-Irish relations can occasionally have their moments. But they are not as baffling as the Schleswig-Holstein question, which Lord Palmerston said was so complicated that only three people in the world had ever understood it. One of them was dead, one had gone mad and he, Palmerston, was the third and had forgotten all about it. Unlike the Schleswig-Holstein question, the broad aim of government policy, in Dublin and London, is straightforward.

Let me quote again from Her Majesty the Queen, this time from her speech at the State banquet for President Higgins last April in Windsor Castle. The Queen said: “The goal of modern British-Irish relations can be simply stated. It is that we, who inhabit these islands, should live together as neighbours and friends. Respectful of each other’s nationhood, sovereignty and traditions. Cooperating to our mutual benefit. At ease in each other’s company.” This goal is now within reach. The two state visits, by HM The Queen to Ireland in 2011 and by the President of Ireland to Britain last year, have shown the very high regard and respect that our two governments and establishments, at the highest level, have for each other.

In diplomatic protocol, a state visit is the highest mark of esteem one country can pay to another. All the red carpets, carriage processions, flags, banquets and tradition are designed to send the strongest possible signal of the host’s wish to have the closest possible productive and sincere friendship with its guests. These two state visits have also drawn attention to the very many ways in which Britain and Ireland are each other’s most important neighbour – whether that is in developing our bilateral trade, managing the security of our borders, promoting research, collaborating in the arts, sport and culture or providing jobs – and people to fill them – to the benefit of the economies and societies of both countries.

The British and Irish governments’ experience of working together, over many years, in the European Union and over Northern Ireland has transformed relations between us. There now exists considerable trust and a sense of common purpose in our work together. This better atmosphere is not confined to governments. Our peoples feel freer to celebrate the myriad of rich connections of kith and kin than criss-cross these islands. As Olivia O’Leary memorably said last year at the Ceilliuradh at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of President Higgins: “It’s now official, it’s ok to like the British”.

St Patrick is a symbol of the migration of peoples back and forth across the Irish Sea. Although the historical sources are not the strongest, it seems that Patrick hailed originally from Great Britain, probably Wales. The first time he crossed the Irish Sea he was a forced migrant; captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. He later escaped, returned home and studied for the priesthood. His second trip to Ireland was voluntary, responding to an appeal, received in a vision, to walk among the Irish people. Like St Patrick, people have moved back and forth, across and between these islands since before recorded history. Modern transport and communications have made this easier and cheaper than ever. So it should not be a surprise to discover how closely intertwined we have become.

We estimate that some 10% of the population of Great Britain has or had an Irish grandparent. If that is correct, it means that up to 6 million people in GB have a claim to an Irish passport. A big part of being British is being Irish. The reasons why people have moved around over the centuries vary. These days, the glamour of big British cities and the opportunities they offer, especially London, appeals to young Irish graduates as much as to those from the UK’s regions. What is encouraging, at least for a British ambassador, is that no British city is that far away from the Republic. The heartache of separation, which some families feel when children leave for further flung parts of the globe, is much less acute, if it exists at all, when children move to Manchester, Cardiff, Birmingham, Glasgow or London.

We are increasingly becoming a single, integrated space for work and education. One of the issues which the British and Irish governments have been working on together, which occupies a fair bit of the embassy’s chancery efforts, is commemorating the past, particularly the events in this decade of centenaries. We have been breaking new ground together. On a joint visit in 2013, the Taoiseach, Mr Kenny, and the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, visited a number of First World War graves and memorials in Flanders. The President participated in the moving ceremony in Mons with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to mark Britain’s entry into the war. The Irish ambassador laid a wreath at the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall last November. I shall be participating in the Easter Rising commemoration, outside the GPO, in a few weeks’ time.

Next month, we approach the centenary of the start of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. Britain and Ireland will be represented at a very senior level at remembrance ceremonies in Turkey, London and Dublin. Ireland lost some 3,000 of her sons at Gallipoli. The words of Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, continue to represent the gold standard of statesmanship and reconciliation. Addressing the allied dead on the Gallipoli peninsular some years after the war, Ataturk said: “Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie, side by side, here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

The British and Irish governments naturally hope that our joint commemorations of our common First World War dead will promote reconciliation and friendship between us. You may know about Tom Kettle, one of his generation’s brightest and ablest Irishmen – a nationalist, barrister and poet and a member of the House of Commons in Westminster. He was killed, as a lieutenant in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, at the battle of the Somme. Before his death, Lt Kettle had described his hope that the sacrifice of the war should not be in vein. “Used with the wisdom that is sown in tears and blood”, he wrote, “this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain.” Tom Kettle did not see much progress towards those two reconciliations in his lifetime. Nor was there much of it to see in most of the 20th century. But we are definitely in a much better place now. And it is a blessed irony that remembering the wisdom of men like Tom Kettle, one hundred years on, is part of the process of drawing our peoples back together. Perhaps the wheel is turning full circle.

Returning to St Patrick, I was very much taken by a tongue in cheek description of St Patrick published in The Irish Times last year.

The paper described St Patrick as the aesthetic saint who managed to convince a wonderfully hedonistic pagan island people to bow before the princes of the Roman church and develop a collective guilt complex unparalleled around the world. Another view, for which there is arguably more evidence, is that, despite St Patrick’s best efforts, the wonderfully hedonistic people of these islands haven’t really changed a bit. I am not being serious, of course. But it is remarkable how, in far-flung countries around the world at this time of year, St Patrick’s is increasingly adopted as the best excuse for a parade and a party. No other nation’s patron saint enjoys such broad appeal. Those of us in the business of building national reputations in a competitive global diplomatic market place stand in awe of Ireland’s achievements with the St Patrick’s brand.

In honour of St Patrick, the British Embassy in Ballsbridge is being floodlit greet at night-time, as are so many buildings and landmarks around the world. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In March, for a few days at least, the whole world wants to be Irish. I think such a legacy would make a great impression on your patron saint, just as his own legacy has left such a huge mark in this island and the wider world. And as people who moved around and lived in both the main islands of our archipelago, both St Patrick and Dean Swift would, I think, be pleased with the greatly improved state of affairs in British-Irish relations nowadays.

On that happy note, may I wish everyone a very enjoyable St Patrick’s Day?

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