Published on 

Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD, Kennedy Summer School

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good evening.


When President Kennedy came to Ireland in 1963 he spoke of the distinctive Irish qualities that he believed were needed in an increasingly dangerous world.  They were ‘the remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination’.  I believe, Noel Whelan epitomised those qualities. 


Hopeful about our capacity as people to help and respect each other, confident in our democratic values and our essential humanity, he was able to imagine a better kinder Ireland.  And then he worked to make it a reality.


Noel’s idealism was an antidote to the corrosive and anti-democratic approach to politics we see elsewhere in the world. 


I knew Noel well and really respected him.   I enjoyed his columns in the Irish Times – always reasoned and reasonable, always fair.  He never twisted the knife and, despite his political background, he was never partisan.


For Sinéad and Séamus and those close to him he was a loving husband and father and friend.  For the rest of us he was a patriot who loved his country and helped make it a better place.   Thank you Noel. We miss you.


This is my first time back in Wexford since I had the privilege to open the new M11 Gorey to Enniscorthy in July.  I know this is a part of the country that was hit hard during the recession.  Today we are looking at a comeback story.


Unemployment in Wexford has been cut in half since this Summer School was founded in 2012, and is falling all the time.  People are coming to live here and the population is rising again – an increase of 18,000 since 2006. 


We are investing in new roads like the New Ross Bypass to reduce congestion and travel-times, improve road safety, and open up economic opportunities.  Projects that will ensure that all parts of Ireland can prosper in the years ahead.


We are pushing ahead with plans for a new Technology University for the South-East in 2020.


So there are many reasons for optimism, despite the challenges and shadow of Brexit.


As Taoiseach it’s hard to give a speech these days without focusing on Brexit.  But tonight I want to try.


I know Brexit is the issue on everyone’s minds and I am sure we will discuss it in the Questions and Answers session afterwards.  As Taoiseach I also have to think about our country and our engagement with the world after Brexit.


While Brexit will define the UK for the foreseeable future it does not have to define us.


I often talk about my foreign policy vision for Ireland in terms of ‘Global Ireland’. 


An island at the centre of the world, at the heart of the common European home we helped to build.  Playing its part on the world stage as a global citizen.  Tonight I take this opportunity to spell out what that means. 


Above all, it means responding to the challenges of the world with hope, confidence, and a fresh imagination.


While some are given to despair in the face of global challenges I believe we have reasons to be hopeful, provided we have the courage to act now.


We are at the heart of Europe.  To maintain its life and vigour we need to expand our commitment to greater European integration. 


After the Berlin Wall fell, some spoke of the ‘end of history’ believing that western liberal values would soon become the global norm.  It did not turn out that way.  While EU and NATO enlargement anchored states once behind the Iron Curtain to these values in the main, Russia’s attempt at democracy has failed.  Multi-party democracy in China looks no closer today than it did when the student protests were crushed.  Turkey is increasingly totalitarian.  India less secular.  The rise of far-right and far-left populism in Latin America and even America give cause for concern. 


None of this is irreversible. 


Against this darkness, Europe is the light, a bastion of freedom, liberalism and peaceful co-operation among nations. 


First we must recognise that Western liberal values are under attack – even in Europe itself.  We must work together to defend them, regroup, strengthen Europe and then spread them once more.


So many problems we face today are global and require global solutions - climate change, refugees, cyber-security, the regulation and fair taxation of global corporations. 


We cannot have cut throat competition among countries.  We need competition but with a set of agreed rules and minimum standards to protect the environment, workers, health and our revenue base. 


This can only be done through institutions like the UN and the OECD and the WTO.


And this is why Ireland is running for a seat on the UN Security Council, because we want to play a greater role in realising that vision.


It’s why we are stepping up our peacekeeping missions from long-standing missions like Lebanon to the deployment of the Army Ranger Wing to Mali. The first such deployment in over a decade.


It’s why we are increasing our International Development budget with a particular focus on educating women and girls, climate and nutrition.


It’s also why we are expanding our network of embassies, cultural centres and agency offices around the world from Frankfurt to LA, Mumbai to Manila, Kiev to Cardiff. 


We are confident that we have a role to play in the world, a voice for the disadvantaged and defenceless, promoting individual freedom and defending human rights. Promoting free trade and free enterprise and democracy.


Later this month, I will join Heads of State and Government from around the world at the UN General Assembly, where I will attend Summits on Climate Action and the Sustainable Development Goals.  These goals aim to overcome the global challenges we face, and they include poverty, inequality, health, education, climate, environmental degradation, peace and justice.


In advance of the General Assembly, 600 young people from around the world will attend a Youth Climate Summit which Ireland has co-organised. Among the speakers will be Greta Thunberg, who has inspired many around the world.  She asks not what our planet can do for us, but what we can do for our planet.


We owe it to future generations to work collaboratively with the international community to arrest the march of climate change. And I believe we will prevail.


The world has changed and I believe we need to be imaginative in how we reach out to our global diaspora - from expats to those whose forebears left our shores many generations ago. 


There are some things we can do to make a strong argument about our values. 


In the coming months we will have a referendum to extend voting rights in presidential elections to all Irish citizens no matter where they live.  I know that there are mixed feelings about it and it’s a referendum that won’t be easily won.  But I am sure it’s the right thing to do.  There’s no such thing as second class Irish citizenship and I believe an Irish citizen in Belfast or Chicago is every bit as Irish as one in Dublin or Galway.


I would also like to extend voting rights in Dáil elections to people who have left the country for only a few years.  It’s wrong that our diplomats and soldiers can vote when overseas but those working for the IDA or Tourism Ireland cannot.  Young people and students living abroad for a year or two shouldn’t have to come home to vote. They should be able to do it by post.


I also want to reach out to people for whom Irish heritage is more distant.  There are those in Latin America and other parts of the world who are proud of their Irish ancestry, even if it is now distant.  They have a feeling for Ireland and our heritage. 


I’d like to see us provide student visas to people of Irish heritage going back more than two generations who no longer have the right to citizenship.  I hope the day will come when we have more Argentine Irish and South African Irish doing some of their study here.


Our Irish heritage is also shared by many African-Americans, Caribbeans and other races and we should also explore those links. 


All international politics eventually becomes local.  We have to play our part now.   With strong and sustainable economic growth, low unemployment and ongoing social progress, we know that our continued progress, prosperity and security is dependent on what is happening in the world around us.  We are part of a global community and at a time of crisis and uncertainty we must play our part as a global citizen.


One hundred years ago, at the first meeting of the First Dáil, we sent a message to the free nations of the world expressing our belief that freedom and justice are the ‘fundamental principles of international law’.  


One hundred years later, we bring that same message.  It is our vision for Ireland on the world stage, promoting our culture, upholding the principles of international law, engaging in trade, and speaking out for freedom and justice.


Thank you.