Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD speech to the National Press Club of Australia
Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD spoke today at the National Press Club of Australia.
Her full address is below:
Many thanks to the National Press Club of Australia for the kind invitation to address you all today.
I am delighted to be in your beautiful country. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and I pay respect to their elders; past, present and emerging.
There is a wise Aboriginal proverb about life:
‘We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.’
The journey from Ireland to Australia is a long one.
Our countries are half the world away from each other, and yet the bond between our people is not only the bond of friendship, but also the bond of family.
For generations, under different and often tragic circumstances Irish people have, in their droves, seen Australia as a haven.
Making the long journey by boat or by plane in search of work, security, acceptance, and a better life.
The Irish eyes that first took in the sight of Australia’s coastline were taken here in the cold chains of bondage.
They were followed by the huddled masses who fled the Great Famine, An Gorta Mór.
They came destitute and desperate, sustained only by the hope of a better tomorrow.
More came exiled by British political persecution - those who stood for Ireland’s freedom in the rebellions of the United Irishmen, the Young Irelanders and the Fenians.
Many of those patriots found their way to these shores and from the get-go the Irish spirit landed in Australia.
Going right back to the Eureka Stockade, we find the rebellious quality of the Irish character to the fore in each chapter of the fight for economic justice and social equality in Australia.
In more recent times, from the 1980s to the present day, Irish people came to Australia seeking jobs, opportunity, and adventure too.
The tearful loss of young generations to cycles of economic recession and emigration is heartbreakingly captured by Irish songwriter Paddy Reilly in ‘The Flight of the Earls':
‘It's not murder, fear or famine
That makes us leave this time
We're not going to join
We've got brains, and we've got visions, we've got education, too!
But we just can't throw away
These precious years.’
The history of people leaving Ireland across generations is spoken about in tragic terms of loss.
But it must also be said that the silver lining of emigration is found in the unique contribution the Irish have made to societies throughout the world and indeed in the opportunities that our people received from countries like Australia.
To be Irish is to be from a small island, but it is also to be part of a powerful global family.
We Irish are known for our lyricism, but it was an Australian, your former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke who captured this spirit perfectly in his speech to the Dáil, the Irish parliament in Dublin, in 1987.
“Ireland is the head of a huge empire in which Australia and the United States are the principal provinces.
“It is an empire acquired not by force of Irish arms but by force of Irish character, an empire not of political coercion but of spiritual affiliation, created by the thousands upon thousands of Irish men and women who chose to leave their shores, or who were banished from them, to help in the building of new societies over the years.”
It was a tribute that only a true friend could pay.
So, thirty-five years later, let me return the compliment.
The people of Ireland are grateful for the friendship of Australia - for the sanctuary, for the fair go and the boundless opportunities, for the new lives created and the families raised in this special land.
For whatever can be said of the Irish character and our contribution to Australian society, the same can be said in equal measure of Australian resilience, ingenuity, openness and fair play.
It is true to say that for a great many Irish people, Australia has been their light on the hill.
The special relationship between Australia and Ireland is an epic saga of human connection.
And just as the chapters of a book reveal the evolution of a story, the passage of time shapes the progress of a nation.
My friends, Ireland has changed, and Ireland is changing.
The people of Ireland voted resoundingly for Marriage Equality in 2015 and repealed the Eighth Amendment in 2018, which overturned the constitutional ban on abortion.
These milestones reflect an Ireland emerging from the shadow of religious dogma and strict social sanctions.
They were signposts to the new republic this generation is shaping, a generation determined to achieve the Ireland denied to our parents and our grandparents before us.
A nation not held back by the past, but one rising to a modern vision of the Ireland that can be.
The politics of a new Ireland has come full circle.
One hundred years ago, Ireland was partitioned under threat of an immediate and terrible war by Britain.
The result was catastrophic. A country divided. A sectarian headcount. A gerrymandered border. The establishment of two reactionary, claustrophobic states.
In the northern Six Counties, a one-party State excluded nationalists from power, denied them opportunity and subjected them to sectarian pogrom.
While the south became a deeply conservative place, which marginalised women, the poor, and political progressives.
A century on, to borrow from our poet WB Yeats, all is changed, changed utterly.
The oppressive northern Orange State is no more.
The perpetual unionist majority is gone, and is not coming back.
A new generation is moving on together - a fact underscored by the result of the Northern Assembly Election in May in which Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party.
It was a vote for equality, for progress and for real partnership. It was the vote of a generation.
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill, a nationalist woman, has been elected as First Minister in a state that was designed to ensure that this could never ever happen.
In fact, a decade ago, commentators would have claimed that Sinn Féin had Buckley’s Chance of ever occupying the office of First Minister.
So now impossible is just a word - as the people place their trust in a new direction; as they choose real change.
They voted for a First Minister for All, who will lead a government for all.
This a positive step forward, mirrored by the historic February 2020 General Election result in the south.
As people rallied to the flag of progressive change, Sinn Féin won more votes than any other party, won a record number of seats and fundamentally changed the Irish political landscape.
While the establishment parties clubbed together to deny the people a government for change, Sinn Féin now, for the first time, leads an opposition that stands up for them every day.
That’s our job, and I am so very proud to be the first female Leader of the Opposition in Ireland.
Sinn Féin is leading change right across Ireland. The prospect of Sinn Féin leading government, north and south, is now very real.
I want to lead a government in Dublin that will deliver a fresh start for workers and build a fair and equal society for everyone.
At the next general election we will ask the Irish people to give us that chance.
This seismic change is happening as we approach the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
The peace accord that brought an end to decades of conflict and set out the vision for reconciliation between the people of our island.
A peace process that defied the odds and demonstrated that even the most seemingly intractable of conflicts can be mediated and resolved.
Ireland’s journey shows that peace can triumph.
That we can fix what is broken.
It shows what can be achieved when people come together in common purpose. It is an international success story.
It has faced great challenges over the years.
In recent years, Brexit has been toxic and divisive, and invited disaster for Ireland, economically, politically and socially.
Throughout the Brexit negotiations with the EU, the British government has used Ireland’s peace, our political stability and our prosperity as bargaining chips.
There is no good Brexit for Ireland.
However, the Irish Protocol, negotiated and agreed by Britain and the EU, limits the worst impacts of Brexit and protects the Good Friday Agreement, the All-Ireland economy, and prevents a hard border on our island.
It is the means by which the north of Ireland maintains access to the European Single Market.
It is a good thing. The north has prospered, all-Ireland trade has grown.
Yet it has been the agenda of successive Tory Prime Ministers, including the departing Boris Johnson, to turn their backs on their agreements, sowing confrontation rather than good will.
The Tories have persistently undermined the Protocol.
They have consistently attacked the Good Friday Agreement and threatened to break international law, time and again.
Mr. Johnson allows the DUP to block the formation of a government in Belfast.
He then uses this political deadlock as a threadbare excuse for unilateral action and to pursue his self-serving agenda, to cling to power at all costs.
Well, we saw how well that worked out.
Boris Johnson’s interactions with Ireland have been wholly negative.
In December last, I said that British Prime Ministers come and go, and that the Good Friday Agreement would outlast Mr. Johnson, and so it has come to pass.
Everyone in Ireland and throughout the world, who values the transformative value of the Agreement must remain vigilant in its defence.
Whoever succeeds Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street must change direction.
The next British Prime Minister must re-engage with the spirit of 1998 and with the good faith that paved the path for the Good Friday Agreement.
Now is the time to assert the primacy of politics and democracy, implement agreements, and commit to abide by the conventional democratic norms.
That holds true for the Good Friday Agreement, for Brexit Protocol, for reconciling our past, and for the conversation on our constitutional future now underway.
We have built the peace.
Now we look to the next phase, the reunification of Ireland.
We are living in the end days of partition, and the momentum behind Irish Unity is unprecedented.
We are energised with the opportunity to build a new and united Ireland.
We have the generation that can and will redefine our nation.
The Good Friday Agreement provides for referendums on Irish Unity, and I believe that these will happen in this decade.
So we must prepare.
Both governments have a responsibility to prepare. The Irish government in particular has a duty to change from bystanders into persuaders for unity.
The people of Ireland are ready.
This is an important time in the shaping of Ireland’s future.
It is an exciting and positive time, full of potential.
Irish Unity is about opportunity. The social and economic opportunities are immense.
The reunification of Ireland will be a positive and progressive development for the world.
Nothing truly great has ever been achieved alone.
International solidarity with Ireland is as important today as it was thirty years ago.
Ireland needs our international friends, we need Australia to join us on our journey. We ask our friends to be energetic and proactive in advocating for Irish Unity at every opportunity.
To walk with us on the final length of this road to full freedom and nationhood.
Unifying Ireland is not about reclaiming territory. It is about uniting our people. It is about building the Irish nation anew.
Ireland can be a United Republic, one that stands as a bastion of social equality, economic prosperity and justice, diversity and inclusion.
These are values we share with the people of Australia.
Sinn Féin’s vision for Ireland is of a country where you are celebrated when you are at your strongest and supported in your weaker moments.
A country where, as you Australians would say, every person gets a fair go.
A Sinn Féin government will focus on getting the basics right.
We want our people to have homes they can afford to buy or rent, a strong public health service that works for everyone, childcare services that don’t break the bank.
A fair economy built on good jobs, decent wages and strong workers’ rights.
Ireland is now for many international partners the gateway to the European market. We are an ancient land but a very young country, we have the youngest population in the European Union. We have a highly skilled, educated and enormously productive workforce and a strong enterprise culture.
Ireland is a hub for international talent. We are open for business, for collaboration and for progress.
We want a greener, cleaner Ireland. A greener, cleaner world.
I believe Ireland, like Australia, can play an important role in how the human family responds to the climate crisis.
We face a massive challenge to counter decades of environmental damage, to chart a new course in how we produce energy in order to secure a brighter, cleaner future for the world.
The cost-of-living crisis shows the very real hardship created when workers and families struggle to access affordable essential energy.
Through our abundant wind resource, Ireland can achieve energy independence and develop as an international hub for renewable energy, and the production and export of green hydrogen to drive the decarbonisation of European economies.
I don’t have to tell the people of Australia that the crisis is with us now, and the clock is ticking.
But I also believe that there is no limit to what we can achieve for the future of our planet.
If we work together to get it right, we can achieve the just transition that turns the tide.
Sinn Féin wants to create a prosperity that everyone can have a share in.
A prosperity that lifts people up.
As we meet today, war is once again a reality in Europe. A criminal and brutal war on Ukraine is pursued by Vladimir Putin. This war must end.
All diplomatic means and channels must be employed to bring this about. Putin must end his bombardment and brutalisation of Ukraine. International law must prevail.
The Ukrainian people and they alone must freely choose their future, without fear, threat or coercion. The right to self-determination must prevail. This must hold true across our world. As a global community we rely on each other, on our multilateral institutions and the rule of law to keep us safe.
I want to take this opportunity to speak directly to the generation of Irish people who are today building a life for yourselves here in Australia.
Many of you have made your homes here and you will stay.
We are very proud of you; proud of the immense contribution you make to Australian society.
I think of the story of the legendary Jim Stynes, a Gaelic footballer from my home city of Dublin.
Jim came to these shores in 1984 and, as you know, became one of the AFL’s all-time greats, winning a Brownlow Medal in 1991.
Such was the esteem in which he was held, he was afforded a state funeral in Melbourne when he tragically passed away in 2012.
His inspiring legacy reflects the trailblazing influence of those Irish who make Australia their home.
But I also know there is another side to this story.
A story of the frustration and the anger of many young Irish people who feel robbed of a life in Ireland.
I know you have been badly let down, particularly by a housing system characterised by unaffordable homes and extortionate rents, by living costs that were out of control long before we experienced the inflationary crisis of today.
I understand that you are heartbroken that your hard work and potential could have been wasted had you stayed at home.
You want to be with your friends, with your family, with your communities, playing for your home GAA club.
I want you to know that we are working hard to change things for you, and that we will change things for you.
We will make Ireland the home that you deserve.
I am taken with the State of Origin concept in Australian Rugby League.
Where players return to represent the state for which they played most of their junior games.
I just think that is a really great thing, as good an idea for nation building as it is for sport.
To those young Irish people who want to come home I say, I want you to have the chance of returning to your place of origin. I also want you to enjoy your time and your experience in this incredible country for however long it may last.
So, work hard, enjoy the sun and enjoy the lifestyle, but come home and be part of the new Ireland that we must build. We need you.
There are no full stops in the work of nation building. Nation building is not confined to the boundaries of yesterday.
I believe that in my heart and in my soul.
This is especially true when it comes to the uplifting of culture, tradition and language.
The great Irish rebel, Pádraig Pearse wrote in Irish: Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam, which means, “a country without a language is a country without a soul.”
I think those words powerfully express how precious respect for the rights of native people is, how important it is to heal the wounds of the past, to recognise that it is only on justice and equality that we can build nations of real unity.
To name and defeat racism, bigotry and exclusion. To own up to our failures of the past, to face down poverty, to embrace our people left on the margins.
To say with sincerity that our communities are not behind nor in front of each other, but beside each other on the road to a better place.
I know this sentiment rings true for the peoples of Australia too, as with open hearts you work for a better future for First Nations Australians, for all Australians.
It will take great courage and hope as you continue the journey of reconciliation, weaving together the rainbow of your great country.
We too reach for that same spirit in Ireland as we seek to unite and heal divisions that have held us back.
I am very humbled to speak on the land of the Ngunnawal people. It is a privilege.
The mission of building nations and raising up our people is indeed a continuous one.
It is a task that we Irish and Australians share with an equal passion.
We hold tight to our hopes for our peoples, we remember our past and we reach bravely for tomorrow.
There is an old Irish proverb, “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine”.
It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.
It is undeniable that the people of Ireland and Australia have lived in the shelter of each other for generations.
Our great friendship, our enduring connection, has been the light on the hill.
Long may that light burn strong and bright as a beacon to the world, and a clarion call to the future.