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Ambassador Byrne Nason, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to be here with you this evening and to have this opportunity to speak to you on my first official visit to France as Minister for Foreign Affairs - the first of what I hope will be many visits.
I am delighted to be here to join this reception to acknowledge Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason’s outstanding work in furthering Ireland-France relations. Her dynamic, results-focussed and committed work on cultural, business, political and, above all, people-to-people ties between Ireland and France has made a genuine difference. I will return to this point a little later in my remarks.
The Ambassador will shortly take up the equally important job of permanent representative to the UN at New York, playing a key role in our campaign to secure a seat for Ireland on the Security Council for the period 2021-2022.
In this context, I want to take a moment to talk about a very important aspect of Ireland’s relationship with France: the work we do together at the United Nations. We share common values in the areas covered by the three pillars of the UN’s work – peace and security, human rights and development.
Ireland’s membership of the UN is a central part of our foreign policy. It is part of who we are. It is a defining feature. It is in our national DNA. Even a quick look at the history of Irish foreign policy tells us a tale of strong engagement in multilateralism.
We are a small State but we are a deeply committed member of the UN. This commitment, which began in 1955, is a strong as ever today. We are currently the EU’s largest per capita contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping operations, with almost 550 Irish soldiers in the field.
Our attachment to the values and principles of the UN come from our history and our geography. As a small country on the edge of Europe, and one with a troubled history of our own, we cherish a rules-based order in international affairs.
Since we joined the UN we have been champions of the multilateral system of collective security centred on the UN. And because of our deep conviction in the importance of collective security, we do not hesitate to make our contribution at the sharp end of the UN’s activities.
In keeping with this, Ireland is a candidate for a seat on the UN Security Council at the elections to be held in 2020. We have presented our candidature because we believe that we should step up and play our part in support of multilateralism at this time of significant global instability.
We have been members before - three times; in 1962, 1981-1982 and 2001-2002. Membership hasn’t always been easy.
Searching questions are asked and difficult judgments have to be made. But we are willing to face up to this responsibility again - and we want to do so. In this time of great global uncertainty - whether it is caused by conflict, migration, humanitarian crises or climate change - the need for a rules-based international order is vital, particularly for small States like Ireland.
We like to believe that Irish foreign policy has a reputation for fairness and that Irish diplomats have a reputation as good listeners. Should we be elected to the Security Council these are two qualities which we promise to bring to the table. I might also note that, should we be elected, at a time when the UK will have left the EU, apart from France, we might be the only EU member at the Council table.
We want, in short, to amplify our voice, and bring our diplomatic offer to the highest platform where it can do the most good.
This is the message I was able to convey to Minister Le Drian when we met this afternoon, and we discussed a wide range of foreign policy issues.
I also took the opportunity to remind him that Ireland will remain at the heart of Europe and open to the world; we want to protect the hard-won peace on our island, and we will pursue thoughtful, prudent, but ambitious economic policies.
Brexit will redraw the map of Europe, and Ireland’s relationship with our nearest neighbour and the EU.
There can be no doubt that Brexit is a serious, direct threat to Ireland’s economic prosperity as well as to security on the island. Key sectors, such as agri-food and fishing, face particular risks and challenges. Ireland will endeavor to ensure the best possible economic outcome from the Brexit negotiations.
We will do this not just because it is in Ireland’s interest to do so, but it is in the interest of all our partners in the Union.
Progress in Northern Ireland will also be need to continue so that we can build on the peace process and provide real security to all the people on this island.
While my visit to France is short, I will have an opportunity also to deliver a message about Ireland’s vibrant economy. And, it is a very positive one. Built on the extraordinary efforts and sacrifice of the people of Ireland, our economy has overcome very bad times, and is enjoying solid growth and job creation. I am pleased to say that in 2016, we again had the fastest growing economy in the European Union, with GDP growth of 5.2%. Unemployment fell to 6.4% in May, and the government has set itself an ambitious target of achieving full employment by 2020.
I salute the efforts of the French government to overcome France’s own challenges and engage with reform, and we wish its new president and government well in their endeavours. Europe, and Ireland, need a strong and prosperous France. In Ireland we are seeing the benefits of sustained structural reform and I know that the government in France is also working hard on the reform agenda here.
Finally, I couldn’t visit France without mentioning rugby! Ireland and France have competed honourably on the rugby pitch and we are competing honourably off the pitch as well, as we both bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. I know that whoever wins the right to host the competition will be a welcoming destination for fans of sport.
I am particularly pleased to welcome this evening, some members of the French women’s rugby team, who will participate in the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland this summer! You are very welcome, and I wish you every success in the competition. [Je suis particulièrement heureux d'accueillir ici ce soir les représentantes de l'équipe féminine de rugby qui participeront à la Coupe du monde en Irlande cet été. Vous êtes les bienvenues, et je vous adresse tous mes vœux de succès.]
I will wish your male counterparts the same success in Ireland in 2023!
In closing, I return to the reason we are here this evening. This is an occasion to celebrate the three year stay of Ambassador Byrne Nason, her husband Brian and their son Alex. They have all three strengthened our friendship and solidarity with each other. Our relationship with France has never been stronger.
This embassy represents a sign of Ireland’s commitment to this key relationship between two republics. It is a relationship which has seen fleets sail from Brittany to fight for Irish freedom, and which has seen Irish names on gravestones by the winding Somme.
It has seen the great works of Irish literature like Ulysses published in Paris and wonderful French writers like Michel Déon make their home in Ireland, among many other links - economic, cultural, and deeply personal.
In my time as Minister I will be proud to support and strengthen this key alliance, which indeed has a rich history. But thanks to people like you, Geraldine, it has an even stronger future.