Desmond Egan, Conor Bowman, other members of the Hopkins festival committee, professor Jim Walsh vice-president of Maynooth university, visiting academics, reverend fathers, ladies and gentlemen, good evening to you all.
To say that I am overawed by this award would be a huge understatement - a bit like calling the Taj Mahal a pretty nifty tomb, to borrow a simile from PG Wodehouse. This is really too generous of the Gerard Manley Hopkins Society.
It is very humbling to receive this lifetime achievement award and thereby join a line of illustrious previous recipients that include the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.
The President is not just a head of state. He is also a poet and a public intellectual with many years of service in local and national government. He genuinely has a lifetime’s worth of achievements to point to. It is really a great honour to be recognised in a similar way to the President and I sincerely thank the Gerard Manley Hopkins International Festival committee for their generosity and friendship, which this award represents.
We civil servants are not like politicians. If we are doing are jobs well, we serve the elected government of the day. We may have to suppress our own views to do so. There is something of the paid mercenary about the culture of the civil service in our readiness to switch loyalties overnight from a government of one hue to that of another. But if you think that carries a whiff of a lack solid principles or doubtful personal integrity, it smells a lot worse as far as diplomats are concerned.
As Sir Henry Wooton, a 17th century English diplomat put it, an ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country. Someone else once described diplomacy as lying in state.
Fortunately, in Ireland, lying is not a requirement of the job of the British ambassador. What is needed, I believe, is an open mind, an innate curiosity about Irish life and culture and a readiness to be surprised by spontaneity and generosity.
All visitors to Ireland are taken aback by the warm welcome they receive. My wife, Jane, and I felt this from the moment we stepped off the boat at the port of Dublin, three and a quarter years ago. Our first impressions of Ireland were of its warm, uninhibited, class-free, hospitality.
It is true that we had come from Tehran at a time of confrontation between Iran and Britain. So our expectations of how our host government and people would receive us had been somewhat reduced. But even allowing for that, we were bowled over by how very many Irish people made us feel genuinely welcome here. CS Lewis, who hailed from Belfast, wrote an autobiography called ‘Surprised by Joy’. That would not be an unfitting title for an account of a diplomatic posting to Ireland.
This award is another example of being surprised by the spontaneity and generosity of Irish friendship. That hospitality is often famously accompanied by large amounts of drink. This is another trap into which diplomats can fall. George Brown was a well known imbiber who held the position of Foreign Secretary in the Labour government of the 1960s. He was notorious for drinking far too much, particularly on overseas visits.
The story goes that on a trip to South America, at a diplomatic reception, Brown was said to have lumbered over to a tall, elegant vision in red and, summoning up his inner Chris de Burgh, requested the honour of the next dance - to be told ‘I will not dance with you for three reasons’. The first is that you are drunk. The second is that the band is not playing a dance tune but the Peruvian national anthem. And thirdly, I am the cardinal archbishop of Lima.
Ladies and gentlemen, it really can’t be said often enough that British-Irish relations have never been better than they are today. There are many reasons for the great strides forward our two countries have taken in recent years. We joined the European Union together in 1973 - the great peace project designed to make war between France and Germany unthinkable also made relations between Britain and Ireland easier. For in the European institutions, we are both member states, equally sovereign and equal in status. And over the years, our administrations discovered how much we had in common in negotiations on European matters. We are now very close allies in the corridors of Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg.
That other great peace project - the peace process in Northern Ireland - also drew us together. In the run up to the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish and British administrations worked shoulder to shoulder for the same aim in an atmosphere of mutual confidence and trust. Our two governments continue to work very closely on Northern Irish matters, as we saw in the long negotiations that led up to last December’s Stormont House Agreement.
During those ten or so weeks, the Irish foreign minister, Charlie Flanagan, and his British counterpart, Theresa Villiers, saw more of each other than they did of their own cabinet colleagues. The Queen’s visit to Ireland and the President’s return state visit last year to Britain also moved relations forward hugely. The friendly respect shown by the heads of state towards one another during those two visits sent an important message to the peoples of both countries. Neither side was pretending that the past didn’t happen - the 800 years of oppression that no Irish schoolchild forgets and no British schoolchild is taught. But, as Mrs. McAleese said at the state banquet in Dublin Castle for the Queen, while we can’t change the past, we have decided to change the future. The visit in May by Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to the west of Ireland was another very successful high level visit and a worthy next step after the two state visits.
That future looks bright for us. We must have one of the closest and richest relationships possible between any two peoples as a result of our intertwined history and the migration of people between these islands over the centuries. One legacy of that free movement of people is that something in the order of 10% of the residents of the Great Britain have or had an Irish-born grandparent.
There are probably 5 million people in Britain, therefore, who are entitled to an Irish passport. The number that have family and friends over here will be even higher. The links between us in trade are very significant for both our countries too. More than 1 billion Euros’ worth of trade in goods and services crosses the Irish Sea each week. That suspiciously round figure may not convey sufficiently vividly the scale of our commerce. Britain sells more to Ireland than we do to the whole of Africa and China and Brazil together - just to take three examples. In fact, Ireland is our fifth most valuable export market supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs in the UK.
All these connections are really important, even if they can sound a bit worthy and dull at times. So I promise not to include any more economic data in this speech. A really important part of the glue that binds us together is, of course, our shared culture. If one looks at sport, for example, the English premier league is followed as closely here in Ireland as it is in England. At the England-Ireland football match at the Aviva stadium last month, I was struck again by the complexity of the links between our two peoples. Both the English and Irish fans booed the same player - Rahim Sterling - because both sets of fans had a big Liverpool contingent and Sterling was about to leave the club. The captain of the England team, Wayne Rooney, could have qualified to play for Ireland while almost all the Irish players played for British clubs. The most popular man in the stadium that day was Jack Charlton, the Englishman who had managed the Irish team in the world cup in Italy.
There is also a great shared musical tradition. We would not have had the Beatles without Ireland. Lennon and McCartney are both Irish names. Some of the best performers of Irish traditional music grew up in British cities. Many great Irish painters would have been equally at home in London or Dublin. One thinks of Jack Yeats, William Orpen and John Lavery. The British-Irish connections reach even greater heights when it comes to literature. We are peoples who love words and enjoy exploiting the vast resources of the English language to delight and inform ourselves. And the Irish have a great gift for using English in a markedly colourful and vivid way.
Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and WB Yeats are as admired and studied in Britain as they are here. Conversely, the winner of this year’s international Impac Dublin literary award was Jim Crace, a British novelist. One quarter of all books of poetry sold in the UK a few years ago were by Seamus Heaney. On 13 June in Sligo, at a special celebration of Yeats’ 150th birthday, the national poets of Scotland and Wales, the poet laureate, the young poet of London, Belfast’s poet laureate and the professor of poetry of the Republic took to the stage together. All of them were women, all showing a strong sense of cultural togetherness as the poetic spokespeople of these islands, celebrating a common tradition.
Many writers chose to move across the Irish Sea in search of inspiration or simply new beginnings. And that move can be reinvigorating. Anthony Trollope came to Ireland - at the point of almost being sacked by the Post Office - and turned his life around. His first books were written here and consciously made the effort to inculcate a fairer understanding of Ireland in his English readers.
Of course, reverend Father Gerard Manley Hopkins took up the position of professor of Greek and Latin at UCD in 1884. His time in Ireland was not noteworthy for its happiness, though Hopkins would probably have been something of a tortured soul wherever he lived.
In the modern era, Britain and Ireland increasingly form a common or combined space for culture, a single, integrated market for the free flow of ideas and the output of our creative imaginations. The role of the British or indeed Irish embassies in this relationship is, I believe, to keep the momentum going in the right direction. We live in encouraging times. There is so much that is going well.
The prejudices of ages are being thrown aside into the gutters. We see each other more clearly and more respectfully. We are finding we have much in common. We are cooperating together where it makes sense to do so. At the banquet for the President of Ireland at Windsor Castle, the Queen said that the goal of British-Irish relations could be simply stated. It was, she said, 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.
Well, there is no better company than the present one. Jane and I have been warmly welcomed by Des, Viv and the other members of the Gerard Manley Hopkins society on many occasions. We feel very much at ease with you all, whether here or in Dublin or in the back room of a local pub, trying to remember the words of the Sally Gardens as we sing along to Conor’s guitar. It is these sorts of moments that we will remember long after this posting to Dublin ends. We have been having the time of our lives in Ireland.
And if, in doing so, we have been able to nudge forward the positive momentum of relations between our two countries, that is a source of enormous personal and professional satisfaction. They say that success has many fathers. The success in recent years in improving British-Irish relations has a great many parents on both sides of the Irish Sea. It is a relationship that is being built up, stone by stone, like the tomb of Queen Maeve on Knocknarea. As a professional pilgrim on this same journey towards the destination of lasting harmony across these islands, I’m very happy to place my small stone alongside the thousands of others that have been left by those who have gone before, are travelling in parallel and will continue the good work for the foreseeable future.
Thank you again for the honour of this award. And may the Gerard Manley Hopkins International Literary Festival continue to go from strength to strength.
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