Irish Prime Minister's address to the Scottish Parliament, 20/06/2001

Irish Premier Bertie Ahern addressed members of the Scottish Parliament when he paid an official visit to Scotland in June 2001. The Taoiseach arrived at The Mound accompanied by Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish and Secretary of State for Scotland Helen Liddell. After an introduction to the other main Party leaders, Mr Ahern was given an enthusiastic welcome by MSPs, guests and a packed public gallery when he entered the Assembly Hall Chamber to address Parliamentarians. After a welcome from the Presiding Officer, Mr Ahern addressed the meeting and stressed the business, cultural, intellectual and political links between the two countries. The speech was televised by the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit.


Full text of Mr Ahern's speech to the Scottish Parliament


Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern arrived at The Mound accompanied by Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish and Secretary of State for Scotland Helen Liddell. The Taoiseach was greeted on arrival by the Parliament's Presiding Officer Sir David Steel - Photograph © 2005 Scottish Parliamentary Corporate BodyPresiding Officer, Deputy Presiding Officers, First Minister, Ministers and Members of the Scottish Parliament, Thá é toirt toileachas mór domh a bhith anseo an diugh gus labhairt ri Parlamaid na hAlba.

Those words in Scottish Gaelic, which express my pleasure at being here this afternoon, are very similar in texture to the Irish language. That unmistakable linguistic affinity reminds me that I am on familiar ground here. I always enjoy my visits to Scotland and, like so many Irish people who come into contact with this country, I am quick to acknowledge the strength and enduring quality of our connections. Those connections are based on geographical proximity; on historical interaction, dating from earliest times, that saw successive flows and counter-flows of Gaels and Scots; on a shared Celtic strand of culture that manifests itself in language, literature, music and dance; and on countless family links produced by generations of emigration from Ireland to Scotland.

An outstanding example of those links and of the qualities and values that Irish people brought to this country was provided by the late Cardinal Thomas Winning, Archbishop of Glasgow and leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. It was with shock and great sadness that I learned of his death on Sunday last. His great-grandfather emigrated to Scotland, around the time of the great famine, from County Donegal, where the late cardinal was a regular visitor. He was a churchman of international stature and a strong voice for social justice. I had originally hoped to meet him later today at Carfin. I deeply mourn his passing and I take this opportunity to express my sympathy to the Scottish nation on its great loss.

Whenever the Irish and the Scots encounter each other, be it at rugby internationals, which is dangerous enough, or at hurling or shinty contests, which is highly dangerous, they discover a broad similarity of outlook that makes for friendship and understanding. In recent years, we have added a political dimension to an already extensive network of Irish-Scottish ties. I am happy to be in Scotland today for discussions with the First Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland to explore ways in which we can develop the relationship in new and mutually beneficial directions. I am especially pleased to be one of the first non-Scots to be accorded the honour of addressing the Parliament-something that I deeply appreciate. I thank you all for the opportunity.

I have a particular recollection of one official visit that I paid here, which had important consequences for our national economic development. That visit was for the Edinburgh European Council in 1992, where vital decisions were taken on the financing of the European Union, including the Delors 2 package of structural funding. European funding provided an invaluable boost to our economy, although it is just one part of a complex story. It contributed to the strengthening of our economic infrastructure in preparation for the challenge of the single European market. The progressive development of the European Union, as reflected in the single market and the establishment of the euro, has been one of the many factors that have fed the particularly rapid expansion of the Irish economy over the past decade or so.

The recent, welcome resurgence of Scottish-Irish relationships springs from a diversity of sources. One significant source was the broadly based civic culture and movement in Scotland-exemplified by the Constitutional Convention-that led to the Scotland Act 1998.

For us in Ireland, developments in Britain and relationships within these islands have always been vital. Our whole history has been the working-out of that complex theme in political terms. However, substantial economic and trading links and the existence of large Irish communities in Britain also underpin the need for a close relationship with the United Kingdom Government. The need to advance the cause of peace and political progress in Northern Ireland has sustained a highly productive dialogue between London and Dublin, which, as you know, brought about the Good Friday agreement and has transformed the political landscape of the island of Ireland in a hugely positive way for us all. As you said, Presiding Officer, in recent days that dialogue has been taken up again intensely as we seek to resolve the outstanding issues to attain the objective that we all share-a peaceful and secure future for Northern Ireland. I thank you for your warm tribute and for your wish that we will be successful in our work.

"It was with feelings of warmth and gratification that people in Ireland greeted the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament on 12 May 1999. In response to the new political reality, we moved quickly to establish a consulate in Edinburgh. That was intended to give a clear signal of our desire to build productive links with the new Administration in our Celtic neighbour"

Although the Dublin-London axis remains critical for us, we recognise the significant new element that has been introduced by the constitutional transformation that has occurred since 1998 on this side of the Irish sea. It was with feelings of warmth and gratification that people in Ireland greeted the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament on 12 May 1999. We welcome greatly the prospect of greater diversity and relations between these islands with, in particular, a distinctive and significant Scottish input. In response to the new political reality of a devolved Britain, we moved quickly to establish consulates general in Edinburgh and Cardiff, which are staffed by professional diplomats. That was intended to give a clear signal of our desire to build productive links with the new Administrations in our Celtic neighbours.

It is gratifying to know that a close relationship has already been forged between this Parliament and Dáil Éireann. Presiding Officer, I recall with great memories your visit to Dublin as head of the all-party delegation last autumn. I am sure that we are at the beginning of a very productive inter-parliamentary dialogue that promises to serve us well for years into the future. I welcome the enthusiasm with which the Scottish Parliament has approached the prospect of participation in the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. That body's expansion in response to devolution and the Good Friday agreement means that five members of this Parliament-Patricia Ferguson, David McLetchie, Margaret Ewing, Iain Smith and Cathie Craigie-will be able to contribute to its deliberations. I want in their Parliament to thank them for their contribution. They will bring with them specific and, for us in Ireland, highly valued Scottish perspectives.

The establishment of the British-Irish Council means that, for the first time in our respective histories, there is a framework within which political leaders who represent specifically Irish and Scottish institutions of governance will be able to work together in pursuit of common ends. The remit of the council is to promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of the relationships among the peoples of these islands. I know that in Scotland the council is more often referred to by its alternative, colloquial name, the council of the isles. That has echoes of those MacDonald Lords of the Isles, whose sphere of action in centuries past embraced Ireland, the western isles of Scotland and the seas between.

Today, the Scottish Executive is playing an important role in the work of the British-Irish Council. With Wales, Scotland has taken the lead role in the British-Irish Council in the key area of social inclusion. We are very much looking forward to working with you on that and on the other important areas of work currently being addressed in the forum, including the misuse of drugs-which is Ireland's lead area, as you said, Presiding Officer-the environment, transport and the knowledge economy. As with the other institutions created by the Good Friday agreement, we look forward to the council's continuing development and to the further promotion of the network of positive relationships that already exist between us.

As we continue with the vital work of ensuring the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, we very much appreciate the support of the Scottish Executive and people. In particular, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr John Reid, and to the important work that he is doing day in, day out. I know that I speak for all of us in the Irish Government when I say that we are looking forward to continuing to work closely with the Prime Minister and Dr Reid in attaining the objective that we all share. Many other Scots have been involved in the process over the years and today I would like to recognise their valued contributions.

"Although our constitutional situations are very different, we are similar in population, land area, geographical location and economic structure. There is much to be learned from exchanging ideas and emulating each other's best practice in areas of mutual interest"

The past two years have seen a notable intensification of Scottish-Irish political dialogue with a series of high-level visits in both directions. Although our constitutional situations are very different, we are similar in population, land area, geographical location and economic structure. There is much to be learned from exchanging ideas and emulating each other's best practice in areas of mutual interest.

The new Irish-Scottish relationship is not confined to the political arena. There has been an impressive flowering of academic links, pioneered by the Irish-Scottish academic initiative, which has led to the establishment of a centre for Irish-Scottish studies in Trinity College, Dublin. That now parallels the earlier establishment of a dedicated research institute of Irish and Scottish studies at the University of Aberdeen, under the distinguished direction of Professor Tom Devine, a leading Scottish academic with a strong Irish background and author of the study, "The Scottish Nation, 1700-2000".

Our Celtic languages are a precious asset and Gaelic speakers in the western isles have long listened to Radio na Gaeltachta, our Irish language radio. More recently, there has been a fruitful co-operation on programmes for both radio and television. Both languages can, I believe, benefit as was said, from the connections being fostered by Iomairt Cholmcille-the Columba initiative-which is named for that redoubtable Ulster saint, whose legacy, too, extends from Kells to Donegal. The initiative encourages our Celtic language communities to reconnect with each other after centuries when religious and political differences appeared to overshadow their many similarities. The rich complexity of our overlapping linguistic heritage is further illustrated by the creation of the north-south language body under the Good Friday agreement, whose remit covers Ulster Scots as well as the Irish language.

After an introduction to the other main Party leaders, Mr Ahern was given an enthusiastic welcome by MSPs, guests and a packed public gallery when he entered the Assembly Hall Chamber to address Parliamentarians - Photograph © 2005 Scottish Parliamentary Corporate BodyAs near neighbours, we can, I believe, gain much from enhanced business activity. Both of us have acquired new economic strengths, which increases the potential for a more intensive business partnership. In Ireland, we have undergone a dramatic economic transformation based on the productivity of our modern, high-technology industries. In the process, our economy has doubled in size in a decade and has, in recent years, consistently been the fastest-growing in Europe. Last year, the Irish economy expanded by more than 10% and most forecasts for the future predict a continuing performance well above the European average. Ireland has become the world's biggest per capita exporter after Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as the world's leading exporter of computer software.

I realise that our economic performance attracts keen attention in Scotland, given the obvious parallels between us. We have developed an economic model based on social partnership and the fostering of a strong enterprise culture that has worked exceptionally well for us. We are also increasingly aware that economic advancement brings in its wake a very different set of challenges-very difficult challenges, too-which must be tackled with vigour and imagination. We face enormous infrastructure and costs problems on many issues, some of which you have resolved. Inter-city rail routes, airport developments and other measures are costly but necessary developments. Those are the problems of success, but ones that we must deal with, although that will take some time.

Although your record of industrial development is far older than ours, we have both embraced new technologies with considerable success. We have worked hard-sometimes in competition with each other-to attract high-quality foreign investment. The phrases "Celtic Tiger" and "Silicon Glen" are merely shorthand for hard-won economic gains, founded on decades of sustained effort. In the process, we have both won valued reputations as centres of industrial excellence in today's new economy. I never mind the fact that people in foreign business keep on saying that the Scots and the Irish seem to dominate things. As long as we do it together, I have no objection-it is the opposition that I worry about.

Ireland's rising levels of prosperity have positive implications for our neighbours, including Scotland. The development of our economies in similar directions opens the way for boosting two-way trade in goods and services, for greater mutual investment and for increased flows of tourists between us. Irish-Scottish trade already totals some £1 billion a year. There is significant scope for that to grow strongly in the years ahead. This afternoon, the First Minister, the Secretary of State for Scotland and I will attend a seminar devoted to intensifying business links to our mutual benefit. Organised jointly by Enterprise Ireland and Scottish Enterprise, the seminar aims to highlight the value of connecting our neighbouring economies as we confront an increasingly competitive global business environment.

Presiding Officer, it is indeed an honour to be in this historic building to address members of the Scottish Parliament. I had intended to come here for the Parliament's formal inauguration in July 1999 but, like the Prime Minister, I was once more detained by vital business in Belfast, connected with the Northern Ireland peace process. I appreciated the words of the late Donald Dewar on that occasion, when he urged us to continue our efforts in pursuit of the precious prize of peace.

My colleague the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Dermot Ahern-no relation-represented the Irish Government on that momentous day. He told me of the moving ceremony that took place in this room and of the strong sense he had of a new political era being born in Scotland. The emergence of this new institution is part of a wider process of changing relationships in Britain, between Britain and Ireland and within the wider European arena. With that in mind, I was determined that Ireland should be represented at ministerial level on the day on which you reconvened and I thank you for that opportunity.

As the first generation of politicians in a Scotland experiencing devolution, members of the Scottish Parliament enjoy a unique historic distinction. We know, of course, that the Scottish democratic tradition is centuries old. Scotland is a country rightly renowned for the distinguished historical contribution of its thinkers and scientists to the development of democracy and technological progress. The values of the Scottish enlightenment, the philosophy of David Hume and the economic thought of Adam Smith have made their mark far beyond Scottish shores.

"Political ideas developed in Scotland during the 18th century had a significant impact on the national history of Ireland. The founding figures of modern Ireland, the United Irishmen of 1798, drew much inspiration from their connections in Scotland"

Radical political ideas, developed in Scotland during the 18th century, had a significant impact on the national history of Ireland. The founding figures of modern Irish nationalism, the United Irishmen of 1798, drew much inspiration from their connections in Scotland. Their debt to Scottish Presbyterianism is recorded on the 1798 monument in Wexford, alongside other influences emanating from the American and French revolutions. James Connolly, one of the founders of modern Ireland and once described by the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean as "the hero who is dearest to me of them all", was Edinburgh-born-indeed, he was raised less than a mile from here, in the Cowgate area. Sorley MacLean was greatly loved and respected in Ireland, which he visited many times as part of the annual exchange of poets working in Gaelic.

Many Scots have made outstanding contributions to the development of British democracy. Among those was John Wheatley, born in Waterford in 1869, whose passionate egalitarian beliefs were, like those of James Connolly, a product of his experience in the urban industrial environment of late 19th century Scotland. Wheatley's rise from humble origins to become a hugely successful Minister for Housing in the first Labour Government in Britain was spurred by a revulsion at the social deprivation that was all too prevalent at that time in both our countries. By different paths, we have reached a position from which we can view each other with fresh, co-operative eyes as we go about the task of delivering sustainable prosperity to our peoples.

"Article 2 of our constitution states: 'the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage'. A great many people in Scotland fall into that category, which represents an important strand in Irish-Scottish relations"

Presiding Officer, this evening I will be in Carfin for the unveiling of a memorial to commemorate those Irish who came to Scotland in the 1840s, and in subsequent decades, as a consequence of the great famine. One of the consequences of the tragic events of that period is that, despite our small size, an enormous number of people all over the world continue to identify with Ireland. That number is sometimes slightly exaggerated-for example, it is said that there are 44 million such people in the United States. We view the Irish diaspora as a rich source of international influence and good will towards Ireland. Moreover, we have come to recognise that the connection with the Irish abroad is a two-way process. Article 2 of our constitution states: "the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage." A great many people in Scotland fall into that category, which represents an important strand in Irish-Scottish relations.

This reconstituted Parliament is a lasting legacy of a number of great Scottish political figures. I conclude today by making special mention of the late Donald Dewar. I had the privilege of meeting Donald on a number of occasions, as you mentioned, Presiding Officer. Indeed, one of his last official engagements, just before his untimely passing, was in Dublin. I know how much he cherished the achievement that was involved in the fact that elected representatives of the Scottish people were meeting once again in the Scottish Parliament. Just days before he died, we spent more than two hours talking about those events. Of course, his last address was given in Dublin and was about those matters, which represented the crowning achievement of a distinguished political career.

Colleagues, as we continue to strengthen the links between Scotland and Ireland, we pay due regard to the rich and complex record of the past-to the many shared experiences of our two peoples, to the immense contribution of Scots, including many Ulster Scots, in Ireland, and to the impact of the Irish in Scotland over the past 150 years. However, it is, I believe, the shared circumstances of today and the very similar economic and social challenges that we face that are at the heart of the new Scottish-Irish relationship. Our priority must be to connect today's Ireland with today's Scotland for our mutual benefit and that of all our people. We look forward to working closely with your fellow political institutions and all your new political institutions whenever our paths cross, as they must do frequently.

As we say in Irish: Bail ó Dhia ar on obair, "May our deliberations be blessed with every success".


The Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, TD
Speech at The Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, Scotland, June 20th 2001

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