President of Ireland

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Mr President, Mr Secretary General, members of the Parliamentary Assembly, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Mr President, for your kind remarks and for your welcome. It is a particular pleasure to be here and to meet with so many parliamentarians from around Europe. You represent so many of Ireland’s neighbours, friends and partners – and of course Ireland itself. You know, each of you, the hopes, ambitions, worries and fears of your constituents – your people – and through you their voices are made known in this Assembly and Council, as well as in your own national assemblies. More than that, you are leaders, and in times of crisis it is the vocation of leaders to be the absorbers of uncertainty, the galvanisers of hope. Over the 60 years since this Council was born, each generation has needed hope and good leadership for each has faced its own challenges. Now, in our time, we face ours and in places like this we face them together. We lean on one another, we learn from one another, we work our way towards solving problems together, we work our way from a tough present to a better future together. You have an individual and collective power which can inspire Europe’s people to new levels of self-belief and focus, capable of transcending and overcoming even the greatest difficulties. Members of this Council have stared into more than one abyss.

Sixty years ago, millions had died or been displaced in Europe in two savage world wars, and from the chaos there came fresh voices calling Europeans to a new future – one that was shared, egalitarian, peaceful and democratic. They began a great project to put in place a robust new political architecture in Europe on which to build democratic stability, fairness and equality and, of course, the Council of Europe was an important pillar of that architecture. Ireland was one of the 10 original signatories of the Treaty of London; in fact, our representatives played quite an active part in drafting the Statute. It was a modest enough start, but gradually it gathered momentum, developing into the foremost regional human rights body in the world, supported by 47 member states, all of whom are represented here today.

Each member state brings to this place the character and identity of its people and the uniqueness of their history and culture, language and perspective that is special to them. The Council is a place where strangers become friends to one another, where enemies become friends to one another, where stories that need to be known and heard are shared, so that we do not inhabit a world of people who are unknown and mysterious to us, but rather a world of colleagues and neighbours. In this place, you learn and you teach us about managing difference, building respect, promoting consensus through that very simple human phenomenon of building effective bridges to one another of contact, communication and dialogue, working together.

Sixty years ago, our then Irish Foreign Minister, the famous Seán McBride, stressed that what mattered was “the sincerity of our attachment to the fundamental rights and principles which form the ethical foundations of the structure of human society and our willingness to give effect to them”. Those fundamental rights and the willingness of Europe’s men and women to proclaim and to vindicate them are set out in the Council’s most famous and enduring legacy – the European Convention on Human Rights, drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and with a legal as well as a moral power in its remarkable enforcement machinery of the Commission and Court of Human Rights and the Committee of Ministers representing the governments of all member states, and of course, importantly, the European Court of Human Rights. As you said recently, Mr President, “The Convention reads almost like poetry, perhaps because it was drawn up so soon after the nightmare of war, when memories of it were still fresh and there was absolute community of purpose about what needed to be done.”

For the first time, Europe’s citizens had a safety net of access to a respected supranational forum if they could not trust their own judiciary, state or police force to give them justice. The Convention opened a window on each of our states, held all of us accountable before the international community and measured us against the principles that we had signed up to.

This dynamic system of human rights protection gives comfort to citizens that they are not completely alone and at the mercy of closed systems, and it challenges states to live up to their human rights obligations. It is a professional and impartial system which inspires respect in all those who encounter it whatever side they are on. Quality, coherence and speed of access to Court judgments are absolutely essential to good governance throughout the member states and to the credibility of the institution and the Convention itself, because justice delayed is justice denied.

The essential principles on which the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights are, as you well know, founded and summarised as democracy, human rights and the rule of law; words recited, repeated, cynically manipulated and abused so often that it would be easy to empty them of meaning. But here in this forum that is simply not an option. Here, they have to be given meaning over and over again in the teeth of those who would turn those words on their heads. That is the promise that was made here 60 years ago that member states would practise not just the rule of law, but the rule of good law so that their citizens could enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Those three principles – democracy, human rights and the rule of law, by which I mean the rule of good law, having had as a citizen of Northern Ireland the “rule of law” rammed down my throat long enough to know the difference – I think we can all agree that these are essential to the development of the whole human being. The body of laws, conventions and practices based on them are often spoken of as the toolbox of this Council. They are well used tools and are unlikely to be stored away any time soon. Some of the shadows that the founding fathers wished to banish are once again darkening the landscape of Europe – racism, sectarianism, ethnic hatreds, inter-state conflict, including recent armed conflict among some of our member states.

Resort to arms in this day and age is a badge of appalling human failure for we have access to sophisticated and credible dispute-settling instruments and intermediary bodies. These have been devised specifically by the international community to help prevent the outbreak of conflict and they should be high on the agenda where tensions threaten to erupt. The Commissioner for Human Rights has been to the fore throughout the member states in attempting to bring to international attention the tensions and distrust which regrettably exist between ethnic groups in Europe, and directly to try to defuse them. I want to salute his efforts and constructive engagement, which is aimed at alleviating these problems and creating space for mutually agreed ways forward. I also salute those in this forum who have consistently practised restraint and moderation in their public comments on difficult political situations. That sensitivity has helped to keep tempers cool and to allow more measured, reflective and humanly decent options to germinate.

It may be helpful in this context to mention developments in Ireland that for generations could not escape from intercommunal and political conflict. The story has changed in this generation, which is the most educated and problem-solving of all generations. The backstop to that age-old conflict is thankfully contained in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. That agreement contains the road map to our new and shared future, for the rule of good law will prevail and is already doing phenomenal work. When the agreement was put to referenda in both the north and the south of Ireland, it became evident that an overwhelming majority of people of different faiths and politics shared one major thing in common: they did not want to keep on repeating the mistakes of the past. They wanted peace and a chance at prosperity, and they knew deep in their hearts that their best chances lay not in the old culture of conflict where no one was safe, but in a new culture of consensus based on partnership, equality and mutual respect.

That sentiment, lofty though it is, was not enough on its own. It needed structures to give it voice, to nurture and develop it, and most importantly to sustain it. That is the strength of the Good Friday Agreement which now underpins a new, shared administration, a more representative and trusted police force and better relations within Northern Ireland itself, between both parts of Ireland and between the island of Ireland and Britain. All three sets of relationships have been twisted by the force of history and they have been straightened by the forces of democracy and human rights.

A significant outcome of the agreement was the establishment of the Irish Human Rights Commission and its sister organisation in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The commissions are working both individually and together towards the development of a genuinely shared future for all those who live on the island of Ireland based on respect, tolerance, justice and equality. Policing in Northern Ireland was historically a fraught subject, but has now been absolutely transformed thanks to the implementation of the proposals set out in the Patten report on police reform. That report made a very simple statement: “Upholding human rights and upholding the law should be one and the same thing.” Those words should find an echo in the Chamber and the champions of human rights here can take real encouragement from the remarkable success of police reforms in Northern Ireland. There, policing was not so long ago seen as partisan, but today it is accepted by all. Cross-border co-operation between police forces has never been better at paralleling the growing cross-border good neighbourliness that is replacing an old but still recent culture of distrust. These changes are the visible manifestation of a genuinely historic transformation of relations on the island of Ireland and in relations between Britain and Ireland. We are living in an era of profound co-operation between the governments and peoples of Ireland and of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In this new and emerging culture, we are set to have revealed to us how these new powers, new partnerships and new synergies can release a completely different energy and dynamic that history has unfortunately denied us. Many things still divide us, but these are now managed in a mutually respectful structured environment. The things that unite us now excite us, for they are full of great possibilities.

We could not have arrived at this new chapter in our history without our friends in Europe, America, and here in Strasbourg. The human rights institutions of the Council of Europe created a context and impetus for changed processes in Northern Ireland. They validated reform, provided insights into workable frameworks, set a baseline for the requisites that conduce to human dignity and willed all of us to work our way through to mutually acceptable and respectful solutions. We owe you a debt of gratitude for your advocacy and your support. As we have already heard from the President, your abiding interest in Ireland is evident in the fact that tomorrow the Assembly will award its first human rights prize to British Irish Rights Watch, a much respected and impartial organisation which has made a valuable contribution to securing truth and justice for victims of the conflicts there and, more importantly, for ensuring that there is no impunity for offenders.

Understanding and accepting the past is essential for negotiating our way to a better future, but it is a difficult process. It can be difficult to face up to unpleasant facts or events in which our forebears, our contemporary colleagues or perhaps even we ourselves, may have been involved. Our sense of identity and pride so easily conduce to a desire to minimise or deny appalling actions, to see only the mote in the eye of the other. Learning to listen to the other, to stand in his or her shoes long enough to get a glimpse of what life looks like from the other side is key to building up enough traction to move forward.

Tolerance, co-operation and trust have to be built the hard way, handshake to handshake, person to person, eye to eye and through courageous outreach across history’s chasms. This Council has done phenomenal work in that regard for many years and in various regions. I have been especially struck by the fact that this week, you will consider a report on teaching history in conflict and post-conflict areas, with my countrywoman Cecilia Keaveney as rapporteur. We have all been taught so well how to remember our own side’s story; now we need to remember differently – more broadly, more generously, more openly, while not being naïve to our faults or those of others. We should no longer do what we so often do – edit history and take the edited highlights that support our own case, using history as an armoury that we ransack for weapons to hurl at the other – at the enemy. Our past may be a Europe of old enemies; our future has to be a Europe of old friends.

Political leadership is key to the befriending and partnership processes on which tomorrow’s Europe is being built. Yet, worryingly, we hear talk of a democratic deficit and the alienation of voters and citizens from political leadership and institutions of government and the state. Too many people seem to have a strong feeling that those engaged in politics, administration, business, law and banking are pursuing self-interest rather than the common good. It is a dangerous source of disillusionment, which has the capacity to hollow out our democratic values and our hard-earned democratic stability. It fuels vacuums in which extremism gains footholds, aided and abetted, of course, by apathy. You are a very important bulwark against these dangers, as individuals and as a group. Your continuing commitment to ethical standards and your fidelity to best practice, accountability and transparency are the surest way to sustain the Council’s honourable place in history.

We all know that the news media play a massive role in all today’s healthy democracies, and I know that this Council has been turning its thoughts to issues arising from the information revolution. We all benefit hugely from the work of a free and responsible press, shining a light into the dark corners of our societies, which urgently need that light upon them. We are all rendered vulnerable by anarchic communications conduits, which nurture hatred and extremism, pursue witch hunts and plan violence on a scale of global reach never before possible. Along with issues of ownership, commercial links and the implications of monopoly or hidden control for press freedom and journalistic standards, it is a greatly complex subject, which is likely usefully to occupy this Assembly for many years, but I want to encourage you in those deliberations because they will be so important for Europe’s future, including our short-term future.

Beset as we virtually all are by the most deep-seated economic problems for many years, it is essential that particular groups of people like immigrants, our Roma population, Travellers and other minorities do not experience a resurgence of the populist prejudice and unfair blame, which has blighted their lives for so many generations. This forum is a vital place – a vital voice of care for those who get the blunt end of the stick too often in life, through absolutely no fault of their own. When people look for someone to blame, it seems as though they are always those at whom the finger points. That is so unfair.

In Ireland, a period of high economic growth and prosperity brought many migrants to our shores, reversing a centuries-old pattern of outward migration from Ireland. We, the Irish, know enough about being discriminated against in our own land and in every land to which we emigrate, to have a special sensitivity to the challenges facing our new citizens. We are determined to be a place that gets right the welcome for the stranger, the openness to a social integration that remains genuinely respectful of and curious about other ethnic and cultural identities. Your role in influencing the formation of just, humane – and sensible – immigration and integration policies throughout Europe is a help to all of us and an important resource as we try to do our best to cope with this new emerging culture and, indeed, to get through these tough new economic realities.

Those harsh economic realities are, of course, unevenly distributed and they contribute a lot to inhuman practices such as the trafficking of poor, fragile and vulnerable human beings. Here again, your work is helping all of us to push back and tackle that tide of evil, and give real meaning to the high-minded words of the Convention, giving them a tangible impact on the lives of very vulnerable men, women and children.

One of the strengths of today’s educated and more confident Ireland is the maturity our country now has, and needs, to confront and attempt to redress wrongs that were done in years past to our own poor and vulnerable. Many of you will have seen a recent report on the abuse of children in residential care who have now grown to damaged and chaotic adulthoods as a result of damage inflicted on them by so-called care agencies, and in most cases so-called Christian agencies. That report – the Ryan report – has provoked a huge and ongoing public debate. That question, although painful, can only benefit our society in the long run. It has brought us face to face once again with the promise in our proclamation of 1916, in which we set for ourselves an ambition to be a republic which, in the words of the proclamation, cherished the children of the nation equally. “Cherish” is a wonderful word. We now know, in searing detail, just how often that promise was betrayed and how many children were never cherished. We now have an opportunity to do what it takes to make amends to those who were brutalised by that betrayal and to keep the promise for today’s and tomorrow’s children. We are not foolish enough to believe that we have outed all the evil visited upon children, nor are we parochial enough to believe that those problems are unique to Ireland. Our experience is a wake-up call to us and all those who care for children worldwide, to ensure that the highest standards of care and accountability are enforced, whether in the home or in institutions. We are the “big people” around here and children depend utterly on us – on our advocacy, our watchfulness and our love. They discover too late and too personally the consequences of our neglect and our failure. I know that you have done phenomenal work in this forum as advocates for children, for which I thank you.

We are far from living in an ideal world with strong, fair and effective legal, judicial and prosecutorial systems. Those weaknesses are rehearsed before the European Court of Human Rights every day. They tell us time and again how much work has to be done and is being done to create a Europe where the rule of good law prevails – law in which people can believe and which they can trust, no matter who they are; law that protects each one, as a good parent would; law that sets acceptable boundaries for us, again as a good parent would, and law that creates the space in which we can each flourish and blossom in peace and safety, as a good parent would wish for a cherished child. We once had a Europe that was absolutely suffused, suffocated and savaged by hatred. That is how the Council came into being, because we knew that we were capable of better. The Council came about to help Europe’s citizens to be better, to act better and to create a better Europe. Unfortunately, you are not in danger of being made redundant any day soon. There is still a phenomenal amount of work to be done.

Let me finish with what I hope are the prophetic words of Teilhard de Chardin, which go back to the words of the Irish proclamation that spoke of cherishing our children: “Some day after mastering winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, we will discover fire.”

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, my congratulations to the Council on a very, very important anniversary. My thanks to the Council for all that it has done and for all that it keeps on doing for Europe and her large – 800 million – brood of children, for all that it does to ensure that Europe’s children are, and will be, cherished.


Thank you very much, Mrs McAleese for your kind words about the Council of Europe and for your appreciation of our work over the years. Thank you for agreeing to answer questions.

Members of the Assembly have expressed a wish to put questions to you. The first question comes from Mr Breen, on behalf of the Group of the European People’s Party.

Mr BREEN (Ireland)

Fáilte romhat à Uachtaráin – I welcome the President of Ireland to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

President McAleese, on behalf of the EPP, may I ask a question that relates to the background of your involvement in Northern Ireland? Some people consider that parallels can be drawn between the long conflict in Northern Ireland and some of the disputes that still beset our continent, such as in Cyprus, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East. While those cases have special characteristics, do you think that any lessons can be drawn from the Northern Ireland experience, and from your own experience, of reaching sustainable solutions?

Ms McAleese, President of Ireland

Go raibh maith agat. Thank you very much for your question, and may I thank you for the fáilte or welcome in our native language?

It is a point well made that conflict is sui generis – each conflict has its own unique story, so it would be wrong for me to say that, as a result of the great success of the Northern Ireland peace process, we have devised a template for solving problems that is easily transferable to other situations. I do not think that is true, but it is true that in the process that we have undertaken, and in the successes and failures that we have known along the way, we have a body of resources that can ultimately help to inform those who are trying to make the same journey to peace that we are making. It is not that we have a ready reckoner that can easily be imposed, but rather a series of interesting insights.

We spent a long time in Northern Ireland embattled with each other. I find it remarkable that people can live as neighbours, right next door to one another in the same street, and be so profoundly ignorant of one another. That is true everywhere in the world. Just because someone lives next door to someone else does not mean that they know them. Even worse, they often think that they know them, but they only know them from their own perspective. If we really want to bridge the gulf of conflict, it is important that we get to know one another: we must really understand why the other believes what they believe about us, and we must let them understand where our perspective is coming from.

There has to be a process of getting to know our neighbours and listening much less judgmentally. In our own case in Ireland, there has to be great leadership. Leadership is extremely important, and the language that is used by leaders is picked up. I am conscious that, particularly in the past 20 years or so, former Prime Minister Tony Blair and our then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, had a manifestly good personal relationship which changed the temper of many other relationships. People took their cue from them right down the line. Similarly, in Northern Ireland today, people who historically would not speak to one another at all are now working together in government. When people from opposite perspectives stood shoulder to shoulder a few months ago in the wake of the dreadful murder of two soldiers in Massereene in Northern Ireland, followed by the murder of a police officer, that empowered the community to speak with one voice.

Leadership is therefore important. Work at the communal level is important, as is work at the local level: people making connections across the divide, even in the teeth of opposition from their own families and friends. It was important in Ireland that there were groups of people who bridged the divide and sustained those bridges over a very long period. Importantly, there was also help from outside. We received tremendous help, not just from the countries represented in the Assembly – we received formidable help from our colleagues in the United States, which was crucial.

There are therefore many aspects to this. We have a lot of experience in the psychology of building peace. Ultimately, in Northern Ireland, the biggest argument is between neighbours. Those neighbours are not going anywhere – they are always going to be your neighbours. People’s children can live uncomfortably with bad neighbours, and their grandchildren can live uncomfortably with them, as their parents and grandparents did; or, in this generation, we who are much more educated about these things can stop that baton of hatred being handed on. We know where it starts – in the home, which is the most important place to impart respect for the otherness of others. In a roundabout way, we have learned that the hard and bitter way in Northern Ireland. If it can be of help to anyone, we will surely share it. Our government has set up a conflict resolution unit with that very hope – maybe there is something in the little piece of the jigsaw puzzle that we have that will help the world to understand peace building a little bit better.

Mrs HÄGG (Sweden)

President McAleese, the Parliamentary Assembly adopted last year an important resolution on access to safe and legal abortion in Europe, that invited Council of Europe member states to decriminalise abortion and guarantee women’s exercise of the right to access safe and legal abortion, recalling at the same time that abortion must, as far as possible, be avoided. On behalf of the Socialist Group, may I ask how the Irish authorities have responded to that resolution to secure a woman’s right and promote health access in Ireland?

Ms McAleese, President of Ireland

Thank you for that question. In Ireland, we have constitutional provision that accords the child in the womb an equal right to life with every other human being. The circumstances in which abortion is permitted in Ireland are set out in the constitution, which says that where a woman’s life is in danger it can be said, in inverted commas, that she has a right to abortion.

That is the position of the Irish people, the Irish Government and the Irish Constitution. We have a Crisis Pregnancy Agency, which derives from that culture and attitude to pregnancy and the balancing of rights. In that agency, women have access to all the information that they need. If, for example, they come across a doctor who does not provide them with information about where they can obtain an abortion outside Ireland, they have an absolute entitlement to speak to a doctor who will give them that information. We have a range of support, first, to help women to avoid crisis pregnancy, but where there are such pregnancies, it can help them look at a range of options available to them, including abortion, which is one of a number of options within that range. That is the Irish Government’s position on that. The current criminal prohibition dates all the way back to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861; that Act is still in force in that regard. I have heard of no plan by the Irish Government for decriminalisation.

There have been very few prosecutions under that Act. I can recall none in recent years. The idea now is to take a very person-centred, helpful approach; we want to understand the crisis through which a person may very well be going, support them through it and encourage them to make good decisions. The culture in relation to attitude and support for women is changing. To answer your question directly, I should say that I have not heard of any forthcoming legislation to decriminalise abortion – it would be unfair of me to indicate that that was happening, because I know of no such plan.

Mr BENDER (Poland)

As we await the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, I wish to ask whether your country will hold a third referendum if the people vote no again. If the Irish people reject the treaty in a third referendum, will you hold a fourth one? If the result of a fourth referendum does not satisfy Brussels, will Ireland hold a fifth referendum? In addition, do you think that, for the sake of symmetry, the countries that accepted the Lisbon Treaty should be encouraged to hold second votes on the subject?

Ms McAleese, President of Ireland

You posit an extraordinary and interesting scenario. My constitutional position does not permit me to comment on the Lisbon Treaty, and it would be unfair if I were to give you an inadequate response. All I can say is that in the wake of the first referendum, our government analysed the reasons for the no vote and consulted our European partners. We have received a number of guarantees or assurances on those worries and the government has now indicated that it is in a position to hold a second referendum. The date has not yet been announced, but I understand that it will be in October. I am sorry, but that is as far as I am permitted, constitutionally, to respond to your intriguing scenario.

Mrs FRAHM (Denmark)

My question is also about abortion and the Lisbon Treaty. Do you think that it is acceptable that the Irish negotiators have been trying to weaken the right of all women in the European Union to have free, legal and safe abortion just because you still wish to prevent Irish women from having access to it?

Ms McAleese, President of Ireland

I have probably answered most of that in response to previous questions. As I understand it, throughout Europe one finds very different practice on abortion; no two countries have the same provision. Ireland rightly has its own provision. When we sit round the European table as equals, we each bring our identity and we are anxious to protect it. It is therefore entirely right that our government protects our constitutional provision, about which people in Ireland feel strongly. I have mentioned Ireland’s Crisis Pregnancy Agency, which is part of the overall culture of provision not only for people who have crisis pregnancies, but generally. This is not just about crisis pregnancies – it is about the whole issue of sexual reproduction and sexual health – because Ireland has taken a very strong lead and is a very strong champion of women’s rights and the rights of the child.

Mr FAHEY (Ireland)

Fáilte romhat a Uachtaráin. What is your aspiration for the modern Ireland of tomorrow? How do you see Ireland playing its role in the wider Europe? In particular, could you expand on what you have said about conflict resolution? So much of what we have heard in the Assembly about Georgia and Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the Middle East question can easily be solved by work such as you and others have done in the Irish peace process.

Ms McAleese, President of Ireland

Go raibh maith agat – I am thanking Mr Fahey for his welcome in Irish. I stand to be corrected if I am wrong about this, but I believe that Ireland prides itself in having the longest running conflict in the world. Some people say it is four hundred years old, whereas others in Ireland say it is nine hundred years old – it is certainly centuries old. It has been the landscape of our thinking, acting and being for generations. Ireland is entitled to take tremendous pride in the fact that this generation, which is by far the most educated, set its sights on dealing with endemic problems that had defeated every other generation. Those problems included endemic poverty, outward migration and conflict, and this generation has done a very good job on all three of those.

I tell myself that we are in only the opening chapters of the new Ireland: the Ireland that no longer has huge outward migration – that draining away of its young people. We no longer have an Ireland that is uneducated, because we have had free second-level education since the end of the 1960s – that was some 25 years later than in Northern Ireland, where my husband and I grew up. The generation that has come through free second and third-level education is huge; it constitutes a vast swathe of the Irish population. Our greatest natural resource is their brain power and I believe that they will put it to work on securing and consolidating the gains that have been made. Even allowing for the fact that we are in a big moment of economic downturn, we remain in only the opening chapters of this new, prosperous, confident, successful and peaceful Ireland. We have never previously experienced those phenomena; no generation in Ireland has known that confluence before.

I have great faith in the future of Ireland and in the role that I think it can play on the global stage. From our early post-independence history, we learned the lesson that narrow parochialism and staying closed and locked in did not do us any good. We began to grow in confidence and influence through the League of Nations, the Council of Europe and the European Union. We have punched above our weight in that regard. For a militarily neutral country, we play an extraordinary role in United Nations peacekeeping operations. In all these things, we bring our own unique distilled historical perspective to the table.

I lived through the conflict in Northern Ireland, so I know what it is like to wake up in the morning with a sickening feeling in the stomach about what is going to happen to you and your family today, about how many of you and your friends will still be alive in the evening and about what suffering you will go through before bedtime. That is an appalling and indecent way for human beings to live. As I have said, the most awful thing is that it is so often inflicted neighbour upon neighbour, and the neighbours are not going anywhere. That is the lesson that we learned in Ireland. We learned to make peace with and to like our neighbours. We learned to learn about their perspective so that we could teach our children to be much more mutually respectful and so that we could give them a shared and peaceful future, where every kid can walk the streets and go about their business safely and be vindicated in their rights – that is the Ireland that I look forward to.

I would like to think that people in Palestine, Chechnya and other places where people are suffering will take comfort from the possibility that Ireland shows. People would have described our conflict as intractable; they would have said to us “this is impossible”. We have shown that peacemaking is not impossible; it is doable with the right will and willingness to compromise. We learned the hard way that 100% of nothing is 100% of nothing. If you compromise by 2%, 3% or 4%, 96% of something is a hell of a lot better than 100% of nothing.

Ms KEAVENEY (Ireland)

President, Dia Dhuit.

In acknowledging the very significant confidence-building activities that you and your husband, Dr Martin McAleese, have been involved with in Ireland, can you comment on the role that humour has played in Ireland to keep people coping in very dark times? Do you see lessons or opportunities in exploring humour in its diversity, across countries and cultures to aim to begin laughing with, not just at, “the others” but at ourselves, too? That might indicate when communities have reached the real level of maturity that conflict resolution requires.

Ms McAleese, President of Ireland

Go raibh maith agat, Cecilia.

That is a very unusual question, but there is some truth in it. One of the tools that we have used historically in conflict situations is mockery of the other – caricaturing, stereotyping and laughing at. That is a very powerful weapon used against the other. Every one of us in this Chamber has faced a situation at some point in our lives, whether as little children or adults, where someone has made a very funny gibe at our expense, and we all know how small we felt as a result. Humour is often used as a malevolent tool.

One of the things that told me that Northern Ireland was changing was when “The Hole in the Wall Gang” appeared on television. That group of young comedians, many of whom were former students of mine who used to be lawyers but had apostatised from law to comedy, were writing scripts directed at all the communities in Northern Ireland. Once I saw that we were all able to laugh at ourselves and, as you have said, laugh at each other, rather than using humour as a weapon to hurt the other, I saw that it was being used as a weapon to soften and allow us to talk to each other in humorous ways. When I saw that programme beginning to develop, I said to myself that we were on the way to peace, if we had arrived at a point where we could self-critique through humour. That showed how we had moved beyond that awful seriousness where we could not take it – we were so raw, wounded and hurt. We were so raw and wounded by appalling deaths and violence that humour was out of the question. I began to think then that maybe we were on the way to reconciliation.

I am delighted by the work that the Council of Europe is doing with its focus on history. What we teach our children, from the moment they are born, is important. If we teach them to laugh at themselves and to laugh with, but not at, others, we will have done humanity a phenomenal service. Forgive me for quoting my grandmother in this Chamber, but she knew a thing or two about kids, because my family thought that they had to increase, multiply and fill the earth entirely on their own. My grandmother had 60 grandchildren – yes, you heard that right. She always said that what is learned in childhood is engraved in stone. If we can engrave in our children humour and openness to others – not mockery, but genuine self-critiquing good humour – we will have done humanity a great service.


We must now conclude the questions to Mrs McAleese. On behalf of the Assembly, I thank her most warmly for her address and for the answers that she has given to questions. I also thank her for her comments on the problems that we face.