Reflecting on Gaza and the Passing of Irish Peace Maker, Albert Reynolds

Ambassador’s Message, 22 August 2014

These are distressing and uncertain times but for none more so than the families who have lost loved ones or seen them injured: the families of the kidnap and murder victims Gil-ad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Mohammed Abu Khdeir; families of the members of the IDF killed and injured in Gaza, many of the fallen so young they had barely tasted life; the families of those killed or injured by rocket and mortar fire from Gaza; the families of those Palestinians killed in the West Bank during public order disturbances; the many, many families in Gaza who have suffered terribly and endured a frightening level of fatalities and casualties, including many so very young. As we mark World Humanitarian Day this week, we record too that eleven UNRWA personnel, eleven medical staff, eight fire fighters and seven technicians working on water and energy supplies have been killed.

Everyone living here in Israel has experienced something along the spectrum of fear. Seeing my wife and children stand in the bomb shelter and feel our home shudder as Iron Dome missiles intercept rockets nearby was at the mildest end. Ashkelon, Ashdod and other towns near Gaza along with Kibuttzim there have been hardest hit by rockets and now face new fears about attacks from tunnels that have demonstrated their fearful potential.

The Irish Government has made clear its position on the situation in Gaza on a number of occasions, nationally and jointly with EU partners, most comprehensively the statement by Minister Flanagan in the Seanad Éireann debate on the Situation in Gaza and Ukraine, on 31 July (https://www.dfa.ie/news-and-media/speeches). Other key documents are listed below this message.

Ireland’s support for humanitarian work is a strong aspect of our foreign policy. This is partly because of Ireland’s tradition of missionary and more recently NGO work in some of the world’s most deprived and unstable places. On 21 July Minister Flanagan and Minister of State Sean Sherlock T.D. announced a contribution of €500,000 to the UNRWA flash appeal for humanitarian aid for Gaza. This is on top of substantial Irish Aid assistance to the Palestinian people, which amounted to €10.7 million in 2013. (https://www.dfa.ie/news-and-media/press-releases/press-release-archive/2014/july/government-announces-emergency-funding-in-gaza).

As the crisis continues to unfold, let us hope that a ceasefire can be restored and that negotiators and their partners in the UN, US and EU can map out a solution that avoids further conflict and loss of life, eliminates threats to security, facilitates reconstruction and improvement of life in Gaza, and helps build towards a reinvigoration of the Middle East Peace Process.

Ireland is reflecting on our own peace process this week as we mourn the passing of former Taoiseach, Mr Albert Reynolds T.D. His outstanding achievement was the creation of the conditions for the declaration of an IRA ceasefire on 31st August 1994, the twentieth anniversary of which we fast approach. He did this by negotiating with British Prime Minister John Major what became the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993.

The Declaration set out principles agreed by the British and Irish Governments: that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was required for unity with the South; that the British Government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”; that it was “for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination”; that both Governments would create institutions and structures which reflected “the totality of relationships” and which, while respecting the diversity of the people of Ireland, would enable them to work together in all areas of common interest; that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods.

Even Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, the doctrinal expression of nationalism’s view of Ireland’s territorial integrity, was open to reformulation in the event of a settlement, according to the Declaration. For an Irish nationalist leader, this was political leadership of a very high order indeed on the part of the Taoiseach.

An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Prime Minister John Major appealed to all sides to grasp the opportunity for a new departure that would compromise no position or principle, nor prejudice the future for either community. In the stirring words of the Declaration’s concluding paragraph: “On the contrary, it would be an incomparable gain for all. It would break decisively the cycle of violence and the intolerable suffering it entails…..these arrangements offer an opportunity to lay the foundations for a more peaceful and harmonious future, devoid of the violence and bitter divisions which have scarred the past generation. They commit themselves and their Governments to continue to work together, unremittingly, towards that objective.”

The Downing Street Declaration was negotiated with great determination by Mr Reynolds. In his passing this week, Ireland rightly honours him for that signal achievement. For the conceptual breakthrough and the framework for peace set out in the Declaration was critical in creating the peace process and in shaping in decisive terms the Good Friday Agreement itself in 1998.

You can read the full text of the historic Downing Street Declaration here
https://www.dfa.ie/media/dfa/alldfawebsitemedia/ourrolesandpolicies/northernireland/peace-process–joint-declaration-1993-1.pdf

The Department of the Taoiseach has opened a book of condolence which you can find here http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/eng/Book_of_Condolences_for_Albert_Reynolds

Finally, I would like to let you know that David Lee has joined us at the Embassy. David will be looking after our database, amongst other things, so if you know of someone interested in joining our network of friends you can have them send an email to David (david.lee@dfa.ie) or to our external mailbox on our Embassy website (http://www.embassyofireland.co.il)

Best wishes and Shabbat Shalom,

Eamonn

Eamonn McKee
Ambassador Tel Aviv

Irish Government position on Gaza, Key Documents

• Statement by Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore T.D., on 9 July https://www.dfa.ie/news-and-media/press-releases/
• Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan T.D., 14 July https://www.dfa.ie/news-and-media/press-releases/press-release-archive/2014/july/minister-calls-for-ceasefire-in-gaza-and-israel/
• Address by Minister Flanagan in the Dáil on 16 July http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/seanad2014073100003?opendocument#B02000
• Statement on Gaza by the EU Heads of Government at the European Council, 14 July http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_Data/docs/pressdata/en/ec/143990.pdf
• Statement on Minister Flanagan’s meeting with the Ambassador of Israel, 18 July https://www.dfa.ie/news-and-media/press-releases/press-release-archive/2014/july/statement-following-meeting-israeli-ambassador/
• Conclusions of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, 22 July
http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/144092.pdf
• Address by Ireland at the Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, 23 July https://www.dfa.ie/news-and-media/press-releases/press-release-archive/2014/july/irelands-position-at-the-un-human-rights-council/
ENDS

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Irish Israeli Relations: Remarks in Honour of Ambassador Zvi Gabay

(The Israel Ireland Friendship League hosted a talk and reception to mark the launch of the memoirs of Zvi Gabay, the first resident Ambassador of Ireland to Israel who presented his credentials to President Robinson in 1994.  His book, written in Hebrew, is entitled From Baghdad to the Pathways of Diplomacy – a Personal Story and his friends hope that with a little encouragement he will have it published in English.)

I am delighted to be part of the launch of Ambassador Gabay’s book of his life and times. I gather he looks back rather fondly on his time in Ireland I am happy to say.  This is also true of his family.  Ireland’s influence is probably most marked on his daughter who graduated from Trinity College. Zvi is the kind of diplomat to which we all aspire; he is wise and erudite, a writer and a man of ideas. I enjoy his columns and very much look forward to the translation of his book.

 It is also appropriate to mark this occasion as we reflect on fifty years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Israel.

 Of course the history of Irish Jewish relations goes back to the early Middle Ages when the Annals of Innisfallen record the arrival of Jews in Galway followed some time later by the establishment of a Jewish community in Dublin in the 12th century.  Over subsequent centuries, Anglo-Jews arrived and established themselves in Ireland, mainly in Dublin, Belfast and Cork.

These were followed by a surge of Jewish emigration to Ireland from the Pale of Russia, predominantly from Lithuania, in the 1880s and 1890s.  They settled also in Ireland’s main cities. In my hometown of Dublin, they established themselves off the South Circular Road and as they rapidly moved up the socio-economic ladder they moved to the leafier suburbs.

The Briscoe family epitomized the commitment, patriotism and contribution of the Irish Jews to Ireland. Abraham Briscoe came to Ireland from Lithuania as a teenager and earned his living as a peddler, traveling the highways and byways of Ireland. The condition of the Irish under British rule that he witnessed made him an ardent Irish nationalist. He called one of his sons Robert after the famous Irish patriot Robert Emmet, executed by the British in 1803 for his rebellion.

Robert Briscoe would become a committed insurgent in the fight for Irish independence, aligning himself with Eamon de Valera with whom he formed a close bond. During the War of Independence, he ran guns for the IRA. He became Ireland’s first Jewish member of our Parliament, the Dáil, having joined the Fianna Fáil party. Robert’s son Ben inherited his mantle, making a distinguished contribution to Irish life both as a member of the Dáil and as a Lord Mayor of Dublin. Abraham Briscoe’s grandson Daniel made Aliya to Israel and has established himself as a leading medical practitioner in his field, doing much philanthropic work at home and internationally.

The Irish military struggle for Independence between 1919 and 1921 was of course an inspiration to Zionists fighting against the British: Yitzak Shamir’s nom de guerre was ‘Michael’, after Michael Collins.

It is from the community of second generation Litvaks that our most famous Irish Jew comes, Leopold Bloom – probably the greatest fictional portrait of the twentieth century, brought to life by James Joyce.  It is clear from Ulysses that Joyce was familiar with the Jewish community in Dublin. Bloom, for example, considers an advertisement that offers investment in Turkish Palestine and there are a number of both overt and subtle anti-Semitic encounters.  Indeed, one of the central concerns of his novel is the notion of the native outsider; Bloom as a Jew and Dedalus as an artist.

During one encounter with an anti-Semite, the school headmaster Mr Deasy, Dedalus rebuts him and famously says that he is trying to escape from the nightmare of history. It is not a thought that preoccupies Bloom in that age of innocence before the Holocaust. One person from the Jewish community in Ireland was lost to the Shoah. Ettie Steinberg had moved to Belgium with her new husband and was tragically rounded up just before visas for safe passage to Ireland arrived.

Some Nazi bombs fell in the Jewish neighbourhood in Dublin and one wonders if German intelligence had been so good as to know that that was the heart of Litvak life at the time.

 By the 1950s, Irish Jews had made a huge impact on life in the capital city; in politics, medicine, law, arts and entertainment.  However by this time too there began a rapid decline in Ireland’s Jewish community. This followed a broader pattern evident too in Britain where small Jewish communities moved to larger urban concentrations like Manchester and London, emigrated to the United States or made Aliya to Israel. Dublin was left all the poorer for their decline as a force in Irish life.

The Irish Jewish community made an important contribution not just to Irish life but to the life of Israel. Its first Chief Rabbi during the mandate period and later under independence was Yitzhak Herzog, Ireland’s first Chief Rabbi before he made Aliya in 1936.  Like the Briscoe’s, the Herzogs were committed Irish nationalists.  De Valera had come to know Rabbi Herzog well and would spend evenings with in deep conversation during the 1920s.  Their relationship endured and de Valera visited him at his home in Jerusalem in 1950, accompanied by Robert Briscoe.  Herzog’s son Jacob would make a significant contribution to Israeli diplomacy. His other son, Chaim, born in Belfast and raised in Dublin, would fight for Israeli independence and later become its sixth President. His grandson, Isaac, continues to make his contribution to Israeli public life as Member of the Knesset and leader of the Labor Party.

Ireland and Israel both entered the international community, profoundly reshaped by WWII, around the same time. The State of Israel was born in 1948. Ireland’s wartime isolation slowly drew to an end when it joined the Marshall Aid programme that year. Ireland was blocked from joining the United Nations until 1955 so it missed out on the formative debates and resolutions that established Israel and the commitment to a Palestinian State.

Ireland quickly granted Israel de facto diplomatic recognition in February 1949. However official recognition did not occur until 1963. In Conor Cruise O’Brien’s telling phrase, the “Vatican factor” played its part in the delay, the concern inter alia that Irish foreign policy be consistent with that of the Vatican in relation to the status of the Holy Places (see Ireland’s Decision for De Facto Recognition of Israel, 1947-9 by Paula Wylie in Irish Foreign Policy 1919-1966, From Independence to Internationalism, Kennedy and Skelly (Eds), (Four Courts Press, 2000)).  Non-resident Ambassadors were established on a reciprocal basis in 1974.  The Government of Ireland gave approval for the establishment of a resident Israeli Ambassador in 1993. The first Israeli Ambassador to Ireland presented his credentials to President Mary Robinson in 1994: Zvi Gabay.

My great friend and colleague, Brendan Scannell became the first resident Irish Ambassador in Israel in 1996. In a commemorative supplement in the Irish Times in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Israel, he wrote, “The State of Israel proves what vision, hard work, creativity, perseverance, courage and not a little stubbornness can achieve.”

Also in the Supplement, which Zvi has kindly shared with me, Zvi himself wrote:

 “Ireland and Israel are two nations that have much in common, most importantly both were born in this century in war and both are striving for peace, within and without……. Relations between our countries are both old and new. The heritage links between our two religions date back to a common beginning that bind Christianity and Judaism in broader kinship than that of nationality.”

He wrote this in 1998, just after we had negotiated the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement became the foundation stone for the continuing peace in Northern Ireland and for the ongoing reconciliation between the traditions that share the island of Ireland and between Britain and Ireland.

We have the same hopes for Israel and its relations with the Palestinian people and with its regional neighbours. We have faith that that can be achieved through peace, negotiation and the two state solution. We believe that that outcome best guarantees the security and prosperity of Israel.

On the MEPP, Ireland is guided by a commitment to the two-state solution, the EU’s active engagement in the search for peace, the rule of international law, the fulfillment of UN Resolutions and adherence to human rights.  This may lead us at times to have frank exchanges of views but it does not detract us from our commitment to Israel and the peace to which we all aspire. The question is not the aim but how we get there.

The Irish presence here in Israel is not of course just diplomatic. It is represented by the Irish community, including those who have made Aliya here and those who have moved here to work and live.

The Israel Ireland Friendship League has been a mainstay of the Irish community here. I want to offer particular thanks to the League and to Malcolm Gafson for its contribution to our bilateral relationship since Corkman Dr. David Birkhan founded it forty-five years ago in 1969.  We also have the Israel Ireland Chamber of Commerce and the Ireland Israel Business Network promoting business links.

Economically, Irish exports to Israel are worth €550 million. Irish and Israeli companies are working in both countries with significant investments involved.  The number of Irish pubs here in Israel testifies to the popularity of Ireland as a brand representing tradition and hospitality.

Irish literature is also a strong source of mutuality, particularly the writings of Samuel Beckett, commemorated each year in the Annual Beckett Lecture at Tel Aviv University, ongoing now for more than a decade thanks to the inspiration and commitment of Professor Linda Ben-Zvi.  Where Joyce wrote from a world poised on the cusp of modernity, Beckett wrote from a world that was physically and morally a smoking ruin. World War and the Holocaust were devastatingly bleak parchments on which an artist might consider man and his place in the cosmos. Beckett’s willingness and capacity to do this, I think, explain his appeal here in Israel where making sense of catastrophe is an inescapable daily occupation. Writers, acting as the voices of our public and private narratives, form a central part of life in Ireland and Israel.

There is then a very constructive bilateral relationship between Ireland and Israel.  It is deeply rooted in our shared history of struggle for survival, independence and identity in a fast changing world. We both have had to wrestle a sensible narrative from our history and to forge peace from a turbulent past. That is ongoing work for both of us as a people.

We can learn much from each other. Ireland can learn much from the fantastic development of the Israeli economy, its prodigious creativity and entrepreneurial skill. Israel might look to our peace process for ideas about how to resolve conflict, to manage differences and to build peace. We both understand the complexities, the contradictions, choices, compromises and ultimately the sheer dogged determination that progress requires.

We have made great strides in our relationship. Our guest of honour tonight, Zvi Gabay, played a formative part in that when he arrived as Israel’s first Ambassador there twenty years ago. His contribution, his wisdom and his great personal warmth are fondly remembered and did much to get our diplomatic relationship off to a great start.  Thank you.

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Some Recent Topics and Themes from Ireland-Israel

(Touching on Beckett, the Holocaust, the Irish dead of WWI, commemorating Ireland’s past, the Euro elections, the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land and a visit to Petra.)

If you were at the 10th Annual Tel Aviv University/Irish Embassy Samuel Beckett Lecture yesterday, I hope you enjoyed the evening and our conversations over refreshments afterwards.  (If you were not, well there’s always next year.) I and my colleagues at the Embassy are delighted to continue this proud tradition, one began through the inspiration and commitment of the wonderful Professor Linda Ben-Zvi.  I want to thank the Dean of the Arts Faculty Prof. Zvika Serper and Prof. Shulamith Lev-Aladgem, Chair, Dept. of Theatre Studies for their continued support.

As I noted in my welcoming remarks, Beckett is a central figure in Ireland and Israel but he is more favoured here I think than his mentor James Joyce.  It is not too much of a guess to propose that this is because Beckett deals with catastrophe, stripping man’s condition down to its existential essence in response to the physical and moral ruins of WWII and the Holocaust. 

Stripping art down to its essence was also the concern of Avigdor Arikha, a survivor of the Shoah and Beckett’s great friend in Paris for over four decades. 

Our guest speaker was Alba Arkiha, Avignor’s daughter, who spoke eloquently and insightfully of her memories of the chiseled, blue-eyed man who regularly came to visit, to chat, to drink and to stay silent in company.  Sam, as they called him, would become her godfather and occasional mentor, a benign even beatific figure in a noisy household that brimmed with art, literature and conversation from its many creative guests.  

Alba’s memoir Major/Minor assembles her memories; what gives the book its beauty is the kaleidoscopic recall, poetically expressed, of someone making sense of life and of those around her, lived in Paris but threading through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, New York and London.   I want to thank Alba for making the trip here and hope that she will be back for a future Beckett event.

As you know, I occasionally collect links from my Twitter account that collectively turn out to be less random that I think when I post them. 

Three items regarding the Holocaust caught my eye. 

The first was a paradoxically sobering and inspiring report on new avenues to catch and convict guards involved at the death camps even at this late hour; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/10/opinion/germanys-pursuit-of-death-camp-guards.html

The second was simply inspiring, recounting the brave actions of one British man who saved 669 children while so many others stood idly by:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/20/nicholas-winton-birthday-man-saved-children-nazis

Third was a BBC story of the poignant and nightmarish voyage of the SS St Louis as it vainly criss-crossed the Atlantic in May 1939 with 900 hundred Jews fleeing the Nazis: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27373131

In terms of Ireland’s own human catastrophe, the Great Irish Famine, I tweeted a link to this article under the rubric ‘remembering one million dead’;http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/kenny-speaks-of-painful-slow-famine-deaths-1.1791348#.U2_iwkkwgkQ.twitter

Still on the subject of remembrance, the Irish Independent reported on the number of Irish who died in WWI;http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/world-war-1/ireland-during-world-war-1-the-facts-figures-30249108.html The magnitude of the losses were startling for such a small country at 49,000; counties Dublin and Antrim recorded the most fatalities with more than 10,000 between them. 

These loses more than validate the recent respect accorded to their memory in Ireland, including at Glasnevin Cemetery and a RTE report covers developments there http://www.rte.ie/news/player/2014/0527/20586443-glasnevin-cemetery-honouring-the-irish-who-died-in-both-world-wars/#search=true&query=war&page=2

I tweeted a very interesting speech by my colleague, our Ambassador in London Dan Mulhall, on the subject of commemorating the past here https://www.dfa.ie/irish-embassy/great-britain/news-and-events/2014/ambassador-mulhall-lecture-liverpool-university/

More contemporaneously, good news from Ireland included the fact that our debt rating has been upgraded by two notches, reflecting our economy’s growth and I think a growing confidence that the Euro crisis is passing, even if structural issues still remain unresolved such as the overhang of bank debts imposed on unsuspecting taxpayers: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-27450300

Ireland as you know recently held local and European elections, as well as a number of by-elections.  There has been extensive news coverage of the elections to the European parliament, notably for the results in a number of countries that showed a surge in Euro-critical, Euro-sceptical and frankly plainly right wing parties in some instances. 

This has led to much scratching of heads in Euro-circles in Brussels and in capitals.  The message from the Irish Government was that while we have performed exceptionally well in overcoming our financial crisis, and our economy has improved in terms of growth and employment, there is too much of a disconnect between the macro-economic picture of recovery and what ordinary people, who have borne the brunt of austerity most directly, feel in their household income and prospects. 

You will be lost for choice in the coverage but I would recommend this link which I tweeted, a column by the NYT’s Roger Cohen that draws its inspiration from an unlikely source;

 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/30/opinion/cohen-capitalism-eating-its-children.html?smid=tw-share

Closer to home, I tweeted some quotes and pictures from President Peres’ reception for the Diplomatic Community in honour of the visit of Pope Francis.  Thanks to my front row perch I managed this picture   pic.twitter.com/n27m2HH2Nc . 

President Peres affirmed the Pontiff’s message saying that “I believe that your visit and call for peace will echo through the region and contribute to revitalizing the efforts to complete the peace process between us and the Palestinians, based on two states living in peace. A Jewish state – Israel. And an Arab state- Palestine.” 

In his remarks, Pope Francis underlined the need for peace and its widespread benefits; the Pope said he prayed daily for peace, security, prosperity and fraternity, above all fraternity, the most beautiful of all.  “I renew my plea for all parties not to do anything against their pleas for peace and a true settlement.” 

Overall, I think it is fair to say that the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land touched all the vital reference points on both sides while delivering firm encouragement to resume the search for peace in a conflict that has universal relevance. 

Finally, the visit of a friend occasioned a trip to Petra.  I could not resist a blog on this fascinating place and its history;

 http://eamonncmckee.com/2014/05/25/petra-back-to-the-future-at-the-nabatean-metropolis 

After a long day trotting around the site, up and down its stone-hewn steps and across its sandy avenues, we were footsore but thrilled to have got a sense of this justly famous site. 

 Shabbat Shalom,

 Eamonn

 

 

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Petra, Back to the Future at the Nabatean Metropolis

So iconic is the image of Petra’s Treasury facade that one approaches it excited to have fulfilled an ambition yet with trepidation that it might underwhelm. Petra though deserves the description ‘breath-taking’ as few other sights do. As one turns a slight curve in the siq, the narrow cleft in the mountain leading to Petra, one glimpses its Classical broken pediment and columns; an involuntary intake of breath followed by a low ‘wow’ testifies to its impact. This is very much as its creators intended, placing the view just so to impress the new visitor, of which Petra had many, then as now.

Surrounded on all sides by high vertical walls of warm coloured rock, the sandy floor in front of the Treasury offers a natural forum for crowds to mingle. Millennia ago these crowds would have been the Nabatean residents of the city of Petra and traders from all points of the compass; today it is global tourists and local Bedouin offering their donkeys, camels and local knowledge for a price.

The grandeur and fine detailing of the Treasury with its Roman motifs, broken and blurred remains of reliefs and pockmarks from Bedouin bullets (looking to trigger a release of hidden treasure) holds one’s attention until curiosity to see the city itself beckons.   A narrow defile to the right of the Treasury leads to the city, a canyon of burial chambers carved into the sandstone and a finely crafted amphitheatre capable of seating seven thousand spectators. Further on the gorge opens to a wider valley that once housed many buildings and the bulk of the city’s population, reckoned to have been 20,000 at its peak. Further on again, up more than eight hundred steps carved into a steep crevice in the rocks, one comes to a high plateau and another elegant carved facade, similar if simpler than the Treasury, known as the monastery.

From the perimeter of small heights around the monastery’s plateau, there are fine views of the steep, serrated and forbidding hills that form the eastern mountain range of the Jordan Valley. Like the city below, in its heyday this plateau would have been paved and rimmed with columns, overlooked by an impressive classical acropolis on the height directly across from the monastery facade. What a vision this lofty architectural beauty must have been under the glorious amber of the setting sun.

The quarrying and carving necessary to create Petra’s tombs and temples was an astonishing achievement, barely possible to conceive, even if sandstone is regarded as a relatively soft stone. The physical effort was combined with mathematical precision and a high degree of architectural design and planning. Nabatean motifs are merged with Classical ones, as befits a metropolitan city with all its international influences. The famous Treasury building though seems to be a step up in its forceful articulation of Roman design, to the exclusion of Nabatean influence, standing as if in testament to the power of Rome. Indeed Petra’s wealth attracted inevitably the attentions of the Romans who brought it under its sway in the first century BCE.

Like all cities, Petra had an economic rationale. The Nabateans were originally pastoralists from the Arabian peninsula who developed sophisticated systems to maximize the use and storage of water, including sculpting the land to created water retaining sumps, building dams and creating earthen conduits to direct water run-off and flash floods into cisterns for storage. This allowed for patches of sustainable agricultural production capable of providing food and and water supplies for travelers and caravans along the trails criss-crossing the arid landscape: Combining these opened trade routes throughout the region.

The Nabatean economy was fueled by this trade and Petra emerged as a hub, linking north (Damascus), south (Aqaba), the Asian east and European west via Petra itself; another Nabatean hub at Avdat in the Negev desert of Israel offered a stepping stone to Gaza port bristling with ships from all over the Mediterranean.

Petra is one of the few historic places that probably benefits from the hubbub of tourists and the insistent Bedouins offering rides on their camels and donkeys and snacks, freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee in pavilions. The activity helps one visualise the city as it once was, a crossroads for the intrepid and the commercially minded. But it does take an imaginative effort to summon up a vision of the buildings that must have crowded the gorge at the city’s heart. They were shattered by a series of devastating earthquakes in the fourth century during Petra’s Byzantine era, so destructive in fact that they led to the abandonment of the city. By then, the orginal Nabatean culture had long been diminished under Greco-Roman influences. And Petra was also by then probably more of a religious centre since much trade had been diverted north to Palmyra in modern day Syria.

Lost to time, Petra remained a location known only to the Bedouin who had begun to arrive in the region in the 14th century. Their secret was prised from them by Johann Ludwig Burkhardt, a determined, intellectual and audacious Swiss explorer who entered the city in 1812 disguised as an Arab scholar.

Until recently, Petra’s man-made caves and hollows were home to Bedouins but its inhabitants were encouraged by the Jordanian Government to move to nearby accommodation providing not just modern amenities like water, electricity and wifi but proximity to their employment servicing the tourists coming to Petra.

One of our traveling companions was from New Zealand and was therefore familiar with the story of Marguerite van Geldermalsen. Originally from New Zealand, van Geldermalsen had travelled the world including Petra in the early 1970s only to fall in love with a Bedouin whom she married. She lives now in the new village nearby. We met her son, one of three children born and raised there, who was manning the family stall, set beneath the impressive Royal Tombs, selling jewelry, objets d’art and of course his mother’s compelling autobiography, Married to a Bedouin (Virago, 2009).

Part of the fascination of Petra is the glimpse that it provides into the life of the region some two thousands years ago. It owed its existence to the flow of trade that came naturally to a region that sits at the juncture of Europe, Africa and Asia. The tectonic instability of the crunching continents that meet here at the apex of the Rift Valley ultimately doomed Petra.

Today it is the instability of conflict and consequent security concerns that dooms the trade and cultural mix that should come naturally to the people in this wonderful region, as indeed it had done in times past though one suspects not as definitively as today. Crossing the Jordan-Israel border either side of the Allenby Bridge now is a taxing and bureaucratic affair; no commerce currently enters Gaza. True, armies criss-crossed the region since times immemorial and archaeological layers testify to the waxing and waning of influences; Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Muslim, Mamluk, Ottoman, French and British.  

Petra though reminds us of what the region once was and can be – dynamic, free flowing, a nexus for trade and far-away cultures to mix creatively and influence each other. Only peace makers can make that the future too.

 

 

 

 

 

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New Chapter Written as U.K. State Visit of President Higgins Draws to a Close

What will probably be remembered for its significance in our peace process was the Northern Ireland reception at Windsor Castle and the exchange of commendations between Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, and Queen Elizabeth II who both acknowledged each other’s roles in reconciliation.

The quadrangle of smiles at the greeting between them as President Higgins and First Minister Peter Robinson of the DUP look on, captured in the photo accompanying the Irish Times report, says much; about how far we have come in terms of reconciliation on the island of Ireland and between the islands of our Atlantic archipelago, about the human dimension and the role of leaders in peace building, about the potential for the Nationalist and Unionists traditions to find ease with each other within what the great peace builder John Hume called “the totality of relations” between Britain and Ireland.

Bringing the opposing parties together used to be a role played by the United States under President Clinton’s guidance in Washington.  It is a genuine mark of the historic nature of President Higgins’ visit that we see it happening now locally, as it were, under familiar livery.  There is no doubt that the visit will help buoy the leaders on all sides as they seek to work through the issues and challenges that remain in our peace process.

The festive highlight of the programme yesterday was the celebration of Irish arts and artists at the Albert Hall, the Ceiliúradh, organised by Culture Ireland (www.cultureireland.ie) .  As the Irish Independent reported, ‘Taking to the stage to uproarious applause, he said: “On a night like this it is great to be Irish.” He added it was “even better” to share it with “our friends in Britain”.’

Today is the final day of the historic visit when President Higgins and his wife Sabina will bid farewell to his royal hosts.  Our poet President will pay his respects to the great bard Shakespeare by visiting Stratford-Upon-Avon to acknowledge the world’s greatest playwright, a formative writer in the English language which we Irish have adopted and moulded as our own.

Then a visit to Coventry to view its ruined 14th century Cathedral as a symbol of the damage wrought by the German bombing raids during WWII: he will also meet with the strong Irish community there whose roots were laid during the city’s booming manufacturing in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The President and his wife will depart for Ireland from Coventry Airport.

The official visit of the President of Ireland has written a new chapter in Irish British relations.  It has come at an ideal time as we encounter commemorative centennial rendezvous with some of the most contentions episodes in our history, including the 1916 Rising, the 1919-1921 War of Independence, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 which partitioned Ireland, the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament in June 1921 by George V, the Treaty Negotiations December 1921, the achievement of Independence in January 1922 and the Irish civil war 1922-23.

By taking stock of the progress in our relationship and registering the genuine warmth between Ireland, North and South, and between Ireland and Britain as displayed by the visit, we can commemorate and remember these events in ways that embrace all of the dimensions of Irish, British Irish and Unionist identities.

I wish you a happy Easter and wonderful Passover celebration,

 

Eamonn

 Some links:

 Report on the Albert Hall celebration here http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/celebration-shows-how-islands-have-enriched-each-other-1.1758152

And the President’s speech there is here http://www.president.ie/speeches/8179-2/

The Northern Ireland reception here http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/queen-greets-mcguinness-at-windsor-castle-1.1758014

Final day and farewell is anticipated here http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/state-visits/irish-president-ends-historic-visit-30176455.html

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Highlights of President Higgins State Visit, Wednesday 9th April

The President and his wife Sabina had a very busy schedule embracing many themes in Anglo-Irish relations.  The President called on Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street where the improvement in Anglo-Irish relations were noted by both principals, as well as our strong economic ties where 40% of indigenous Irish exports go to Britain and where Ireland is Britain’s fifth largest export market. 

There was then a short trip to Winsdor Castle to view some of its historic artefacts associated with Ireland.  This included the Colours of Irish Regiments of the British Army retired in 1922 when Ireland became indepedent.  The names are evocative; the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Prince of Wales Leinster Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment.

The President then called to City Hall where he was greeted by London’s Lord Mayor Boris Johnson and met fifty young people, including a number from Northern Ireland.  As the President remarked, “In my visits to Northern Ireland I have met with many remarkable young people, already on the path to becoming actors in building a more open and ethical society. They are young people who understand only too well that prejudice or old grievances do not evaporate overnight when peace is announced or new legislation is passed. They know that animosities can only be removed when, as citizens, we transcend such legacies, let go and reach a true sense of human empathy and solidarity with each other, thereby diminishing the toxic impact of sectarianism.” 

During the President’s visit to the Royal Society he noted that the contribution of Irish scientists was often obscured by Irish achievements in the arts. He said that because so many Irish people had succeeded in the worlds of literature and the arts, Ireland’s contribution to science had been overshadowed.  He cited inter alia the scientific achievements of mathematician William Hamilton; physicists John Tyndall and Nicholas Callal; and William Parsons who, in building the world’s largest telescope was able to discover new celestial bodies.  The President looked forward to enhanced cooperation between Science Foundation Ireland (www.sfi.ie ) and the Royal Society to support Irish scientists of outstanding potential.

A central theme of the visit is the contribution of the Irish to all walks of British life and the way in which the Irish have made a home for themselves in Britain.  A good example is the thousands of Irish NHS workers, some of whom the President met at University College Hospital.  He met the newly arrived, those well established and those retired, including Mary Talbot who had arrived in England in 1938.  As the Irish Times’ Miriam Lord reported, “Bernadette Porter from Raphoe in Co Donegal proudly wore on her uniform the MBE she got from Prince Charles in Buckingham Palace this year for her great work in the area of multiple sclerosis.” 

Lord captures too the pride and its undertow of discomfiture that is inevitable in meeting these fine people:  “President Higgins had hugs for the hugely proud and delighted retired nurses, who stood up tall and bade him welcome, tears in their eyes. And he had applause, and then some more, for the men and women who give so much to their adopted country but still love their native land. And that was the real lump in the throat moment. Not anything prompted by pageant or ritual. Just a pride, a deep sadness and yes, a feeling of anger that these wonderful people are not back home doing what they do.”

The keynote event of the day was the banquet at the City of London’s Guildhall hosted by the Lord Mayor of the City of London (its distinct financial district), Fiona Woolf.  There were some seven hundred guests, primarily from the business sector but also featuring some famous names from the arts and showbusiness.  His speech noted the antiquity of the relationship between this august venue and Ireland: “I am of course conscious of the particular role that the Guildhall has played in Irish history. It was here, in 1609, that the Irish Society was conceived, during a meeting at which representatives from the livery companies of London considered undertaking a plantation in Ulster, on lands recently seized from Gaelic chieftains, and the construction of the first planned city in Ireland, on the Western bank of river Foyle.”  

The main focus on the President’s Guildhall speech was the strengths of the Irish economy, the human cost of the financial crisis and Ireland’s recovery.  The President voiced his deeper concerns about the ethical questions that the financial industry and its crises raised: “When the financial and technological forces that hold sway are unaccountable and seem more powerful than Governments, it poses the question as to who is responsible for their consequences. These are profound issues which require a rich public discourse that seeks to find and craft a sustainable and ethical relationship between economy and society. We need, for example, an approach that embraces the totality of the work of the great Adam Smith. Yes, we may be familiar with the author of the utilitarian Wealth of Nations; but we also need the so much more ethically minded author of Theory of Moral Sentiments.”

Tonight the President and his delegation will attend the Ceiliúradh (celebratory festival) at the Royal Albert Hall where leading Irish musicians, singers, actors, authors and poets will celebrate the range and depth of creative Irish endeavours Ireland, underling the contribution of the Irish community in Britain. Performing guests include from the world of music Paul Brady, the Gloaming, Glen Hansard, Imelda May, actress Fiona Shaw, author Joseph O’Connor and broadcasters Dermot O’Leary and the great Olivia O’Leary, plus I understand some surprise appearances.

 Links to some highlights and speeches below.

 Eamonn

Miriam Lord’s column here http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/hospital-visit-a-tonic-for-proud-irish-staff-1.1756373?page=1

Report on the meeting at Downing street here http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/cameron-extends-warm-welcome-to-vip-lunch-guest-at-number-10-1.1756370

Windsor Castle museum here http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/president-views-colours-of-disbanded-irish-regiments-at-windsor-castle-1.1756392 

President Higgins’ speech at the youth event, City Hall, here http://www.president.ie/speeches/speech-at-youth-event-city-hall-take-charge-of-change-glac-seilbh-ar-athru/

Visit to the Royal Society here http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/irish-scientists-overlooked-in-favour-of-artists-says-president-1.1756413 and his speech here http://www.president.ie/speeches/speech-by-michael-d-higgins-president-of-ireland-at-the-royal-society-london

The President’s Guildhall speech here http://www.president.ie/speeches/speech-by-michael-d-higgins-president-of-ireland-guildhall-banquet-london

Information on the Albert Hall event is here http://www.royalalberthall.com/tickets/ceiliuradh/default.aspx

 

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Some Highlights of President Higgins State Visit, 8 April

The official visit of President Higgins to Britain has if anything exceeded expectations in terms of its ceremonial welcome and the depth of the symbolism of rapprochement between Ireland and Britain.

Renowned Irish historian Roy Foster puts the visit in its historical context here: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/state-visit-seals-the-end-of-an-era-for-ireland-1.1754605

Speaking at Westminster, the scene of so much drama in Anglo-Irish relations from the speeches of Daniel O’Connell and the manoeuvrings of Charles Stewart Parnell to the passage of John Redmond’s Home Rule Bill in 1914, President Higgins paid tribute to all the Irish who made a contribution to Britain whether in the corridors of the Commons or in society generally.  Irish Times report here: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/president-michael-d-higgins-honours-contribution-of-irish-parliamentarians-1.1754812 .

Writing in the Irish Independent, Lise Hand evocatively captures the State Banquet at Windsor Castle here http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/state-visits/best-of-friends-now-royals-set-to-join-1916-ceremonies-30168452.html

A great photo of the Banquet is here https://twitter.com/dfatirl/status/453641648585457664/photo/1

The keynote speeches of this visit were delivered at this Banquet.  The full text of the speech by President Higgins is here http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/full-text-of-president-higgins-address-to-state-banquet-1.1754738#.U0Rn_HnUfoU.twitter

President Higgins declared in his speech that “Ireland and Britain live in both the shadow and in the shelter of one another, and so it has been since the dawn of history. Through conquest and resistance, we have cast shadows on each other, but we have also gained strength from one another as neighbours and, most especially, from the contribution of those who have travelled between our islands in recent decades.” He went on “This present occasion, which completes a circle begun by your historic visit three years ago, marks the welcome transformation in relations between our countries over recent years a transformation that has been considerably progressed by the advancement of peace in Northern Ireland.”

The President concluded “The future we each desire, and seek to work towards is one where Ireland and the United Kingdom stand together to seek common opportunities and to face common global challenges as partners and friends.”

The full text of Queen Elizabeth’s speech is here http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/full-text-of-queen-s-speech-to-state-banquet-1.1754739#.U0RoHajcr8o.twitter She declared that ‘the goal of modern British-Irish relations can be simply stated. It is 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. After so much chequered history, the avoidable and regrettable pain of which is still felt by many of us, this goal is now within reach.”

Significantly, the Queen said that “my family and my government will stand alongside you, Mr. President, and your ministers, throughout the anniversaries of the war and of the events that led to the creation of the Irish Free State.”  This has been interpreted as a hint that she may attend the centenary commemoration of the 1916 Rising.

The impact of the Rising was dramatic in terms of Irish history and on the private lives of individuals in ways that were at times hidden, indeed kept secret.  In a wonderful piece of writing and remembrance, Elaine Byrne writes here about a family history of the involvement of past generations of her family in the British Army and service in the WWI, a history rendered secret by the paradigm shift in Irish identity and loyalty brought about by the 1916 Rising.  It beautifully captures in a family history the twists and turns of Ireland’s early twentieth century and how that affected Irish identity: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/05/irish-soldiers-who-fought-for-britain. In so doing, it adds depth and insight to the historic and symbolic significance of the events in London this week.

Finally, there was significance too in the attendance at the State Banquet of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister in the devolved, power-sharing Northern Ireland Government.  A report on Unionist reaction is here http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/regional/unionists-welcome-mcguinness-presence-at-windsor-state-banquet-with-queen-1-5985097#.U0TYpGwuzoo.twitter .

More tomorrow,

 

Eamonn

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