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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President Higgins goes to London

This is an historic week in Anglo-Irish relations as the President of Ireland begins his first official state visit to Britain today.

The rapprochement between the Heads of State of Ireland and Britain had evolved over the years with the visits of Presidents Robinson and McAleese during the 1990s, which included meetings with Queen Elizabeth II.  Building on this goodwill and the developments associated with the Northern Ireland peace process, Queen Elizabeth II’s official visit to Ireland in March 2011 saw historic and deeply felt gestures of reconciliation, including a visit to Ireland’s Garden of Remembrance for those who died in the cause of Irish freedom.

In making his official journey, President Higgins reciprocates and in so doing establishes a new era in relations between Ireland and Britain.

That this visit seems so fitting is a reflection of the cooperation and friendship that has developed at other levels between the Irish and the British, from culture and business to government-to-government and within the European Union.  So it would be easy to miss its significance.  Set in its historic narrative, what is happening this week overturns an historic relationship between the imperial and the colonised that arguably spanned eight hundred years and confirms a relationship now of equality and concord.

That we are about to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising and the road to independence in 1922 stands testament to the unfinished business that bedevilled Anglo-Irish relations throughout the twentieth century, obstructing post-independence reconciliation between the Ireland and Britain.

That unfinished business was partition.  The partition of Ireland was in 1921 a blunt solution to a complex problem of divided loyalties, contending identities, localised popular affiliations and territorial control.  When Northern Ireland exploded in civil strife in 1969, Anglo-Irish relations were set on a contentious course for over a decade and more.

Only in the 1980s did the two governments come together to find a way forward, creating one of the finest Irish diplomatic achievements with the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the intergovernmental platform that ultimately helped deliver the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Finding peace meant exploring different strands of what it meant to be Irish.  The struggle for independence had narrowed the definition of what being Irish meant but in recent decades there has been a recovery of the full complexity and variety of what being Irish could mean.

By the late 1980s Ireland came to recognise, for example, Irish service in the armed services of other states.  During his visit, President Higgins will attend a viewing of the Colours of disbanded Irish regiments in the British Army.

This process has helped to close the gap between the different traditions in Ireland, most dramatically represented by the iconography of 1916; for Irish nationalists the iconography of 1916 has been the Easter Rising just as for Unionists it has been the loyal sons of Ulster “marching toward the Somme”.  We can now approach the centenaries of these events with a more magnanimous backward glance, recognising the legitimacy of the motivations of all those men who fought in their various ways for their country.

As carefully crafted as that of the British monarch’s visit to Ireland, the President’s programme in Britain has many elements designed to capture our relationship not just as history but as a reflection of today’s realities: you can read about the full programme here

http://www.president.ie/uncategorized/state-visit-to-the-united-kingdom

I’ll post updates @EamonnMcKee and there will be a lot of coverage including at www.rte.ie so be sure to have a look at the events unfold in this most historic and important week in Anglo-Irish relations.

 Eamonn

 

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador, Tel Aviv

 

 

 

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Irish America, Tammany Hall (and the beginning of the Irish Jewish New York Relationship)

I was very lucky to have been posted twice to the United States, to the Embassy Washington in the early 1990s and to the Consulate General New York at the close of the decade.  There I developed a love for Irish America, its history and its community today.   The story of the Irish in America is a truly epic one, really biblical in its scope, complexity and significance.

As a young diplomatic officer, I was privileged to be part of the Embassy’s involvement in the high point of the St Patrick’s Day celebration of Irish America, namely the Taoiseach’s presentation of shamrock to the President in the White House, followed by the President’s attendance at the Speaker of the House’s St. Patrick’s Day luncheon.  (The only other time of the year that the President goes to Congress is for the State of the Union Address.)  But it is the St Patrick’s Day parades, large and small, across all fifty States that reveal the true reach of the Irish in America.

If the Great Famine of 1845-1851 shaped Ireland today, those who fled it to the US profoundly altered the course of America politically, socially and culturally.  Tremendous work has been done to tell that story but I am not convinced it has been fully told yet.

That is partly to do with the sheer scale of the impact of the Irish in America.  It begins in earnest with the Protestant ‘Scots-Irish”, the unsettled settlers from Ireland, (and prior to that Scotland), who began to arrive in the American colonies the mid-1700s, restlessly moved westward, helped form the ideology of the American revolution and stirred the early agitation against British suzerainty.  The bifurcation between them and the masses of starving Catholic native Irish fleeing the Great Famine a century later disrupts the historical narrative of the Irish in America.

The full story also suffers, I suspect, partially from the fact that the Irish arriving en masse in the 19th century were a “disruptive” energy that challenged the Anglo-American establishment, an establishment that still retains much influence through its formative shaping of the American historical narrative of itself.

The situation has not been helped by the characterization of the Irish in America; consider how quickly certain cultural tropes spring to mind when mention is made of ‘Irish America’; the fighting Irish, the roguish gangster, the tough cop, the ambitious white-laced mother, the morose blue collar father, the alcoholic writer and the stern priest presiding if not ruling over his unruly flock. It is probably the fate of all newly arrived immigrant groups to quickly garner stereotypes that are hard to shake off and which occlude a proper assessment of their contribution and role in society.

Tammany Hall looms large in the formation of the notions about the Irish as purveyors of a unique style of political manipulation and graft.  It is great, therefore, to see its history subject to historical revision in Terry Golway’s Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Making of Modern American Politics.  Let the debate begin.

In the interests in full disclosure, I am happy to say that in my time in New York I came to know Terry and to enjoy his company, which is witty, erudite and passionate about Irish America.  His has written extensively on Irish America: Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom (St Martin’s Griffin, 1999); a history of the New York Fire Department in which the Irish contribution looms so large, So Other Might Live, A History of New York’s Bravest, the FDNY from 1700 to the Present (Basic Books, 2003); and For the Cause of Liberty, a Thousand Years of Ireland’s Heroes, (Simon and Schuster 2012).

In his latest work, Terry tells me that “the book really is the first attempt to look at Tammany as a profoundly Irish institution, with roots in the Emancipation movement and the elections of 1826 and 1828. I was in Dublin several years ago researching those elections in the papers of Thomas Wyse and Daniel O’Connell. But I also show how the trans-Atlantic Anglo-American community used Tammany as an argument against Irish home rule, and used Irish politics as an argument against Tammany. The overall point: The Irish could not rule themselves.”

His analysis of Tammany Hall is really an exploration of the Irish approach to politics which was grounded in the imperatives of the society that they had come from; colonial and oppressed, the native Irish operated beneath the radar of British rule and put a high emphasis on personal reciprocity as means of support and survival.  Concealment and gaming the rules of the British system were necessities for survival and therefore considered virtues.

If this was true of life in Ireland it was all the more so true for emigrants arriving in the alien environment of urban America; here they needed support to get started, particularly when faced with the hostility of Anglo-Protestant establishment and the ‘Know-Nothings’.

The idea of politics as a reciprocal arrangement between the voters and those whom they elect was the founding notion of Tammany Hall and the ‘machine’ politics that would do so much to influence and ultimately forge the Democratic Party.  It injected into public discourse the idea that Government was meant to be about the care of the citizen and not simply the regulation of the markets and the preservation of stability in the name of the elites.

I asked Terry about the Irish Jewish relationship in New York and he wrote “I have quite a lot on Tammany’s relationship with the city’s Jewish community, another forgotten part of the story. It really begins with the imminent election of the city’s first Irish-Catholic mayor, W.R. Grace, in 1880. When he was attacked because of his religion….Jews on the Lower East Side held a rally for Grace, during which a lawyer named Albert Cardozo, father of a future US Supreme Court justice, said that if Catholics were attacked like this, Jews would be next, so they should stand together. In the early 20th Century, Tammany’s Irish leaders developed close relations with the city’s Jewish population.”

I sincerely hope that someday Terry puts pen to paper on the Irish Jewish relationship in New York!

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

Eamonn

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Samuel Beckett and Avigdor Arikha: The Long Friendship of an Irish writer and a Jewish Painter

“A Different Side of Sam; Beckett, Arikha and a Parisian Adolescence.”

Annual Samuel Beckett Lecture by Alba Arikha

Tel Aviv University

29 May 2014

This is the eleventh successive year of the annual Samuel Beckett lecture at Tel Aviv University.  It is the brainchild and longstanding project of Prof. Linda Ben-Zvi.  I want to thank her and the University’s Theatre Department for creating this wonderful literary bridge between Ireland and Israel.

This year the lecture will be delivered by Alba Arikha, the daughter of one of Israel’s greatest artists and the godchild of the great man himself, Samuel Beckett.  Her life, and her story of her father’s forty years of friendship with Beckett in Paris, weave together many strands; from the Irish writer’s Jewish connections and sympathies, Avigdor Arikha’s own Holocaust and wartime experiences, to their lives in Paris over the decades and the grounds for their deep friendship.

The causal chemistry of friendship is a mystery, as ineluctable as it is abiding.  But the outsider can usually trace some of the elements that forge it.

Both Beckett and Arikha found themselves deeply immersed in the great cataclysm of the rise of Nazism and World War II. Beckett fleetingly witnessed Nazi triumph within Germany during his stay there between 1936 and 1937 before moving to France and fighting alongside the Resistance, the Maquis, during the war.  Arikha survived the death camps and serious injury in Israel’s War of Independence before moving permanently to Paris.  Both men were confronted with the abject abandonment of all morality and goodness that was both a cause and a consequence of the great global conflict and its greatest sin, the Shoah.

As men of the arts, they arrived at the same conclusion about their craft and its purpose; to look unflinchingly at life and report back without artifice.

For the writer Beckett this meant spare, even brutal prose to describe the existential absurdity of life without a god, without meaning.  For Arikha, it meant abandoning abstract art in favour of drawing from life directly and in one go.  He would use neither photographs nor memory but draw his subject – whether himself, models or the quotidian things of life like fruit, furniture, rooms, even stones – there and then in one sitting.

Indeed, Arkiha’s art has a startling immediacy, most notably in his self-portraits which are alert, even electrifying.  His many sketches of Beckett show the mastery of his craft.  Like all great art, they capture Beckett both physically – angular, slouching comfortably, smoking, peering – and psychologically: meditative, ever thoughtful, as if always on the verge of being about to say something.  You long to hover in that apartment in Paris as Arikha sketches his friend and to wait to hear their conversation.

While we can’t go back, we have an emissary from that time and that very place in Alba Arikha.  She, along with her sister Noga, grew up with her father and her mother, the poet Anne Atik, in a household that served as an intellectual and artistic hub, whose energies and emotions were coloured by the seismic events through which both her father and his close friend Beckett had lived.   It was also an arena for the struggle between a traumatised father and a young adolescent striving to create her own future and her own life, to escape what Beckett’s mentor, James Joyce, called the nightmare of history.

Her memoir, Major/Minor (Quartet, 2011), recounts her coming of age in the 1980s and her evolving view of the Irishman.  Her inclination was to dismiss him as part of that burden of history that loomed over her home until she discovered Beckett through his writings.  As she recalled of his style, “No surplus, all essentials; something to strive for, when I’m older and wiser.” She remembers him: “He had a very gentle way of talking, Beckett, very calm. He spoke slowly and there was definitely something very soothing about him, very shy about him. He never judged, really.” And he would encourage her as a writer.

In association with the Theatre Studies Department of Tel Aviv University, the Embassy is delighted to host Alba Arikha as the speaker for this year’s Samuel Beckett Lecture: “A Different Side of Sam; Beckett, Arikha and a Parisian Adolescence”.

It promises to be a wonderful evening, followed by refreshments and conversation.  Please come to join us on Thursday, May 29th at 6:00pm, Room 101 Kikone Building, Tel Aviv University.

Best wishes,

Eamonn

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Ireland’s Response to the Syrian Humanitarian Crisis

In the face of a humanitarian disaster, its sheer scale can inhibit compassion: human psychology is such that we can more readily appreciate the loss of a single life than that of many.  Stalin was on to something when he reputedly said that the loss of one life is a tragedy, the loss of a million is a statistic.  He would know.  Keeping humanitarian disasters front and centre of international and personal attention is vital to maintaining an effective response.

The humanitarian disaster in Syria is all the greater a tragedy because it is man-made, because unlike a natural disaster it is apparently relentless and unrelenting.  We all fervently hope that the talks in Geneva in January can bring a halt to hostilities.  If so, at least humanitarian access can begin in earnest.  Even then, the consequences of the conflict will be with us for many years.  Along with its EU partners, the UN and a range of NGOs and Red Cross organisations, Ireland continues to assist in addressing this humanitarian disaster.

Bearing in mind that each statistic is one life ended, displaced, threatened, bereaved or impoverished, let’s look at the big picture.

Out of a population of 22 million, the death toll is approaching 120,000 people. More than 30% are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and an estimated 4.25 million people are displaced inside Syria, including 235,000 Palestinian refugees.   Over 2.5 million people inside Syria have not been reached with any assistance for up to a year. Almost 2.3 million refugees are sheltering in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa.

The revised UN response plan calls for $5.2 billion dollars for operations in 2013, the largest humanitarian appeal in the UN’s history.  About 60% is funded.

Ireland announced last October that it was providing an additional €3 million, bringing our total contribution to €14.011 million, of which €11.361 million in 2013. Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. Joe Costello T.D., made this announcement during his visit to Lebanon.  Such visits – like his earlier visit to camps in Jordan and that of Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade, Eamonn Gilmore T.D. to Nizip refugee camp in Southern Turkey last April – are important for understanding the nature of the problem, for bringing attention to them and for providing Government Ministers and officials with the information and insights to further discussions with partners in the EU and UN.

With this additional contribution, Ireland’s pledge of €4.7 million made at the High Level Donor Pledging Conference for Syria in Kuwait City last January has been exceeded by almost €6.5m to date.

In terms of the delivery of this assistance, Irish Aid has a tremendous depth of experience, whether it is in the rapid delivery of material aid from our prepositioned stocks or funding a range of partners with whom we have close working relations.  It’s not just signing cheques: it is about Irish Aid’s years of experience ensuring appropriate, needs-based assistance and effective delivery.

However, expertise aside, it is money that makes humanitarian responses happen.  Some €1.15 million has been channelled through Irish NGOs Goal and Concern, in support of their operations.  €500,000 was allocated to Oxfam in support of their programmes in Jordan and Lebanon. These programmes focus on emergency food and non-food items, sanitation, suppression of water born diseases and curative health care.

Our aid included €750,000 worth of supplies of non-food items (shelter, blankets, water kits) from our emergency relief stocks held in Dubai, through our Rapid Response Initiative: 45 tonnes of Irish Aid emergency supplies were delivered to UNRWA to the value of €211,000.

Ireland has been a strong supporter of the UN’s Syrian humanitarian response too: €3.45m to the UNHCR; €1.7m to the World Food Programme: €300,000 to the World Health Organisation: €1.2m to UNWRA; €1m to UNICEF and €1.75m to OCHA’s Emergency Response Fund. €100,000 was donated to the International Rescue Committee.

Irish Aid funding of course comes from the Irish taxpayer and it is a great point of pride for all of us representing Ireland abroad that Irish public support for humanitarian relief remains consistently strong, even as we meet our own economic and financial challenges.

The numbing scale of statistics can hide the human tragedy in any disaster, natural or man-made.  In the Middle East, there is an additional barrier.  In this region, considerations of the turmoil and conflict often focus on the complicated and shifting matrix of geopolitical interests.  As the cross-roads of human activity and movement in and between Europe, Asia and Africa, thus it has always been.  It is a testament to the relief organisations, to their personnel on the ground, often risking life and limb, and to their donors, whether large or small, that they see past these considerations and look to relieve the human suffering that comes from the clash of interests and ideology.

Humanitarian responses can only do so much to relieve the suffering which is the symptom of underlying conflict.  It’s up the peace makers to look past the symptoms and get to the root of the problem.  There are enough natural disasters to deal with without man adding to them.  We can only hope that the leaders in the Syrian conflict say enough is enough and that some form of a deal is hammered out in Geneva.

Best wishes,

Eamonn

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