Please Enter a Search Term

Address to convocation

Dr. Walter Kirwan

It is a wonderful honour and genuine pleasure for me to receive this Honorary Doctorate from a university for which I have enormous respect, born of my experience as one of the first Coracle Fellows and of working closely, over the past ten years, with many people here, in my capacity as Vice-Chairman of Ireland Newfoundland Partnership.

I accept this honour, nevertheless with a sense of humility, when I contemplate the other honorary graduates whose achievements and contributions are recognized at this convocation.

Congratulations to them all!

I feel certain that I must owe my inclusion to the promptings of the many friends I have made in and around this great university. I hope they will forgive me if I pay a very warm and well deserved tribute to just one person, your recent President, Dr. Axel Meisen.

All in Ireland who worked with him consider that he gave outstanding leadership to this institution. Certainly he never flagged in the enthusiasm and quality of his efforts to facilitate, in every way, Memorials remarkable contribution to the renewed links and developing partnership between Ireland and Newfoundland and Labrador. All his many friends in Ireland wish him every success in his challenging new position in Alberta.

My citation refers to my role in forging the political settlement in Ireland and strengthening the links between Ireland and this province.

Today, I want to say a little about both those aspects but also to set my remarks in a wider framework of what I am going to call "Old Public Management", subverting a label that will be more familiar to faculty and students in Political Science and in Public Administration than graduates in music, pharmacy and medicine – but it may not be long before they too experience its influence.

New Public Management refers to a direction or style in government and in public administration that is more open to the role of market mechanisms.
In espousing old-fashioned values in these fields, I do not advocate a return to stifling bureaucracy or the embrace of an excessively centralized command and control form of government.

No, but drawing on over 30 years experience at senior level during a period at which Ireland has been transformed, what I do advocate is an activist, ambitious, self-confident role for public servants, a role and an approach based on values of integrity, patriotism and disinterested public service.

I want to suggest to those graduating this week that there is great satisfaction to be derived from a productive career in a developmentally-minded public service, motivated by those values and ideals. And I want to caution against the risks, including to such values – inherent in the undue expansion of the profit motive into domains- such as public health and public education - that are, I am convinced, the proper province of public entities.

But before I startle any more wolves on the Albertan prairies or in the burgeoning Irish medical-industrial complex, let me return to the two strands in my citation.

On the 6th of this month, the last day in office of recent Premier Bertie Ahern, Prime Minister, I stood with him and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, the redoubtable Rev. Ian Paisley, on the green grassy slopes of the Boyne as the song goes, as they cut the tapes to open a new National Heritage Park on the site of the biggest battle ever fought in Ireland.

There, on 1 July 1690, King James II and 30,000 troops, Irish and French Catholics faced King William of Oranges multinational Protestant army of 36 000. The reverberations have echoed down the centuries and across the ocean, reaching even as far as Bonavista, Harbour Grace and many other places in Newfoundland.

But, on 6 May last, happily, we were all on the same side of the river and those like me, as green as my tie, my colleague once asked “does that tie come with batteries” we were intermingled with many from Northern Ireland wearing the orange and purple of the loyal orders. One might say, looking at the history of Newfoundland and adapting famous phrase from a leading Northern Ireland Politian "Newfoundland for slow learners".

For as Taoiseach Bertie Ahern put it a month ago today in his address to the Joint Houses of the United States Congress, "Ireland is at peace"... "Our dream and the dream of all the friends of Ireland ... across the world has come true."

On 10 April, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, on which that peace is based. We did so at a time when, after some bumps along the way, all the institutions and arrangements the Agreement provided for are up and running, the main arsenals are decommissioned, the military are dispersed to other theatres, the economies, North and South are thriving and ever more closely intertwined.

Much work remains to be done to heal the hurt of the victims of violence and to moderate sectarianism but--touch wood--we have reached that point where, as Nobel Prize winner, the poet Seamus Heaney put it:
'Once in a lifetime, the longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.'

To play a part in bringing about the realization of that dream was a deep source of professional satisfaction. But it also meant a lot to me personally too. My dear late wife Anne was from Derry city, epicentre of the modern day phase of troubles.

G.K. Chesterton said, of the Irish that all their wars were merry and all their songs were sad.

There was nothing merry about the savage troubles of the 1970s, 1980s, well into the 1990s in Northern Ireland. For long it was a tale of atrocity piled upon atrocity, seemingly descending into the hell of civil war.

It never quite went that far but I remember Anne's bitter, angry tears as we got news of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in her native city or the news of the IRA murder of the policeman husband of one her best friends, in whose house I used to stay. Over the years of the troubles we wept in chagrin and in shame over many atrocities on all sides.

I was with former Taoiseach John Bruton, who proceeded me at this podium, as the multi-party talks opened in June 1996. I remained a senior member of the Irish government delegation throughout. I was in the room in Belfast at 5pm on Good Friday 1998 as talks chairman US Senator George Mitchell got a positive response from one delegation after another. The feeling of relief, of achievement, of exhilaration was and remains unforgettable. It was a high point in my life.

It is worth recalling here in Newfoundland – the most Irish place outside of Ireland, percentage-wise – that among the changes to our Irish constitution made pursuant of the Good Friday Agreement was the inclusion of the following new sentence in Article 2 – thus up at the very front,
I quote: “Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with the people of Irish ancestry living abroad who shares its cultural identify and heritage." Unquote.

There has been recent practical follow-up on that, but even before the Good Friday Agreement, our Government had concluded our unique Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of this province.

I got the job, as a sideline from Northern Ireland, of ensuring that the MOU did not gather dust on a shelf. It has been a labour of love. "At Home Abroad" is the title given by Irish writer, Micheal Coady, to a book chapter on his visits here. For me, that title sums up how I felt when I first came here and how I still feel every time I come –and this is my 22nd visit.

Time constraints prevent me reviewing the extensive nexus of cooperation we have developed to mutual benefit. Music has loomed large and I have had the pleasure of hearing (Quaint Assumable Vocal) in Ireland and other musical groups associated with Memorial, we are moving on medicine and Doctor Pat Parfrey, he was mentioned here as a member of the Board of our counterpart organization, art and business partnership here in St. John’s and we have covered everything from poetry and film to oil exploration and seabed mapping.

We in Ireland have, I believe, much to offer as a gateway to European markets and as a laboratory of successful innovation in economic and social policy. In other spheres, such as marine and ocean science, we aim and we stand to benefit from co-operating with your more advanced players, including entities attached to this university.

But I often feel in my visits here, that we have most to gain in taking to heart how so many people here, well exemplified by some of my fellow honorary graduates this week, mirror to us and remind us of the value of, some of the best of what have been our own qualities and values.

We in Ireland risk losing a grip on these in a more buoyant economy and in a society increasingly marked by individualism. Back home, there was recently a timely and remarkable pause to reflect on these trends as, on the occasion of his passing, many paid tribute to the late former President Paddy Hillery.

He was a man who combined with the late, great Craig Dobbin, to establish the Ireland Canada University Foundation for whose bursaries many Newfoundland students apply. Back in the Ireland of the 1960s, without fanfare or benefit of spin doctors, he pioneered radical reforms in education which paved the way for a dramatic increase in participation at the second and third levels. He went on to quietly and effectively to make a contribution right up to 1990.

Let me mention just two major projects under development under the MOU umbrella. One is what we call the Irish Legacy Project at the Rooms. Following agreement between Premier Williams and ex-Taoiseach Ahern, we are well advanced with the development of a project to present a permanent experience to explore and celebrate the Irish experience in and contribution to Newfoundland and Labrador, and to illustrate the connections, historical and contemporary, between our two islands.

Jointly funded by the two governments, we hope this project will be open to the public in the rooms, if not by the end of this year, then by early 2009.

The second proposed project, currently the subject of a formal feasibility study, is to develop a university field studies centre to be located in the quintessentially Irish Newfoundland community of Tilting on Fogo Island, I noticed there are a few nurses from Tilting among the graduates this morning, it will be located in Tiltin – but would act as a focus for field studies and academic activities right across the Northern Islands and the entire Kittiwake Economic Zone. This centre is envisaged as drawing courses, modules, students and faculty from universities across Canada and to a lesser extent from the United States and Ireland.

But if it to happen and to thrive, this university would need to take a significant degree of ownership.

I can do no more today than to commend the concept to your authorities, to faculty members and to your Harris Centre, and to urge them to come to it with open and positive attitudes as the consultants undertaking the feasibility study seek to engage with them.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, as in Ireland, universities must be developmentally minded but in ways that advance the common good in the wider sense – and certainly not only as measured in the bottom lines of for profit pharmaceutical or private health care corporations.

Similarly, we need to see from governments and public services a return to the levels of ambition and the perspectives of public purpose that gave us the successes of economic planning in France and Ireland or the creation of universal health systems in Britain and Canada or, on the international plane, the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Agreements.

As my partner Marie O'Connor has shown in her work and writings, notably in her books and in her writings, we need much closer interrogation of the alleged benefits of public private partnerships, more attention to the results of research on the respective outcomes from public and from private, for profit healthcare, less readiness to outsource, to firms of private sector consultants, advice on such crucial issues as the location of regional hospitals.

I am proud to have been part of a public service that, in partnership with political leaders - and not neglecting the major contribution of the private sector - has played a major part in transforming my country.

But it wasn't though public/private partnerships that we chalked up so many negotiating successes in the European Union. We didn't outsource the peace process around Northern Ireland. We didn't outsource the management of the social partnership process that has underpinned our economic successes.

So I say let our public services take heart from their achievements and how ambition and confidence in what we can get accomplished.

Finally, a word of thanks to all my friends and associates who accepted the invitation to be here today, including present and past chairpersons and executive directors of INP's counter organisation in St John’s, Ireland Business Partnership, with whom it has been a privilege to work, word of thanks also to my partner Marie, to my son, Colm and daughter, Eilis, who are here today, happily share the values on which I have sought to focus these remarks today.

Thank you very much.