Speech by John Bruton accepting an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree at Memorial University, St. Johns, Newfoundland in October 2003
Mr. Chancellor, Your Honour, Mr. President, Mr. Pro-Vice Chancellor, Madame Vice Chair of the Board of Regions, Members of the Board of Regions, Members of the Senate and Faculty, Members of the Graduating Class, distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honour to be conferred with a Doctorate of Laws by Memorial University. I receive this honour as a politician. Down through history the profession of politics has been the subject of cynicism amongst the general population. The public attitude could well be summed up in the quotation cited by H.L. Menken who said “a politician is an animal who can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground”.
It is therefore of particular significance to me, as someone who has devoted my entire working life to politics in my own country and further afield, to be honoured in this way as a politician. I regard it as an honour to my profession, as well as to myself.
Why is politics so frequently derided and misunderstood ? It is because politics is not so much about finding the answer to questions, to which there is only one right answer. -questions in that category are dealt with by other professions.
Rather is politics about questions to which there is no one right answer, but several answers, some of which benefit some people, but none of which usually will benefit everyone.
This is what makes politics so difficult, and yet so important to achieving a harmonious society. Good politics is one of the highest forms of public service. It is a vocation, not just a means of making a living.
I am, as I have said, especially honoured to be receiving this particular degree, but even more so to receive it from Memorial University. Firstly, because of the connections I have with Newfoundland and Labrador, of which I will say a few words in a few minutes.
Secondly, I am honoured because the University, in its very name, is a Memorial to all those who died in the Great War of 1914 -1918. I am well aware of the huge numbers of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who died or were injured in that conflict some of whose relatives are probably here today.
The Great War deeply affected both Ireland and Newfoundland. 49,000 Irish people died in that war, side by side with soldiers from Newfoundland.
In the case of this Province, the debts undertaken by your government to fight that war crippled it financially to the extent that it was eventually unable to continue as an independent entity. In the case of my country, the violence and the passions unleashed by the Great War set it on a path which led towards complete Independence, but also towards a Civil War and the partition of the island.
In a sense, we are both still living with the consequences of the Great War, and we should see whatever sacrifices we face today against the background of that much greater sacrifice. One of the reasons that I have become so involved in promoting European Union is to help to ensure that divisions in Europe never again will be the cause of such suffering to humanity.
I first visited Newfoundland in 1976. Coming from Ireland, what struck me most was not so much the physical beauty of this place, or even the weather, but the cultural heritage, the accents, and the music of Newfoundland.
Newfoundland and Labrador are truly unique in North America. Here the culture of the old world has been preserved and enhanced like nowhere else. That is why, for an Irish person in particular, coming to Newfoundland is like coming home.
The Irish who came here between roughly 1700 and 1850 – the oldest and most enduring of all Irish migrations to North America – brought a strong culture with them, a strong sense of neighbourhood and of neighbourliness, and have preserved that, in many ways better than it has been preserved back in Ireland. This cultural inheritance is something of great value, as is Newfoundland’s tremendous cultural inheritance from the South West of England.
These inheritances have in very recent times, given voice and inspiration to a new generation of accomplished Newfoundland artists, writers and musicians.
Like Ireland, Newfoundland had experienced loss. The loss of emigration. The loss of traditional employment, and the loss of contact with the outside world derived from physical remoteness.
But as in Ireland’s case that loss has been the spur to a vigorous cultural revival. The loss Ireland experienced after its Great Famine of the 1840’s was the spur to its unprecedented cultural revival of half a century later. It is no accident that Newfoundland is now experiencing a cultural revival.
Your physical and folk heritage, held in less esteem in the past, is now being vigorously chronicled. Literature of a high quality is emanating from creative artists here.
In Ireland’s case, while our literary revival took place in the 1890’s, our economic revival did not take place until the 1990’s. I hope that Newfoundland and Labrador does not have to wait that long !
Indeed it was to help accelerate the process a bit that in 1996, Brian Tobin and I agreed a Memorandum of Understanding between our two Governments. Under it an immense amount of valuable work has already been done in fields as diverse as marine technology, business and human development, student internship, and folklore. I pay tribute to all those involved in this Partnership, my successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the Chief Executive Ms. Agnes Aylward, Chief Executive in Newfoundland Mr. Vince Swithers, and Mr. Walter Kirwan, Deputy Chairman
I especially pay tribute to the President of Memorial University Dr. Axel Meisen and everyone in Memorial for the commitment that they have shown to making this relationship prosper. Universities on both sides of the Atlantic have embraced this partnership with enthusiasm, notably University College Dublin, University of Limerick, and Waterford Institute of Technology, all of whom have a special relationship with Memorial.
Mr. President, when you look at all the trouble spots of the world, you soon realize that, the most important politics of all is the politics of identity.
“Who are we ? “
“What makes us different? “
It is the answers to these identity questions that lead countries to great achievements, but which sometimes lead into destructive conflicts with one another, and within themselves. Until identity questions are solved, people find it very hard even to address other political questions.
One of the most attractive features of Newfoundland for me, is that you have solved the identity question. Newfoundlanders are deeply proud to be Newfoundlanders, but they are also proud to be Canadian. Europeans are only beginning to learn, what you already know, that it is possible simultaneously to be a Catalan, a proud Spaniard, and also a proud European.
Northern Ireland’s troubles can be symbolized in the conflict between the Harp and the Crown – the conflict between Irishness and Britishness. People there mistakenly feel that they must have one identity or the other, and never both.
Yet here in Newfoundland, The Benevolent Irish Society – the oldest society of its kind in North America – in whose St. Patrick’s Day parade I participated in 1996, has a banner which includes both the Harp and the Crown. This shows that the Irish who came to Newfoundland before our Great Famine had a sense of Irish identity that did not exclude wider allegiances as well.
You, the students who have graduated today, are going forth into a competitive and challenging world.
I hope that you will not lose sight of the really important things in life. Your excellent education here has been a privilege. It is a privilege that you should put to the service of others.
Your time is the most valuable asset you have. Remember that no-one on their death bed ever regretted having spent too little time in the office!
The things that are really important are your family and your close relationships, and I would like, on this very big and proud day for me, to pay tribute to the person without whom I would not have been able to have led such a fulfilling life to date – my wife, Finola – a lady of great achievement in her own right – who is here with me in Memorial this morning.