Barack Obama photo

Remarks at the Congressional Friends of Ireland Luncheon

March 19, 2013

President Obama. Thank you so much. Please, everybody, have a seat.

To our host, Speaker Boehner, to the distinguished Members of the House and the Senate, thank you all for having me here today. Obviously, we are thrilled to have the Taoiseach back, and his lovely wife and his delegation.

But before I begin, I just want to say a few words about a tragic accident in Nevada that took the lives of seven explosion, U.S. servicemember deaths and injuriesU.S. servicemembers and wounded several others yesterday. All of us share our thoughts and prayers with their families. And I think this should serve as a reminder that even as we're able to gather today in tradition and in friendship, it's the extraordinary and enduring sacrifice of our men and women in uniform that make this possible and the sacrifices that their families make as well. And all Americans stand united in grateful support of all that they do.

Now, I know I speak for everyone when I say we're pleased to welcome Taoiseach Kenny and his wife Fionnuala back to Washington. They are just wonderful friends. I also want to welcome First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness from Northern Ireland. Where are Peter and Martin? There they are right here.

We spend the whole year trying to bring this town together, and these leaders are able to do it in a single afternoon. They even get us to dress alike. [Laughter] So my question is, how long can you stay? [Laughter] Because we've got some budget discussions coming up. Perhaps you can be helpful.

Now, even though most of the debate in Congress on this day is about who is more Irish than whom, that doesn't make it any less heated. But no matter how much green is in your family tree, remember that Speaker Boehner is part Irish and spent much of his childhood surrounded by characters in his father's bar, so the rest of us are probably playing for second place in this contest.

I will say that after visiting my ancestral hometown of Moneygall 2 years ago, I've now seen the official Irish records proving my Irish heritage on my mother's side. I thought that would come in handy more often, but it turns out that on St. Patrick's Day, people just take your word for it. [Laughter] I'm keeping all my records. [Laughter] Just in case. [Laughter]

The truth is we have plenty of Irish men and women here today, but not just today, here every day. They represent the latest in the long line of sons and daughters of Erin who have walked the halls of Congress and who've occupied the Oval Office. To adapt an old saying, the curse of the Irish is not that they don't have an opinion about anything, it's that they have an opinion about everything. So it's not hard to see why politics has always been a good fit.

But no matter how far Irish Americans travel or how high they climb, the Emerald Isle always has a way of pulling at their heart strings. President Kennedy once joked that he would support any Presidential candidate who offered him an ambassadorship to Ireland after he left office. His younger brother Teddy Kennedy remembered walking along the beach as a boy and hearing Jack tell him that on a clear day, you could see all the way to Ireland.

And then there was President Reagan, one of the founders of this gathering. During his time in office, he made a pilgrimage back to his home county of Tipperary, and walking through the ruins of an ancient cemetery, Reagan came across a large stone with the following inscription: "Remember me as you pass by, for as you are, so once was I. But as I am, you will be, so be content to follow me."

And apparently, one visitor could let that stand because below the inscription, somebody had carved: "To follow you I am content, I wish I knew which way you went." [Laughter]

For my part, I will never forget the magical day that Michelle and I spent in Ireland. The Irish people were incredibly warm and incredibly gracious, even with a little mist falling. They made Michelle and me feel right at home, and we both left with thousands of new friends and dozens of new relatives. And I'm very much looking forward to visiting Northern Ireland for the G-8 summit this June.

So on this St. Patty's Day, let's remember the Irish, both those who have left us and those who are with us today, who have fought and bled and labored to make this country a better place for their children and for ours. Let's give thanks for the men and women who proved that through hard work and perseverance, anybody can earn themselves a piece of the American Dream.

And let's welcome our Irish brethren who have welcomed so many of us, not just as allies and as friends, but as family as well.

So to our guest, the Taoiseach of Ireland, I would like to propose a toast: To the eternal friendship between our two countries.

[At this point, President Obama offered a toast.]

And with that, should I go ahead and just introduce him, or you got something to say? [Laughter] With that, let me introduce Taoiseach Kenny.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland. Please. I am not the President of the United States, I'm a visiting Taoiseach from Ireland. Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Tánaiste Gilmore, Ambassadors, First Minister, Deputy First Minister, ladies and gentlemen: You have no idea of the impact that a day like this makes on us and the honor that is bestows on us for our people.

I want to thank you for your grandmother's recipe for the spinach. It's absolutely delicious. [Laughter] So it's a privilege, actually, to come back here again to Capitol Hill on this St. Patrick's week, the extension of a tradition going back for very many years to celebrate Irishness and the connection between the United States and Ireland in so many forms over the years.

When I came here 2 years ago, I was able to report that we had come through very challenging times and were starting on the implementation of a strategy and a program to rescue our public finances, to restore our economic independence, to put our people back to work, to restore our integrity and credibility internationally. And I'm very happy to be able to say to you that 2 years on, despite the enormous challenge that this has presented, Ireland has made very steady progress. We hope to exit the IMF-EU program later this year and be able to be back fully in the bond markets next year and play our part as a constructive, competent country in the interest of our people.

So to have our third consecutive year of economic growth, a return to the bond markets has been on a phased basis. We had a $5 billion sale, with yields down from 14 percent to just over 4 percent in less than 15 months, which was quite a significant move for Ireland.

But I also come here not just as an Irishman or as Taoiseach, but as the presidency of the European Union. I did say to the President that I'll only get this chance once, because the Presidency revolves through the Union on a 6-monthly basis, so it will be 16 years or thereabouts before it comes back to Ireland again. It's a great thing that as the President of Europe, I can meet the President of the United States on our own ground, both Irishmen. [Laughter] Think about that.

But to be serious, may I say, I want to thank America and the United States for their continued interest, for their support—for their tangible support—in respect of Northern Ireland and the difficulties that we've had there over the years. And in the presence of the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the Tánaiste, and the Speaker and the President, I want you all to understand that this a time of great fragility in Northern Ireland. It's a time for clear political leadership. And we as a Government in the Republic—together with the executive First and Deputy First Minister, the British Government, and all the parties—want this to succeed. We want it to succeed. We do not want a situation where those minority who have bad thoughts and bad blood want to turn the days back to the dark days of the Troubles. We do not want that to happen.

As we approach the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, as one of the coguarantors of that agreement, we, together with the British Government, the executive of the elected assembly in Northern Ireland, will walk with all of these partners to restore a clear sense of political leadership and progress for peace and continued peace.

And that's why, Mr. Speaker and Mr. President, it's absolutely critical that the American administration continue to show the support that they've always done down through the years, and there are Representatives here from Congress and from the Senate who have demonstrated that more than amply.

So my plea is to keep that interest very much alive, because we intend to work very diligently on that in the time ahead, both the Tánaiste and I. I might say that this year we mark the 50th anniversary of the visit of President Kennedy to Ireland in 1963. And as he said, it was his words and his visit that time when he said, "We are divided by distance, but united by history." And these things are so true.

And that's why the year of the gathering in 2013 is Ireland's call to people from all over the world to come back in the year of 2013 to sample the delights and the hospitality of our country if they choose to do so. We don't want them all to come together, because 75 million might be a bit too much to arrive at one time. [Laughter] That's why I know that the President was happy to speak about the Ryanair deal with Boeing. Even all those planes fully laden, flying 24 hours a day, wouldn't be able to get that diaspora in there fully.

So let me just say that this is a time of great confidence returning to our country. Yes, fragility and obstacles up ahead, but as a small country, we want to play our part in the European Union with our great friends here in the United States.

On Thursday—on Sunday, I had the privilege of going to Breezy Point to see the devastation wreaked by Sandy, but also to see the spirit of the community which is focused on being—rebuilding that community stronger than ever. I admire their courage. I admire their consistency. And there is a word for it, Speaker, in Ireland, when communities come together with a common objective, support and assistance is given pro bono, we call it the meitheal concept—m-e-i-t-h-e-a-l. It means that when communities are down, communities rally together, and our sense of values and conviction and belief are stronger than ever. I was very happy to go to Breezy Point and see that.

Now, the news is not out yet, but on some golf course in Ireland, some morning, the local greenkeeper is going to wake up, and he says, a three ball gone down there, and they're not sure who it is. None of them are really good golfers, though, they could have impact in other places. This match has yet to be arranged. It's between the Speaker of the House here, Mr. Boehner, who proclaims that he's the best of the trio——

Speaker of the House of Representatives John A. Boehner. I do. [Laughter]

Prime Minister Kenny. ——the President of the United States, and the Taoiseach of Ireland. And we can't go on Air Force One; it's too obvious. We can't go on a military machine, because they would know it's from the U.S. Air Force. So you're going to have to arrive by Irish style, and in that sense, we have our own ways of getting onto golf courses that nobody knows about. [Laughter] And if they find out, you'll understand what the digital communications system is able to do, because I doubt if you'll get off the place without having to sign thousands of autographs.

Listen, thank you, here in Congress, Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, for your diligence, for your friendship, for your courtesy. We love this country and want to work with you for the benefit of so many people. So we've spoken about immigration, Northern Ireland, EU-U.S. trade—that's where the future is. And after all, the future is the only place where we all have to live.

Thank you very much, indeed.

NOTE: The President spoke at 1:05 p.m. in the Rayburn Room at the U.S. Capitol. Prime Minister Kenny referred to Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore of Ireland; Ireland's Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Collins; and U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Daniel M. Rooney. Audio was not available for verification of the content of these remarks.

Barack Obama, Remarks at the Congressional Friends of Ireland Luncheon Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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