Barbara Nolan, then Head of EU Commission Representation in Ireland, at the launch of Black History Month Ireland in October 2014
Good afternoon everybody and thank you Imma [Imma Francis, Black History Month Ireland committee member]for your kind words.
First of all I’d like to welcome you all to European Union House. We’re very happy to be able to host you here today. We have a great facility here and we’re very pleased that you’ve been able to come to us and have your meeting here today.
As many of you will know, the European Union motto is United in Diversity. It’s about recognising the diversity of our experiences and cultures and histories but also trying to work together to find common solutions to the challenges we face. And the theme for this year’s Black History Month in Ireland – Civil Rights, Ethnic Diversity, Intercultural Education and Development – I think ties in very nicely with what the European Union is all about. It’s often forgotten that the EU has come a very long way from being founded after the catastrophe of – in particular – the Second World War and it’s now become the most successful peace project that we have ever had in Europe and that’s precisely because it’s based on the recognition and celebration of ethnic diversity, the importance of intercultural respect and understanding between the different member states of the European Union and the development of a set of rights that are common to us all and that we’ve all come to take for granted.
The French writer Victor Hugo said about the Europe of the nineteenth century:
“A day will come when the only fields of battle will be the markets opening up to trade and minds opening up to ideas. A day will come when bullets and bombs will be replaced by votes, by universal suffrage of people.”
And happily, I think, for the EU citizens, Victor Hugo’s dream has become a reality – at least in the 28 member states of the European Union.
We have a lot of school groups who visit our premises here. We try to teach them about the European Union, what it means, try to help them understand it because we have quite complex machinery as to how it all works. And it’s often very difficult to explain to them why the rights that we enjoy now as European citizens are so important and why they mean so much in particular to those who remember a day when these rights weren’t so evident and a lot of young people tend to take naturally these rights for granted. They have never known another reality. They have no memory of the Second World War. Indeed I have no memory myself – I hasten to add – of the Second World War, but they have no idea of how far we’ve come. And we have to go back; it’s very important not to forget history because to understand the present we need to understand the past and to go forward we need to understand the past.
Nowadays, of course, EU citizens enjoy so many rights. They enjoy the right to freely live and work and study and establish a business and easily travel across from one side of the continent to the other in 28 member states. And yes, it’s all not perfect – there are still some bureaucratic glitches.
They have the right to vote in elections in other member states They can decide they want to retire in another member state. If they get a job in another member state they have exactly the same rights as the nationals of that member state. These are huge achievements in a way and as citizens we rely on EU law and its implementation across the 28 member states. For Irish women, for example, when Ireland joined the EU in 1973, many of the laws here in Ireland were actually quite regressive and backward by the times of the day.
For example, a woman working in the public service was expected – was obliged – to give up her job when she got married; the idea being that once you got married, you didn’t need a job any more. So it was EU law in the field of equality between men and women that forced Ireland to change its laws in this regard and enabled whole generations of Irish women to have careers that they wouldn’t have had before EU membership. We forget that this was all part of people’s common everyday life, these restrictions; EU equality legislation has been key to raising standards. We have a whole raft of EU legislation concerning working conditions, with things like parental leave, maternity leave, all of these things have been advanced thanks to membership of the European Union. We have also enhanced protection of individuals – we have the Charter of Fundamental Rights, many of you will have heard of that, which is now part of EU law, and we have obviously in other areas like environmental protection, and planning – all of these things have been modernised and brought up to date thanks to membership of the EU. And citizens are entitled, for example – even, if you think of things like your flight being delayed – you’re entitled to compensation now thanks to EU law on air passenger rights. We have been working on reducing your charges for your mobile phones when you’re roaming from one country to another. Our big objective is to get rid of them completely from the EU because we say we’re in one single market, so why do we have all these additional charges linked to moving from one country to another. So in short the EU has given people a whole range of opportunities. Membership of the EU has brought this to citizens of the EU. Of course, we also face challenges. I don’t want to paint the picture too rosy. We are just coming out of a really dramatic economic and financial crisis that started in the US but then spread very rapidly across the globe and affected Europe, indeed, very heavily. But I think it is a testament to how far we’ve come in the evolution of EU that member states are working together to find solutions on behalf of the 500 million people that are living in the EU. I hear that there is a Nigerian proverb that states that “In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.” I hope that’s right! If there are any Nigerians in the room they may correct me if that’s wrong. And I think that’s a very good illustration of why protectionism and insular societies and trying to shut down our borders and our contacts with other people really doesn’t work. Our future must be about building on our shared experiences and working together to find common solutions to our problems.
Zeph: I notice that in an interview you gave recently, that you said you hope that the celebration you’re launching today will one day be called African Irish History Month. And already we can see the impact that Ireland’s and Europe’s citizens – the new Irish as i’ve seen them called as well, and I think there are a few of them here in this room – are having on communities and civic life across the country. This will of course increase over time but it’s already reflected in the number of people standing for election, for example, in local elections in Ireland and the growing number of Ireland’s new citizens involved in volunteer work, in building the community around their local schools and churches and it’s also of course reflected in the rise in the profile and size of Africa Day which has taken on a whole new dimension, I think, in the past couple of years and it has really gone very big indeed. Relations between Ireland and many African countries go back a long way. Yes, we had the missionaries who went to Africa over the past century. There are as many lay people, the teachers, the doctors, the nurses, the business people whose lives have been shaped by their time in Africa. I met a lady who came here today told me she is very connected to Africa from her time there. Today’s Irish businesses are also establishing themselves in the new markets in Africa in a number of African countries. And let’s face it: We all know that Nigeria continues to be the third largest market in the world for Guinness and Ghana, Cameroon and Kenya are following closely on Nigeria’s heels in that regard. Another key Irish export to Africa is of course Brother Colm O’Connell. He went to Kenya in the 1970s to teach in the schools and while he did indeed teach in the schools, he has also ended up coaching a number of first class elite Kenyan athletes including the incredible David Rhodesia, the runner who is an outstanding sportsman.
So Ireland’s new and more diverse society is indeed enriching and enhancing life here in Ireland in a variety of ways and I think it’s really welcome that the organisers of Black History Month are working to highlight this positive effort so I congratulate you on your efforts to promote cultural awareness and intercultural education. You’ve put together a wonderful range of activities and I wish you every success with your activities ahead and your goal of creating African-Irish Month, which I hope will become a reality.
I am very sorry that I have to leave but I have somebody else waiting on me. I’ve already apologised to the Ambassador. I wish you all the best and I hope you have a very interesting discussion today.