Canadian leader outlines country's links with Ireland

 

Mr Jean Chretien, the Canadian Prime Minister for six years, who is visiting Ireland, is a genial and canny 65-year-old stalwart of his country's politics, having served in the federal House of Commons since 1963, most of that time in the cabinet. He is a lawyer who has worked in the corporate sector.

A francophone from Shawinigan in Quebec, he learned his English from friends with an Irish background. He is delighted to visit, since "a great number of Canadians relate their roots to Ireland. I like the Irish and their mentality - it is relaxed like us."

In the 1996 census 504,030 Canadians claimed Irish ethnicity as their single origin and 3,263,80 claimed it as one of two or more ethnic origins, some 14 per cent of the population. They are mostly in Ontario, but numerous too in other provinces.

They are as much Protestant as Catholic and surprisingly numerous in francophone Quebec. Many Irish orphans were adopted during the Famine years from the island of Grosse Ile in the St Lawrence river, where so many of their par ents died - but they insisted on keeping their Irish names. In Montreal 400,000 people took part in this year's St Patrick's Day parade.

The Irish are something of a bridge group between the two great traditions there, many having identified with francophone Catholicism; but Mr Chretien pointed out in an interview at his residence in Ottawa that historically the Irish have tended to vote for his federal Liberal Party.

A senior Irish source in Canada pointed out that most Irish have been federalists rather than separatists in Quebec, seeing the potential outcome as partition rather than independence. Until rec ently, it must also be remembered, the Orange Order was a powerful force in Canada.

There are many cultural links. Mr Chretien is accompanied by a delegation, including its chairman, Mr Patrick O'Brien, from the very active Canada-Ireland Inter-Parliamentary group.

Yesterday Mr Chretien began his official three-day visit to the Republic, having spent the weekend in Northern Ireland, where Canada has a significant involvement in the peace process and most of whose leaders he has met over the years. He met the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, the President, Mrs McAleese, and other political leaders.

The Minister for International Trade, Mr Sergio Marchi, is with him, plus a powerful business group with up to 100 members. Ireland is the fourth largest recipient of Canadian investment worldwide; and Canada is the second largest source of foreign investment in Ireland, where there are 39 Canadian companies and a further 41 in the International Financial Services Centre. Ireland has a three to one surplus in a rapidly growing trade relationship.

Mr Chretien is very impressed with Ireland's economic progress and sees a need to rebalance trade in Canada's favour. While acknowledging the sentimental link he says: "I don't think the money is moving only on sentiment. The Canadian people found that Ireland was a good place to invest. It was strategically well located, positioned within the European common market, English-speaking and with a young dynamic workforce."

He expects significant progress in economic relations as a result of the visit, one of many he has paid around the world in an active Team Canada trade diplomacy.

He points out some surprising facts. It would be quicker and cheaper, for example, for Dubliners interested in a skiing holiday to fly to Conor Brook in Newfoundland than to Austria, he told Mrs McAleese.

Ireland and Canada share foreign policy approaches too, Mr Chretien points out.

"Politically we move along in a lot of areas we know as international activism - on land mines, small arms and other projects of good governance, such as the International Criminal Court. Ireland supported us for our seat on the Security Council and we will support them when their time comes next year."

Ireland and Canada are members of an 11-state initiative to ban the use of nuclear weapons. They share attitudes to UN reform and peace-keeping operations.

The Canadian Minister for International Affairs, Mr Lloyd Axworthy, has taken a number of such initiatives in pursuit of a new agenda on human security. He believes this is a rapidly emerging set of issues, driven as much by non-governmental organisations as by governments.

But Canada's international influence would be affected, he agrees, were Quebec to secede, as might happen if there is a Yes vote in another referendum there, now widely expected next year.

Mr Chretien is optimistic this will not happen, especially after the Canadian supreme court judgment last year. It insisted the question must be clearly put and decided, then negotiated according to established principles of democracy, federalism, agreed borders and international recognition.

Mr Chretien is widely expected to lead the federalist case as Prime Minister next year if another referendum is called in Quebec. That would set him up to fight the next federal elections, rather than stand down as party leader, as is suggested by several political commentators. Cannily, he keeps that question open.