President highlights the penal past and new trade and cultural links


The penal past of the Irish in colonial Australia and the new trade and cultural links between the two nations were highlighted yesterday by the President, Mrs McAleese, on the second day of her official visit in Perth.

She also inaugurated Australia's first Centre for Irish Studies in the Western Australian capital and spoke out against the culture of conflict in Northern Ireland which had caused so much grief.

The former maximum security prison at Fremantle, where so many convicts and migrants from Ireland landed, was the scene of Mrs McAleese's first short sightseeing trip of the 11-day tour.

She was shown around the gloomy cells, which were still in use up to 1991, and the Catholic chapel in the historic tourist attraction which was home to prisoners for 136 years.

The President began the official first day of spring in Australia in unseasonal rain, with a breakfast address to the Irish Australian Business Association.

She set out the main themes of her first official overseas tour by referring to the achievements of present-day Ireland, giving reassurance about the peace process and forging closer links with Australia.

Mrs McAleese told the audience: "The economic renaissance we are enjoying today is matched by a very strong cultural renaissance in every discipline.

"We are delighted by the global reach by so much of that new cultural energy because, of course, as an island of five million people with a global family of 70 million our cultural roots are spread all over the world."

Australia is Ireland's sixth most valuable market outside the EU, heavily weighted in favour of alcohol, with stouts and whiskey going one way and wines the other.

The President said Ireland had benefited from the inward direct investment of 15 Australian companies, including manufacturing and financial services, which now employed about 1,400 people.

"Ireland is a country in its stride, self-confident. Not smug and arrogant, just so pleased that at last its talent is flowering organically, spontaneously, naturally."

She said the Australian parliament's resolution in support of the Belfast Agreement, and the Governor-General's recent official condolences over Omagh, had been deeply appreciated.

"We knew the agreement would be tested, but we did not know to what extent it would be tested, and if there will be any more tests in the future," she said.

"But one of the extraordinary things which came out of Omagh, amidst the bleakness and grimness of Omagh, was the enormous reassurance at the robustness of the agreement."

And she took aim at those on the fringes who she said sought to use force to try and bring the agreement down. "The vast majority of people in Ireland are deeply determined to squeeze them out and make sure there is no place for them and their philosophy of doom or their conflict culture.

"We are a culture that is moving to create a culture of consensus; we no longer want any part of the culture of conflict which has kept our people back and created so many heartbroken people for so many generations."

Then it was on to Murdoch University in Perth to inaugurate the Centre for Irish Studies, which was a joint initiative between the Australian-Irish Heritage Association and several universities.

"This will be the first such centre in Australia even though we are one of the most `Irish' countries outside Ireland," Murdoch's Vice-Chancellor, Mr Steven Schwartz, said.

"Perth has a higher proportion of Irish-born people than any other Australian city, and the heritage association, which is based here, is one of the most active Irish organisations in Australia."

The President, her husband, Dr Martin McAleese, and the party flew from Perth to Sydney last night where the tour continues.