Ireland’s passion for freedom means it understands better than most why the war in Ukraine “matters so much to all of us”, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has said.
“You know that in Ukraine there is more at stake than the future of one country alone. Ukraine is fighting for freedom itself, for self-rule, for the rules-based global order.”
Addressing the joint Houses of the Oireachtas, Ms von der Leyen also said: “Brexit will not become an obstacle on the path of reconciliation in Ireland.”
The EU would continue to stand by the Belfast Agreement, she insisted. “There can be no hard border on the island of Ireland.” the EC president said to sustained applause.
She quoted the late SDLP leader John Hume, who described the European Union as practical and inspirational. All Europeans understood “how important it was to preserve peace on the island of Ireland”, she said.
“Ireland lies at the heart of Europe. And today all other Europeans look up to Ireland because you show Europe’s best face: innovative and inclusive; loyal to your history and traditions; open to the future and the world,” Ms von der Leyen said. “Ireland has made Europe a better place. Europe owes you.”
She came not to praise the union, but to thank the Irish people, adding “Go raibh maith agaibh”.
An almost-full chamber included TDs, Senators and former members of the Oireachtas as well as members of the diplomatic corps, Ireland’s Commissioner Mairéad McGuinness and Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill.
Ms von der Leyen cited five “Irish virtues” - passion for freedom, stubbornness, ingenuity, openness and optimism - that she said “will help our union to face our common challenges ahead”.
Speaking on Brexit, Ms von der Leyen said common sense and focus on the main issues can help resolve “the practical matters surrounding the protocol”. Her contacts with British prime minister Rishi Sunak were “encouraging”.
The single market must continue to function and “if both sides are sensitive to this careful balance, a workable solution is within reach”.
Referring to the five “Irish virtues”, she linked Ireland’s passion for freedom to the war in Ukraine. Ireland “knows what it means to struggle for the right to exist”, adding that “you understand better than most why this war matters so much to all of us”.
Ireland “has gone above and beyond in its support to Ukrainians”, who must fully recover what Russia has tried to take from them, “their freedom, a saoirse”.
Europe should learn from “Irish stubbornness,” to help the EU break free from dependency on Russian fossil fuels, as a “wind energy superpower” and key player in the European Green Deal.
She said Russia has cut 80 per cent of pipeline gas but the EU has replaced most of it. “We are safe for this winter,” but the union is at a crossroads and can “use this crisis to leapfrog to clean energy”.
On Ireland’s virtue of ingenuity, Ms von der Leyen said “this country of poets and artists has now become a country of start-ups too”, and a hub for pharma and high tech.
Speaking of Irish “openness”, she said Ireland is an exporting powerhouse is a staunch supporter of free trade.
Ireland’s most important virtue was its “optimism”, with 83 per cent of the State optimistic about the EU’s future, the same as when it joined 50 years ago.
Since then Ireland’s GDP had gone from about half the EU average to double it. Ms von der Leyen said that when she was a teenager married women were banned from working in the public sector. Quoting former president Mary Robinson she said “Irish women went from rocking the cradle to rocking the system”.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin thanked Ms von der Leyen for the EU’s “unswerving solidarity” with Ireland throughout Brexit and said the EU had played a significant part on the journey to people and reconciliation.
“Like you, we want to see a new and vital partnership with the UK. That will only truly be achieved if we can resolve the issues relating to the protocol, as I know we can if the right political will is there,” he said.
European members have stood with Ireland and Northern Ireland, he said to manage “the unique challenges” the island faces. He also re-affirmed Ireland’s “unswerving” political support for Ukraine.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald welcomed Ms von der Leyen’s “forceful assertion” that there could never be a return to a hard border in Ireland. She said the EU had been a critical partner for peace and “the EU’s solidarity will remain essential as we continue to address the fallout of Brexit”.
People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said the proceedings should not just be about backslapping as he voiced sharp criticism of the EU. He said it was long past time the EU acknowledged its mistakes in imposing austerity during the recession and its “devastating consequences”.
He welcomed Ms von der Leyen’s call for a tribunal to investigate Russian president Vladimir Putin for war crimes. But he said it was “utterly unconscionable” not to “simultaneously call for an investigation into the ongoing war crimes” by the “state of Israel against Palestinian people”.