Ireland's president sees a bright future

Prosperity: The European Union has brought the promise of economic growth to modern Ireland.

May 21, 2000

MARY McALeese, President of the Republic of Ireland, visited Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley last week during her five-day U.S. tour. In an interview, Ireland's second consecutive female president discussed the changes in her country, the tenuous peace process in her Northern Ireland homeland, and the enduring bonds between Ireland and the United States, where 44 million people claim Irish ancestry - about 16 percent of the population.

You spoke about the American love of Irish history and you talked a little about what Ireland is like today. Tell us a little more about the changes over there.

One of the reasons for coming here is to be able to tell the story of the modern Ireland. We're very aware, because of the history links, that many people here know Ireland or maybe think they know Ireland. ... But they may not know of the story of the modern Ireland and we think it's important that they know, because they have part ownership of that story.

The story of modern Ireland, of course, over the last decade is a story of phenomenal economic success matched by remarkable cultural confidence. And now finishing off the charmed circle, we sincerely hope, will be the gift of permanent peace.

And again, you don't have to unpack the story of the peace too far to see how involved America was the creating of that story.

So I think it's also important to come back and say thank you, and to hope that relationship sustains, because certainly if you look at the story of inward investment in Ireland, it's the story of the United States' and Ireland's phenomenal new relationship. One of the major investors in the burgeoning new Irish economy is the American investor.

Looking back over the last 25 years, what do you consider the most critical event in Ireland?

Without a shadow of a doubt, the most cathartic thing for Ireland, I think, was the joining of the European Union. It's slightly outside your 25-year time frame but it's close enough. Over the last quarter-century, membership in the European Union has transformed the fortunes of Ireland. It's transformed the feeling of the place; it's transformed the self-confidence; it's given us access to this huge market.

It also, of course, has given very substantial financial transfers, and those transfers were used well. They were used to seed what we now see as the flowering of the Irish economic story. Certainly I've been to Hungary and the Czech Republic, both of whom are aspiring members of the European Union ... and they are both strongly inclined to the view that Ireland is the model that they wish to adopt and to follow in order to promote their own chances for membership in the European Union.

You mentioned the Industrial Revolution and it's kind of interesting because we're struggling here in Baltimore with the closing of factories and the poverty related to that. Your country skipped that. Do you feel you may be better off as we're going into this new Information Age?

Yes, I think we were very fortunate. Certainly, the southern part of Ireland missed the Industrial Revolution. It wouldn't be true of the north of Ireland which did hit the first Industrial Revolution.

Northern Ireland is now experiencing the withdrawal effects from that ... big employers like the shipyards that used to employ 30,000 and 40,000 people now reduced to hundreds rather than thousands. These things eat away at self-confidence. We've been very fortunate in the Republic of Ireland that the positioning of the country was such that it was really a convergence of both good business and good judgment and good luck that allowed the republic, which was not overwhelmed in the first Industrial Revolution, to plan where it could position itself in the coming revolution.

And it saw technology as crucial and central. It made its commitment to that and that commitment was clearly visionary and has paid off handsomely.

As the first Irish president from Northern Ireland, tell me your thoughts on the recent developments and the Irish Republican Army's willingness to have their weapons inspected.

Like most people, I woke up on the morning that the IRA made its announcement and I just thanked God. I was delighted. I was overwhelmed by it. I wept and I realized as soon as I heard it that it was capable of taking us into the new future.

That was the reaction of most people. Many of our Unionist friends were on the phone to us within minutes and over the coming days saying "thank God." This was the piece of the jigsaw puzzle that was needed. And they certainly felt themselves a deep sense of destiny about to happen. And I think that is true, and, please God, it will.

I know that there are people who are nervous about it and jittery as you would expect. You know it is a time of considerable change - it does require of people that they begin to trust. You're asking people to trust who have for generations not trusted. Some of them have made the jump, others are still nervous. But I am convinced that we have a critical mass, a significant critical mass.

President Mary McAleese spoke with Gerard Shields, who covers Baltimore city government for The Sun .

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