The Taoiseach’s speech yesterday had the potential for a monumental anticlimax.
It was always going to be very difficult to live up to the actual occasion.
The invitation to address the joint session of the US Congress was not just a personal honour for Bertie Ahern, but a tribute to this country as well. He was the sixth Irish leader to be accorded the privilege.
A little more than 100 foreign leaders have been honoured in this way since 1874, and it is particularly significant that so many Irish leaders have been included. The country from which most leaders came was France with eight, followed by Britain with seven and now Ireland with six.
All of those Irish leaders have been within the past 50 years. Thus, this country has actually had more leaders so honoured than any other country during the past half-century. This is indicative of Ireland’s standing in the US and the influence of the Irish diaspora there.
The Taoiseach matched the occasion with an excellent speech that was very well received. He sounded the right notes throughout.
He adopted a bipartisan approach that went down particularly well with his audience, as he evoked the spirit of President John F Kennedy, a Democrat, and President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, who each made particularly effective speeches at the Berlin Wall.
Those two American presidents were from the green Irish tradition, but the Taoiseach skilfully highlighted the historical Scottish-Irish tradition from which many of the earlier American presidents came. He stressed the US contribution to the peace process in helping to bring those two traditions together here, just as they have assimilated within that nation’s melting pot.
Mr Ahern made a moving reference to the role of Fr Mychal Judge, the Irish-American chaplain who has officially been designated as victim No 1 in the Twin Towers disaster. That evoked probably the most emotional response of the whole speech.
He paid tribute to the American contribution to the peace process and to Irish economic development, and he mentioned how this country now has so many immigrants, many of whom are helping their families abroad. With this he skilfully evoked the American spirit of hospitality, and he evoked the plight of undocumented Irish in the US with an appeal to the Congress.
“We hope you will be able to find a solution to their plight that would enable them to regularise their status and open to them a path to permanent residency,” the Taoiseach said. His words and the occasion were well chosen.
Mr Ahern, you have done us proud.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved