President or, if I may, Uachtarain,
It is a great honour for me to welcome you once again to Hillsborough Castle.
And let me say that you are always very welcome here.
“Cead Mile Failte”.
This evening we are gathered, along with friends and colleagues, to pay tribute to your achievements as President over the past fourteen years.
From the outset and on behalf of the UK Government I would like to thank you for the huge contribution that you have made to improving relations both on this island and between our two countries.
Your time in office has witnessed a transformation in the prospects for Northern Ireland, now with stable and inclusive devolved government…
…historic agreements between the two main traditions across Ireland, North and South, based upon democracy, self determination and consent
…and a thriving partnership between the UK and Ireland that until relatively recently would have seemed unthinkable.
In all of these areas your encouragement and leadership has been outstanding.
As a Northerner yourself we know how much the cause of peace and reconciliation here in Northern Ireland means to you.
Indeed a major theme of your Presidency has been all about building bridges between different parts of the community.
You have welcomed people from all backgrounds and walks of life in Northern Ireland to the Áras.
That, combined with your frequent visits here as President, have served to underline your determination to help build a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland.
Those are of course also the overriding objectives of the UK Government here.
So I am delighted that we are joined here this evening by so many people from right across the community with whom you have worked so closely over the past fourteen years…
…from business, charities, churches and voluntary organisations
…both the public and private sectors
Northern Ireland has of course come a very long way during your Presidency.
Politics is more stable than for a generation; the security situation bears no resemblance to the darkest days of the troubles.
Yet we still have a very long way to go.
All of us are living through some incredibly tough economic times.
There are still a small number of misguided individuals and groups who reject democracy and the will of the people of Ireland.
And we need to do much more to build a genuinely shared future here in Northern Ireland.
So in honouring your work as President over the past fourteen years I am confident that you will continue, in whatever capacity, to do all that you can to help move Northern Ireland forward.
In respect of the relationship between the UK and Ireland your achievements have been even more significant and successful.
Your willingness to mark out new ground began almost immediately when in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement you jointly opened the Messines Peace Park with Her Majesty The Queen.
All of us acknowledge that Britain and Ireland have had a troubled past.
As Her Majesty put it so memorably in Dublin Castle in May,
“With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all”.
We all echo those words.
But as Her Majesty’s visit demonstrated so vividly the relationship between Britain and Ireland today has never been closer.
And the bonds that tie us together have never been stronger.
Of course I see this on a daily basis in the co-operation I have with colleagues in Dublin.
That’s not just on security but on a whole range of political and economic issues.
And the relationship will prosper even when on occasion we might disagree.
But our shared interests go much further than just Northern Ireland.
Two facts vividly demonstrate this.
The UK exports more to Ireland than to Brazil, China, India and Russia combined, while the UK is Ireland’s largest trading partner.
It is estimated that as many as 6 million people in the UK have an Irish grandparent, while more than 100,000 people living in Ireland were born in the UK.
Politically, economically, socially and culturally we have a unique relationship in which far more unites us than divides us.
Put simply both our countries have a massive national self interest in each other’s success.
The visit of Her Majesty in May was truly historic.
The fact that it was finally able to happen at all is in very large part down to you.
It was a remarkable success for both of you and for our two countries.
Nobody who was there for any part of it could fail to appreciate Her Majesty’s delight in being there and also the warmth of the Irish welcome that greeted her.
In addition it demonstrated perfectly how we can deal with some of the most contentious issues of our past in a spirit of mutual respect and in a way which enables us to move forward.
I believe that in the commemorations at Islandbridge and at the National Garden of Remembrance you set the standard for everyone to follow as we enter a decade of centenaries on this island.
So, in conclusion, let me once again thank you for what you have achieved in your historic Presidency…
…for Northern Ireland
…for the island of Ireland
…and for all of us across these islands.
Slan agus beannacht leat