Zelensky will become the latest leader to address Oireachtas
John F Kennedy. Nelson Mandela. Bill Clinton. Tony Blair. And now Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Ukrainian president’s speech to a joint Dáil and Seanad session is set to become the latest in a series of video-linked speeches to parliaments around the world to ensure his country’s voice is heard.
While internationally the speech itself is one of dozens the Ukrainian leader has delivered since Russia invaded his country, and therefore may seem trivial, in Irish political life it is a prospect entirely different.
Recognizing this fact is key to explaining the serious message that today’s event at Leinster House intends to send.
Since the founding of the Irish state, only 11 current or future foreign leaders have taken center stage in the Irish parliament.
Honor is rare – and the appearance of Volodymyr Zelensky indicates the gravity of what is currently happening in Ukraine and the potential consequences of the ongoing conflict.
John F Kennedy – The History Maker
US presidential visits to Ireland are commonplace in the modern era, with five of the last six White House incumbents dusting off their best green ties and family trees – and current President Joe Biden has publicly declared his intention to visit. soon.
But in 1963 it was different, meaning John F Kennedy’s return to Ireland and invitation to Dáil Éireann made history.
The son of Irish emigrants from Boston returned ‘home’ in June on the same European tour in which he told a German crowd ‘ich bin ein Berliner’ – traveling to Limerick, his ancestral home in Dunganstown in County Wexford – and eventually Leinster House on June 28, 1963.
His iconic appearance at the Dáil was the first time a foreign dignitary spoke at the Dáil, and saw him highlight the grief of emigrants fleeing a land in conflict for safety abroad – a message that still resonates.
President Kennedy left the Dáil with a quote from Irish poet George Bernard Shaw, saying: “Other peoples see things and say ‘why’. But I dream of things that never were and say ‘why not’ .”
Almost exactly five months later, he was shot in Dallas, his trip to Europe and Ireland being his last overseas.
Ronald Regan – The Cold War Era
Two decades later, Republican President Ronald Reagan became the second foreign leader to be invited to speak at Leinster House – June 4, 1984.
As with most aspects of life, the second time was not so innocently remembered, with President Reagan’s appearance at the Dáil leading to a walkout by Workers’ Party TDs Tomás MacGiolla and Proinsias de Rossa, and the TD left-wing independent Tony Gregory.
The incident didn’t put off the then-White House incumbent, who, like his predecessor John F Kennedy, focused on emphasizing his Irish family ties and discussed his prospect of l Cold War stalemate at that time.
Nelson Mandela – Cry of Freedom
The following years saw Ireland’s parliamentary invitations move further, with the visit of Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke in October 1987 and French President François Mitterrand in February 1988.
But it was the visit of someone who, at the time, had yet to become the leader of his country, that once again caught the public eye.
On July 2, 1990, Nelson Mandela – who, five months earlier, on February 11, 1990, had taken the final steps of the long march to freedom, hand in hand with his then-wife Winnie Mandela – came at Leinster House.
In his speech, the future president of a post-apartheid South Africa who was then deputy head of the African National Congress spoke of the violence perpetuated by the apartheid regime, saying he “condemns to the gallows” of good people, imprisoned others, “and drove some into exile” whose only crime was “to shout ‘freedom'”.
Quoting Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Mr Mandela said ‘too long a sacrifice can make the stone of the heart’.
But, pointedly, he added that the only way to overcome this is through “love of warm hearts which the oppressor has sought to turn to stone, love of his country and his people, and ultimately , the love of humanity itself”.
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair – The Peace Process
It was a point that reflected the following decade in Ireland, with ceasefires, peace talks and eventually a peace agreement in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.
And, while they were far from the only national and international leaders involved, the presence at the Dáil in 1995 of US President Bill Clinton at the start of real talks and of British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 after the signing of the Belfast agreement underlined the progress made.
On December 1, 1995, Mr Clinton said his visit to Belfast had made him realize “the immense hope” that this era could lead to a lasting peace, which at the time was far from certain.
To clarify this point, he described the scenes he saw after he spoke to the crowd at the switching on of the Christmas tree lights in Belfast City Hall, telling the Dáil: “The people want peace, and they will get it.”
When Tony Blair visited Leinster House nearly three years later on November 28, 1998, that hope had turned into reality, after the signing of the Belfast Agreement on April 10 of that year.
Mr Blair’s appearance in the Irish parliament was the first of any British Prime Minister, a record he noted poignantly, saying: ‘I deeply feel the enormity of the honor you are doing me. let’s not underestimate how far we’ve come, and agree that we’ve come too far to turn back now.”
Who else spoke? – Brexit, the EU and the world
Other foreign speakers at the Dáil included Australian Prime Ministers Bob Hawke in October 1987, Paul Keating in September 1993 and John Howard in May 2006.
Similarly, French President François Mitterrand addressed the Dáil and Seanad in February 1988 and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl addressed the Dáil in October 1996 – both in their native languages.
On April 18, 2019, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi also appeared at an unofficial sitting of the Dáil and Seanad to re-emphasize the need to continue the peace process regardless of or the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.
But the number of times foreign leaders have been invited to speak at Leinster House remains rare.
A reality that underlines the importance of the message sent by the presence of Mr. Zelensky in the hearth of Irish politics.