By Laura Donnelly-Smith
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny received the Graduate School of Political Management’s first Making Democracy Work award and delivered the Paul O’Dwyer Lecture to a crowd of about 100 in the State Room at 1957 E Street on Monday. He spoke about the responsibilities that democratic nations have to help spread peace and prosperity and his efforts to work collaboratively in the European Union to pull Ireland out of its economic quagmire.
Mr. Kenny has been prime minister, or Taoiseach, since March 2011, and has also held the Council of the European Union’s rotating presidency spot since January.
“I was told we were coming to a university, where everybody understands all the languages of the world, so…” he said, launching into rapid Irish as the audience laughed.
“I’m personally honored that the George Washington University should bestow upon me their Making Democracy Work award,” Mr. Kenny said. “Was it not George Washington who said, ‘Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages’? Here in the United States and in Ireland, we have the privilege, on too many occasions and for too many people, to take our democracy for granted. It is precisely because we do have democracy that makes our duty to all those countries and people struggling to assert their democratic rights all the more urgent and, indeed, all the more sacred.”
Mark Kennedy, director of GSPM and a former member of Congress, said Paul O’Dwyer, the Irish immigrant turned prominent New York lawyer after whom the lecture series is named, was an ardent supporter of the Irish-American community in New York City, as well as immigrants of many other backgrounds. He also defended those who most needed defending.
“He was the lawyer who really represented the underdog, whether you’re talking about someone trying to get their union rights, an African American trying to get their civil rights, or an Irish fighter trying to fight for Irish independence and freedom. Whether it was someone accused of Communist activities, whether is was someone fighting for a Jewish state—Paul O’Dwyer fought for them all, and did a wonderful job,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Brian O’Dwyer, B.A. ’66, L.L.M ’76 and a member of the GSPM board of advisors, said his father and Mr. Kenny both demonstrated a dedication to those in need.
“Enda Kenny and his government have reached out to the poor and the dispossessed, and made sure they were not disproportionately hurt by this [economic] crisis…. In Ireland, the worst thing you can say about someone is ‘He forgot where he came from.’ No one has ever said that about Enda Kenny.”
Mr. Kenny said his role as the chief of a still-young republic drives everything he does.
The government in Ireland today is composed of two parties—Fine Gael and Labor—with vastly divergent views on many topics, but is working on a program to transform the economy and the structures of the political system itself. His government is also working on rebuilding Irish citizens’ trust in the European Union.
The unemployment that has plagued both Ireland and, more broadly, the EU, is “crushing,” Mr. Kenny said, especially for young people.
“Facing another day with no hope, with no work to go to….confidence is easily eroded and, more damaging, hope is eroded. That’s a recipe for disintegration,” he said.
He said European leaders can remedy the unemployment crisis only by working together and realizing no country is isolated or independent anymore, but rather interdependent.
“We cannot allow a generation to grow up believing that democracy has failed them,” he said. During Ireland’s six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, which began in January, Mr. Kenny set an agenda for increasing stability and growth, including increasing EU-U.S. trade. In a discussion with President Obama after his reelection, Mr. Kenny brought up this topic, he said. The European Council has also endorsed negotiations on trade growth, which could begin later this year.
In February 2011, the Irish people voted to allow the government to fix public finances and restructure how business is done to put more people back to work. Since then, the country has made what Mr. Kenny called “a credible start” on tackling unemployment and economic contraction. Ireland’s economy is in its third consecutive year of growth, and the nation is now ranked first in the world for availability of skilled labor.
In addition to economic recovery, maintaining Ireland’s hard-won peace and promoting peace around the world are his priorities, Mr. Kenny said. Ireland is the only nation to have had peacekeepers located somewhere around the world at every time since the formation of the United Nations in 1945.
People in troubled communities have the ability and the will to work collaboratively to resolve issues peacefully, “using politics to succeed where violence never can,” Mr. Kenny said. In the EU budget for 2014-2020, his government was able to designate €150 million for peace projects in fragile communities in Northern Ireland, to build a cycle of respectful and honest conversation and show communities that democratic politics can work. And in Ireland’s upcoming constitutional convention, politicians from the north and south will come together to discuss constitutional reform.
Mr. Kenny said his three main goals were well known in Ireland: to make Ireland the best country in the world in which to do business, in which to raise a family, and in which to grow old with dignity, all by 2016. In November 2012, the Irish people voted to add a constitutional amendment recognizing children’s rights, and the nation’s first senior government minister for children was appointed.
In this week’s visit to the United States, Mr. Kenny met with President Obama and members of Congress and visited Breezy Point, N.Y., a community with a large population of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans that was heavily affected by Hurricane Sandy. He also visited the site of the World Trade Center, where he heard about a pear tree that had survived the 9/11 attacks. It was replanted at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, where, with expert care, it eventually began to thrive. In 2010, the tree was again replanted, this time in the 9/11 Memorial Plaza at the WTC site.
“The tree is a symbol of what democracy can be when it is treated and nourished and allowed to flourish,” Mr. Kenny said. “Paul O’Dwyer said, ‘Politics is the only machinery around on which you can really straighten things up.’ He indeed never forgot his roots, and it is my privilege to follow in his footsteps in that regard.”
Audience members included GSPM students, faculty and staff as well as former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf and family members of the late Charles T. Manatt, J.D. '62, who served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Kenny did not take questions after his address.