Fintan Phelan Addresses WIP 2012 Irish Embassy Farewell

If not us, who? If not now, When? If not here, Where?

Ambassador, Director of the Northern Ireland Bureau,  President of Dublin City University, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen thank you greatly for being here today. I want to thank in particular the Ambassador and Mrs. Collins for hosting this event and opening their beautiful home to us this evening.

The support that you and the Irish Embassy have given to the Washington Ireland Program has been unwavering throughout the summer and over the years. Thank you greatly for that.

My name is Fintan Phelan. I hail from a small county in the south east of Ireland, the second smallest in fact, County Carlow. I am going into final year, studying Economics, Politics and Law at Dublin City University.  My internship this summer was with Congressman Peter King, I am very grateful to the Congressman and his staff for providing me with an unrivaled insight into American politics.

The bonds that have been created this summer between the entire class of 2012 have been heart warming and It is a great honor to have the opportunity to speak to you today on behalf of my colleagues from the Washington Ireland Program.

If not us, who?  If not now, When?  If not here, Where?

Those three simple statements have stuck with me throughout the summer. Throughout the vast leadership curriculum of the Washington Ireland Program I have been challenged, enthused and inspired.  Challenged by the discussions I had with my peers on the future of Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Enthused by motivational speakers, such as Jake Sullivan and Niall O’Dowd.  Inspired by America and her great leaders such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  I have realized that each and every one of us has a role to play in our countries. Not a role sometime in the future, but a role now, today, as young leaders.

There are two facets of the Washington Ireland Program which have stood out to me during the summer.  The first is the relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland and the second is the Irish-American relationship.

Relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland

Exploring the relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland was a key motivating factor for me in applying to the Washington Ireland Program.  Very quickly I realized that we all must go beyond the labels that we attach to each other; whether that is unionist, nationalist, loyalist, republican.  Instead we must actively seek to understand one and other.  As it is only through understanding each other that we can truly sustain peace on our island and write a better future.

Let me give you an example of how the Washington Ireland Program dealt with the relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Just last week we had a presentation focused on the 12th of July and the Orange tradition in Northern Ireland.  What followed the presentation was an open, frank and honest discussion about what it means to be Northern Irish, Irish and British.  If we had this discussion in week 1 or 2, labels would have been attached to people.  But because we had spent 6 weeks; sitting beside each other, laughing at my great jokes and running from storms together we had built up tremendous understanding and respect for each other. That understanding and respect shone through in our discussion last week.

You know sometimes the way you frame the question is more important than the question itself. The Washington Ireland Program has created the framework in which we can engage with each other in an understanding and respectful way and that has been an invaluable asset to us. The duty is now upon us to continue this engagement, long after our summer in Washington.

Irish-American Relationship

After living here in Washington for 8 weeks it is hard not to be struck by the close relationship between Ireland and the United States. In fact it was hard not to be struck by it in the first 5 minutes from the airport when Shane MacGowans ‘Fairytale of New York’ began playing on my host dads stereo, even though it’s not Christmas.  That’s dedication!

The Irish American relationship is unique; it transcends generations and encompasses thousands.  It is not just a relationship of two sovereign states. It is much more than that. Throughout this summer that is something I was struck by.

Whether it was seeing a 17th century map of my hometown Carlow in New York, or meeting prominent Irish Americans such as Goldman Sachs Deidre O’Connor or seeing an Irish Senator drop into Congressman Peter King’s office on my first day, which by the way saw me play an interesting role as interpreter between the Congressman and the Kerryman. Whatever it was, there wasn’t a single day this summer that I did not feel the strong bonds between our two countries.

The links we have established here in Washington with our internships, our great host families and with our guest speakers are more links to add to the rich relationship between our countries. It is a relationship which we must continue to nurture and cherish.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Washington Ireland Program has strengthened the relationship between Ireland, Northern Ireland and The United States.  Times are tough at home just like here, let there be no doubt about that, but this program has renewed our spirits for the future.  We go back to our countries challenged, enthused and inspired.  Ireland and Northern Ireland have a bright future.

One of the founders of modern Ireland Sean Lemass once said

‘A defeatist attitude now is certain to lead to defeat, its primarily a question of whether we have confidence in ourselves and in the abilities and the diligence and determination of our people. We can’t opt out of the future’

And he’s right, so let’s shape it.