On the morning of April 26, supporters of The Ireland Funds gathered in New York’s iconic Rainbow Room for a keynote address with the 11th President of Ireland, President Michael D. Higgins. President Higgins was visiting New York on a five-day trip and addressed the group as part of The Ireland Funds Women’s Leadership Series. John Fitzpatrick, Chairman of The Ireland Funds America, opened proceedings by welcoming President Higgins and his wife Mrs. Sabina Higgins. The President then thanked John Fitzpatrick for the invitation to speak and congratulated The Ireland Funds on all it had achieved over the past 40+ years since its founding. He referred to The Ireland Funds Women’s Leadership Series as a ‘a most important initiative’ and spoke of the advances made towards gender equality as well as the work that still needed to be done. He stated that Ireland believes in ‘removing all barriers’ and that it was privilege for Ireland to lead as Chair of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. President Higgins also saluted the role of women in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Following his address he was joined on stage by Mary Murphy of Pix11 for question and answers and then took questions from the floor. Kieran McLoughlin, Worldwide President & CEO of The Ireland Funds, wrapped up the official proceedings by thanking the President for his time and insightful remarks.
Speech at Ireland Fund’s Women Leadership Series event by President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins
New York, 26 April 2018
It is my great pleasure to be here today. May I thank the CEO of The Ireland Funds, Kieran McLoughlin for his kind invitation to speak here this morning. I am also delighted to have the opportunity to meet with members of the Young Leadership group, an emerging generation of philanthropists connected to Ireland, who are here this morning.
The Ireland Funds have worked tirelessly in promoting and supporting peace, culture, education and community development throughout the island of Ireland, and Irish-related causes around the world. With chapters in 12 countries, the Ireland Funds has raised over $600 million for deserving causes in Ireland and beyond. I have had the great pleasure of attending many other Ireland Funds events and seeing first-hand the projects you have supported. I would like to thank you for what you have achieved for Ireland since your establishment in 1976.
I am delighted to acknowledge the presence here today of John Fitzpatrick, Chair of the Ireland Funds, chair-emeritus, Loretta Brennan Glucksman, and Cliona Doyle, who runs the Women Leadership series – a most important initiative in a world which continues to face obstacles and many challenges towards attaining true equality, and the right of all women across the world to have their voices heard and their potential recognised.
The question of women’s rights is one that engages the fundamental structures and values of our society. In two years time we will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the most progressive and comprehensive strategic plan for the achievement of women’s rights in the different regions across the globe, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. As we survey progress made on this groundbreaking roadmap towards the achievement of full equality for females across the globe there is some reason to be optimistic. At the same time, there remains much profound and persistent global injustice for women, reminding us of the many immediate and longer term challenges which must be overcome if we are to achieve empowerment of women across the world.
In February 2015, I accepted the invitation from Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women to become a Champion of the HeforShe campaign.
This global campaign is one that has the engagement of men and boys at its core, seeking to bring one half of humanity together in support of the other half of our human family, and engaging institutions and organisations that are in a position to influence change within communities, and particularly those settings where women are most vulnerable to gender inequality and discrimination.
In taking up this role, along with a number of other Heads of State and Heads of Government, I committed to using the influence of my office to convey a simple but essential message: that men must stand up and show leadership if women’s rights are to be fully achieved.
A defining change in how the international community addresses issues of equality can be seen in the way women’s rights are now conceptualised as a universal human rights issue. This is recognised, not just in the HeforShe campaign, but also in the Sustainable Development Goals agreed here in New York in 2015.
We must all rejoice at the fact that gender equality was tackled in New York both as a transversal issue and as a specific Goal – Goal number 5 – which calls on all the nations of the world to:
“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”
The inclusion in the 17 goals and key targets, of targets under Goal 5 on gender equality, which explicitly call for the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls and the elimination of harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation is a significant step forward from the Millennium Development Goals.
The Sustainable Development Goals are aimed at the medium term, the aspiration being to end gender-based violence within 15 years. While we must all welcome the fact that women’s rights are recognised as a central question of development throughout the agreed text, we should, however, be animated by an even greater sense of urgency when tackling the issues facing women globally.
There is a clear and urgent need to challenge economic analyses that treat women as invisible, or that serve to reinforce situations oppressive to women.
We know that gender inequality lies at the heart of the gap between the richest and poorest people in the world. The economic marginalisation of women is not only bad for women, it also threatens global growth and stability.
It is over twenty-five years since governments, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, recognised women as one of the important groups in society to achieve sustainable development. Gender equality cannot, therefore, be seen as an issue and agenda totally separate from that of sustainable development.
In the area of science, for instance, which must be located within a paradigm of sustainability, the contribution of women is profoundly valuable. However, it is an area in which we are seeing disappointing, and indeed unacceptable, levels of female participation.
Across Europe, for example, women are greatly underrepresented in the fields of science and technology, with an estimated six to seven percent of technical positions being filled by women. Science is an important and influential discipline – one which has a pivotal role to play in the great concerns of humanity in our time, and one which has the potential to make the greatest contribution to improving our world. That is why we must keep asking ourselves why are there so few women in science and why is society being denied the intellectual contribution of so many who could be, but are not, represented in the world of science?
The discourses and attitudes suggesting female inferiority and fueling prejudice towards women are far from being the preserve of any singular culture or religion. Indeed, today we are witnessing a worrying surge of unapologetic sexism and the undermining of women’s rights in one of the world’s most advanced democracies. This reminds us that no society is ever immune to such harmful regressions of rights painstakingly won. We must never let down our guard, and confront, not just violence, but prejudice and disrespect wherever it arises.
Last year, women’s rights were to the fore of the public discourse. Sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace was openly discussed and called out across a range of high profile sectors including the film industry, politics and the media. Women’s voices are being heard and demands for change in behaviour and attitudes must continue to be progressed for the benefit of all society.
There have always, throughout our history been courageous women who raised their voices, insisted on being heard, and in doing so changed the world. In Ireland, 2018 is a greatly significant year which marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. It is a year during which we reflect on the women who refused to accept a world where they were considered to be of less importance, and to have fewer rights, than men. I think, for instance of women such as Constance Markievicz and her sister Eva Gore-Booth who were so courageous and determined in their pursuit of women’s suffrage.
Eva Gore-Booth established herself as the voice of the working classes in Manchester and across the UK, and many of her powerful writings still have a resonance today:
“upon the fact of sex there has been built up a gigantic superstructure of artificial convention which urgently needs to be swept away.”
Eva Gore-Booth’s legacy lives on in many ways but we can see it too in the continued and growing support for International Women’s Day which we celebrated last month. International Women’s Day was, of course, an initiative of the International Labour Movement back at the start of the last century. In fact, it originated as an initiative of the American trade union movement in 1909 precisely because the labour movement understood that workers’ rights and women’s’ rights go hand in hand. It was true then and it remains true.
In Ireland, as across the world, the exclusion of women led to the impoverishment of our public policy and our body politic, and resulted in too many lives which were not allowed to achieve their potential merely because of their gender.
Since the establishment of the First Dáil in 1919, strong women leaders such as Constance Markievicz have championed the pursuit of the increased participation of women in decision making. It is right to acknowledge the election of Constance Markievicz as the first woman elected to a parliamentary assembly on our islands in 1918. She was, of course, later appointed as the first democratically elected Cabinet Minister anywhere in the world, when she served as a Minister in the first independent Irish Government.
However, for too long during our 100 years as an independent Irish State, the voice of women in Irish political life was marginalised, ignored or silenced. The election and appointment of Countess Markievicz was a false dawn. It would take almost six decades for a second woman to be appointed to serve in an Irish government. Indeed, until 1973, women who married while in the Irish public service, were required to resign; with the exception of women teachers. At the same time, male members of the Irish public service received a pay rise on marriage.
Both of my predecessors Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese were remarkable women and both represent the profound and positive social change which Ireland has undergone in recent decades.
Ireland believes in removing all barriers and is pleased to play our part as a member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. It is a great privilege for our nation to act as Chair of the Commission, allowing Ireland to further promote the values we espouse in the area of equality and human rights.
The Commission – chaired by Ireland’s Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason, who is here with us this morning – recently achieved unprecedented success by reaching consensus on an agreement addressing the “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.” That agreement reminded us of all that still needs to be accomplished to eliminate those harmful practices that target women, such as female genital mutilation, which, though declining, is still prevalent across the world today.
This month we have marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the pivotal moment in the Peace Process on our island. History rightly records the active and dynamic participation of women in our Peace Process – the community group, the bereaved, the carers, the partners of prisoners, all those voices outside the walls and outside the mainstream crying out and working unstintingly for peace and for an end to the conflict.
We gratefully acknowledge the central role played by the Women’s Coalition in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The Women’s Coalition contributed in important ways in the negotiations to securing a broader and a better Agreement text, in what was an otherwise male-dominated process, in particular in stitching in the need for reconciliation in to the very fabric of the Agreement.
This prominent contribution by the Women’s Coalition also forged the way for political leadership by women in Northern Ireland today and for recognition of the gendered impact of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as is the case in all conflicts.
And just as women’s networks and groups made a crucial contribution at critical moments on the path to peace in Northern Ireland, so today they are at the forefront of efforts to further reconciliation in a still divided society.
Our diaspora is a central part of our story as a nation. They are an intrinsic part of who we are as a people, what we have done, and where we have gone in this world. Between 1845 and 1855, 1.8 million Irish people arrived in the U.S. Compared to other countries, more single women emigrated from Ireland and in greater numbers than their male counterparts. Indeed, Ireland has a unique perspective on emigration because of the unusual trends in the pattern of emigration of women from Ireland to America in the last century.
Many of these women went on to establish careers, primarily in domestic service and teaching. They sent money home and many subsequently brought their relatives to the U.S. While the bond between those who stayed and those who left remained strong and enduring, an early act of the emigrant Irish was to find other Irish and construct new communities of support and solidarity with one another. Women were instrumental in creating communities and building connections within Irish America. It is therefore vital that the powerful story of women is heard as part of the overall diaspora story.
Amongst those stories is that of Charlotte Grace O’Brien who travelled to New York in 1882. Her story was one that became vitally important for other young female Irish immigrants beginning new chapters of their lives here in America. Charlotte Grace O’Brien’s compassion for newly arrived young female Irish immigrants led to the establishment of the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of the Irish Immigrant Girls with Father John Joseph Riordan in 1883, and later to the establishment of a church serving the people of lower Manhattan. The Mission provided information and counselling to arriving immigrants and offered temporary housing for young women while they waited to be reunited with their families or until they found work.
Today many of Ireland’s emigrants turn to the immigration centres that have become the modern-day equivalent to the Mission. These organisations work tirelessly on behalf of our people and I am aware that many of you are very supportive of these centres. I greatly look forward to meeting representatives from those centres later this week.
The Irish abroad are so often innovative, resourceful and creative. We have built families, businesses and communities, arguably even countries. Wherever they have gone in the world, our people have made a positive contribution to the communities in which they have chosen to make their homes.
As a nation we in Ireland also remain very conscious of the enormous debt of gratitude we owe to those who have left these shores over so many years. Their hard work, and generous support and encouragement to those who remained at home have played a significant role in the shaping and crafting of the modern Ireland we know today. I am, therefore, always so very pleased to be able to acknowledge and thank in person, the representatives of our Irish communities across the globe who do so much to help each other, to support your homeland in so many ways, and who are such valued ambassadors for Ireland.
The Ireland Funds is an exemplar of those values of openness, generosity and hospitality. You are recognised as one of the most dynamic and successful Diaspora and Philanthropic Organisations in the world. We are proud of the work you do and are grateful for it. We thank you for doing it, because it is making a real difference to the lives of people on the ground. You are a vital part of the new Ireland which is being created.
It is an Ireland which continues to strive for a future defined by equality and respect for all our citizens. May I thank, therefore, in particular the inspirational women who have joined us here this morning You are a powerful symbol of what is possible for future women leaders both at home and abroad.