The former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese delivered the annual Henry Grattan lecture in conversation with RTÉ’s Northern editor, Tommie Gorman. The annual Henry Grattan lecture, this year on ‘Ireland-UK relations, past, present and future’ was hosted by the Embassy of Ireland in London in association with Trinity College Dublin.
The Henry Grattan Lecture forms part of an annual lecture series and is a flagship initiative of Trinity’s School of Social Sciences and Philosophy. The Ambassador of Ireland to Britain, Adrian O’Neill, opened proceedings.
In the course of her talk, the former president, Mary McAleese described herself as heartbroken by Brexit, adding that “we’re all going to be to some extent broken by it”.
Ms McAleese said EU membership had not only transformed the relationship between Britain and Ireland but created diversity, solidarity and understanding within and between its member states.
“This is what the European Union has given us, an integrated human family, a diverse human family, living together, working together, meeting together, sharing together, going to school together. And somebody wants to walk away from that? To interrupt it? To say that somebody in Europe or in Brussels didn’t connect well enough with us? I’m sorry, I’m heartbroken by Brexit and I think we’re all going to be to some extent broken by it,” she said.
She rejected the suggestion that Brexit was caused by the remoteness of the European institutions and affirmed her confidence in the European project of political integration.
“I am an absolute unreconstructed supporter of the marvellous adventure in democracy of the European Union. Frankly, it’s the best idea humankind has had forever. Forever.The best idea. And I can’t believe that anybody would willingly walk away from that or so freely walk away from that. I use the word ‘disappointed’ but actually I’m utterly heartbroken that people didn’t get it,” she said.”
On the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland she said that it was a healing mission and that the iconic visit sent out a really important message, but now that needs to be built on: “We do need to build these relationships, these were fractured relationships historically.”
She reflected on the recent visit of Prince Charles to Cork and Kerry. On the occasion of the visit seemingly an ordinary woman in the crowd was asked why she was there, to which she responded that she was a lifelong republican but believed in reconciliation.
“That reassured me that the message of building relationships between these islands is not just a mission for political leaders, for elected leaders, or monarchs or their children, but is actually a very important mission and in a sense an obligation on every one of us, everybody at every level, should do what they can to cement this. It seems to me even more important that this is done in this Brexit, and post Brexit, scenario where the structure of relationships will change.”
On a united Ireland and a referendum taking place in her lifetime, Ms McAleese said:
“If and when that referendum happens, and I don’t know when it will happen, it will be as much about people wanting a future that is bound to Europe, as well as to Ireland, and I think that changes the whole nature of the discourse.”