I was delighted to deliver the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Annual Memorial Speech, in Bruff Co. Limerick this afternoon.
John F. Kennedy Memorial Address
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Before I begin I would like to express my gratitude for the kind invitation from the Bruff Heritage Group to deliver the annual John F. Kennedy Memorial Address. It is a pleasure and a privilege to have been asked to make this speech at The Thomas Fitzgerald Centre here in Bruff, County Limerick. I would also like to congratulate Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh on his receipt of the 2016 Fitzgerald Bible Bruff Award. This represents a fitting acknowledgement of Mícheál’s commendable contribution to Irish sport and Irish society generally.
As has been well documented JFK’s ancestors on the Kennedy side of the family hailed from Dunganstown, County Wexford and his ancestors on the Fitzgerald side of his family originated here in Bruff, County Limerick. Therefore in many ways John F. Kennedy personified the deep and abiding links of history, ancestry and friendship that continue to underpin the relationship between Ireland and the United States. To understand what connects this rural town to the 35th President of the United States you have to go back to 1852 and the decision of JFK’s great-grandfather Thomas Fitzgerald to go to America in search of a better life, leaving behind an island that was still ravaged by the effects of The Great Famine. In large part as a consequence of the scourge of emigration which over the last 2 centuries has touched almost every generation of Irish men and women more than 30 million Americans today claim some ancestral connection with Ireland.
However the links between the United States and Ireland are as old as the American Republic. In 1772, four years before the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin, the envoy of the American Revolution and one of the country’s founding fathers, was received by the Irish Parliament in College Green. Throughout history the political leaders of both nations have drawn inspiration from each other. On this island the men of 1798 were stirred by the ideals of liberty and self-government that underpinned the American Revolution. Abraham Lincoln, the emancipator of the slaves and the man who preserved the American Republic in its darkest hour, was inspired by the dignity and eloquence of Robert Emmet. Leading figures in the movement striving for the abolition of slavery in the middle of the 19th century such as Frederick Douglass were encouraged by the internationalism and moral force of Daniel O’Connell, drawing sustenance from his principled opposition to the injustice of slavery. In the late 19th and early 20th century the cause of Irish freedom could always depend on considerable support from within the United States. In the last century the people of this island have seen the best of American global leadership in the presidencies of Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and Obama.
On the economic front American investment has been integral to the transformation of the Irish economy in recent decades from a laggard when compared with the rest of Europe to one of the most open and prosperous on the continent. Today Ireland is home to over 700 US companies employing 140,000 people across the country.
In June 1963 John F. Kennedy became the first American President to visit Ireland during his term of office. This visit reflected and contributed to a more optimistic time in the history of the country. The 4 decades between the achievement of independence and Kennedy’s visit had been marked by underachievement in terms of our economic and social development. However by 1963 we had experienced a welcome rise in prosperity and the country was seeking to play a more active role in international affairs by pursuing membership of European Economic Community and becoming more receptive to the benefits of international trade and investment after a long economic stagnation during which 400,000 Irish men, women and children left the island in the 1950s. It was, in short, a time when we began to realise some of the promise of self-government by discarding a stifling insularity that was ill-equipped to meet the needs and the aspirations of our people. The fact that in his address to Dáil Eireann Kennedy endorsed the shift in Irish economy policy and our desire to play a more active role in international affairs was a great boost to our political leaders who were becoming ever more aware of the need to look outward in pursuit of national advancement in an increasingly interdependent world.
In advance of this speech I have been reading the private papers of my grandfather Seán Lemass. In a series of unpublished interviews conducted with the former journalist Dermot Ryan he spoke of the boost to the national morale that was produced by the visit of JFK in the summer of 1963. Of particular significance for him was the ceremony at Arbour Hill when Kennedy became the first head of state to lay a wreath on the graves of the 1916 leaders. In the words of my grandfather, ‘you would have had to be alive in 1916, to realise the real significance of this event – the head of the greatest state in the world coming to pay honour and respect to the men who had been shot at that time.’ In becoming the first head of state to attend a ceremony honouring the leaders of the 1916 Rising, Kennedy, as the American President, conferred the recognition and the respect of the United States on the Irish struggle for independence.
When I think about the legacy of John F. Kennedy what comes to mind is effective leadership in uncertain times and an enduring commitment to public service. JFK was President in tumultuous times; from the dignified demand of African Americans to possess the basic and fundamental civil rights that were enjoyed by the vast majority of Americans to the recurring threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. A number of historians argue that Kennedy’s greatest achievements as President were his management of relations with the Soviet Union and his effectiveness in discouraging a US military mind-set that accepted the possibility – indeed, even the likelihood – of a catastrophic nuclear war with Moscow. This was in evidence during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 where scholars are unanimous in their belief that this episode was the most dangerous moment in the 45 year Cold War. The discovery of offensive Soviet missiles in Cuba that could reach the American mainland represented a grave threat to the security of the United States. It is a great testament to Kennedy’s leadership, restraint and effective diplomacy that he managed to resist the unanimous advice of his military advisors for a military solution to this emergency, which would have almost certainly produced an international conflict and possibly a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, in favour of the removal of the missiles through a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
The experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis convinced Kennedy as to the futile logic of the Cold War and that an international order based on peace and security could not be achieved unless relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were improved. In this regard the first arms control agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union, the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963, represented a commitment on the part of the Kennedy administration and their counterparts in Moscow to reduce Cold War tensions. The treaty was therefore a milestone in the successful 45 year struggle to prevent the Cold War from turning into an all-out conflict. The agreement to ban nuclear weapons testing represented one of the most significant achievements of JFK’s presidency because it demonstrated that whatever the political and ideological differences that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union these could be resolved without recourse to armed conflict. Kennedy is also to be commended for his unwavering commitment to the security of allies which helped to maintain peace in Europe at a time when the continent was divided between the competing camps of authoritarian communism and liberal democracy.
During the presidency of John F. Kennedy we saw the best of American global leadership as well as a judicious and realistic appraisal of the problems facing the international community. This approach to leadership should serve as a reminder to those who have recently espoused simplistic solutions to complex global problems. It is essential that this lesson be heeded in light of the many intractable international challenges which include economic dispossession in an increasingly globalised world, the present migration crisis, terrorism and state security, the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change and the need for an effective and mutually beneficial outcome in the negotiations around the UK withdrawal from the European Union.
The nature of American leadership under the Kennedy administration was also in evidence in his establishing of the Peace Corps. This allowed for skilled American men and women – teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers and technicians – to volunteer abroad to help to raise the living standards of poor and developing nations. Since the inception of the Peace Corps in 1961, some 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries. Through this organisation, volunteers work within communities sharing their skills and expertise to equip locals with the capacity to solve the challenges that face developing nations. That the Peace Corps has proved to be one of the enduring legacies of Kennedy’s presidency is evident by the fact that Democratic and Republican administrations have continued to finance it for over 50 years. The Peace Corps is representative of America at its best; a generous, advanced nation seeking to provide a helping hand to developing countries around the world.
The other striking feature of John F. Kennedy’s legacy can be found in his deep commitment to public service. I share JFK’s conviction in the capacity of the state and its servants and institutions to do good, to meet the most pressing policy challenges of the time and in turn bring about an improvement in the quality of life for its people. Kennedy was aware that a commitment to public service represents a concern for the welfare of one’s community and for the wellbeing of all of those who abide within it. However his conception of public service was broader than this. In his famous inaugural address from January 1961 John F. Kennedy challenged his fellow Americans to ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’. This historic call to service and civic engagement represented the very best of the American democratic tradition. It can be seen as a concerted attempt by Kennedy to encourage his generation to live up to the call of the American founding fathers to create ‘a more perfect union’. It is doubtful whether such a call would be heard today amidst the partisan rancour of contemporary American politics. This is because a commitment to the highest ideals of public service involves not pitting the concerns of one segment of society against another but instead constitutes an obligation to advance the welfare of the nation as a whole.
The pursuit of such an endeavour, despite the inevitable and indeed welcome political disagreements, depends on a sense of common purpose and a shared resolve to improve the economic, social, civic and political life of the nation. I am convinced that JFK made this call to service because he was acutely aware that many of the essential components of a civilised society are largely provided through the public sphere: education, health, justice and security. If politics is a matter of who gets what, when and how; then it is through public service and civic engagement that we have the capacity to influence how such essential matters are decided. In other words it is through public service and civic engagement that we can best shape the collective decisions which govern the life of the nation. The essence of the values of public service and civic engagement are found in people working together in common cause for the betterment of the community.
Given the fact of a considerable erosion of public confidence in political institutions in many advanced democracies largely as a consequence of the recent economic crisis it is imperative that we recommit ourselves to the highest ideals of public service. As I have discussed earlier we in Ireland as well as our international partners face many complex policy problems. I hope that in attempting to surmount these challenges we can be inspired by John F. Kennedy’s belief that the complexity of the problems facing a country or the world as a whole is not a cause for despair but a call to action. I believe we will heed that call.