VOL 124 NO. 11
Closer than ever
By Jennika Pierie/ SUN contributing writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach, or prime minister of Ireland, spoke to an overflow crowd in Le Moyne College’s Panasci Family Chapel on Tuesday, March 15. He said he was drawn to Syracuse by the honorary degree that the college was bestowing on him, by the Syracuse community’s strong ties to Ireland and by the traffic lights.
“I’m really looking forward to later, being on Tipp Hill,” Ahern told the chuckling crowd. “I’ve heard all about the traffic lights.”
Tipperary Hill’s famous inverted traffic lights place the green light at the top, rather than the bottom. It is an example of what Ahern called the rich and enduring Irish tradition in the area.
“America has never forgotten the roots of many of your people,” he said. “Your friendship has sustained us through very difficult and tough times.”
Ahern was invited to visit Syracuse by Representative Jim Walsh, who chairs the congressional Friends of Ireland Committee, co-chairs the U.S.-Irish Inter-parliamentary group and authored the Walsh Visa Bill — the only U.S. legislation affiliated with the Northern Ireland peace process.
Walsh said that from the process is evolving one of Europe’s strongest economies and a government in which Irish citizens can see progress and feel some ownership after many years of conflict. “It brings peace to a wonderful people,” he said.
The conflict began when England colonized Ireland and imposed the Protestant faith on an overwhelmingly Catholic population. In 1918, after years of struggle, Catholic nationalists declared an Irish republic separate from English rule. In 1920, two separate parliaments were established in Ireland: one for Catholic Ireland and one for Northern Ireland. And while a treaty was signed with Britain in 1922 and the Republic of Ireland was officially established in 1949, terrorist organizations still fight for the unification of Ireland.
Ahern, who was elected prime minister in 1997, was instrumental in the development of the Good Friday Agreement, which addresses issues in the relationship between the Republic, Northern Ireland and Britain, as well as relationships within Northern Ireland. The Agreement was approved by voters in both governments and signed in 1998, but implementing the Agreement has been a tortuous task.
Nevertheless, Ahern said that the Good Friday Agreement has provided the framework for a government that promotes respect and accommodates diversity. “This generation is closer than any other time in our history to succeeding in solving the Northern Ireland problem,” Ahern said.
Walsh commended Ahern’s work to bring peace to a country torn by centuries of religious and political conflict. “Never in all his time as leader of this country,” Walsh said of Ahern, “has he taken his eye off the peace process goal.”
This dedication to peace earned Ahern the honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Le Moyne. According to Dr. John Smarrelli, Jr., Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Le Moyne, the degree is conferred upon people who have earned distinction through scholarly achievement or notable public service achievements. Those who earn this degree, Smarrelli said, can serve as an ideal to aspire to for members of the Le Moyne community.
Ahern’s visit is the first time a sitting head of government has come to the Le Moyne campus. He praised the good work of the Jesuit community, as well as the college and its Irish studies program. “Irish studies groups everywhere keep that link into another generation,” Ahern said.
Ahern also noted the close ties the Le Moyne College president has to Ireland. Father Charles Beirne’s mother hails from County Cavan. Father Beirne joked that she came to America rather than facing the possibility of being married off to an old man for a couple of cows.
Father Beirne also told Ahern that he had met one of Ireland’s first Republican leaders, Eamon de Valera, about 51 years ago. “I can see that you definitely weren’t a good politician,” Ahern joked, “because you didn’t get a photograph of yourself [with him]. Any good politician gets a photograph of himself.”
From Syracuse, Ahern traveled to New York City and Washington D.C. to take part in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations there. Ahern said he also plans to brief President Bush about the peace process in Northern Ireland.
But during his brief stay in Syracuse, Ahern said that Walsh had given him a tour of the area, which included included Onondaga Lake. Ahern said he learned that it was the place where six Native American nations came together in peace and coined the phrase “burying the hatchet.”
“Jim, you and I might go back to Northern Ireland and pull the six counties together,” Ahern said, “and tell them that story again.”