Podium: Australia's debt to the Irish

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John Howard

From a speech given

in Melbourne by

the Prime Minister

of Australia to mark

St Patrick's Day

OF ALL the many tributaries that have shaped the mighty river which is the modern Australia, none in a sense has been more distinctive and more important than the contribution of the Irish to this country. The Irish inheritance is part of the modern Australian identity.

It has brought many things to Australia, it has contributed in many distinctive ways. It is impossible, for example, to hear the sort of music that we have heard this morning and not realise the enormous contribution that it made to shaping music in this country.

One of the captivating, indeed endearing, things about being an Australian in 1999 is that as we approach the Centenary of the Federation of our nation all of us are reflecting more and more on what made us as we are today. Some 35 to 40 per cent of Australians claim an Irish ancestry and do it proudly.

In my own case, my maternal great-grandmother was born in County Westmeath and my paternal great grandfather was born in Portadown in County Armagh. A fairly familiar pattern of so many Australians. The Irish have really been part of the Australian story now for more than 200 years. And their culture, their attitudes, their passions, their way of life have become inseparably part of the Australian way of life.

But, of course, when we think of Ireland and we think of Australia we don't only think of it nostalgically and romantically we also, and historically, think of it in contemporary terms. And today Ireland is a modern thriving successful economy. It is indeed an economy with probably the fastest economic growth in the European Union. It is an economy that has been transformed over the last 20 years. It has defied the critics.

I first visited Ireland in 1977. I went as an Australian minister for special trade negotiations. I was trying to get a better trade deal for Australian produce in what was then the European Common Market and I got pretty lean pickings just about everywhere I went, in every capital. And at that time the Irish economy was really struggling. Since then things have changed and I am delighted at the incredible success that the Irish economy has achieved in recent times.

We honour, as Australians, the contribution of the Irish to the history of this country. We recognise that it has not always been an experience free of discrimination and intolerance. Like all societies through the 20th century we went through our experiences of the divisions of sectarianism within our community.

And for more than 100 years the Irish in Australia who were overwhelmingly Catholic have suffered the discrimination of being forced to pay for the education of their children in their faith. And I am very proud, of course, that that well known member of the Melbourne Scotts and self declared humble Presbyterian, Robert Menzies, more than anybody else brought to an end that discrimination. And now Australia probably has a system of openness and tolerance and freedom of choice in relation to the education of its children second to none anywhere in the world.

Regarding the fragile peace process - and it is fragile - we were reminded again only this morning by our television bulletins that the mad men and women on both sides of the argument are still to be found and those people are to be shunned and the example of those two great Nobel Prize winners, John Hume and David Trimble, are to be very much respected.

I know that all Australians who have any affinity for Ireland and their Irish associations will join in prayers and hopes for a successful fruition of the Good Friday agreement.

It is a great privilege for me to acknowledge the immense Irish contribution to our nation, without which we wouldn't be what we are today. I can't conceive of Australian politics having been anything remotely resembling what it has been over the last 40 or 50 years without the Irish contribution.

For so long, of course, the Irish contribution to Australian politics was seen as overwhelmingly belonging to the Australian Labor Party for obvious historical reasons. The Liberal Party that I joined in 1957 when I left school in Sydney didn't boast an enormous number of people of Irish Catholic descent. But I can say that over 40 or 50 years that has changed and I can say to all of you that there is an adequate supply of Faheys and Heffernans and Herrons and McNamaras - and indeed the list can go on - of people of Irish descent bringing their passion, their particular view, to the lifeblood and to the existence of our political party.

It is a wonderful occasion. I salute the Irish contribution to our nation. It wouldn't be what it is today without it.