A Moment of Possibility and Peril

When our institutions are under attack, we must become storytellers of a future we want to share

I was honored to speak last night at the United Nations at the launch of Ireland’s bid for one of the temporary seats on the UN Security Council. The UN has never been more important and I spoke about the threats we are seeing today to critical multilateral institutions like the UN, the EU, NATO — and what they’ve achieved, including the Paris Climate Accord. These are perilous times — not just for these institutions, but for the shared values and shared rule of law they represent.


I know it’s unusual having a rock star hanging out at the UN Plaza but I’ll tell you what’s really unusual: having a load of ambassadors jumping up and down shouting their heads off at a rock and roll show. That is unusual, very unusual, and that’s what we had last night. At least you were not shouting at each other; I thought that was good.

It is an honor for this troubadour to be in such esteemed company.

I couldn’t be prouder to share the stage with this Taoiseach and this Tánaiste, who are, infuriatingly, younger than me — younger than the rock singer, and smarter! I also have to say that I’m excited to be on a stage with the real rock star around here, Mary Robinson. She is not just a star of our little nation; she is a star of the United Nations. When she’s in the room you can feel her love for the place. Because it’s real, she feels it. She believes in the United Nations.

And so do I. I love this building. I love the architecture. I love that it exists. And I’ll tell you: I don’t take for granted that it exists. Or that it will continue to exist.

Because let’s be honest, we live at a time when institutions as vital to human progress as the United Nations are under attack. The European Union is threatened. The G7 is being threatened. NATO is being threatened. The WTO is being threatened. I mean, what’s left?

And not just these institutions, but what they stand for — an international order based on shared values and shared rules — an international order that is facing the greatest test in its 70-year history. Not just these institutions, but what they’ve achieved is at risk — Paris! Fuck! What is that…

So I just want to say to everyone gathered here: I’m really glad to see you. And I hope I continue to see you. I hope we grow old together.

But, if that’s what we want, we all have some work to do, and as you’ve just heard from my countrymen and women, you can count on Ireland to do its part in that work. These are troubling times indeed.

Ireland is a great beneficiary of the United Nations; we are a great contributor to the United Nations; and we’re ready to be an even greater, even louder, even more passionate champion of the United Nations.

Now if we’re honest there’s an irony… an audacity… in that.

Because Ireland, if you haven’t already noticed, is not exactly a giant. Even our rock stars are little…

Ireland, this tiny rock in the North Atlantic Ocean… Ireland, whose biggest export for a long time was not Guinness or pharmaceuticals or agriculture, but sadly our own people, Irish people, were our biggest export for some time.

For most of the past century, who would have expected leadership from a country with such troubles, a country divided by religion, plagued by violence… a country on the receiving end of international aid and concern and yes, sometimes condescension… yeah, the receiving end.

But if you look at the agenda of what the Security Council will be called on to address over the coming years… doesn’t it look a lot like us? We’d like to think Ireland’s experience of colonialism, conflict, famine, and mass migration give us a kind of hard-earned expertise in these problems. And, I hope, an empathy… and I hope humility. Though I might have missed that particular memo.

No, the world didn’t give up on Ireland… Ireland didn’t give up on Ireland… And we stand, today, on solid ground. Amen to that.

But we’ve not forgotten how it feels when the ground shakes beneath your feet. We’ve not forgotten what it feels like to live on both sides of the equation, and on the knife edge in between. We’ve not forgotten what it’s like to face starvation… and the mismanagement, the abuse of power, that causes it. We’ve not forgotten what it’s like to live in danger and desperation, it’s the air we used to breathe even in the Dublin of my youth, in the 60s and 70s.

Neither have we forgotten the help we had from this community. Why do Irish people so revere an organization that is committed to human rights and human dignity? Because we have so often had those very rights and dignity taken away from us. Why are the Irish so committed to international cooperation? Because our little island can’t exist without it.

But doesn’t all of this give Ireland something very valuable to say to any other nations with similar issues, like surviving colonization, like coming out from under the colonial hoof — if I might call it that. It’s why we relate so strongly to African countries — on that majestic continent we find similar spirits to ourselves. Indomitable spirits that, like us, demand their full potential.

Their problems are and were our problems. In our minds, there is no separation. You are us. We are the same.

Are there any Africans in the house? Mes amis les Ambassadeurs Africains, ca va? And the Latin Americans — know us too! Como estas, amigos! OK, the accent’s not great!

Look, you can go for Canada… Canada’s great. I’ve just come back from Canada. Justin Trudeau is a truly remarkable leader who’s put together the most diverse cabinet on the planet… That Canada is nice is the worst thing I can say about them…

And Norway — who could ask for a better neighbor, a more committed peace-maker. Here’s the worst thing I can say about them — they’re tall. They’re too tall!

But I promised the Taoiseach I would stay on message. Sir!

Look, clearly, we bear no nation, even tall ones, any ill will.

I hope the countries you represent see Ireland as I myself do: as the fiercest and warmest of friends.

But there’s a much more interesting choice going on, isn’t there, than who is going to sit in that seat.

The choice is not just about the Security Council. It’s about the United Nations as a whole — about its future, and indeed, whether it has one… and it better. Whether its values still matter, and they better. Whether peace is still possible, and who will speak for those noble ideas when the heat is on. And we better…

So standing here in that heat — the heat of a moment suffused with possibility and peril — might I argue, you need storytellers. When our duty is greater and our responsibility heavier than in any of our lifetimes, you need storytellers.

Why? Because words matter. Peace is not just a word, but the word matters. And another word (perhaps the most important word in the whole English language outside of love) matters, compromise… because that’s how you achieve peace. And compromise is a word the Irish people understand very, very well.

It is part of our story. Our recent story. And we are storytellers.

So your honorable peace activists: if you need some storytellers to describe what’s really important about this place, and I believe you do, let us tell the story.

We in Ireland are products of our past. But we’re not prisoners of it. We are not trapped by our story, and neither are you.

We must all become storytellers. We must all become storytellers of a future we want to share. It will be a better one, if we tell the right stories… ones of equality and justice, human dignity, human rights, human progress.

This is the story we need to tell. And we need to tell it with imagination… and passion… and heartfelt conviction. We are storytellers but this is the best story ever. Thank you.