Connolly House Visitor Roils Irish Political Waters

Connolly House Visitor Roils Irish Political Waters

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Politicians habitually use speaking engagements to float a trial balloon or stake out a position. Still, the Boston College Irish Studies Program never expected a top Irish official's visit to campus would create a major flap over Ireland's economic and European policies.

On Sept. 18, Irish Studies hosted Sile de Valera, the minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, at a reception marking the release of The American Irish, a new book by Assoc. Prof. Kevin Kenny (History).

But de Valera also used the occasion to question the extent of Ireland's deepening involvement in the European Union. She expressed concern that integration with the EU might "impinge on our identity, culture and traditions," and said "the bureaucracy of Brussels does not always respect the complexities and sensitivities of member states."

Her speech touched off a veritable firestorm back in Ireland, with The Irish Times reporting that de Valera had "broken ranks with government policy." Analysts and commentators assessed the meaning and potential impact of de Valera's speech, with some speculating whether she might even be positioning herself for a higher office in the forthcoming Irish national elections.

Meanwhile, the Irish Studies office in Connolly House was swarmed by e-mails and phone calls from the media, friends, colleagues and others who simply wanted to offer their own opinions on de Valera's speech.

"Many people congratulated us for being the place where she spoke," said Irish Studies Associate Director Robert Savage. "Part of what created such interest was the timing of her remarks. That same week, Denmark had voted against accepting the Euro currency. So now, here was a top Irish official who seemed to be suggesting Ireland slow down its integration with the EU.

"By giving her speech here," Savage added, "de Valera knew people would listen. It's not the sort of speech you make at a street corner gathering. So the event really indicates the high profile of BC and Irish Studies in Ireland."

Savage said there was both more and less to de Valera's speech than meets the eye. He points out that Prime Minister Bertie Ahern subsequently voiced his support for de Valera, apparently defusing the likelihood of a serious rift in the government. Nor is Ireland about to pull back from what has been a highly beneficial relationship with the EU, Savage adds.

But de Valera's remarks do indicate an unresolved tension about Ireland's dramatic economic transformation, Savage said, and the responsibilities and expectations it has taken on as a suddenly prosperous nation.

"It's nice to know that high-ranking Irish officials have become comfortable enough with BC to use it as a forum for important statements," said Savage. "Whatever their party affiliation, they know they'll be treated with respect and that their ideas will be listened to."


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