I thank you for the invitation to come here today and for your warm welcome.

I congratulate you and your colleagues in Government on your recent election. I wish you well.  I wish to express the sympathy of all present on the death of former Taoiseach, Dr Garrett Fitzgerald.  It is a remarkable coincidence that his death occurred during these days in which we have seen the culmination of his efforts to promote peace and reconciliation on this island.

I have been asked to say a few words of introduction to a wider conversation to which I hope all will be given the opportunity to contribute.

The context of our meeting is provided by Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. That Article was inserted by the Lisbon Treaty, after much serious discussion and debate.  As you know it recognises the value of and calls for structured, open transparent and regular dialogue between Churches, Religious associations, philsophosical and non-confessional organisations on the one hand and Government on the other.

When this initiative was introduced by the previous Government it was warmly welcomed by very many in this room. This welcome was I believe based on a number of considerations. Today the value of dialogue is keenly appreciated as a means of fostering mutual understanding, dispelling suspicion and increasing cooperation.

A tree cut off from its roots, withers and dies.  In the same way a society that forgets its history and denies its roots runs the risk of becoming spiritually impoverished and culturally weakened.  For these reasons, among others, I believe the inclusion of this article in the Treaty is very important for Ireland, as it is for the rest of Europe.  It is a fact that our history and civilisation have been inextricably linked with religious experience down through the millennia. This was brought home very powerfully to me this morning.  I have just come from Confirmation in Dunleer, Co. Louth. On the way I passed Monasterboice, Mellifont, Drogheda and New Grange. Such places clearly remind us that faith and culture, religion and civilisation have been fite fuaite tré na céile i rith na haoisenna.  For example, Mellifont evokes memories of our links with Europe and Drogheda in more recent times is synonymous with missionary work in Africa.

Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty recognises that the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and peace which drive the European project have their origin in our very nature and hope as human beings.  It acknowledges that the noble work of building community, participation and peace among people of diverse identities and backgrounds cannot be achieved by economic or administrative systems alone.

We all search together for a world that makes sense and for relationships that bring meaning and purpose to our lives, in a home we build together.  For the overwhelming majority of citizens in Ireland that search includes a thirst for a relationship with God.  By recognising the value of ‘open, transparent and regular dialogue’ between Churches, religious associations, philosophical and non-confessional organisations and government, Article 17:3 of the Treaty tries to ensure that the home we build together is always that – a home.  It ensures this home is certainly a place well built, organised and economically efficient.  But more importantly than all of that, recognising the religious, spiritual, moral and philosophical dimension of our lives together ensures there is welcome and warmth, mystery and meaning, heart and soul in our living together, in all our diversity, in our common home.

Taoiseach, I venture to suggest that those of us gathered here today represent an immense constituency of people who yearn with you for a brighter social and economic future for our country. Your responsibilities and those of your Government are immense. The particular circumstances of our economy alone are daunting.  It will require all the talent, skill and ingenuity that we have as a country if we are to rise to that challenge.

I hope it is a source of encouragement to know that there are many who pray daily for you and for all our public representatives in your efforts to meet these challenges.

It has been noted that recovery will require a spirit of greater national unity.  I think we have all been moved over these past three days by the remarkable events and images of the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Only a few years ago what has happened this week would have been unimaginable. We have witnessed the possibility of history healed and of a better future hoped for.  I think we may have also glimpsed something emerging within ourselves with new and greater clarity.  I think we have glimpsed a desire for a new way of doing things – of doing politics, of expressing faith, of dealing with the differences and tensions that are an inevitable part of a diverse and pluralist society.  I think there is a real desire for more dialogue, tolerance and respect, elements that are intrinsic to the initiative that has been reinvigorated here today.  Most of all, I believe there is a desire for national unity in our effort to heal the social, economic and even the religious and moral wounds that have marred our recent past.

Engaging with Government and with each other in an open, transparent and regular dialogue will be one important way of contributing to that hoped for unity and healing.  The Churches, faith communities and organisations represented here contribute immensely to the life of local communities in pastoral, charitable and volunteer activities. They represent a vital source of social capital and an essential part of the common good.  I believe this consideration alone justifies the need for regular dialogue between Government and these groups.

In this dialogue I hope there will be opportunities to work together on issues of common concern.  There are so many values we share together and which give our country soul.  There is our respect for the innate dignity of every person and the inviolable right to life. We have to work together to protect our society from those who would seek to deny that right to life to others in any way. We have a particular duty to stand together and assist our Government against those who reject the sovereign will of the people of Ireland by killing and destroying for political ends.

Each group present will also have particular issues that could be addressed in what we hope will be bilateral meetings with Government over the coming weeks and months.  I know that with many others in the room today, the Catholic Church will want to examine the implications of the recent European Court Judgement on ‘ABC vs. Ireland’ for the right to life of the mother and unborn child in Ireland. With many others we will seek to explain why respect for the inalienable right to life from conception to natural death is a fundamental human right and essential to the common good. We will also be anxious to explore the critical issue of religious freedom and how true pluralism seeks to maximise religious freedom rather than limit it.

We would certainly wish to join you in the effort to give fresh hope to all our people, especially the young; a job to the unemployed, a house to the homeless, stability to the family, protection to life, and security to all.

Taoiseach, I think we will all agree there is no shortage of issues that could be usefully raised and discussed in the structured dialogue you have initiated here today. That you have done so in the first weeks of your Government conveys the importance you attach to this vital part of the Lisbon Treaty and of the social and spiritual life of our nation.  In thanking you again, on behalf of all present, for giving this issue such priority, we look forward to moving to the bilateral stage of the dialogue. We also assure you that we do not come to this dialogue asking only what you can do for us but asking how we can help you and our society that much hoped for home we share together.

Every good wish for the challenges ahead.