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My favourite speech: CEO of The Jack and Jill Foundation Jonathan Irwin

Continuing our summer series on TheJournal.ie of public figures’ favourite speeches, Jonathan Irwin picks a speech by a former Senator who was influential during the Northern Ireland peace process.

Jonathan Irwin
Jonathan Irwin
Image: Jack and Jill Foundation

THE AUTHOR AND former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan once said: “A speech is poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep!  A speech reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart.”

One can not underestimate the power of a good speech or the effectiveness of a speech’s key line.

With that in mind, over the course of the summer TheJournal.ie is asking some of the most prominent figures in Irish society from politicians to sports stars to nominate their favourite speech of all time and tell us why they like it so much.

Today: Jonathan Irwin CEO Jack and Jill Foundation. He writes:

I have selected one of George Mitchell’s many fine speeches as one of my favorites. This was one he made at the Ireland Fund Gala dinner in Boston in November 2008.

As usual, I find his message erudite, clear and simple – the foundation of a good speech the trademark of George Mitchell, the Pioneer.

What I particularly like and find so refreshing is that this senior politician and statesman of international repute can be so self-effacing and view the world of politics in such a wry, humourous, honest and down to earth manner. For me, it is a lifeline of integrity and suggests that somewhere in the cynical body-politic a flickering candle is still to be found.

I hope the Mitchell style of getting things done is contagious and his candle reflected on Irish shores, particularly in relation to our health system and delivering on that promise to protect the most vulnerable in society.

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

George Mitchell is a Democratic politician and businessman. Following his retirement from the Senate, Mitchell played a leading role in the negitiaions for peace in Northern Ireland serving as Chairman of the International Commission on Disarmament in Northern Ireland and as Chairman of the subsequent peace negotiations, which culminated in the historic Good Friday agreement. President Obama appointed George Mitchell to serve as his Special Envoy to the Middle East in 2008. Mitchell tendered his resignation from the post in 2011.

The full speech by George Mitchell at the Ireland Fund Gala dinner in Boston in November 2008 can be read here:

I want begin by telling a couple of stories of how I got to the Senate and my first days there. I was serving as a Federal judge in my home state of Maine when Ed Muskie-one of your Senators -was appointed Secretary of State. The then-Governor of Maine, Joe Brennan, was a great friend and a great Irish-American. He announced that because it was in the middle of a legislative session he did not want the people of Maine to be under-represented in the Senate. So he was going to make the announcement the following Monday at a press conference at the state capital in Augusta.

We had a former Governor, a former Senator, and a former Congressman, all of whom were well qualified. I had just been appointed a Federal judge the year before, so it did not occur to anybody, me included, that I might be considered. And I wasn’t mentioned in any of the press speculation. On that Sunday evening I went to bed like everyone else in Maine wondering what the Governor was going to do the next day.

Later that night, the phone rang. It was the Governor calling. He said, “I’d like you to come down to the state capital tomorrow so that I can announce that I am going to appoint you to the United States Senate.”

I said, “Well Governor, this is a surprise. It is a big decision as I just became a Federal judge last year and I need some time to think about it. I need to talk to my family and I have to consider that this is a big career decision. He said, “I will give you one hour.” I protested. He said, “If you call me in one hour and say you can’t do it, it will be midnight and I will only have twelve hours, most of them in the middle of the night, to find someone else. So no, that’s all the time that you get.”

So I hung up and I called my three older brothers. I grew up in a small town in Maine and they were very famous athletes. Not just in Maine but all across New England.  Then I came along and I was not as good an athlete as my brothers.  In fact, I was not as good as anyone else’s brother.

So at an early age I began to be known around my hometown of Waterville Maine as “Johnny Mitchell’s kid brother, the one that is not any good.” Well, as you might expect I had a massive inferiority complex. I had a very competitive attitude towards my brothers.  So when I called them that Sunday evening obsessively seeking their advice, I confess there was a note of triumph in my voice.

I informed them that the Governor wanted to appoint me to the United States Senate, and what did they think about that? Well, they responded with predictably negative comments. My brother Johnny began and said, “Look, everybody knows you are a born loser. Nobody can understand how you got to be a Federal judge and you could not possibly win a statewide election.”  My two other brothers said much the same thing in less polite terms. So I hung up the phone and called the Governor.  I said, “Governor, I don’t need an hour. I have already received all the reassurance I need. “

And so I went down to Augusta the next day, the Governor announced the appointment, and I flew in to Washington. The swearing in ceremony was scheduled for Tuesday morning and on the flight down I wondered whether all three television networks would carry it live.

I was worried that the Senate chamber might not be big enough for the thousands of people that I knew would want to come to be there for the swearing in. When I landed it was late afternoon, so I took a taxi up the Capitol instead of going direct the hotel. I thought that I would go and introduce myself to the Senate majority leader who I had not met. So I went up and the Senate was in session. A police officer took me into the Senate chamber introduced me to the Senate majority leader where a debate was going on regarding a bill.

The Senate majority leader looked at me vaguely and I could see his mind racing saying, “Who is this guy?”   So I told him who I was and he said, “Oh fine, we will swear you in right now.” I protested and said, “But there’s a big ceremony tomorrow.” He said, “Listen young man, we are very busy around here and we are going to swear you in right now.”  So he interrupted the debate to swear me in.  It took about 8 or 9 seconds and nobody was aware of it.  There were two senators standing not ten feet away and they did not know what had just gone on.

And then, the Senate resumed its session almost immediately and a vote occurred. For those interested in political trivia, I hold the all-time record in American history for having cast a vote in the shortest time after becoming a Senator: two minutes. And that’s the first of many informed judgments I have made on your behalf.

The debate resumed and I stood there not knowing what to do. A young man came rushing up to me all out of breath and he introduced himself.  He was now my new Chief of Staff. He had been Senator Muskie’s Chief of Staff and now he was mine.  He began by criticising me for permitting myself to be sworn in early. And then he pulled a card out of his pocket and he said, “We have a list of things for you to do here.”

He read off the list of instructions of what I was to do that day and he concluded by saying, “We just got a call right after you were sworn in, they must have seen it on C-SPAN. There’s a group that would like you to speak to them. They are a convention of certified public accountants – 3000 of them -meeting here in Washington. They want you to come down tonight and give the keynote address at their convention.”

I said, “Gosh this is amazing!  What a great bunch of guys. Until yesterday I myself didn’t know I would be here. And these guys held this important post open!”  He said, “No, it’s nothing like. They’ve had four last minute cancellations and you’re the only member of Congress they could think of that might not have anything to do tonight.”  I asked what they would want me to speak about and he said, “The tax code.”  I said, “Wait a minute, there will be 3000 people in the audience and every one of them will know more about the subject than I will…I can’t do that.”

He looked at me with disgust and said, “With that attitude you will never get anywhere in politics. You are now a United States Senator and you will be regularly called upon to speak in public on subjects of which you know nothing about. You might as well begin to act like a Senator and get down there to talk to the certified public accountants.”

So I went down to tell the certified public accountants what’s in the tax code. And here I am tonight to tell a bunch of Irishmen all about Ireland.

But before I do that, I want to tell one other story. John Kerry was here earlier tonight at the reception and when I told him that I was going to tell this story, he left. If any of you drive through the Ted Williams Tunnel, you might wonder how it got that name. There are very few people that know the true story. The true story is that Tip O’Neill, one of the greatest guys I have met in or out of politics, got this big project funded. Then, a few years later, there was an effort to cut it out of the budget.

I was on the Senate subcommittee that had jurisdiction and we were dealing with the budget for that year. One of my colleagues on that committee was John Chaffee, a Republican Senator from Rhode Island. He was one of the most wonderful people I ever known. Every morning at 7am I would get a call from Ted Kennedy. He’d ask, “What are you guys doing on the project today?” And at 7:15 am I would get a call from John Kerry asking, “What are you guys doing on the project today?”  I would tell them both, and before 8 am they would have a press release out about all that they were doing on the project that day.

Well Chaffee and I worked hard because he had to drive to Boston from the South and I had to drive in from the North. We kept the project in the budget were able to save it. There were a lot of stories about Ted and John. After all the press came out, I went to see Ted.  I said, “Ted, I believe that the new harbor tunnel should be named after me.” He said, “That ridiculous you’re from Maine.”  I said, “I know, but I did all the work.”  He said, “What’s that got to do with it?”  So I tried another argument.

I said, “All over Massachusetts you drive down the Kennedy Highway, you go to the Kennedy Park, then you go to the Kennedy Center, and if you’re smart you get into the Kennedy School.  There’s nothing named after John Kerry and he is going to be very insistent if this project goes through that this tunnel will be named after him. You’ve got to have some equity here.  So Ted, you have a choice:  either the Kerry Tunnel or the Mitchell Tunnel.”  He looked out the window for a while then he said, “I like the sound of the Mitchell Tunnel.”

Then I went to go see John Kerry and I made the same argument in reverse. He said, “It’s got to be the Kerry Tunnel.”  I said, “ Wait a minute, you have all these Kennedy monuments all over the state. I’ve traveled over every part of Massachusetts and the only thing I could find named after you was a car wash in Chicopee.  So you have a choice: it’s either the Kennedy Tunnel or the Mitchell Tunnel.”  He looked out the window and he said, “The Mitchell tunnel sounds good to me.”

Then, I got them both together and said, “Guys I really appreciate it, but we are all Red Sox fans and this should be named after Ted Williams.” Ladies and gentlemen that’s how it happened, and the next time you see Ted and John, you tell them so.

I spend five years going to/coming from/working in/ Northern Ireland. I chaired three separate sets of negotiations and I’m pleased, gratified, and proud we were able to get an agreement that ended the conflict. But of all those that benefited from the past decade in Northern Ireland, none have done so more than I, because I had the good fortune that comes along once in a lifetime to discover my heritage as a result of that effort.

My father’s parents were born in Ireland and sometime in the 1890s they became part of the great human tide that travelled west across the Atlantic to find a better life for them and their children. Those of us who are proud of our Irish heritage know about the many great success stories.  But there were many failures and my father’s parents were among those. His mother died shortly after his birth here in Boston. His father could not care for the children, so they were all sent to Catholic orphanages.

My father spent several years at an orphanage at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Huntington Avenue near where the Symphony now stands. Back in those days, about 100 years ago, the nuns used to take children to Catholic churches in Western Massachusetts and to rural areas of Maine and New Hampshire. After Sunday Mass, they would line the kids up in front of the altar rail and anyone that wanted to adopt a child would just take them by the hand and walk out. That’s how my father was adopted at a Catholic church in a small town in Maine.

Of course the potential for abuse and the reality of abuse was predictable in rural areas where children were not given the opportunity to go to school. It was so great that the system no long exists. But my father was one of the lucky ones.  He was adopted by an elderly childless couple who opened a store in a small town in Maine. They were not Irish so my father knew nothing of his heritage and knew nothing of Ireland.  I very rarely heard him speak the word his entire life.

So when, by an unknowable twist of fate many years later, President Clinton asked me to go to Northern Ireland, I accepted not out of an awareness of my Irish heritage –  because I had none – but simply because I felt that if I could be of help to people that needed it, I wanted to do so. But in the process, I acquired that awareness and I think now of my father much more than I did in some of the intervening years. Although we don’t know much about his background and history, I feel that I have gained something by learning about Ireland and by learning about myself.

I am an American, always will be and I’m very proud of it. But a large part of my heart and my emotions will always be in Ireland. People ask, “Why should we be doing things for Ireland?” Kingsley addressed it earlier, as did Jim Connolly, and of course they are right. We have to do what we can to encourage economic growth, job creation, trade, and investment because that’s the foundation of stability in every society.

It’s as true now as it was during the time of the Famine. It is as true now in Northern Ireland as it was in the time of the Troubles. Without work, hope, and opportunity there can’t be peace, stability, and rising standards of living.  We need that here, they need it there. It is in our interest and it is in theirs that we deepen and strengthen the relationship between two great countries: one large and powerful, one small but meaningful.

The people of Ireland are warm, energetic, productive, and whether you have Irish blood in you or not, it is in America’s interest to do what we can. And that is what you are doing here tonight by supporting The American Ireland Fund. It is a truly great organization that has done great work in promoting peace and reconciliation upon which there is a lot of work yet to be done.

I want to say a few words in closing about our own country. The United States was the first true meritocracy in all of human history. It was the first place where a person’s role in life was not determined at the moment of birth by class, status or family wealth. The greatness of America has been in our capacity for self-examination and self-renewal by a never-ending effort to right the wrongs of the past.  It is in an ever-expanding definition of individual liberties, of rights – civil, human, and otherwise- that each of us is blessed to enjoy.

So on this week of a historic election in this country, whatever political affiliation you have, I think we can all feel a sense of renewed pride in our country with election of Barack Obama of Illinois. And what a truly historical irony and significance we must attach to the fact that he is the third President from Illinois.  The first was President Abraham Lincoln who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The second, being Ulysses S. Grant who led the Union army to victory in the Civil War.  And the third, being Barack Obama, the first African-American to assume that great office. This is a time in which every American can, and should, be proud of his or her country.

I close with a personal anecdote that describes what this country means to me. When I was a Federal judge I had great power. In fact, it was the only job that I had where I had any real power. The majority leader of the Senate has only the opportunity to ask other Senators to do things that they should have done without being asked.  When I chaired various peace processes, I couldn’t order anybody to do anything! But when I was a Federal judge (I know Judge O’Toole is here and there may be others) I could, and did, order people to do things regularly. I’m pleased to report of you that everybody always did exactly what I ordered and I truly loved that part of the job.

But what I most enjoyed was when I presided over what are called “naturalization ceremonies” which are citizenship ceremonies. A group of people would gather before me in a Federal court room in Maine.  They had gone through all of the required procedures and they had come from every part of the world. There, I administered to them the oath of allegiance of the United States and, by the power vested in me under our Constitution and law, I made them Americans.

It was always a highly emotional ceremony for me because I said earlier; my father was the orphan son of immigrants. He had no education and he worked as a janitor at the local college. My mother was herself an immigrant. She had no education.  She could not read or write and she spent her entire adult life working the night shift in textile mills in our little town in Maine. But because of their efforts and more importantly because of the openness of the American society I, their son, was able to become the majority leader of the United State Senate.

After every ceremony I made it a point to speak personally with each of the new Americans, both individually and in family groups. I asked them where they came from, how they came, and why they came.  Their stories were as different as their countries of origin and all were inspiring.  Most of us here are Americans by an accident of birth. Each of them is an American by an act of free will, often at great risk and cost to themselves and their families. Although there were different responses, there were common themes and they were best summarized by a young Asian man who, when I asked him why he came, replied in very slow and halting English, “I came because here in America, everybody has chance.”

Think about the fact that a young man who had been an American for less than ten minutes, who could barely speak English, was able to sum up the meaning of our country in a single sentence. America is freedom and opportunity and we are reminded of that in the most dramatic and emotional way possible on Tuesday evening.

Our task all of us is to so conduct ourselves individual and as a society in a way that 100 years from now, people all around the world will still want to come to America because they will believe that in America everybody has a chance, and God willing it will still be true.

I accept the recognition of The American Ireland Fund not as an individual, but a representative of the many men and woman here and in Ireland, especially in Northern Ireland, who devoted their lives and their careers to the pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland. There’s enough credit to go around and many people deserve it. But no one more than the political leaders of Northern Ireland who, in the most difficult circumstances imaginable, rose to the test with courage and perseverance to end decades of violent and bitter conflict to set that beautiful country on a path of peace and stability. So, it is on their behalf that I accept this recognition, and on their behalf that I speak here tonight.

I served for many years in the United States Senate but I am not going to make any mention of it in my remarks other than my reference to my service with Bill Delahunt. But I don’t want anyone to leave with the impression that I did not enjoy it, because I did very much.

(Speech provided by The American Ireland Fund Boston)

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