First Minister Address to Seanad
Leinster House, Dublin
29 November 2016
It is a great honour to have been invited to address you today. I understand I am the first serving head of government to address the Seanad so it is truly a historic day for all of us and I thank you warmly for the opportunity. It is wonderful to join you in these absolutely beautiful surroundings
Last night in Dublin I had the pleasure of visiting Trinity College and seeing there for the first time in my life the Book of Kells. That is a truly moving reminder of how deeply and inextricably linked the peoples and cultures of Ireland and Scotland have always been.
Indeed, when Colmcille travelled from Ireland to Iona in 563, he helped shape Scotland forever.
And then, more than two hundred years later, when monks made the corresponding journey from Iona back to Ireland, they bequeathed to this country in the Book of Kells one of the great masterpieces of European civilisation.
These exchanges - in both directions - have continued ever since, and they have helped to create a special and unbreakable bond between our two countries.
As a student, a lawyer and most recently a Member of the Scottish Parliament in the city of Glasgow, I have seen evidence of that bond every day of my adult life. I know it has enhanced Glasgow and Scotland in many different ways.
Indeed, one of Scotland's great Gaelic poets, Sorley Maclean, described it as "the humanity/ that the ocean could not break/ that a thousand years has not severed."
Of course, the strength of our bond isn’t just defined by the people who have moved between our two countries.
Much of the modern history of both Scotland and Ireland has been shaped by our experiences of emigration beyond these islands.
As a result - for all the regret we undoubtedly feel about the historic causes of emigration from our shores – both of our countries can today take great pride in what Scottish and Irish people have achieved overseas.
We are unusually blessed as countries with ambassadors and supporters in every corner of the globe.
Indeed, when Ireland’s rugby team beat New Zealand three weeks ago - a result I thought it politic to mention, not least because it gives hope to us all! - you had the good fortune of being able to play at home in the great city of Chicago!
There are two points in particular I want to make today about our shared history and experiences.
Europe, now, is facing its greatest refugee crisis since the end of World War II.
Scotland and Ireland both know that, in other times and in very different circumstances, the peoples of our nations were also driven by the instinct for self-preservation and the desire for a better life to seek a future far away from the lands of their birth.
Perhaps that helps to explain why both Scotland and Ireland have responded with such an open heart to today's crisis.
Today, Scotland is home to almost a third of the Syrian refugees that have been resettled in the UK and I know that Ireland too is playing her full part.
And, of course, both of us are making the case for a co-ordinated European response. Given our own national experiences, for Scotland and Ireland to turn away from this crisis wouldn’t simply be a failure of compassion, it would be a denial of our own identity.
By helping people who so desperately need our help today, we are in some senses repaying the obligations of our past.
The second point I want to make is perhaps a more straightforward one. Although we share more than a thousand years of history, I hope and believe that relations between Scotland and Ireland now are stronger, warmer and more harmonious than they have ever been in the past.
I know I have been immensely touched by the hospitality I have been shown since I arrived in Dublin yesterday.
I hope that your President, who I had the honour of spending some time with yesterday, felt the same warmth of welcome when he did us the honour of visiting Scotland in June.
In terms of political co-operation, Ireland has recently increased its diplomatic representation in Scotland, and Scotland has this year established a new government office here in Dublin.
Ireland is one of Scotland’s biggest export markets and I discussed with your business community earlier this morning how we can further strengthen and deepen those links.
As well as healthy business relationships, we also share and enjoy strong cultural ties. Indeed, the Abbey Theatre is now directed by two people who were previously based in Glasgow, while a Dubliner runs the Edinburgh International Festival.
And of course these political, economic and cultural links draw great strength from, and reinforce, the most important connection of all: the friendship, indeed the kinship, shared by millions of Scottish and Irish people, across these islands and around the world.
I believe passionately that all of these ties will be strengthened even further – to our mutual benefit – in the years ahead.
Of course, throughout the last four decades, an important context for our co-operation has been our shared place in the European Union.
Last year I gave a lecture at Sabhal mor Ostaig, the Gaelic language college on the Isle of Skye. Your former President, Mary Robinson, had delivered the same lecture there 18 years previously and as I was preparing my own speech I was struck to read the remarks Mary Robinson made back then.
She attributed in that lecture the revival of traditional Irish culture in part to your membership of the EU.
She said that “The experience of interaction with other European states, on a basis of equality, has helped our national self-confidence and heightened our awareness of the value of our distinctive contribution to European culture and civilisation.”
Scotland's experiences in Europe have not been identical to Ireland’s. We are not an independent member state - yet!
But much of what President Robinson said holds true for Scotland as well. The sense that small countries can be equals in a partnership of many, is something that appeals to us about the EU.
And so the basic principle of EU membership – that independent countries co-operate for the common good – has generally seemed to us to be praiseworthy rather than problematic.
Indeed, that perspective may help to explain why Scotland did vote so convincingly to remain within the European Union. It's not just that we value the practical benefits EU membership brings - although we do. It's also that for many people in Scotland, as in Ireland, being European has become a positive part of who we are and how we contribute to the world around us.
So there is no doubt whatsoever that the UK-wide vote to leave the EU was deeply unwelcome. For Scotland, as for Ireland, it creates a challenge which is not of our making or of our choosing.
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting the Taoiseach at the British-Irish Council in Cardiff and yesterday I also met your Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan.
It was clear from both of those discussions that Brexit is the greatest foreign policy challenge Ireland has faced since it joined the EU.
For Scotland, too, we know that how we - and indeed the UK as a whole - respond to June's vote will define us for generations to come.
I thought it might be helpful to set out some of the principles that are guiding the Scottish Government, as we confront the consequences of the EU referendum and seek to navigate the best way forward.
The first is straightforward. Scotland believes that the UK as a whole should now seek continued membership of the single market and the European Customs Union.
After all, 48% of voters in the UK chose to remain in the EU. So did two of the four nations of the UK. And many people who campaigned to leave the EU were clear in their view that doing so need not involve leaving the single market. I accept that there is a mandate for the UK Government to take England and Wales out of the European Union. However, I do not accept that there is a mandate to take any part of the UK out of the single market – especially when we consider the economic consequences of such a step.
Secondly, to guard against the very real possibility that the UK does decide to leave, not just the EU, but also the single market, we are exploring options that would respect the vote in Scotland and allow us to retain the benefits of single market - not instead of free trade across the UK, but in addition to it.
The Scottish Government will publish proposals before the end of this year setting out our thinking in further detail.
These proposals will focus on options for Scotland within the UK.
Of course, there is also the option of Scotland considering again the question of becoming an independent country - and that remains firmly on the table. If the path that the UK chooses to take turns out to be deeply damaging to Scotland's best interests - to our economic, social, cultural and international interests - then the people of Scotland must have the right to choose a different future.
Of course, we understand that none of what lies ahead will be easy – but then nothing about Brexit is going to be easy. We are living in unprecedented times, which require imagination, open minds and fresh thinking.
The third point I want to make about our approach relates specifically to Ireland. The Scottish Government knows and understands how vitally important it is to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland.
So, regardless of what agreements may be reached elsewhere on these islands, we will support, unequivocally, an open border here. We fully understand that for reasons of geography, history and the simple preservation of peace, Ireland’s circumstances demand close and particular attention.
The final theme I want to address today is a more general one.
It is about cohesion, social justice and solidarity.
When President Higgins spoke to the Scottish Parliament in June, he talked about the "consequences of unsustainable economic models, which have fomented instability and widening inequalities." In my view, Brexit is one of those consequences.
There are many different causes of the UK's vote to leave to leave the EU and we will no doubt be analyzing and debating these causes for many years to come. For a lot of people, they will have included entirely legitimate concerns about the EU. It is, after all, an imperfect organisation.
But there seems little doubt that the Brexit vote was also a product of inequality, of disillusionment with the established order; of a sense of alienation and disenfranchisement.
After all, if people don’t believe and feel they are benefiting from the status quo, we can’t be surprised if they choose not to vote for the status quo.
And although every single region in Scotland voted to remain in the EU, as first Minister of Scotland, I cannot ignore or forget that even in Scotland, 1 million of our fellow citizens voted to leave. So one consequence of the referendum, for us, is an even sharper focus on social justice.
And that crystalizes the challenge - indeed the choice - that the Brexit result poses for all of us who support free trade and who value the economic, social and cultural benefits of immigration.
We can choose to turn inwards or we can choose to stand strong for the principles of an open economy and a progressive, liberal democracy.
I choose the latter. But in doing so, I recognise that we mustn't just assert the benefits of these values - we must be able to demonstrate the benefits of these values.
Ireland provides an interesting example. The decisions you took after 1958 to open your economy to the world were transformational. You are a wealthier, more open and more diverse society as a result.
But recent years have demonstrated that all open, trading nations – including Ireland, and certainly including Scotland – need to ensure that growth is truly sustainable; that all parts of our society have a fair chance to contribute to it; and that everyone can fairly share the benefits of it.
There need be no contradiction between being an open, dynamic and competitive economy, and a fair, inclusive and welcoming society. In fact, what we are seeing around the world today demonstrates that the two must go together – a fair society is essential, if we are to sustain support for an open economy.
That’s why in Scotland, our economic strategy prioritises fairness together with economic competitiveness.
It’s also why Scotland - like Ireland - was an early supporter of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. We believe that the goals provide a framework for all countries to follow. They encourage us to exemplify fair and sustainable development at home, while also promoting it overseas.
As we do this, I think there are many areas where Scotland and Ireland can work with, and indeed learn from, each other.
I had talks yesterday that touched on how our governments and businesses are co-operating to promote renewable energy and tackle climate change.
In Scotland, our ban on smoking in public places in terms of social policy, was heavily influenced by Ireland’s example - and that policy is already improving the health of our people. I know that Ireland is currently considering Scotland’s legislation on minimum unit pricing of alcohol and I wish you well as you do so.
Both of our nations have travelled a long way, in recent years, on issues such as same sex marriage. It was legalised in Scotland at the end of 2014, while Ireland - to your great credit - became the first state to enshrine that right in its constitution.
Finally, I know that President Higgins recently called for small countries to work together on conflict resolution and sustainable development. I welcome that call. And I believe that Scotland and Ireland – as individual nations but also as partners – are well placed to play our part.
In terms of overseas development cooperation, Scotland is committed to learning from the example of other small countries, including Ireland.
Indeed, in 2012, it was partly the influence of Mary Robinson, that led Scotland to become the first country in the world to establish a climate justice fund. The fund recognises that the people affected most by climate change are those who have done the least to cause it.
It is further evidence of Scotland’s determination to show leadership on climate change - the biggest environmental, economic and moral issue currently facing the planet. It demonstrates our desire to lead by example at home, and exert a positive influence overseas.
In all of this - and in so much more - Scotland and Ireland are living examples of the positive impact that small, open, outward looking countries can have on the world around us. And the need to safeguard and enhance our reputations as open, outward looking countries is perhaps greater now than it has been for many decades. I hope very much that we can and we will support each other as we seek to do so.
I began this speech by referring to the Book of Kells.
The first line of the first page of that Book is widely believed to have been from St Jerome, setting out his intention “to make a new work from the old”.
There is an echo of that sentiment in the quotation I want to close with.
In 2004 Ireland’s presidency of the EU coincided with the accession of ten new member states.
The occasion, as I am sure many of you will remember, was marked on May Day in Phoenix Park. The ceremony included a poem by Seamus Heaney.
The closing verses of that poem speak to the optimism, the humanity and the basic kindness that all good societies need to flourish and succeed.
They also encapsulate the tolerance, internationalism and open mindedness that I believe must always define who we are - no matter the headwinds and challenges we might currently face.
So on a day when newcomers appear
Let it be a homecoming and let us speak
The unstrange word, as it behoves us hear
Move lips, move minds, and make new meanings flare
like ancient beacons signalling, peak to peak
From middle sea, to north sea, shining clear.
My hope is that Scotland and Ireland – sharing as we do an open heart for newcomers and a faith in dialogue's power to move minds - will work even more closely together in the years ahead.
And I hope we will make new works, new meanings, new impacts from our ancient ties and our shared values. If we do so, we can and we will ensure that our small nations send a big and a very powerful signal to others across the world.
And we can help to deliver real and tangible benefits throughout these islands, across our continent, and right around the world.