Your Excellency, President Michael D. Higgins
Mrs Sabina Higgins
Friends, though absent, are still present.
This is how Cicero, in his de amicitia, very efficiently depicts the nature of friendship.
This is a maxim coined centuries ago, but one which is still true to this very day.
Miriam and I need not look too far, Your Excellency, Mrs Sabina Higgins, to prove this quotation right.
It applies exactly to the mutual fondness which has matured between us during our terms as Heads of State, but even more importantly, between our two countries and peoples.
Malta and Ireland may have not been blessed with a shared geography and physical proximity.
However, we have gone through very similar experiences during our colonial past, our paths towards independence, and the events that led large proportions of our respective populations to emigrate and seek better fortunes in far-away lands.
Along the decades, even in the years pre-dating our status as independent Republics, we have somehow found our way of establishing strong bilateral links, while projecting our shared values internationally.
Even when direct contacts were not at their highest level of potential – because our countries were taken up with other more pressing national priorities – it has always been felt that Ireland was a trusted partner and friend for Malta.
As years went by, we carved for ourselves a niche of genuine and authentic contacts, at the political or community level, that also permeated to the international scene.
Each in his own way, we have come to represent a similar, principled foreign policy, that addresses global social justice, the defence of the weakest and most vulnerable, and prides itself with national sovereignty.
In more recent times, we continued to do this through our membership and hands-on cooperation in the European Union, as well as during our respective turns at the UN Security Council.
In light of this proximity between Malta and Ireland, allow me dear President Higgins to underline my heartfelt satisfaction and pleasure at conducting this State Visit to your remarkably beautiful and welcoming country, full of culture, history and traditions.
The extent of the generosity and the hospitality my delegation, which also includes the Hon. Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli, are being afforded, and the detailed programme for this Visit, are nothing short of outstanding.
It is my sincere hope that we lived up to these standards in Malta, when we hosted you on your State Visit in May, and later for the Arraiolos Heads of State Meeting, in October of last year.
During one of our last conversations on that occasion, we had spoken of our strong desire for peace. The October Meeting in Malta was predominantly taken up by discussions on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Regrettably, nothing has improved since that latest exchange. If anything, the situation could be getting worse.
We have just commemorated the first anniversary of the Russian invasion. As days continue to pass, the death toll keeps mounting, the destruction increases, and the displacements accumulate.
This remains a sad and tragic reality.
As I address you today in one of Europe’s most dynamic and vibrant capital cities, I ask myself; how are these atrocious events even possible, let alone acceptable, in this day and age?
Realistically speaking, a country such as Malta with no military might, fully understands the consequences, were it to be invaded, and what it would take to beat any invading country into retreat or surrender.
Fully cognisant of our limitations, we have, along the decades, learned to use the tools that are available to us.
Starting with our declared political stands.
We have never taken a step back when it came to speaking out against injustices and abuses, and we have always somehow found ways and means for our position to be taken on board by other countries. Generally, it is by joining forces with like-minded partners, such as Ireland.
Our status of neutrality, entrenched as it is in our Constitution, has not kept us back from taking strong stances on highly-charged political dossiers.
A case in point is the situation in Ukraine.
We never shied away from a clear, unequivocal condemnation of the unwarranted, unsolicited and unjustified military attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
In this, as in several other cases, our condemnation is loud and clear, and our words are backed by actions of tangible assistance and support, always within the confines of our Constitutional obligations and constraints.
Credibility is another tool that we have learned to master along the years.
Our agenda has never been dictated by ulterior motives, self-centred economic gain, or aspirations of self-interest.
The special rapport we have built over the years with our neighbours to our South, in North Africa and in the Middle East, attest to this vocation.
When advice is sought by our partners, we give it with the ultimate intention to see the peoples immediately surrounding us, and others further afield, thrive and prosper in peace and stability.
I am more than confident in saying that in its global initiatives and activities, Ireland is driven by this same spirit, and places the greater good at par with its own ambitions or interests.
Like Ireland, Malta is presently taking its strong multilateral credentials to the highest representative body – the UN Security Council.
I must thank the Irish authorities for the cooperation and hands-on assistance they made available to Malta, before passing on the baton.
Malta is very eager to follow up on the targets that have been set by Ireland, towards Building Peace, Strengthening Prevention and Ensuring Accountability.
Through our own declared priorities of Security, Solidarity and Sustainability we will be doing our level best to register progress on the dossiers of the children and armed conflict portfolio, the women, peace and security agenda, literacy, as well as the impact of climate change on peace and security.
In this same context, I wish to voice my appreciation of the strong and comprehensive messages on effective multilateralism that you, dear President Higgins, have delivered at the Council of Europe in October last year.
Having been active myself – even though many years ago – in the Council of Europe, as a Member of Parliament and later as Minister for Foreign Affairs, I see great benefits in this institution, whose unique value lies in its wide membership and its broad defence of human rights and incentives for the setting up of democratic institutions, and reforms needed for their proper functioning.
It is natural to look primarily at one’s immediate neighbourhoods to safeguard one’s well-being.
The nature of global challenges demands of us, however, that we look farther afield.
This has always been an issue that Malta regularly brought to the European table, to convince partners of the need to give more attention to what we have come to call ‘Neighbours of our Neighbours’.
By this I am referring to the neighbours of North African countries, namely the Gulf, the Sahel region and, by extension, practically the whole African continent.
We have since many years realised that in our region, the discourse on peace and security, development and sustainability had to intrinsically include North African countries as equal partners.
Over time, we came to realise that even that was not enough.
Malta gave its own contribution to this paradigm shift in security balance considerations by addressing the issue of irregular migration from African countries during the EU-Africa Summit on Migration, organised by Malta in 2015 when I was Minister for Foreign Affairs.
As a tangible manifestation of our commitment to Africa, Malta has opened Embassies in Ethiopia and Ghana over the past few years. From a wider perspective, I very much suspect that despite best efforts and attempts, we are facing a context where other international powers are gaining the upper hand even in terms of public perception, at the cost of values and principles.
Dear President Higgins,
I know that Irish foreign policy, and you yourself, have deep knowledge of the situation in Africa, especially East Africa.
Plainly speaking, we need to do more to put Africa higher on the global agenda, with African countries as equal partners in the global family and not as political pawns.
We need to start where it matters most, by ensuring access to health, education, mobility and energy.
Very recently, we witnessed a make-or-break scenario, when during the Russian grain blockade in Ukraine, the Horn of Africa was looking at famine straight in the face.
A situation that was already a very precarious one, was starting to increasingly look like an imminent disaster.
I commend you, President Higgins, for sensitising the international community and for explaining in great detail the imminent pitfalls that posed a threat, not only to Africa itself but the entire global community.
Your passionate engagement on this front is most laudable, and I hope to see it gain further ground in the months to come.
Putting global achievements and worries aside, I wish to conclude my speech by highlighting what in my view is the best accomplishment that our two countries have secured over the decades.
I speak of the great affinity between our two peoples, not only those manifested through high-level political exchanges and contacts, but especially those that lie at the heart of our communities – our professionals, family units, tourists, our students and youths – our people-to-people contacts.
There is no better occasion to witness this particular attachment of the Maltese to the Irish people, than during the celebrations of the festivities linked to Saint Patrick’s Day.
In a few weeks’ time, thousands of Maltese people, together with the sizeable Irish community in Malta, will be literally flooding the streets, dressed in Irish green, celebrating this feast as if it were one of our own.
To this vivid friendship between the Irish and the Maltese, I add my very own sentiments of personal respect and profound esteem to you, President Higgins, and thank you once again for your kind and thoughtful hospitality.
I also wish to join you in expressing our extreme sorrow and sympathies to the people who have drowned in the last episode on the Sicilian coast and also to the people who died in the crash in Greece today.
Excellencies, distinguished guests,
I now ask you to raise your glass and toast to the good health of President Higgins and Mrs Sabina Higgins, and to the bright future that lies ahead for Ireland and Malta through the further strengthening of our relations, and our continued cooperation towards the attainment of global prosperity, stability and peace.