Special celebrations in Freetown for St. Patrick’s Day

Speech made by Sinead Walsh of the Irish Aid Office

An tÚasal, Ebun Strasser-King, Aire an Roinn Gnothaí Eachtracha, a shoilsigh, na hAirí Oifigigh, Teachta Dála, a chairde Gael, a dhaoine uaisle. Tá fáilte romhaibh go leir anseo anocht agus Lá Fheile Padraig Shona daoibh.

The Honourable Ebun Strasser-King, Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Honourable Ministers, Honourable Members of Parliament, your Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. You are very welcome here this evening and I wish you a Happy St. Patrick’s day.

I would like to thank Honourable Minister Strasser-King, for taking time from her busy schedule to be here with us to celebrate our national day.  I am particularly pleased to be able to relay to you, Minister, and to all our distinguished guests tonight, four key ways in which the relationship between Ireland and Sierra Leone has been strengthened since I addressed this gathering a year ago.

Before I get to that, let me start by thanking the excellent Ballanta singers for such a terrific rendition of the Irish national anthem.  Of course I am not surprised that they did such a fine job in an incredibly difficult language because Ballanta’s fearless leader, Dr. Kitty Fadlu-Deen and indeed her distinguished husband Dr. Amadu are among the growing number of Sierra Leoneans educated in Ireland.

I say growing because one of the four positive steps in Sierra Leone-Ireland relations that I mentioned is that, in September of last year, we launched a fellowship programme from this office so that more Sierra Leoneans would have an opportunity to pursue masters’ degrees and post-graduate diplomas in Ireland. We received some very strong applications from ministries and partner organizations and we will soon announce the results of this year’s competition.  There will be more opportunities for Sierra Leoneans to apply next year and in future years, and we look forward to this fellowship programme becoming one of the strong pillars of the relationship between Ireland and Sierra Leone.

The second step the Irish government took in May of last year was to make Sierra Leone one of Irish Aid’s eight top priority countries worldwide, and the first ever in West Africa.  Sierra Leone was the only country to receive this upgrade in Ireland’s new policy for international development and I am sure that this is due to the excellent relationship we have with the Sierra Leonean government and due to the strong work of our partners. The work carried out in Ireland by the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership group is also a key contribution in strengthening the relationship between our two countries

Related to this decision on the upgrade of the aid programme is the third step. I am delighted to announce that a Sierra Leonean, Herbert McLeod, was nominated last month to be a member of Irish Aid’s Expert Advisory Group, advising our Deputy Prime Minister on the Irish Aid programme.  There are only six members of this panel, and only one representative of a developing country and we are very happy that this is now a Sierra Leonean.

In terms of Irish Aid in Sierra Leone, we continue to focus on our two main areas— women and food.  And I don’t think anybody here can deny the importance of these two areas!

In terms of women’s rights, we are working hard to support the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs and other partners to implement the gender aspects of the Agenda for Prosperity.  We were delighted to see the launch by His Excellency President Koroma of the National Strategy to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy in May of last year.  This is a critical issue. At the moment, half of Sierra Leonean girls are pregnant or already have a child by the age of 18 and one in three Sierra Leonean children are born to children. We are supporting the implementation of this vital strategy and want to commend the leadership shown by the President and the Ministries of Gender, Health and Finance on this issue.  [We are very fortunate in Sierra Leone to have a Minister for Finance who is deeply committed to gender equality and, along with DfID, we are delighted to support Minister Marah and his colleagues as they work to establish a self-assessment tool for civil society to monitor government on gender issues.]

In terms of Irish Aid’s work on our second area, food, we continue to work closely with the Ministries of Health and Agriculture, and the SUN secretariat in the Vice-President’s Office to improve nutrition and food security.  Despite huge efforts in this area, two in every five Sierra Leonean children still fail to reach their full physical and mental potential in life due to malnutrition before they reach the age of two. Together with the government, UN and NGO partners, we are fighting against this scourge of what we call ‘stunting’.  This will require even greater efforts, particularly in terms of moving beyond rice, beloved though rice is in Sierra Leone, in order that Sierra Leoneans grow and eat more diverse crops to ensure that these children get the nourishment they need to reach their potential and contribute to their families, society and the economy.

A final area to highlight is where women and food come together, and this is in our work on land rights, and particularly land rights for women.  We know that land tenure reform, especially in the context of large-scale land leasing is a priority for the government and we look forward to continuing to support work in this area.

All in all, Ireland has invested €83 million euro in Sierra Leone since 2005.  I’m sure for many of you here, like myself, it is easier to think about these kinds of figures in leones, so let me rephrase and say that Ireland has contributed 473 billion leones in aid in the last 9 years.  But impressive as this number is, Ireland’s engagement in Sierra Leone is as much if not more about people as it is about money.  One fine example here is the work of our missionaries, such as Sister Mary Sweeney from St Joseph’s School for the Hearing Impaired in Makeni who, with her colleagues at the University of Makeni and the Ministry of Education, is breaking new ground in special needs education.  I am proud to say that Irish citizens, Irish NGOs and Irish companies are all contributing to making Sierra Leone a better place in different ways.

So now that I have mentioned the fellowship programme, the upgrade to one of Irish Aid’s top priority countries and the nomination of a Sierra Leonean to global Irish Aid advisory panel, the fourth and final Irish government decision that I want to share with you this evening is the recent announcement in January that Ireland will henceforth have a full Embassy in Freetown.  Like the other three decisions, this decision also symbolizes in concrete terms Ireland’s intention to strengthen and deepen its engagement in Sierra Leone.

Together, these four decisions by the Irish government mean that we can expect more Ireland in Sierra Leone, and I think we can all agree, as we stand here to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, that this can only be a good thing!

The foundations for all of these decisions in strengthening Ireland-Sierra Leone relations have evolved over many years and I wish to pay tribute to one of the pioneers in this regard.  Dr. Wadi Aboud has served as Ireland’s Honorary Consul-General for over thirty years now and I want to use this occasion to both thank and commend Dr. Aboud and his family for all the consular assistance they provide to Irish citizens and for their assistance to Sierra Leoneans wishing to visit Ireland.

Finally let me thank all of you for joining our celebration this evening and for all your excellent collaboration during the year. And let me thank our staff this evening for doing such a terrific job, particularly our Administrator Davida MacAuley who runs this show.

It remains for me to ask you to raise your glasses to toast the President of Sierra Leone, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma and the enduring partnership and friendship between the people of Ireland and the people of Sierra Leone. As we say in Ireland , Slainte.

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