TBY talks to Michael Daniel Higgins, President of Ireland, on the history of cultural engagement between the Irish and Colombians and supporting Colombia on its path to peace.

 Michael Daniel Higgins
A political voice, a poet and writer, academic and statesman, human rights advocate, promoter of inclusive citizenship and champion of creativity within Irish society, Michael Daniel Higgins has previously served at almost every level of public life in Ireland, including as Ireland’s first Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. He was a lecturer in Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and the US. A desire to work more directly for equality and justice led him to enter public life, and he went on to serve as a public representative at many levels from Councilor and Mayor to nine years in the Seanad and 25 in Dáil Éireann. He was inaugurated as the ninth President of Ireland in 2011.

2017 was a significant time for a first visit by an Irish President to a country with which Ireland has had warm diplomatic relations since 1999, but with which we have also enjoyed much older connections. The establishment of formal diplomatic relations between our two countries, in 1999, has done much to foster the reciprocal friendship between the Irish and the Colombians. Our relationships have widened and deepened through productive and mutually beneficial co-operation, particularly through academic and cultural exchanges, and, of course, through our support and commitment for the Colombian peace process, which has intensified in recent times and to which we remain committed.

Yet, there exists a long history of cultural engagement of the Irish with Colombia, which predates our formal diplomatic relations. Although geography, scale, and our respective historical journeys differ in some respects, there are significant aspects of the collective experience of the Irish and Colombian peoples that we share. The movement from a precarious society of tenant farmers to a smallholder's rural economy, albeit deeply influenced by emigration, and in recent decades urbanization, is the source of the deep changes in Irish political and social life.

We in Ireland understand the difficult and painful choices that peace and reconciliation can entail, and we also understand and were grateful for support that came to us from our friends at critical junctures on the path to peace. It is for this reason that Irish people have been so pleased to support Colombia in its ongoing journey. We recognize the differences in our two processes, but we believe we can make a contribution by making available our own experience of peace-building over the last 20 years and more.

I know that many groups and individuals have traveled between Colombia and Ireland in recent months to discuss lessons and parallels from our respective journeys. We will continue to provide that assistance in the coming, critical years, including through the trust fund that we have helped to establish together with our friends in the EU. This trust fund is just one element of the broader support that the EU has been providing to many hundreds of projects all over Colombia, with hundreds of millions of euros in funding. Ireland has been pleased to contribute to this effort over many years and will, may I say it again, continue to do so.
Our involvement in Colombia is no exception to our deep commitment to human rights and it is precisely for such reasons that our relationship with the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights is at the center of Ireland's activity in Colombia. We have been pleased to provide it with financial support for its work with human rights defenders and victims in the province of Nariño as well as in drawing lessons from the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Nobody, however, underestimates the scale of the challenges that remain in relation to the implementation of the new agreement, including the transitional justice framework, disarmament, and the establishment of a safe and secure environment for all of Colombia's citizens. It goes without saying that Ireland remains available to support the people of Colombia in any way that furthers the goal of peace in this country.
All of us Irish would like to see Ireland act as a bridge for Colombia to the EU, a bridge that would contribute to advancing the development of its connections to the European region, and we would, in turn, welcome the opportunity for the further development of the bonds between us so that Colombia can act as a bridge for us to Latin America.

At this very important time in its modern history I want to convey to all Colombians Ireland's very best wishes for a peaceful, prosperous, and inclusive future. We are pleased, in Ireland, that we have been able, bilaterally and through the EU, to make our contribution to its peace process. Ireland is privileged indeed that Colombians have allowed us to share in their journey from darkness to light.