Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 06 Jun 2008

OLLSCOIL  na  hÉIREANN
THE  NATIONAL  UNIVERSITY  OF  IRELAND

 

 

 

 

TEXT OF THE INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS DELIVERED BY:

 

 

PROFESSOR DENIS LUCEY, Acting Head of the College of Business and Law, in University College Cork on 6 June, 2008, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, on NIALL MELLON

 

 

 

 

 

A Leas-Sheansaileir agus a mhuintir uilig na hOllscoile

 

 

 

In January 2008, An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, T.D., visited Freedom Park near Cape Town where, under the auspices of the Niall Mellon Township Trust, 1350 Irish volunteers during one week in November 2007 had built 205 houses, a community centre and a “Garden of Hope” for poor, marginalised South Africans whose living till then had revolved around the squalor of shanty-town shacks.  Describing the project as one which “has captured the imagination of everyone back in Ireland”, An Taoiseach went on to “thank everybody at the Trust for showing us what can be done with a lot of spirit and determination”.  “I would like” he said “to pay particular tribute to the personal commitment shown by Niall Mellon in forming and guiding the Trust.  As an entrepreneur, he has shown remarkable generosity and social responsibility – not only in giving back, but in encouraging others to do likewise.”

 

 

 

The “building blitz” of November 2007 was the fifth annual Irish army of volunteers who had raised funds in Ireland to cover their trip, had contributed substantially to the cost of the building materials and had given a week of hard work to build homes and communities for the really needy in the Cape Town townships.  The story started in 2002 when Niall went on holidays in South Africa with his then girlfriend, Nicola, and was appalled by the thousands of shacks to be seen all along the motorway between the airport and the beautiful city of Cape Town.  These images kept haunting his mind and, after a few days of conventional tourism, Niall decided to see at first hand what a township was really like.

 

 

 

So Niall visited one of the Townships and met some of the community leaders there.  He was dumbstruck by the horrific conditions in which people were living – families in one room shacks, about nine feet by nine feet, made from scrap wood, plastic sheets and bits of metal, unbearably hot in summer and freezing cold and flooded in winter, with no clean water, no electricity and often with no access to any sanitary facilities.

 

 

 

The second great impression on Niall was the warmth of the welcome he received from the people in the township and their great dignity despite their horrific living conditions.  Saying to himself that “No human being should live in those conditions”, Niall decided to do something about it and the Niall Mellon Township Trust was born with an initial donation of one million euro from Niall.  The first focus was to be on the township of Imizamo Yethu, a shanty town near the fashionable Hout Bay and the ideas on what could be done and how to do it developed quite rapidly through intense rounds of local consultation both within the township and with local authorities and other civic leaders.

 

 

 

Fate often intervenes in mysterious ways.  Niall and Nicole were married towards the end of 2002 and duly planned their romantic honeymoon in Cape Town (where else?), Within a day or two of their arrival word reached them that a sudden fire had ravaged a substantial part of Imizamo Yethu so Niall and Nicola donned their oldest clothes and spent the next four or five days doing emergency work in the township, organising reconstruction supplies and emergency shelter provision and, critically, financing disaster relief supplies for speedy delivery and reconstruction.  What a honeymoon!  I am glad, however, that they are still together and Nicola has recently become the proud mother of her third baby boy!  In my view, those days in December 2002 showed the Imizamo Yethu people that the dashing young Irishman who had visited them earlier in the year was not just full of talk and sympathy.  He had reappeared in their hour of need and catalytically helped them to cope with a real community crisis.

 

 

 

The Mellon Township Challenge was launched in 2003.  One hundred and fifty Irish volunteers came and built 25 brick homes.  The next year 350 came and built 50 homes, with 700 volunteers in 2005 completing 106 homes.

 

 

 

Of course, the annual Irish “building Blitz” is the aspect of the Trust activity which has most visibility in Ireland, but, like the elegant swan, there’s a lot of other work going on which we don’t really see here in Ireland.  Niall’s Trust bought out a construction firm, which employs several hundred local people, providing income, employment, and up-skilling for people in the shanty communities and building brick houses on a year-round basis.  The Trust has by now been working with 23 Townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg and is targeting 7000 house completions in all for 2008!  The Trust also has the largest charity-owned timber frame housing factory coming on stream in South Africa with a planned capacity of 100 new timber frame houses per week when fully operational next year.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, the next Irish “invasion” is being organised.  For 2008, Niall plans to have 2008 Irish volunteers travelling!!  A further 1000 are planned for Spring 2009 while for 2010, magic numbers like 5,000 volunteers are being talked abut to mark the World Cup Year!!

 

 

 

All of this was made possible from Niall’s entrepreneurial successes in the financial, fund management, property, hotel and leisure sectors.  Yet, Niall only turned 40 last year.  What a set of personal achievements and what a magnificent return to those in need!

 

 

 

Rumour has it, of course, that Niall’s entrepreneurial talents manifested themselves at an early age.  He had barely become a teenager when he is reported to have come across a cheap job-lot of fire extinguishers and convinced all the neighbours of the vital importance of buying a fire extinguisher to protect their property and children from the ravages of domestic fires.

 

 

 

Niall has received tremendous recognition and support from leaders such as Nelson Mandela, himself an honorary Doctor of the NUI, and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, affectionately know as “The Arch”, himself a Freeman of the City of Dublin.  In his January speech the Taoiseach committed €5 million from Irish Aid to the Niall Mellon Township Trust.  In February of this year “The Arch” accompanied Niall and his Trust colleagues to Washington to lobby the US Congress for financial support, especially for the Super Housing Factory.  They were on a round of meetings with key Senators, Committees and House Leaders.  They met the influential Congressional Black Caucus, chaired by Congresswoman Carolyn Kilpatrick.  The Committee cut through Niall’s carefully crafted pitch for funds and asked him how much he was seeking to which Niall suggested 25 million dollars.  The next appointment was with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  While walking to the Speaker’s Office, Ms. Kilpatrick had a gentle word with Niall, suggesting that he pitch for a more ambitious figure, so when Nancy Pelosi, in turn, asked him how much he was seeking, the brave Niall said “fifty million”.  The normally unflappable Arch, who had not heard the earlier “Kilpatrick whisper in Niall’s ear” almost did a double-take when he heard Niall’s “fifty million” and nearly fell off his chair, such was his state of shock.  Acting quickly on good advice and seizing opportunities has been a hall mark of Niall’s career.

 

 

 

Niall is currently exploring the possibility of extending the Trust’s activity elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, so who knows how his boundless energy and entrepreneurial talents will stimulate this great work in the future.  I deliberately use the word “stimulate” because the easy thing for Niall to have done would have been to give money.  Instead, he has thrown himself into the activity and by stimulating successive waves of Irish volunteers he has built public awareness, personal achievement and political commitment to supporting practical development partnerships among vast numbers of Irish people – not just the volunteers but the wider communities who have contributed to fundraising for the individual volunteers.

In January, An Taoiseach specifically singled out the Trust’s volunteers, “Yours sense of social responsibility in reaching out to communities is commendable.  It is indeed heartening that we still have in Ireland that sense of interest in the world beyond our own island – an awareness of the needs of others and a determination to do our part to reduce poverty and inequality where we can.”

 

 

 

It is an honour for me, Vice-Chancellor, to introduce Niall Mellon to you today and to ask you to confer our highest honour on this most worthy Irishman, now just entering the prime of his life, recognising the good that he has done to-date and imagining what can be achieved over the coming decades by expanding the global numbers who, like him, believe that, as far as Africa is concerned, Yote Yanawezekana, - Everything is Possible.!

 

 

 

PRAEHONORABILIS VICE-CANCELLARIE, TOTAQUE UNIVERSITAS:

 

 

Praesento vobis, hunc meum filium quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in utroque Jure, tam Civili quam Canonico, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.

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