Speech of Micheál Martin TD Leader of Fianna Fáil at the Fianna Fáil 1916 Commemoration, Arbour Hill, Sunday 21st April 2013
Every state should take time to commemorate and celebrate the people and events of their founding. This commemoration is organised by Fianna Fáil the Republican Party, but we come here as Irish men and women to fulfil our responsibilities to the great generation of 1916.
After 97 years their deeds resonate even more than ever. They saw an Ireland which should not accept limits on its future. They committed everything to the vision of a country with the right to shape its own destiny.
As we quickly approach the centenary of the Rising no one can doubt that the Irish people see the men and women of 1916 as noble and courageous. No one can question their central place in our history.
It is right that we take the time to come to this place as a mark of our gratitude for their vision and sacrifice.
On the 24th of April members of the Irish Volunteers, the Citizens Army and Cumann na mBan came out to take a stand for a people who had suffered much and been denied the right to their own state.
They were from all parts of Irish society but were united by the strength of their commitment to their country.
What is still so deeply impressive about them is how they understood and were part of the international spirit of their time. They were leaders of a rising people, long downtrodden but reclaiming the right to their country and their culture. They represented not just a movement towards national self-determination but a movement to genuine republicanism.
Even though they had amongst them many people who had taken the lead in working for the revival of our language they also both respected the role of the Anglo-Irish tradition. For example, Thomas MacDonagh’s most important academic work, which is still taught in our universities, was a passionate argument for how works in English produced in Ireland had a uniquely Irish voice which should be recognised and valued as a national treasure.
The men and women of 1916 were at the vanguard of patriots who helped preserve our national language in the face of the ravages of official policy and depopulation. Many people have quite wrongly said that they used the language as a divisive force – that they saw this island as divided between Gaels and foreigners. This is completely untrue.
They formed part of a long and inclusive tradition which saw a shared gaelic heritage as something which should unite everyone on this island. The first printed book in Irish was the Book of Common Prayer. Time and again over two centuries it was scholars of non-nationalist traditions that had the biggest impact in helping preserve folk memories and to turn Irish into an accessible written language.
The men and women of 1916 were inspired by the Gaelic League and the prospects of reviving the language – equally they were inspired by the potential of the language as something which could reach across class and traditions.
I believe we need to be true to this in our support for the language today. More children than ever are being taught through Irish and for the first time there is a proper long-term strategy, published three years ago, for its permanent development.
This party will always be true to the vision of a country where our cultural history is open to all and can unify all.
In a travesty of analysis some people try to point to 1916 as a narrow and sectarian affair. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Proclamation provides a statement of values which are profoundly generous and reflect enlightened European thought. There is much there that any modern liberal democracy would be proud to have in its founding document.
At a time when Europe was engaged in the largest war the world had ever seen and extreme ideologies were on the rise, Pearse and his comrades set out a different vision. They took up arms for the rights of all citizens, not just those they shared an allegiance with.
The Republic they founded did not seek the mastery of one group but guaranteed “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all”. This was a guarantee for “the whole nation and all of its parts” and sought to overcome the division “of the minority from the majority”. Radically, for that time, they also said that the right to vote should be held equally by men and women.
These are generous and timeless values which are as relevant today as they have always been. They are values which can be shared by all Irish people no matter what their background. They are values which we, as republicans, must have at the core of our response to citizens who continue to seek full equality.
Unfortunately there have been groups who have claimed allegiance to the Proclamation but have continually undermined its values. They have been deaf to the demand that none who claim to serve the Republic “shall dishonour it”.
There is not the slightest connection between the Republic declared in 1916 and the Provisional movement. Their campaign was waged against the constantly reaffirmed and overwhelming opposition of the Irish people. The inhumanity of many of their actions, the lasting damage they caused and their sectarian behaviour disqualifies them from claiming to be part of an unbroken chain.
Through their sacrifices the men buried here and their comrades radically transformed the opportunities for this country. There is no greater insult to them than claiming that nothing changed, that the same methods they used continued to be required up to recently or even to today.
If we want to know where the men and women of 1916 would have stood in later years all we have to do is to look at what most of those who lived did – and this shows that they took the route of constitutional republicanism.
I always find it amusing that another party names cumainn after Constance Markiewicz but fails to acknowledge that she chaired the founding meeting of Fianna Fáil and was elected as a Fianna Fáil TD.
The Irish republican tradition is one which has constantly developed over more than 200 years. Its great strength is that it does not stand still, it always responds to the needs of today. Constitutional republicanism has had the allegiance of the Irish people for many decades and I believe it will continue to because it is as relevant as ever.
The Good Friday Agreement marked a triumph for constitutional republicanism. A framework was agreed for the shared development of this island and it was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the people.
This government has taken a more partisan approach to commemoration than any predecessor for at least 30 years. It has constantly failed to properly acknowledge national milestones when they are linked to other parties and traditions. This is narrow-minded and petty.
The failure to mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in any meaningful way stands in contrast to the wider civil society which has used it as a moment to reflect on what has been achieved and what is not working.
Unfortunately, what we are seeing today is a clear and dangerous lack of commitment on the part of both the Irish and British governments to making sure that the institutions established under the Agreement are working properly and that there is no backsliding.
The flag protests, increased dissident activity and growing public discontent at a dysfunctional Executive and Assembly have coincided with two years of a hands-off strategy from the Irish and British Governments.
Northern Ireland’s political establishment, in the form of Sinn Fein and the DUP are too deeply invested in their own party self-interest to be left to get on with things by themselves. Sinn Fein in particular seem content to allow the Northern Executive cruise along on autopilot while they focus all their energy on trying to pull together some sort of coherent plan in Dublin. Of course, for a party like the DUP, whose raison d’être is maintenance of the status quo, this suits just fine.
Peace has been too hard won and is too fragile to be taken for granted, yet this is exactly what we are getting from the two governments.
No one expects there to be the same type of intensive contacts that there were when the agreements were being negotiated and regular roadblocks to implementation were being confronted. But what no one should accept is the relegation of the peace process to set-piece meetings and empty communiques.
The Taoiseach recently told the Dáil that everything is fine because there are lots of meetings. The government has many important things on its agenda, and I respect that, but there is no excuse for the failure to show any serious engagement with the North.
When I first pointed to the increasing dysfunction of the Executive I was loudly criticised by Sinn Fein in particular. They claimed everything was fine and they were achieving great things. However, over the last year public dissatisfaction has become clearer by the week – so much so that even the DUP and Sinn Fein now acknowledge it. In the last week they have each put out statements admitting that the Executive isn’t working, but each of course claims that the old bogey man – “the other side” is to blame.
They continue to prioritise manoeuvres which make short-term gains over each other and over their direct competitors.
In a recent exposé, The Irish News reported that in the Assembly only 11 pieces of legislation have been passed in the two years since the last election. The majority of these have been essential pieces of financial legislation required to keep the lights on at Stormont. Parties elected on platforms of “delivering” for people have signally failed to use the Assembly to do this.
In the Executive, Sinn Féin and DUP ministers show no interest in using their strength to bridge differences – in fact they do the exact opposite. More than at any stage since they took control of the Executive from the SDLP and UUP, they are adopting a strategy of playing to their own section of the community, even if this means attacking the very institutions they are supposed to oversee.
As recently as last weekend for example, Sinn Féin’s Justice Spokesperson and member of the Policing Board Gerry Kelly led the party’s condemnation of the PSNI, announcing that his party has lost all confidence in the Chief Constable. His crime? It seems to have stemmed from the fact that he had the temerity to follow through an investigation and arrest a high profile Sinn Fein party member in connection with an ongoing murder investigation.
The DUP are little better. As we approach another marching season with trepidation; as residents in enclaves like Belfast’s Short Strand continue to deal with the effects of regular sectarian attacks, it is worth remembering the intervention of DUP Leader Peter Robinson last August. Instead of insisting the loyalist bands comply with legally binding decisions, he co-signed an open letter condemning the Parades Commission – the statutory body established to deal with parading.
What we are getting from these parties is what has rightly been termed all politics and no governance.
But what they don’t seem to understand is that if the Assembly and Executive are not focused on the issues of concern to people every day like jobs and living standards – if all they do is reinforce suspicion, division and confrontation – then they are promoting disillusionment and failing to fulfil the promise of peace and reconciliation. As a party that claims to promote a Republican ethos, Sinn Fein is also letting down nationalist and republican voters in a very profound way. No number of half baked border poll gimmicks should be allowed to distract from this basic fact.
The DUP and Sinn Féin are creating a dangerous vacuum. We watched this year as the flags protests exploded onto the streets. All of us who care about the North should worry about what will move next to fill that vacuum.
Fianna Fáil will never back away from its commitment to active and constructive engagement between all parts of this island. We will never accept that the new dispensation so eagerly grasped by the people should be allowed to be undermined through a combination of neglect and partisan self-interest.
Next weekend we will have our Árd Fheis. Thousands of members will come from every part of the country to participate in debates on the full range of issues and in my speeches I will address what I believe are the key challenges which must be overcome if our country is to recover strongly and do so in a way which is fair.
I will leave these issues until then, but it is important today to refer to the fact that this week trade unionists rejected a national agreement for the first time in over a quarter of a century.
A modernised and motivated public service is an absolutely essential foundation for the success of our country. In recent years our public servants have made a significant contribution to helping bring the public finances under control. This contribution deserves to be acknowledged and they should be respected as partners in helping Ireland to recover.
Instead of this, a government always obsessed with public relations over substance has treated them as if they are to be faced down and fought. It has briefed against public servants, disrespected their work and introduced a policy of trying to divide and conquer. Worst of all have been the threats which caused so much damage in recent weeks.
This is a crisis of the government’s own making. The only way to begin to undo this damage is to go back to negotiations, to treat all public servants equally and respect their good will towards the process.
Fianna Fáil is absolutely committed to being a strong, effective and constructive opposition. We know that the people want every party and every representative to focus on getting Ireland through this crisis and building a fairer future.
We have rejected the destructive opposition policies followed by Fine Gael and Labour before the last election and this is one of the reasons why we have been able to reengage with people.
Our membership is rising, our organisation is reformed and we are absolutely committed to renewing ourselves in the spirit of our great founding generation.
In doing this we will always remember and work to be true to the inspirational words and actions of the men and women of 1916.