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Dr Ed Walsh

Michael Collins Commemorative Oration Aug. 2011

 by Prof. Dr. Ed Walsh

Founding President, University of Limerick Sunday 21st. August 2011

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It is some 47 years since last I stood here. It must be admitted my motives were romantic rather than political: I was madly in love with Stephanie, the younger daughter of Fine Gael TD for Cork, Stephen Barrett.

There was also another good family reason for being here….of which I was unaware at the time.

It certainly had nothing to do with my mother’s side. They were happy to see Ireland part of the United Kingdom and the British Empire: indeed their world started to fall apart when ‘those ruffians [as they saw them] took over the post office in Dublin’.

My father’s family felt otherwise and were deeply involved in the Irish independence movement.

Piaras Beaslai, the person invited by Collins’ grieving comrades-in-arms, on the first anniversary of the fatal ambush, to speak here at Beal na mBlath, was a frequent visitor to my grandparent’s home in Cork. Beaslai was a member of the First Dail Eireann and he directed party publicity. He was strongly pro-treaty and was totally devoted to Michael Collins. He wrote his biography.

In August 1923 he recorded in his diary:

I have stood on the spot at Bealnablath where Michael Collins fell and addressed his old comrades-in-arms drawn up before me. I have visited his birthplace and spoken of him to the old people, saw the forge, the school, the cross, the great cliffs at Rosscarbery…all the ‘shapes and sounds’ that nursed his spirit’s power in childhood. I have strolled down Patrick Street amid ruins of buildings and called into old resorts. I have visited Eibhlis in Sunday’s Well and found myself thinking of that day…was it eleven or twelve years ago…when I strolled there with Seandun pretending to listen to his old-world discourse while all the time I was conversing by signals with a party of pretty girls.

Well, the Eibhlis he mentions was my aunt. Beasley and she ‘did a line’ for many years before she chose to marry another member of the movement, Michael Grimes; later UCC professor of Dairy Bacteriology.

In the Dail Treaty Debate on 3 January 1922 Beaslai said

“To me, Ireland is the Irish people. Not the pure souled Republicans alone, but the plain men and women that live in the cities and on the hillsides of all Ireland, including North-East Ulster. Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins have the national vision to sense that people. They see and know the country as it is- the old women by the fireside, the young men working in the fields and the girls in the shops, the Orange working-man of Sandy Row and the Molly Maguire of South Armagh, the men on city tram cars, all types and classes, good, bad or indifferent; and they stand for them all. Remember those people are Ireland. Ireland is not a formula but a fact. You cannot love Ireland without loving the whole Irish people.”

These sentiments suggest that Collins and Beaslai would roundly endorse the spirit of reconciliation in which last year’s invitation was both extended to and accepted by, now sadly departed, Brian Lenihan.

Michael Collins would have empathised with Brian…a man of courage, ability, energy and integrity. Collins would have joined with us in mourning an untimely death. He would have recognised Lenihan’s unrelenting commitment to his public duties and to Ireland, while knowing his own chances of survival were slim, and most likely he would shortly die.

Let us pause for a few moments in memory of two fine Irishmen who met untimely deaths: Brian Lenihan and Michael Collins.

The dire crisis in which Ireland is ensnared, the opportunist way in which the strong took advantage of the weak last Christmas, and brought us to our knees, would certainly be on Michael Collins’ mind were he with us today. He would be anticipating the skirmishes that lie ahead and thinking of how best to secure bargaining chips that a small state might use in facing down major European powers.

In hindsight joining the Euro in 1999 was a serious mistake. Unlike Denmark, Sweden and the UK, Ireland entered and lost control of the two vital monetary instruments: setting interest rates and setting currency exchange rates. Had Ireland remained outside the Euro its bankers would not have gained access to the Eurozone’s vast and low-interest borrowing opportunities. Without the outlandish credit available within the Eurozone the building bubble, the resultant government tax windfalls and Ahern’s, McCreevy’s and Cowen’s spending splurge would have been impossible. The country would not now be in receivership.

Yes, Irish banks were guilty of foolish borrowing, but hardly more so than those German and French banks that lent recklessly, or the ECB that failed to effectively regulate the activity.

The IMF’s Ajai Chopra called it as it is: “The problems that Ireland faces are not just an Irish problem. They’re a shared European problem”.

But for Ireland there has not been a shared and equitable European solution.

The banks, mainly German, which lent rashly, are receiving a 100 percent bail-out, not from those who borrowed, but from the Irish tax payer. Apart altogether from the unfairness of the imposed solution, it will not work, because it cannot. The Irish economy does not have the capacity to repay. Without a new deal and a shared Eurozone restructuring of some kind Ireland will inevitably slide into default at some future date.

Bumbling, constrained and nationalistic leadership has exposed the inadequacies both of European governance structures and the weakness of European leadership. We are now living through a moment in history not knowing where we are heading, only that the consequences…whatever they may be…will be momentous.

The crisis that is convulsing Europe has its origins in the partisan management of the Euro currency from the outset. Sustained low interest rates to facilitate a dominant Germany in the process of reunification were exactly what the overheated economies of Ireland and many other countries did not need. Ahern, McCreevy and Cowen, with the economic insights of intoxicated joy riders, made no attempt to counteract this; but perversely poured fuel on the flames by incentivising speculative building and borrowing. They permitted uncontrolled expansion of the public sector; doubling the cost to the taxpayer. For electoral gain they dislocated central government by attempting to dispatch parts of it to favoured regional constituencies. They eroded the tax base, appointed people of doubtful competence to public bodies, and ceded control in key areas to Social Partnership; resulting in public sector wages rising to the highest levels in the EU. They pursued votes and won an election by increasing social welfare payments to levels three times greater than those in Northern Ireland; making Irish job-seeker’s allowance greater than the average industrial wage in most of the EU accession states.

Ireland, the fourth most competitive country in the world in 2000, with a sound economy, was brought to its knees in a decade by political opportunism and gross mismanagement.

The new government has now the unenviable responsibility for getting the national finances in order again. It will have to balance the national budget by reducing our standard of living to match our means. Government will have to reform and prune a flabby, overpaid public sector, and face down public sector unions in the process.

The latter has to happen. Croke Park was yet one more incredible deal that the public sector unions managed to extract from a weak and disoriented former government. The new one has yet to show the courage and determination necessary to stop the public sector unions walking away, yet once more, brazenly and unmolested from the ‘ATM machines’ without honouring undertakings.

For the most part individual public sector workers want to get on with their jobs and make a contribution to national recovery, but they are working within an antiquated and dysfunctional public sector. There has been no comprehensive reform of the public administration system since it was inherited from Britain. Its effectiveness has been eroded over the years by a succession of ministerial decisions that found conceding to unreasonable demands preferable to opposing them. The public sector is rife for the kind of radical reform introduced with such excellent results in New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Hidden away in Volume 2 of Colm McCarthy’s 2009 report are a startling litany of strange payments and concessions to public servants that have been conceded over the years. As a result the terms and remuneration of Irish public servants far exceeds those of their counterparts in Germany.

Those who are struggling to make ends meet and do not enjoy the remuneration, perks and job security of the Irish public sector look to government to bring about fundamental reform. Failing this, many would be happy to see the Troika insist on an exercise to benchmark and align Irish public sector remuneration and concessions with EU norms.

There is growing concern amongst the general public as reports emerge of extraordinary public sector work practices and concessions in education, health and most other sectors. The fact that the Labour Relations Commission should see fit to be an instrument of negotiation with FAS workers, who wished to retain some 70 additional days of holidays in the years before retirement, highlights the cocoon of unreality in which the public sector abides.

Teachers complain about inadequate school resources, yet last year Ireland had to borrow over €115 million to provide teachers with extra payments, in addition to salaries that are already amongst the highest in the EU, for doing school supervision and substitution; activities that in most other countries are considered part of the job. Were teachers to forego the supervision and substitution perks it would permit the recruitment of over 2,000 new teachers, or the upgrading of every science laboratory in the country to best international standards in the course of a few years.

Michael Collins, were he around today, would put the fear of God into those who abuse their secure positions and fail to put Ireland first at this time of great crisis. Reforming our public sector and cutting back on public expenditure in order to balance our budget, sooner rather than later, is the priority. Only when our budget is balanced, and we are no longer dependent on others to pay public sector wages and welfare, can we start to play hardball within the EU to alter the unreasonable terms of the bank deal.

Collins was good at hardball. What would he have done?

Collins’ attention would be directed less towards Brussels than Berlin. He would recognise that Germany is calling the shots and is the dominant power source strongly influencing EU policies. At the insistence of Germany, it would seem, the penal terms imposed on Ireland last Christmas were intended to make an example of us. Subsequently these terms were relaxed somewhat, through default, rather than out of any particular concern for Ireland’s predicament.

Berlin has good reason to recall that the Allied victors of WW11, rather than keeping Germany on its knees by imposing punitive sanctions on all its citizens, wisely did the reverse. In a remarkable pragmatic mixture of forgiveness, altruism and concern for Russian containment, major investment was made and policies adopted, led by the US Marshall Aid programme, to rekindle and rebuild the German economy. A devastated Germany was resuscitated and, with guidance and support, emerged surprisingly quickly as a successful and strong state.

This forgiveness and concern for the economic recovery of post war Germany contrasts sorely with the treatment that was meted out to Ireland last Christmas. There is good reason now to expect that Germany, which was so fostered towards recovery and growth, should now give leadership in Europe and repay some of its moral debt, now that in can do so, and ensure that the needs of a troubled Europe are placed to the fore.

This may be an unrealistic expectation and Collins would see the need for bargaining chips to help fend off a repeat of the kind of harsh treatment Ireland received last Christmas.

If he looked at present he would find few. He would realise that Ireland must create circumstances and change EU public opinion in such a way that the prime target of his concern, Germany, could be made feel somewhat uneasy, when overstepping the mark, in whatever way that might readily be done….whether through initiatives having a bearing on its global economic interests, its international reputation or its political authority within the EU.

In recruiting and developing support for his ‘Volunteers’ Collins knew that public opinion and perceptions were of prime importance and had to be carefully nurtured in order to succeed. Public opinion has been kind to Germany, but bitter memories lie dormant that could readily be reawakened, if this proved necessary.

Decades of strong leadership under Adenauer, Brandt, Schmidt and Kohl left small nations in Europe assured that Germany was repentant and would not again revert to form. Germany’s external policies had regard for the sensitivities of its fellow Europeans as it gave leadership in pursuit of the European ideal. The message is still mouthed but the facts belie the intent. Nationalistic leadership under chancellor Merkel with the quisling-like support of President Sarkozy now gives cause to recall the old concerns.

ALLIANCE OF SMALL STATES

Small European states, especially those with economic difficulties, must have reason to worry that the old bossy self-serving traits of Germany, and France to some extent, are re-emerging, and, if they are not restrained, may result in a European Union dominated by both in a way that was never intended.

Dangerous days lie ahead, especially for the vulnerable. So there is good reason that the small states of Europe should see that their own interests are best protected by acting with some sense of unison to thwart any moves by large member states to damage their interests. Were Ireland to the fore in leading such a grouping of small EU states its negotiating position might be stronger and outcomes more fruitful.

DIASPORA

Given its remarkable international diaspora Ireland is in a position to influence public opinion and policy in the US, Canada, Britain and Australia; especially if one had reason to evoke the spectre of the re-emergence of the old bossy Germany. The potential of collaboration with our international friends was highlighted by Minister Michael Noonan’s trip to Washington in June. It looked unlike a coincidence that shortly after his return the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, was rushed to Dublin for discussions. Michael Collins would have approved and he would have seen the merits of building a creative tension between Washington and Berlin.

CHINA

Indeed he might see similar opportunities in doing so with Beijing. China has made great inroads in SE Asia and Africa using its financial clout. Ireland, as an English speaking country with little international baggage, could represent a useful and helpful partner for China in the EU. The bank debt burden imposed by the EU on Ireland might well be altered as part of a deal. The same close relationship with China could also provide Ireland with special access to the Chinese market. Germany’s current economic boom is fuelled primarily by exports to China. Were Ireland to develop a special relationship with China this could result in some valuable leverage positions.

In 2011 Europeans are faced with decisions that rank amongst the most important since they emerged from the devastation of World War ll. Europe is at an historic juncture where one of two outcomes appears inevitable: deeper EU integration in fiscal and political terms and a relatively orderly evolution towards a federal Europe, or disruptive disintegration with unknown and possibly dire consequences.

Deeper integration of the Eurozone would appear the safer route, but could involve a major transfer of powers from member states to EU institutions and, in Ireland’s case, a threat to its corporate tax policies. The ECB would acquire powers similar to those of the US Federal Reserve in controlling money supply. Eurobonds would be issued against the combined assets of the EU; eliminating the current damaging market speculation against weak member states.

But the politicians and electorate in Germany are likely to remain opposed to closer fiscal union and resist until disaster is at the brink: the disintegration of the Eurozone and the unfathomable social and economic consequences for the whole of Europe. It can only be hoped that wisdom will prevail and steady, if difficult, progress can be resumed towards a peaceful and prosperous Europe. But Europe’s century-long history of periodic convulsion gives us no reason for complacency.

As we stand here today we have good reason to feel as concerned about Ireland’s future prospects as Piaras Beaslai and his audience must have felt when they came to this place for the first time in 1923. Unlike Greece and Portugal Ireland still retains a sound core export economy and has many strengths to assist it pull through this challenging period. But, if this is to happen, the harsh and unfair terms imposed by the EU must be altered. Ireland must be energetic and relentless, and offensive where necessary, in bringing this about.

While hoping for the best Ireland should prepare for the worst. We should go about building the kind of international public support and leverage positions that will help defend this small state and, when necessary, permit it to act assertively in the inevitable skirmishes that lie ahead.

Michael Collins, one of Ireland’s most remarkable patriots, would have understood.

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