Michael Noonan 2001

Béal na mBláth, on Sunday 19 August 2001

Michael Noonan, TD, Leader of Fine Gael

A dhaoine uaisle,


Michael Noonan TD

Idir óg agus aosta, idir mhná agus fir, a chairde Gael uilig. Tá áthas mór orm bheith anseo inniu ar an ócáid stairiúil seo chun omós a thabhairt do Mhicheál Ó Coileáin.

Once more, we assemble, as we have done for so many years, at this sacred place. We do so to honour the memory of Michael Collins, the revolutionary hero, the skilful negotiator, the founder and first Commander in Chief of the Irish Army, the person who made a major contribution to the drafting of the first Irish Constitution – Bunreacht na hÉireann – and the man who, more than anybody else, can be rightly described as the father of Irish democracy.

For Fine Gael in particular, Béal na mBláth is a special place and Michael Collins has always been a major source of inspiration. In good times and in bad times, we have been loyal to his memory and loyal to his ideals.

We were loyal even when, in a spirit of extraordinary vindictiveness and pettiness, the powers that be went out of their way for so many years to play down the importance of Collins and to attempt to denigrate his memory. Who can forget the years when Fianna Fáil governments refused to allow the Irish Army to participate in this event? Who can forget the pettiness of the Fianna Fáil government in the 1930s in relation to the erection of a memorial at the grave of Michael Collins in Glasnevin? Who can forget, even as recently as the 1960s, the pettiness of a Fianna Fáil government in refusing to include a photograph of Michael Collins in the first edition of an official government handbook ‘Facts about Ireland’? These were petty acts of petty minded people. They were met mainly with a dignified silence by people who knew that the reputation of Michael Collins would never be diminished and who also knew that the ideals for which Michael Collins lived and died would eventually receive the recognition that they richly deserved.

I am happy to be here today when the wheel has come full circle. The Collins place in history is secure. The principles which Collins enunciated now enjoy widespread support.

It is against this background that I want to pay tribute today to the organisers of this great annual event and indeed to pay tribute to their predecessors. You never wavered in your loyalty. Your dedication to the ideals of Michael Collins has ensured that they are now firmly entrenched in our national life. In particular, I would like to thank the committee, led by chairman Cllr Frank Metcalfe and secretary Cllr Dermot Collins, for their ongoing work. As some of you may be aware, Frank was recently involved in a serious accident and I think it a measure of his huge commitment that in spite of the accident, he has been fully immersed in the planning of this year’s commemoration.

It is also appropriate to acknowledge at this stage the presence here today of many relatives of Michael Collins on whose behalf Helen Hoare will be speaking shortly.

I am particularly honoured that my distinguished parliamentary colleague, Nora Owen TD, is present. The contribution of Nora and her sister, Mary Banotti MEP, to Irish public life is a source of great pride to all of us in Fine Gael as it would have been to their granduncle, Michael Collins.

When we focus on the achievements of Michael Collins, we tend to be attracted in the first place to his military career. This is hardly surprising given the period through which he lived and the young age at which he was so tragically killed. The recent film so brilliantly directed by Neil Jordan also tends to remind us of the military man

Today, I would like to focus on other aspects of his life. I would like in particular to talk about Michael Collins and the creation of Irish democracy, his contribution to the drafting of the first Irish Constitution and his skill as an administrator.

Let me first say a few words about Michael Collins and democracy. Many of you in the audience will be familiar with a small book published by the Mercier Press back in 1968. The book is called ‘The Path to Freedom’ and contains articles and speeches written or delivered by Michael Collins. It also contains a most interesting set of notes which he wrote in August 1922, notes which he never got a chance to use. They were probably intended for delivery in the Dáil but sadly Béal na mBláth intervened. In these notes, Michael Collins made the following observations.

“Of all forms of government, a democracy allows the greatest freedom – the greatest possibilities for the good of all. But such a government, like all governments, must be recognised and obeyed. The first duty of the new government was to maintain public order, security of life, personal liberty and property. The duty of the leaders was to secure free discussion of public policy, and to get all parties to recognise that, while they differed, they were fellow citizens of one free State. It should have been the political glory of Ireland to show that our differences of opinion could express themselves so as to promote, and not to destroy the national life.”

And later on, in the same notes, he strikes a chord reminiscent of the American and French republican constitutions when he says that the positive work of building the new Ireland requires “not merely unity, but diversity in unity”.

In his time, Collins was, the main advocate of recognising the importance of diversity, the importance of difference. Indeed, in one of his speeches he noted that there were three threats to democracy, namely disinterest in politics, disorder and false consensus. He was a great advocate of accommodating differing political positions though he emphasised that, in a true democracy, people had a number of fundamental obligations to the state, not least of which was to co-operate in maintaining peace and public order, rights of life and property according to law, and the freedom for individuals, parties and creeds to express themselves lawfully.

Given the days that were in it, it is not surprising that Collins should lay such a heavy emphasis on the maintenance of public order, the security of life, personal liberty and property and nor it is surprising that he should have stressed the importance of the role of the Army in the functioning of the State.

The positions on public order taken by Michael Collins over 80 years ago are as relevant today as they were when he articulated them. If democracy is to function properly and political parties are to play their part in the functioning of that democracy, they must do so on a clear and unequivocal commitment to one Army.

There is only one Army in this country. It is the Army, the supreme command of which is vested in the President, in accordance with Article 13 of Bunreacht na hÉireann. A political party which does not fully subscribe to this principle cannot play a full part in our political life.

I welcome the recent steps taken by the Republican Movement in general and Sinn Féin in particular to enter the mainstream of Irish political life. I welcome the fact that they have put forward candidates for elections to our local authorities and to our national parliament. I welcome their participation in the Peace Process and, to the extent that they have rejected the use of violence to achieve political ends, I also welcome that. But until they recognise that in our democracy there is only one Army, their participation in our democratic institutions here will inevitably be a qualified one for those of us whose commitment to democracy is unqualified and unequivocal.

I would particularly appeal to the Republican Movement to desist from attempting to introduce their own policing, whether it is in inner city areas or on the doorstep of the Minister for Justice area in North Kerry. We can be justly proud of our policing tradition in this jurisdiction. As a citizen and as a former Minister for Justice, I take pride in the achievements of An Garda Síochána. I take particular pride in the fact that they enjoy total public support which is the only basis upon which we can have effective policing. No group of persons, no matter how or why motivated, must be allowed to undermine or supplant the role of An Garda Síochána. No Irish government worthy of the name will tolerate any such attempt.

I move now to talk about Michael Collins in a capacity for which he is not always given full recognition. I refer to his role in creating the first Irish constitution and in particular to his role as Chairman of the Committee on the Constitution which sat between January and June 1922. Daryll Figgis was the Vice-Chairman and the other significant members included a distinguished American lawyer, a number of barristers, law Professor James Murnaghan and Professor Alfred O’Rahilly from University College Cork. The historian, Tom Garvin, has described as ‘impossible’ the role which Collins had to play in that Committee. He had to satisfy the pro-Treaty Government, the Republican opposition and the British Government. Collins worked very hard to achieve a position which would be acceptable to all three and even though the text that finally appeared in mid-1922 did not prevent a civil war, it did represent further significant concessions on the part of the British.

Indeed, what the treaty and the 1922 Constitution represented is now recognised as the beginning of a huge international constitutional revolution that eventually dismembered the entire British Commonwealth and Empire peacefully. And it did so in accordance with the legal forms of both the United Kingdom and the successor states to the colonies that had once formed the British Empire. Again, as Tom Garvin has pointed out “republicans in particular had no idea how revolutionary the British concessions actually were”. Indeed, it is probably only in recent years that historians have given full acknowledgement to the significance of the achievements made by Collins in his negotiations with the British. Collins had used his skills to the full to lay the groundwork for the most revolutionary constitutional changes of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, London was the centre of a world empire. Collins took it on and won.

The democratic cornerstones laid by Michael Collins in 1922 included, among other things, a recognition of the unionists’ right to consent to any change in their status as part of the United Kingdom. He always hoped that the Boundary Commission would narrow the geographic territory of Northern Ireland to the point where unionists would see that it was in their own interest to join with the rest of us on the island in a diversified but unified state.

The recognition of the need for consent for any change in the status of Northern Ireland was first formally enunciated by W T Cosgrave in the Dáil in December 1922 but it is clear that in doing so, he was heavily influenced by Collins. Unfortunately, the principle of consent was withdrawn by de Valera in the 1937 Constitution and was eventually restored in binding international law only with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement by Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher in 1985. The principle has now been incorporated in the new Article 3 of our Constitution following the agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations in Belfast on Good Friday of 1998. The new Article 3 is worth quoting. It says

“It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island”.

It is important to note that the 1937 Constitution, which was put to a referendum only in this jurisdiction, won just 56% of the votes cast, while the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was put to referenda in both jurisdictions and was approved by over 85% of the combined votes cast North and South.

I move on now to talk about Michael Collins, the administrator. The years he spent in the British Post Office left their mark in at least one important respect. His administrative skills were fine-tuned and he was to spend the rest of his short life making use of old fashioned civil service training in basic management and administrative skills. For example, unlike many of his colleagues and contemporaries, he knew how to keep files and to use them.

The administration taken over by Michael Collins and his colleagues in 1922 has been famously described by Kevin O’Higgins as

“simply eight young men in the City Hall standing amidst the ruins of one administration, with the foundations of another not yet laid, and with wild men screaming through the keyhole. No police force was functioning through the country, no system of justice was operating, the wheels of administration hung idle, battered out of recognition by the clash of rival jurisdictions.”

Nevertheless, when Dublin Castle was handed over to Michael Collins on 17 January 1922, his skills, together with his basic British Post Office training, enabled him to create a situation where almost immediately the new Ireland had a functioning administration. Without Collins’s administrative skills, there is no doubt that the foundations laid in 1922 would not have served us so well since.

A specific area in which the administrative skills of Michael Collins are sometimes overlooked is in the work he did in organising the Irish Army as its first Commander in Chief. That Army was basically made up of three parts, those recruited from the IRA, men from some of the disbanded Irish regiments in the British Army, and young Irish men who had no background either in the IRA or in the British Army. They were, indeed, from disparate backgrounds. Yet, within months Collins succeeded in welding them together as a unified force and, even more importantly, he created basic administrative structures which served the Army so well in its early days. When one reflects on how short a time he had as its Commander in Chief, this achievement is indeed extraordinary.

An aspect of Michael Collins’s character which I have always admired was his ability to see that the glass was half full rather than half empty. One of my favourite quotations is the one which says

“Let us not waste our energies brooding over the more we might have got. Let us look upon what it is we have got”.

It was that principle which, of course, lead him to support the treaty. Famously he said that “it gave us freedom – not the ultimate freedom which all nations hope for and struggle for, but freedom to achieve that end”.

The stepping stone created by Michael Collins in the year before his death made possible many of our political achievements since. It made possible the declaration of an Irish Republic by John A Costelloe in 1948, the Sunningdale Agreement signed by Liam Cosgrave in 1973 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Garret FitzGerald in 1985.

It is interesting, incidentally, to note that these three remarkable achievements were primarily the achievement of Fine Gael Taoisigh. I fully acknowledge and appreciate the role of Fianna Fáil Taoisigh in the last seven years beginning with the work that Albert Reynolds did to bring about the first IRA cessation of violence in 1994. But I raise a question mark over what it was that Fianna Fáil did not do in relation to the national question from the moment they entered office in 1932. They were long on rhetoric and undoubtedly built up significant support on the basis that they were the only party that could deal with the Northern Ireland situation. But rhetoric on its own never achieved anything and historians will, I believe, deliver a harsh verdict on the contrast between Fianna Fáil’s rhetoric and its lack of achievement in relation to Northern Ireland during their extensive periods in office during the 30s, 40s and 50s of the last century.

May I conclude with a statement of Fine Gael’s Northern Ireland position in these difficult, uncertain days for the Peace Process.

Fine Gael is an Irish nationalist party and in the words of the new Article 3 of the Constitution, we wish to see the unity of all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions.

We reject violence as a means of achieving political objectives. Equally, we reject any threat, implied or otherwise, to use violence in pursuit of political objectives. May I remind the Republican Movement of the commitment in the Good Friday Agreement to achieve the decommissioning of all para-military arms within two years of the referendums, north and south, a deadline which has long since passed. May I also remind them of the parts of the Agreement already delivered to them. They have participated in democratic institutions in Northern Ireland, they have participated in North/South bodies and they are participating in British Irish bodies. The Republican prisoners have been released. Policing reform in Northern Ireland may not yet be complete but it is moving in the right direction. Similarly, with demilitarisation.

To Mr Adams and his friends I say, remember the words of Michael Collins. Look upon what it is you have got and go and build on it. Show the confidence that the other participants in the Peace Process have already shown. You have the ability to achieve the rest of your objectives through the political process and not through threats of withdrawing co-operation from the Decommissioning Body.

Pending the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement which we all hope for, Fine Gael believes that the relationship between the Irish and British Governments is the key relationship not least because of the Good Friday commitment by the British Government that, if a majority in Northern Ireland indicate their wish to leave the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland, they will work out the legislative arrangements to accomplish this with the Irish Government.

The relationship between the two Governments is central to the management of the Northern Ireland situation generally and, of course, particularly central to the management of the Peace Process. It took many years for successive Irish governments in the 70s and 80s to convince British governments that the Northern Ireland situation was best managed by both governments acting together. Northern Ireland is not an Irish problem and it is not a British problem. It is a British/Irish problem. In the unhappy event that things do not work out and direct rule from London has to be restored, Fine Gael will work to ensure that the role of the Irish Government will be no less than that provided for under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

In particular, Fine Gael is committed to developing, in considerable detail, the North/South co-operation envisaged by and initiated under the Good Friday Agreement. We have seen how important this was, for example, in combating the foot and mouth disease scourge that hit these islands earlier this year. Irrespective of what happens to the Agreement, nothing must be allowed inhibit the development of maximum North/South co-operation in the spirit of the new Article 3 in our Constitution.

Above all, Fine Gael is committed to working with everyone on this island, Nationalist and Republican, Loyalist and Unionist to achieve all that is best for this island and for those of us who live on it. We recognise and respect difference. We value diversity. We understand the pride which Unionists take in their position. We understand the pride that Republicans take in their position. We understand these things because we are Irish Nationalists and we are proud of it.

Gura maith agaibh go leir.