Michael Collins Commemorative Oration 2004
Béal na Bláth, Sunday 22 August 2004 Simon Coveney T.D – M.E.P
I am immensely proud to have been asked to speak this afternoon. Speaking at Beal na mBlath is an honour not many people are given. I want to thank the committee for inviting me to take the podium to commemorate a man, who in a short lifetime, has had such an immense impact at a crucial time in Irish history.
The numbers of people that travel here year after year are testament to the lasting legacy of Collins, the respect in which he is held and the inspiration that his personality continues to provide for so many of all ages.
Collins for me was an ideas person, as much as a soldier and a political leader. For someone so young he thought deeply about his country and what he wanted for it. I hope he would be pleased to hear speakers here use the opportunity to share and express ideas relevant to modern Ireland in the context of his thoughts three quarters of a century ago.
In 1984, 20 years ago my father was the keynote speaker in Beal na mBlath. So as I reflected on what I would say today I thought it useful to look at his speech. I smiled as I read through it, as he had approached the challenge in the same way as I was about to, measuring the aspirational dreams that Collins held for Ireland against the reality of what Ireland had become by 1984.
Since 1984 Ireland has changed enormously. What it means to be Irish in 2004 and the challenges that face us now are questions that deserve new thinking.
In reading about Collins it amazes me how much of what he believed became the foundations of the Ireland we now experience.
In response to a US Senator in Dungarvan, 1922, when questioned on how an independent Ireland could survive economically, he said: “We will survive economically if we export to the growing sophisticated markets of the world, goods of quality which they’re entitled to demand at a price beyond which they will not pay and on the day they rightly demand delivery. To meet this there is only one criteria, the pursuit of excellence”.
Despite the economic climate of protectionism so prevalent in 1922, Collins was profoundly far-sighted. At the time Collins was referring to predominantly dairy and food products and perhaps textiles, but he could hardly have known how relevant his comments would have been for computer software and pharmaceuticals products in 2004.
The inevitable question then arises as to why it took over seventy years for Collins’s economic outlook to be realised? Why did good ideas stagnate for so long?
The easy response to that of course is that Collins did not live long enough to provide the leadership to implement his own plans. However, that is far too simplistic an answer. Garrett Fitzgerald offered another potential answer: he wrote in his recent book “Reflections on the Irish State” that what marks Irish politicians as much as anything is their unbending conservatism. He did not mean a dogmatic conservatism, but moreover a genuine and deeply held fear of new ideas. This fear lies perhaps in the unwillingness of politicians to in any way endanger the votes that they have, in the pursuit of new and better ways of doing thing, even if there exists a large and unrepresented constituency favouring such changes.
The basic principles of what’s required to provide leadership today do not differ greatly from in the 1920s. Leadership comes down to good ideas based on reasoned argument carefully developed, bravely communicated and efficiently implemented.
However, what is so important to acknowledge and what makes today different to the time of Collins is that never before in our history have we had either the resources or the freedom to choose the kind of Ireland we want to live in. We now have the chance to define what it means to be Irish, not relative to another nation or because of economic underdevelopment and lack of resource, but moreover by the democratic choices we make.
Aside from Collins’s almost prophetic views on the future of Ireland, for me what shines through all the anecdotes, academic studies and documentaries on Michael Collins, is his sincere optimism and ambition for Ireland, using freedom and economic growth as a means to an end, that end being a united, peaceful, prosperous and fair Ireland.
While the economic boom of recent years has been hugely positive for Ireland and we should be proud of that, rapid economic growth and material success has not come without a price. This price is not an obvious one and many would argue that it is one worth paying in the relentless pursuit of economic prosperity.
What I am talking about lies in the shadows of modern Ireland, only revealed by the staggering suicide rate among young men, the alcohol fuelled violence on our streets, the growing numbers effected by mental illness and the loneliness of our disregarded and degraded elderly.
As Collins wrote “What we must aim at is the building of a sound economic life in which great discrepancies cannot occur”.
The same policies that have enabled this staggering economic growth have perhaps changed and altered our sense of what is important; in the race to prosperity perhaps we have lost our perspective. I am not saying this with any sense of blame but rather hinting at the need for a greater and more complete destiny for Ireland. Economic prosperity, whether for the individual or for the State, allows a greater array of choices, nothing more and nothing less. It is our choices that will define the character of Ireland in this century not our wealth. Economic prosperity is not an end result, it is only the means to achieve something better.
Collins stated: “Our objective in building up the country economically must not be lost sight of. That object is not to be able to boast of enormous wealth or of a great volume of trade for their own sakes, the real riches of the Irish nation will be the men and women of the Irish nation, the extent to which they are rich in body and mind and character.”
This may all sound very idealistic and optimistic, but surely, just as it is our individual dreams that define our being, it must be our collective sense of a more perfect Ireland to aim at, that defines us as a nation.
We are in a great position, but also a challenging one. While Collins declared “We have now won the first victory, we are free in name”. We could now perhaps declare that we have won the second victory, we are economically free. The measurement of success of government in Ireland today, on domestic policy at least, must be how we use our economic victory to achieve a better Ireland.
Perhaps Michael Collins would have asked some of the following questions if he were in politics today:
Why has no one yet come up with a solution to the chronic situation where good childcare for our children is like a second mortgage for many couples? Or for that matter, is the move towards an increased reliance on childcare, due to the need for both parents to work, producing the best family environment for children to be brought up in?
Why is it that vast amounts of money are being spent on building facilities to enable people to watch and bet on sport rather than on facilities that encourage active participation in sport?
Why is it that our politicians and civil service seem incapable of managing major infrastructure projects on time and within budget?
Why is it that when spending public money the same value for money assessment procedures do not apply as apply in our most efficient private sector companies?
Perhaps most importantly he might have asked the question:
Are we creating and fostering political entrepreneurs as well economic ones, so that the best and brightest minds turn their attention to serving the State and its people, as well as personal wealth creation? Perhaps the structure of governance and democracy in Ireland needs to change, to ensure that more ideas people make it to government as well as people who know how best to harvest votes.
Collins said: “We have to build up a new civilisation on the foundations of the old. And let me say it is not the leaders of the Irish people who can do this for the people. Leaders can only point the way. The strength of our nation must be the strength of the whole people. It must be a system in which our material, intellectual, and spiritual needs and forces will find the fullest expression and satisfaction”.
Recently I had the honour of being elected to represent Ireland South in the European Parliament. I have already spent a number of weeks in Brussels and Strasbourg at committee meetings and at the first full parliamentary sitting of the new and enlarged European Parliament. Even to date it has been a fascinating experience, a new challenge that I am relishing taking on. Even at this early stage I have been reminded on more than one occasion that not only am I there to represent Munster and Ireland, but also the other 500 million people now living in the 25 state EU.
One wonders what Collins would have thought of the European Union and how it has progressed. I suspect he would have been excited by such an outward looking and ambitious project, certainly his economic outlook has been facilitated by the creation of what has become an enormous common market for trade.
In the introduction to newly a published book of original Collins documents it is suggested that Collins would have been a strong supporter of the European ideal and an international outlook for Ireland. Evidence comes from his essays as part of an entrance exam for the British Civil Service in 1906.
In one essay he outlines his favourite subjects in school he speaks of:
History: “History forms a study no less interesting than a well written novel by any of our first class writers. It records how some countries have been gradually rising, while others have been decaying…”.
He says of Geography: “Geography is another subject I like very much, as it tells where our food-stuffs come from, the plants and animals that thrive best in different countries, the climate and situation of all countries and the races of people that inhabit them…”
He then goes on to say:
“I would also like to study French and German as they would be useful to me if I ever travel to either of those countries…”
Sounds to me like the model pupil if all he wrote is true, but clearly this was a young man deeply curious as to what was happening outside Ireland as well as at home, wanting to learn, to travel and understand other countries in Europe.
Economically, Ireland has been Europe’s top student for the last 15 years. We have successfully modernised, attracted significant investment from abroad, built up trading relationships all over the world, ended our dependence on the UK for exports and become the only net exporter in the EU. I think Collins would have looked on in approval. He too was a moderniser, I smiled when reading the opening lines of his letter in support of conversion to the Metric system, he says:
“Has it ever occurred to anyone to calculate how much of early school life and how much brain-cudgelling are wasted on our barbarious system of weights, measures and coinage? If the wit of man devised a collection of weights and measures which should combine in themselves ambiguity and absurdity it could hardly have devised a more crowning triumph…”.
But again stagnation, unfortunately it took Ireland another 65 years to agree with Collins and introduce decimalisation and we still haven’t fully introduced the metric system.
So what now for Ireland, as a mature and wealthy modern European country: what are the next challenges and opportunities that we should be anticipating in a European and international context. Have we any vision for the role that our small but influential country should play in the world and do we have the leadership to make it happen?
The EU US relationship is an area that I believe Ireland must show leadership. I believe we can play a crucial role within the EU to forge a more constructive relationship with the US, even if we find the US administration of the time difficult to deal with. With the wealth and power that exists, working together the EU and US can be a significant force for good globally in the areas of wealth creation, health promotion, human rights and peace building, despite the numerous setbacks that we could all point to in recent history.
From an Irish perspective the Trans-Atlantic relationship will play a pivotal role in our future, economically and politically.
Economically, one could argue that Ireland has become part of the US economy. Approximately 50% of our exports are by US owned multinationals. Irelands rapid growth in the last decade has been far more in line with dynamic regions of America rather than anywhere in Europe.
Politically, however Ireland has continued to move closer to continental Europe. We have just completed a successful 6 month presidency of the EU. Our commitment to the Euro, Enlargement of the Union and a New Draft Constitution for the EU re-enforces that message and rightly so. However as the Union expands eastward the political focus on economic policy will move eastward within the EU. Meanwhile the focus of the commercial side of policy will remain in boardrooms in California and New England.
As the potential for political friction and economic strife between the EU and the US remains there is a danger that Ireland could be caught in the middle, economically, politically and emotionally. This has already arisen with the different positions taken in relation to the war in Iraq and the continued so called “war on terrorism”.
Ireland found itself in a difficult position, resulting in our government taking an ambiguous and gutless stand, trying to keep all sides happy.
There is a vital national interest for Ireland in promoting the maximum level of cooperation, understanding and integration between the US and Europe. This will not be an easy task as some of the EU’s most powerful members would rather a policy of separateness between the two continents.
Ireland needs to push strongly the idea of setting up an Institute for Trans Atlantic cooperation here in Ireland, we are a country in an ideal position geographically, politically and economically to forge closer ties. A symbiotic relationship can exist, with the US perhaps adopting some elements of Europe’s social safety net and learning from the European experience of history, and with Europe benefiting from the American experience of integration and commercial optimism.
It is difficult to talk of Collins without referring to Northern Ireland. I suspect he would have been horrified at the bloody history of NI over the last 40 years. Although like the rest of us he would have cause for optimism as the six counties inch closer to a more peaceful existence. But it would be an impatient optimism, Collins was a stickler for timekeeping and meeting agreed deadlines, the years that have passed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement while we still wait for its full implementation would have frustrated him intensely.
For a portion of his life Collins was a violent man, he was a soldier fighting for a cause he believed was worth taking a life for. But after the signing of the Treaty he committed to achieving a United Ireland by peaceful persuasion. He is perhaps the greatest of many many examples of a nationalist with a deep desire to see a United Ireland, who was no less committed to that cause because he rejecting the use of force as the means to achieve it.
He said: “I have emphasised our desire for national unity above all things. I have stated our desire to win the North-East for Ireland. We mean to do our best in a peaceful way”.
He goes on to argue for “the attainment of the final steps of freedom by evolution rather than by force”.
That evolution that Collins spoke of must now be framed in the Good Friday agreement and the principle of consent, but it will take more than that.
The full title of my political party’s name is FINE GAEL, THE UNITED IRELAND PARTY. In fact, when it was first founded in 1933, it was more commonly known as the United Ireland Party, it was only as time passed that the name Fine Gael became more widely used. Perhaps it was a mistake to allow that transition. Nevertheless our party’s approach to fulfilling the aim expressed in its title was always based on achieving equal respect for both communities in Northern Ireland.
Collins said: “I believe we can win our countrymen to allegiance to our common country. Let us convince them of our good will towards them. The first way of doing this is unity among ourselves”.
How right he was, and how relevant that statement remains today albeit in a different context.
The vast majority of people in Ireland want to see a united Ireland, they’re not quite sure of the detail or the structure of how some day that might work but yes they are most definitely loyal to the ideal, as am I. In the context of Collins’ thoughts it is unfinished business still to evolve.
But how many of us who speak of a United Ireland or modern nationalism ask ourselves the question, “What am I doing to contribute towards uniting Ireland? What am I doing to build trust or even understanding between my community and those north of the border?
The answer for most people is “nothing”, most of us are doing nothing to even get to know Northern Ireland. How many of us know even five people from the North yet we want it to be part of our country again. In a recent conference in Derry I was struck by the stereotypical views that northerners have of us and vice versa. It should not fall to politicians alone to help Ireland evolve into a United Island, public representative need to provide leadership but we all must undertake the fundamental change in attitude. Perhaps it’s merely a visit or a family holiday. But without contact and interaction the frost that exists between communities of a different view to our own north of the border will never thaw.
If Ireland is ever to successfully become a 32 county country again then we must first see progress on achieving unity among traditions that inhabit this island. Unity in terms of having a common sense of community and destiny, encompassing tolerance and the views of all sides. I believe it is a far more patriotic goal for an Irish person to achieve that type of unity on our island than to attempt to achieve a 32 county island with a 50% plus one mentality. It must not be about winners or losers if we are to achieve unity.
I want to finish with some of the last words that Michael Collins wrote. They still hold true today as a guide for anyone who wishes to serve their country and highlight the way in which I believe he deserves to be remembered: as a leader who wanted to live not die for Ireland, a visionary with an ideal Ireland in his minds eye, out of reach but always there to aim for, but also as a pragmatist who recognised the work required for progress.
“The Ireland to which we are true, is the ideal Ireland, which means there is always something more to strive for. True devotion lies not in melodramatic defiance or self-sacrifice but in the steady earnest effort in the face of actual possibilities towards the achievement of our hopes and visions, the laying of stone upon stone”