Speech by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, TD, Eamon de Valera Commemoration Ennis, Sunday 5th December 2021
Published on: 05 December 2021
In July 1917 the people of East Clare lit a beacon in the cause of Irish independence which was seen throughout the world.
Little over a year after the Rising and the executions which followed, it was here that people were able to give their first expression of support for the ideals of the men and women of 1916.
Proudly wearing the plain, green uniform which he had shared with his fallen comrades, Eamon de Valera came to this place to speak of an Ireland which could control its own destiny.
In the face of intimidation and a massive imbalance of resources, his message resonated with the people of Clare and with the Irish people.
From that campaign onwards de Valera built one of the great democratic careers of the 20th century. By far the most successful Irish person in winning the free support of the Irish people, de Valera also stands out in the wider democratic world.
He was a revolutionary leader, who built a democratic movement which stood against the extremes of left and right, and reinforced democratic republicanism at times when basic freedoms were being crushed in so many places.
A figure of his stature is always going to attract a share of criticism, but the sad reality is that Eamon de Valera has often denied the right to a balanced narrative and is obliged to carry on his shoulders the failures of his time.
He is the most written-about figure of the last century - but just because we talk a lot about someone doesn’t mean that we understand their importance.
When you look back at how he has been talked about since January 1922 it is remarkable how partisan the debate has been framed.
A lot of our modern public debate is unfortunately quite populist. It seeks to frame every situation as a story of good versus evil and the elite versus society. And of course the values, expectations and perspectives of today are applied as if they were always in place.
This denies complex and compelling figures like Eamon de Valera a fuller perspective and it keeps us all from a deeper and more challenging understanding of our country.
I have always been struck by the incredible obstacles which de Valera overcame in his life.
By a very large margin he came from the poorest and most marginalised background of any person to have risen to the leadership of Ireland at any point in our history.
Sent back across the Atlantic as a young boy, he was raised on a tiny farm where everyone had to contribute to survive.
Key to his future was that he had a passion for learning. He was part of a rising generation here and throughout the world which sought to improve themselves and help their countries.
Young Dev was able to stay in education because of winning scholarships which he studied for after attending to his other duties and spending many hours walking the roads to and from school.
His love for mathematics is well known, but how far he could have gone in normal circumstances is unclear because he never had the opportunity to devote himself fully to the topic and lacked the resources of his contemporaries.
He came to nationalist politics and volunteering without any connections or expectations – and the fact that he rose so far in leadership roles speaks volumes of the qualities which his peers recognised.
During our war of independence Eamon de Valera was far more than a political figurehead – he was a key reason why such widespread support and recognition was secured, and he reinforced the centrality of the republican ideals.
Starting next week and over the next twelve months, attention will be turned towards the Treaty and the civil war which followed it. De Valera was a central figure in those events and both he and everyone else involved in them deserves that we remember and reflect on those divisions in a fair way.
1922 was ultimately a shared failure which involved a great tragedy.
While they did not succeed, I think a fair reading of the many efforts de Valera made to offer alternatives is that he was working constantly to try and find a way of reaching a compromise.
Even more importantly we far too often forget the fundamental truth that divisions were the direct result of London’s tactics and threats.
A very striking thing about de Valera in those years is how often people opposed to him ended up supporting him – which actually included three signatories of the Treaty itself and his opponent in the 1917 by-election.
He also won the support of the Irish people – who showed an early and constant willingness not to be defined by civil war differences. The idea that Irish politics has been defined simply by the civil war is based on dismissing the views of the Irish people and ignoring the fact of major changes in support, programmes and membership.
In founding Fianna Fáil, de Valera and the remarkable generation of leaders who followed him, focused on the future and not the past.
They offered a new direction which respected others and showed a democratic republicanism which could continue to develop.
They faced enormous obstacles – especially a uniformly hostile media and a lack of resources.
And they built a proud record of democratic, social and economic achievement. It is a record which has important blemishes, but we are entitled to point to actions
which secured sovereignty and are central to the fact that Ireland is today one of the world’s longest-established democracies.
We avoided the catastrophic extremism of the last century and overcame many of the biggest challenges we faced.
We have many problems, but we have also achieved remarkable progress.
And the role of Eamon de Valera in this must be respected.
For me, his most dramatic and positive legacy is our republican constitution and how he set a distinct path for Ireland in international relations.
What he did in the 1930s, one of the darkest moments in modern history, was and remains remarkable by any measure.
The archives contain what is known as “the Squared Paper Draft” – a document written in blue pencil by de Valera in May 1935.
It sets out his core principles for drafting a new republican constitution.
His decision to propose that the fundamental law of the state could no longer be changed by a simple Dáil majority was profoundly radical.
So too was his strengthening of judicial independence – and giving explicit constitutional protection to minority religions is something no other leader in the world proposed in 1937.
It is on page 10 of de Valera’s draft that you see the beginning of what became Article 29 of Bunreacht na hÉireann – a provision which is little known by the public but which defines much of who we are.
This is where, as Europe slipped steadily towards disastrous conflict and extreme ideologies were rampant, Ireland committed itself to the idea of peace among nations and the rule of law.
It is where we chose to define our nationalism as one which respects others – not one which defines itself against others.
It is a unique and special legacy for our country.
De Valera was often called a pragmatist – something which was used as a term of abuse but, in reality, reflected something very positive which should be at the core of democratic republicanism.
He rejected the sterile and destructive ideologies of the far left and right – and he believed in a state which took responsibility for key elements of progress. It was a narrow agenda by today’s terms, but it was expansive in the context of his time and Ireland’s circumstances.
A radical home building programme, expansion of social supports and efforts to develop new forms of employment were key elements of the early programme.
In very different circumstances today, Fianna Fáil remains absolutely committed to the idea of a responsive, socially and economically active government role.
We came into government in the middle of a unique pandemic and the fastest and deepest recession ever recorded outside of wartime.
There is no playbook to be taken off a shelf to get us out of this pandemic and we have to continually respond to new threats.
There will be time in the future to look back and take a full picture, but the facts show that this government has helped ensure that Ireland has seen fewer cases and fewer deaths than most comparable countries. We’ve run one of the world’s most effective vaccination programmes, which is now tackling the challenge of distributing booster shots.
And people should never forget that the vaccination programme is saving lives and central to the major return of economic activity which has been achieved. The level of cases which are being seen today is of real concern, but it’s having a much smaller impact than it would have had a year ago.
The guidelines and restrictions today are significant, but they are nowhere near as severe as they might have been absent the vaccine programme.
No government in the world is in a position to promise when we can return to February 2020, but huge progress has been achieved in protecting lives and restoring the economy we rely on to fund our basic services and supports.
At the same time we have to keep moving forward on other critical issues.
In housing, in spite of the huge impact of the pandemic, a step-change in the provision of social housing is underway and is accelerating.
In health funding for new health services is in place – and an urgent programme to tackle the pandemic-linked backlog is underway.
In building a shared future for all on our island, we have begun an unprecedented programme of building new links and doing the hard work of studying and understanding critical all-island issues.
And in less than a year and a half Ireland has also turned the corner on its role in tackling the existential threat of climate change. We have some of the strongest climate legislation in Europe in place, major funding for climate action secured and a shared determination to reach our challenging goals. At the start of a journey you can’t expect to agree on every element of what you will do – but the direction of travel is clear and Ireland will meet its climate challenge.
There are unfortunately those in public life who see their role as cynically attacking everything and claiming that until everything is done nothing has been done.
I’ve never agreed with this type of politics and I believe it has nothing positive to offer our country.
There is a proud democratic republican tradition which has developed in our country over the past two centuries. It secured an independent state. It helped us overcome extreme poverty. It brought us into membership and leadership roles in critical international bodies.
Most of all it remains a tradition which has much to offer our country.
The life of Eamon de Valera was one of overcoming adversity and remarkable achievement.
His positive legacy remains strong, and remains central to achieving progress for everyone on our island.