One hundred years ago Eamon de Valera secured a democratic mandate which was heard throughout the world. In the 1918 General Election, the party he led won a victory so dramatic and so overwhelming that it changed the direction of history.
His was a towering personality which won for the cause of Irish independence a profile and a respect never before shown for a revolutionary movement in a small country. And the victory in 1918 is the moment when the momentum towards the establishment of an independent Irish state started building.
There is no political figure in Irish history before or since de Valera who overcame so many obstacles on his way to becoming a national leader. He had behind him no resources, no security, and no networks to help him succeed.
When he was sent back from New York to live with relations in Bruree he was sent back to a life of subsistence farming. Every step that he took in securing a secondary and then university education came from his abilities, determination and hard work.
His rise through involvement in the cultural revival and nationalist activism is an inspirational story – and it is a story which won him respect throughout Europe and the wider world amongst a rising generation seeking to throw off their colonial status.
There is simply no question that he became by far Ireland’s most famous statesman of the last hundred years – and this fame brought recognition and admiration for our country.
Yet so often he has here at home suffered from the use of standards applied to no one else in our revolutionary generation – and from an entrenched refusal or failure to see his contribution in a broader international context.
In 1918 he was the undisputed public leader of the cause of Irish independence.
Throughout the country candidates identified with him and the public saw in him an admirable man – brave, intelligent and devoted to his cause.
In 1916 he had pushed himself almost to the point of collapse leading his men during the Rebellion. A year later he returned from prison to be acclaimed as the leader of Sinn Fein and elected by the people of Clare as an MP against an extremely tough and worthy opponent.
This did not happen by chance, it happened because of a combination of his character and his commitment to the cause.
A diverse group of men and women saw in him a man who could help to inspire the Irish people – and they were right.
Very shortly we will commemorate the meeting of the first Dáil and the decisive move which was taken to assert the full democratic legitimacy of our independence demand. We will also commemorate the beginning of the War of Independence and a period of at times ferocious struggle.
The commemoration of 1916 was a triumph for modern Ireland, as we showed that a national celebration such as this could be inclusive and unifying – with respect shown to all traditions.
This next phase of commemoration is going to be more challenging for many reasons. More of the events are contested and many of the personalities are more controversial.
However, perhaps the biggest issue is that we will have to fight against attempts to distort history for contemporary political purposes.
Two years ago the party which today calls itself Sinn Fein tried and failed miserably to take over the commemoration of the 1916.
It went as far as to stage a large-scale exhibition near the GPO which pretended to be non-party but told a fictional tale of an unbroken chain between Padraig Pearse and Gerry Adams.
Let no one be in any doubt, there is zero connection between the Sinn Fein of 1918 and the Provisional Sinn Fein of today and its attempt to claim 1918 as a victory for them is both false and dangerous.
There is simply no question where the men and women of 1916 and 1918 would have stood in later years. Most of the survivors of 1916 and families of those executed participated in the democratic republican movement of later years.
By a margin of over eight to one, the TDs elected in 1918 supported mainstream democratic parties subsequently – and of course prominent leaders like Eamon de Valera and Constance Markievicz were amongst them.
It is sinister and cynical in equal measure how Provisional Sinn Fein tries to manipulate and twist history to suit their ends.
In doing this they fail to understand that they are dishonouring the memory of those who fought our revolution, because they are effectively claiming that they changed nothing – and that the conditions for democratic republicanism only emerged many years later when Gerry Adams appeared.
No matter how persistent they are, the Irish people will never accept their narrative of an unchanged struggle and an unbroken chain.
The campaign of the Provisionals movement was and remains completely illegitimate and no amount of historical manipulation will change that.
They should remember something very important – the only person ever to lead a party called Sinn Fein to an electoral victory was Eamon de Valera – a man who they never stop disrespecting and condemning.
We believe that the Irish revolution belongs to no party, it belongs to the people. However we are entitled to be proud of the leading role played by our founder Eamon de Valera and by the person who chaired our first meeting, Constance Markievicz.
We are also particularly proud of the internationalism which they insisted on as part of the unique inheritance of Irish republicanism.
When the First Dáil met it reaffirmed the principle set out in 1916 that the Irish people sought a state which would work together with others in a spirit of friendship.
And this is the spirit which Eamon de Valera brought to government during his exceptional leadership in the 1930s especially.
Historians have pointed out that one of the most exceptional characteristics of de Valera and Fianna Fáil in the 1930s is that he and his party were revolutionaries who achieved power and actually introduced limits on the extent of their own power through the Irish Constitution enacted in 1937.
We are witnessing a dark moment in European history where we see various nasty nationalist elements appearing and threatening core principles of republican democracy.
It was of course much worse in the 1930s where country after country saw revolutionaries take control and then subvert democracy.
In the constitution which he so brilliantly drafted and saw ratified in a free referendum, de Valera looked at contemporary Europe and rejected its extremism.
He reinforced the separation of powers, removed the ability of a Dáil majority to amend the constitution, recognised the equal rights of groups who were at that very moment under attack in other countries and said proudly that Ireland is a country which believes in rule-bound international cooperation.
He showed that nationalism does not have to lead to intolerance and conflict – and he secured our continued sovereignty at a grave moment.
I think it is sad that our current government wants to effectively wipe out of the historical memory what is one of the greatest achievements of Irish democracy.
It ignored the anniversary of Bunreacht na hÉireann and the Taoiseach does not think it is a milestone worth mentioning.
De Valera’s speeches to the League of Nations will always be the most important and eloquent testaments of a small and proud nation pleading with others to avoid conflict and respect each other.
It is true that late in his career he was at best equivocal about joining the then European Economic Community. This was because he felt that Ireland risked being dominated by larger countries and might return to being under the influence of our neighbour.
I have no doubt that had he been able to see what has happened in the last 45 years he would have been as supportive of the European Union as he was of the League of Nations.
He would see that his successor Seán Lemass and his government took the right decision to open Ireland up to Europe .
He would see a Union which has enabled peace and prosperity – which supported historic progress on this island and which made sure that Ireland had a place at the table when vital decisions shaping our continent and world were taken.
The adoption of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is merely the end of the beginning of Brexit. There are an enormous number of agreements which must be reached in the next two years and possibly for years afterwards for the process to be finalised.
At home we have to dramatically speed up our preparations for the final stages of Brexit and understand that we are nowhere near ready at the level which matters most – the companies which employ hundreds of thousands of people are badly exposed to new costs and barriers.
At a time when many certainties are under attack, we must be active in defending the democratic internationalism of Irish republicanism.
We must oppose those who stand against basic democratic principles and we must never stop working for a country which understands and responds to the needs of its people.
When we come here to Ennis to honour Eamon de Valera we are honouring one of the giants of our history.
Of course he made errors across what was one of the longest careers ever seen in a democracy – but the positive things which he gave our country are immense and should be celebrated.
100 hundred years after he led a party to the greatest democratic mandate in our history, and helped secure our course for independence, let us say once again ‘De Valera Abu!’