Ba mhór an onóir domsa an cuireadh a ghlacadh labhairt anseo inniu. ‘Sé seo ceann de na hócáidi is tábhachtaí le cúis Phoblachtachas na hÉireann a chomóradh.
Nior mhair Liam Ó Loinsigh ach naoi mbliana is fiche ach bhi ról ríthábhachtach aige ag troid ar son na saoirse, troid a bhí mar sholas dóchais do dhaoine ar fud an domhain.
90 bliain i ndiaidh a bháis, is ceart agus is cóir dúinn an fear agus an ceannaire seo, chomh maith lena hidéil, a chomóradh.
In Liam Lynch’s short life this son of a modest farming family made an immense contribution to his country. The communities which he lived amongst and served have every right to be proud of his lasting achievements.
A country which cannot reflect on its history is one which has no foundations. Only by engaging with the past, questioning our own assumptions and looking for new perspectives can we build a strong shared culture.
There was a time when commemorations such as this were dismissed as at best irrelevant and at worst sectarian. Irrespective of this, the thousands of people throughout our country who took the time to participate in these solemn occasions never wavered. In particular they kept their commitment to the belief that the founding ideals of our republic deserve to be remembered, to be honoured and to be used to overcome the problems of today.
I have no doubt whatsoever that it is more important than ever for us to take the time to remember Liam Lynch and his great generation.
Eamon de Valera famously put it to Lynch that no one should ever claim to know what a historical figure would think when faced with today’s events. Too often major figures from our past are used to score partisan points rather than to seek ways of finding common ground.
As we unfortunately saw too much of in recent months, there are still groups in the North who look for any opportunity to emphasize division. One supposedly republican leader, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly, even talked about the need to accept and leave undisturbed different sectarian histories when explaining his party’s support for a controversial new parade in the mixed village of Castlederg.
I reject this because I profoundly believe that there is and always has been a community of interest between all groups on this island. I don’t think it’s good enough to have an approach to history which allows groups to embrace mutual incomprehension. One’s own identity is not threatened by trying to understand others and to search for common ground with them. Equally, commemorating individuals and movements which were involved in conflict should never be a barrier to respecting those of other traditions and being committed to avoiding future conflict.
By any fair measure Liam Lynch is one of the great figures in the fight for Irish freedom. What makes his story so compelling is that he was deeply embedded in the spirit of his people and his times. He was part of a rising generation which would not sit back and accept that Ireland must accept a limit to its ambitions.
Few revolutionary generations had so little power and money on their side and few ever achieved as much. The inescapable core of this was a group of men and women of exceptional bravery, integrity and commitment.
Liam Lynch learned his republicanism within his family in Anglesboro Limerick. Both sides of the family had been involved in the struggles of the previous century, participating in the Fenian rising and the work of the Land League. He was born fifth of seven children. As with all young men of his class he soon set off in search of a secure trade.
In 1910 he moved to Mitchelstown and took a position as a hardware apprentice. He worked diligently at his job and it was here that he became active in political and cultural affairs. In a very short period he joined the Gaelic League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Irish Volunteers.
In 1915 he moved to Fermoy which had no active Volunteer corps. If you had met him then you would not have seen him as someone who would very soon be a national leader.
The Easter Rising was the event which radicalised Lynch just as it did much of the country. O May 2nd 1916 he stood on the side of the street in Fermoy and watched as British soldiers led the Kent family through the town. Richard Kent died of the wounds he received that day and Thomas was executed a week later.
That day Liam Lynch recommitted himself to the cause in whose service the Kents died and which he too would give his life to.
Once he had become active again in the Volunteers his ability and enthusiasm led to his rapid advancement. He belonged to no established network, had no distinguished history and was no charismatic speaker. He was handed nothing by family, money or connections. Over the next seven years every one of the many senior positions he achieved he earned purely because of the leadership qualities recognised by his comrades.
When nine East Cork companies were reorganised into the Fermoy Battalion his comrades elected Lynch to be their adjutant. He went about the business of building up a network of volunteers and planning for the conflict he knew was coming and was necessary to achieve independence.
It was in 1919, as commandant of the Cork No. 2 Brigade, that he brought his people onto the offensive. He led the pressure on the national leadership to allow volunteers to begin regular attacks on British forces and his brigade rapidly made international headlines.
With the passage of time it is easy to miss the scale of what was achieved by the men and women of the IRA throughout the country but in this region in particular.
The odds they faced were enormous by any measure. They faced the largest and most powerful empire the modern era had known. It was also an empire which had just been victorious in a world war and which was reshaping the globe in meetings in the halls of Versaille.
Lynch and the volunteers had almost no resources and little training. What they had instead was the support of the people and this was the foundation for all they achieved.
It was the spirit of the people and the spirit of the fighters which made this struggle one where the downtrodden were able to face the military and economic goliath of that time.
The response was an escalating savagery in the tactics which the British military used against a people they claimed to view as being as British as themselves. No matter what they tried they could not destroy the spirit of the people.
Through personal sacrifice and often tragedy, Liam Lynch and his comrades showed the British government and people that Ireland refused to lie down.
They did not just change Irish and British history in those years, they changed world history.
It was the first and most dramatic blow against the colonial and imperial mindset. It had been the case up to then that a strong empire never conceded the right of dominions to secede. For one to be forced to the negotiating table by its oldest and closest dominion was unthinkable.
People in all parts of the globe saw what was achieved here and they drew inspiration from it. Accounts of the events and tactics of the War of Independence, and the legal realities which they achieved, were studied by freedom movements for decades. This is one of the many reasons why Ireland has always had a bond of fraternity and a strong standing in young democracies which have achieved their independence from a more powerful state.
At all stages the core principle which motivated Lynch was his belief in the right of the Irish people to live in a state under their own direction.
He achieved many promotions, but he had no personal ambition. He turned down an offer to become deputy chief of staff because he would not leave his brigade. He was recognised for his devotion, intelligence and clarity.
There is often a version of history which likes to simplify and distort complex characters. It particularly happens when one side wants to delegitimise their opponents.
There are those who have tried to present Liam Lynch and those who stood with him as military fanatics marginal to the national victories of the time. This is a disgrace and complete misrepresentation of history.
He was not someone who saw a primacy in military over political concerns. He left no doubt that his objective was “to hew the way to freedom for politics to follow”.
The evidence shows with absolutely no doubt that he worked hard to try to avoid the outbreak of civil war. He rejected the Treaty like many, many others for reasons which were motivated by the highest ideals. Anyone who claims that those who rejected the Treaty were rejecting democracy is choosing to ignore the reality of how the debate was distorted by powerful interests at critical times.
There is no positive purpose served in endlessly debating the reasons why the civil war broke out. The fact that it did was viewed as a failure by most of those who had carried the brunt of the fighting in previous years. We should note that people like Michael Collins never used the arguments and attempts to delegitimise the republican side which are used by some today.
Many who took the Free State side understood that more could and should have been done to avoid the conflict and that little effort was made to accommodate the sincere and widely held views of those who opposed the Treaty.
Seán Lemass often commented on how people who had fought each other at that time showed each other more respect than generations which came afterwards. He in particular disliked the way that taunting about the civil war developed in the Dáil in later years.
I can only imagine what he would think about the fact that such infantile tribal attacks have been heard from the ranks of cabinet ministers in twenty first century Ireland.
This has reinforced the tendency to talk about the idea that Ireland has what is called ‘civil war politics’ – where the main divisions between parties are supposedly based on the splits of 90 years ago.
I believe that this is a misreading of the reality of Irish politics since independence, and it is based on the false idea that the ‘normal’ model of politics is for a couple of big parties and strong ideological divisions.
Each of the main parties in Dáil Éireann has a direct link to a specific political tradition evident during the civil war. This much is clear – but to disregard what has happened since is absurd.
Over the last 90 years there have been major swings in public support between parties. The social bases from which they draw their members and voters have changed. Their political programmes have diverged significantly.
Fianna Fáil is a party which is proud to have been founded by republicans of the generation which secured independence. However it could never have become a majority party if that was the sole basis for it public support. Within a short few years Fianna Fáil persuaded hundreds of thousands of people who had no connection whatsoever with its position on the Treaty or other republican issues to switch their allegiance.
Fianna Fáil’s growth had little to do with so-called ‘civil war politics’ and everything to do with offering a radical programme to address the major issues facing the country. Our founders won the trust of the people and delivered on this through their distinct policies such as a dramatic increase in public housing the extension of social services and the historic opening up of education to all our citizens.
I believe that every major change in public support for parties has been based on the issues of today and the future – not historical allegiance. To say to the Irish electorate in the second decade of the twenty first century that their votes today are nothing more than the continuation of a 90 year fight is at best disrespectful.
We should also understand that the idea of party systems which have clear ideological differences between two dominant parties is not the only way that democracy works. There are many countries where there are multiple parties which overlap on some things but are still distinct.
When Fianna Fáil is at its strongest, when it is best at serving the people, is when it is true to the very distinct programme on which it was founded. Our ongoing commitment to expanding educational opportunities, to supporting services for older people, to promoting advanced industrial development remains as distinct today as it was during the days of Seán Lemass.
Our job and the job of every political party is to work with the people and to offer them a distinct programme for the years ahead.
The last thing our country needs is a continuation of the approach where politics is seen as being about parties and politicians endlessly jockeying for position. What we need is a focus on the hard substance of policy – a move towards offering solutions to problems rather than looking for ways to exploit them.
Since the last election we’ve seen what happens when a government made up of the strongest two parties takes control. Its dominance has led directly to a growing arrogance and an ongoing betrayal of basic promises. This is no model for our country’s future.
Before the last election, Fine Gael and Labour followed a cynical and negative approach to politics before winning the largest ever majority. Their only focus was election day and achieving power, which is how you reach a position where TDs are being expelled from government parties for voting in favour of the policies they fought the election on.
The long term renewal of Fianna Fáil will be based on the hard substance of policy and the quality of our opposition to this deeply unpopular Government. It will be the people alone who judge our policy platform. Speculation about who may or may not be asked to form a future Government ignores the frustration of the Irish people with how politics has been conducted in this country; while speculation about a coming together of the country’s two largest political parties ignores the damage being done to Irish politics by the current record majority in Dáil Éireann.
In the next month and a half we will see a continuation of the daily leaks about what is or is not going to be in the next Budget. People have already stopped listening because they know it is all a game. Over the last two and a half years there have been two and a half budget speeches. Each was preceded by leaks and followed by major claims to have delivered fairness and growth. When the detail became clear, what emerged were decisions which were unfair and policies that undermined growth.
The behaviour of this government shows what happens when there is an overwhelming majority in the Dáil. Even when Dáil Éireann was forced to meet in secret during the War of Independence there was more meaningful debate and the executive showed more respect for the views of TDs.
This is why next month’s referendum on the Seanad is becoming a defining moment for the political future of our country.
Our political system is broken. Central to this is that we do not have a parliament which is expert enough or independent enough. It cannot make sure that our laws and our institutions operate on the basis of good policy and good administration.
The government claims to be interested in reform, but in reality has taken repeated steps to concentrate more and more power into the hands of a tiny cabal of ministers.
In 2011 the message of the people was that they wanted a deep and meaningful reform of how Ireland is governed. If the Seanad referendum is passed it will mark the end of any chance of there being any real political reform. The government will hang up the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banners, ramp up the self-congratulatory speeches and confine political reform to the dustbin of history.
If it is passed, Ireland will be left with a political system which is uniquely weak in the democratic world. No other country will have our combination of a dominant government, weak single-chamber parliament and local government with few powers.
Let’s be clear, there is not a single person who wants to retain the Seanad as it currently constituted. But only by voting to retain it can we demand reform.
It is because their arguments are so weak that the government has resorted to what is already a very petty and negative campaign. It has begun targeting opponents with personal insults and is making provably untrue statements.
The most disgraceful claim so far is that we should vote Yes because it would free up millions for hard-pressed services like education. This is both dishonest and the opposite of the truth.
Even the figures which the government is using are untrue – with the promise of €20 million every year being freed a deliberate misrepresentation of the truth.
The abolition of the Seanad will not give one cent extra to a single public service during the life of this government. Not one cent.
In fact, the referendum is taking €14 million away from public services this year.
We believe that the Seanad can and must be reformed. Any person who believes in reforming Irish politics needs to vote No next month.
Liam Lynch’s final days were not marked by great successes but they were defined by his integrity. On the slopes of the Knockmealdown mountains he received what would be a fatal wound in his abdomen. His last request was fitting of the man. He did not set out some vainglorious testament. He did not seek a way of keeping his fight going after his death. All he asked for was to be buried beside his dear friend and comrade Michael Fitzgerald who had died three years before in Cork Prison.
The greatest lesson which I take from the life of Liam Lynch is how much can be achieved by marginalised communities when they show a unity of purpose. The inhabitants of Whitehall had spent centuries looking down on the rural communities of Ireland – seeing them as a burden to be overcome. But it was these very communities which proved to be the lifeblood of Ireland’s resurgence.
Our founding generation inherently understood that Ireland could not be successful if it tried to be just rural or just urban. The uniqueness of our country and its success depended on valuing our communities no matter where they are. No central model of how society should be organised was to be imposed.
The memorials to Liam Lynch’s memory were mostly erected in the years soon after he died by people who felt honoured to have known him and be led by him. 90 years later no one here served with him, heard his voice or shared his experiences. Yet we come here because of what he achieved and what these achievements represent.
Liam Lynch never forgot the people he came from, the people he served with and the cause which they shared. His people will never forget him.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.