We have come to this place today to fulfil the duty that we remember and honour one of the greatest figures in Irish history and the movement which he was part of. It is no exaggeration to say that Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen are central to modern Irish identity and the republicanism which continues to receive the allegiance of a strong majority of Irish people. Even now 219 years after his lonely and poignant death, Tone remains an inspiration.
There are many quotes from Tone and his colleagues which have echoed down the ages and remain firmly embedded in our national consciousness. However there is much less appreciation about why 1798 was a profound turning point in Irish identity and the political objectives of the people.
Before then Irish political objectives were defined in very different ways. There was always a clear sense of Ireland’s separate interests and regular struggles to assert them – however there was no clarity about what form an Irish state would take.
With the final defeat of the Jacobite cause there was a period of nearly four decades in which allegiances were unclear.
There were attempts to seek some form of accommodation with the rapidly evolving British state, and strong advocacy for lifting the laws which excluded the substantial majority of the people from the political nation and gave them, at best, a second-class status.
It was the failure of this cause where Tone and his colleagues became radicalised.
Although a member of the established church, Tone served as secretary of the Committee which led the push in the early 1790s to lift restrictions on Catholics. There were concessions, but the basic principle of excluding the majority from control of their country remained.
And in the search for a new direction, for an ideology that could unite Irish people and end the reliance on fickle monarchies, they came dedicated themselves to modern republicanism.
France was the most immediate and substantial inspiration, but it was not the only one. The American revolution had already shown subjects of the British crown establishing a constitutional republic with a commitment to individual rights, which while it was deeply flawed, set a new direction.
1798 was a massive display by an impoverished and downtrodden people of their desire to be independent and to control their own destiny. The Irish republican tradition is one of which we should be immensely proud and we should remember its most important elements.
We have failed many times to fully live up to the spirit of the republicanism of Tone and the United Irishmen, but the best of what we have achieved as a country links directly to them.
The unique Irish nationalist and republican culture which they began is not some historical relic to be admired – it is still modern and it is perhaps more important than ever.
At its core are three ideas.
That we must work to overcome divisions between Irish people.
That our state must work in the interests of all of the people, and
That Ireland is only strong when it works with other countries.
These ideas have never been intended to be contained within one tradition or party – they are ones which we should all respect.
This is not something understood by those who abuse the name republican but actually run a secretive organisation, which enforces uniformity and which always, always puts its own interests first.
The great triumph of the process which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement was that it pushed for all sections of society to commit to working together. It respected the history of division which had developed in parts of this island but sought to replace it with a new spirit of cooperation and a shared future.
Yet today the institutions enabled by the Agreement stand suspended. People elected and paid to work in the Assembly and Executive have yet to even meet eight months after the people had their say.
And while this is going on Northern Ireland is facing two deeply damaging crises.
The first is a round of cuts to health and education funding which is hurting every community and being implemented by civil servants without any democratic oversight.
The second is of course the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Brexit is a bigger threat to Northern Ireland than any other part of these islands, yet Northern Ireland has no voice at the table.
The breakdown in relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein, and the crisis we are now caught in did not emerge overnight and are not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.
Six years ago Fianna Fáil started warning about a dangerous drift in relation to Northern Ireland. The Fine Gael and Tory governments appeared to have believed it sorted and taken a decision to dramatically decrease their levels of engagement.
Left to their own devices, the DUP and Sinn Fein ran an administration which systematically excluded the interests of others and sought to promote them as the sole leaders of the unionist and nationalist communities.
They refused to re-establish the community consultation required by the Agreement, failed to circulate essential policy papers to other parties and concentrated on their own interests. Difficult issues were pushed to the side and left to fester.
When our leader pointed this out as likely to lead to the collapse of the institutions he was attacked by them and even by our government.
On one occasion the DUP and Sinn Fein joined the then Taoiseach at a Dublin dinner to announce that things had never been better between them. Soon afterwards yet another crisis emerged and they started blaming each other for everything and claiming that relations have always been bad.
Our government and the British government have consistently failed to apply anything close to the time and effort which would have overcome these problems.
In a direct reversal of the policy followed by their predecessors, Fine Gael Taoisigh and Tory prime ministers have made no serious commitment to building the required relationships or treating Northern Ireland as a genuine priority. Yes they have had a lot of photo-opportunities and brief meetings – but it is incredible that in six years no Taoiseach or Prime Minister has attended an all-party negotiation.
And last week we learned that some element of the Sinn Fein leadership has vetoed efforts by their appointed leader in Belfast to re-establish the Executive. Their concern is not delivering good government for the people, it is choosing which option might maximise Sinn Fein’s position.
There must not be an imposition of direct rule. What we need is an immediate resolution and this is possible if both parties focus on the future . Much more serious issues have been dealt with in a more inclusive way.
It’s long past time for the two governments to get serious, understand that their approach has failed and prevent the permanent collapse of institutions which carry the legitimacy of endorsement by the people of this island in free referendums.
And we also need the parties to understand that failing to reach agreement will continue to leave Northern Ireland voiceless in the Brexit negotiations.
At this very moment the House of Commons in London is considering amendments to what they grandly call the “Great Repeal Bill”. This is the legislative mechanism for dealing with most Brexit-related issues.
The Scottish and Welsh governments have been incredibly active in developing and lobbying for their interests. For example they are seeking the devolution to them of a raft of policies currently overseen by the EU.
But Northern Ireland is completely excluded from the discussion. In fact, the Northern Secretary isn’t even a member of the relevant Cabinet Committee.
All of the evidence is that it is Sinn Fein which has decided that Brexit and budget cuts are not important enough to require them to allow an Executive be established.
Yet at the same time they are claiming that Brexit is a threat to the Good Friday Agreement, that it is the most important issue facing our country and that a special constitutional status for Northern Ireland is required.
Rarely has the gap between Sinn Fein’s claimed priorities and the reality been so large.
At the same time the reality of our government’s actions on Brexit is that there is an awful lot of talk and very little action.
We have repeatedly heard that nothing can be done until the shape of Brexit is known. What they don’t seem to understand is that Brexit is already happening.
Irish firms have already been put at a major disadvantage because of the collapse in Sterling’s value. People have already lost their jobs because of Brexit and uncertainty and fear about the future are to be found in literally thousands of businesses.
What we know now is that the British establishment – or more correctly the English establishment – appears to lack the competence or the self-reflection required to avoid maximising the economic damage of Brexit.
The same gung-ho indifference to evidence and imperial arrogance which has been at the heart of their anti-EU obsessions of the last thirty years is underpinning much of what is going on.
Obviously there is a more level-headed middle-ground which is trying to prevent a cliff-edge Brexit, but it is not yet clear that they have the ability ensure that Britain engages properly with the issues.
In the face of this, our government has adopted the approach of being an observer on the side-lines, hoping for the best and dressing-up empty pronouncements as somehow significant.
For three months, including in an over-spun speech in Belfast, the Taoiseach said we should push for the UK to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union and that this is the only scenario we should contemplate. He even indulged his own hyper-partisanship to attack Fianna Fáil’s consistent call for preparations to cover different scenarios and for a special economic zone status for Northern Ireland.
And then eight days ago he did a complete u-turn and says we have to prepare for different scenarios and should seek a special economic status for Northern Ireland.
This is not leadership. This does not show a willingness to get serious about the deep economic, political and social threat posed by Brexit. The Taoiseach should ensure that Brexit does not become a party political issue. We all want the best for the island of Ireland.
A first step they need to take is to release the sectoral studies on the impact of Brexit which have been prepared within government but which are being kept secret by ministers.
How, as a country, can we prepare for Brexit if we don’t know exactly what threats we have to manage? How can we develop and implement the right policies if the basic information is kept secret?
One of the great successes of the Good Friday Agreement was that it said to different traditions that they could maintain their identity without fear. And on top of this, whatever way you chose to identify yourselves everyone would share the right to EU citizenship.
Soon after the Brexit vote, Fianna Fáil stated that we would vote against any measure which failed to fully respect the permanent right of today’s and future residents of Northern Ireland to full Irish and EU citizenship.
Thankfully our point was adopted and is now reflected in the position papers of both the EU and the UK.
We want this to be recognised in the final outcome, through the explicit recognition of the right of Northern Ireland to access the Single Market.
The best, and perhaps only realistic way for this to be achieved is for a Special Economic Zone to be established which can be enabled through the devolution of regulatory powers from London and the enhanced operation of North/South bodies.
Our government needs to stop sitting on the fence and start advocating for a real response to the Brexit threat for this island.
And of course we need to speak up and have our say in relation to the future development of Europe.
We will never follow the narrow and backward-looking nationalism which was central to the Brexit result.
The republicanism which we inherited from Tone and from 1916 is to its very core a generous and outward-looking, international ideology.
We do not see other countries as opportunities to find an opposition to help define us better. We see them as potential partners who we should cooperate with and respect.
At no stage was the genuine republican tradition in this country indulgent of the exclusionary nationalism seen elsewhere. While the Provisionals movement and other fringe elements have always been against strong international organisations, the Irish people have embraced the League of Nations, the United Nations and, of course, the European Union. This is why Ireland has had such an international impact and it has provided the essential foundation for progress on so many fields.
And so while we gather here to honour an Irish tradition and to reflect on what it means for our identity, we are doing so in the same spirit in which Tone and his colleagues extolled the internationally-promoted Rights of Man and planted the Tree of Liberty as an inspiration and a guiding star for Ireland.
Today this is represented by a constitutional republicanism which governs one of the world’s longest-established democracies and is at the core of the first constitution ever adopted by a free people in a referendum.
As we deal with the many issues which emerge on our national agenda, let us always remember the spirit of Tone, how much it has given us and how much more it will give us in the future if we remain true.