One of the many positive developments over the last twenty years has been the extent to which Irish people have become re-engaged with the active commemoration of our past. In fact, a new tradition has developed where people of radically different backgrounds have been willing to commemorate all aspects of our shared national heritage. There has been an inspiring approach to re-asserting pride in the leaders and events of the past, but doing so in an inclusive way across traditional boundaries.
It is in this spirit that much of the public has moved beyond the superficial and almost cartoonish approach to the revolutionary and political leaders who won independence and built our democracy.
We in Fianna Fáil have a particular pride in the fact that Eamon de Valera was our founding leader – and it is right and proper that we gather here today to commemorate him. Under him our party achieved great things – but, far more importantly, throughout his career he helped our country to achieve great things.
Eamon de Valera was without any doubt the most important and most admired Irish person of the twentieth century. From 1918 to 1957 he was elected head of government on 3 seperate occasions – and after that he was twice elected President. During his life he was known throughout much of the world. Leaders of many great and powerful countries recognised him as person of great significance and integrity. This was not based on celebrity or accident, but on the substance of what he achieved.
From early in the 1920s he was subject to a highly partisan attempt to misrepresent him in history. For a brief period there was even a state-sponsored attempt to present a black and white version of the past, with de Valera drawn as a great villain. No Irish leader has been subjected to so much abuse from early in his career to well after his death. Some have gone to extraordinary lengths to present as bleak a picture of him as possible. Often they have sought to apply the standards and expectations of today to an earlier time. His achievements have been overlooked and his failings exaggerated.
In the last decade this situation has begun to change radically. Historians have used their access to his papers and those of government to show once again a highly intelligent, humane and effective leader. They have shown the accumulated evidence of a person who often embraced change and who earned the loyalty of a truly great generation of leaders.
There are too many aspects of his career to attempt to address them all in a short commemorative speech. What I would like to do is to highlight two elements of his leadership as head of government which have been a continued source of strength for our country; the constitution and our international standing.
This is the 75th anniversary of the adoption by the people of Bunreacht na hÉireann. The constitution is rightly seen as primarily the result of Eamon de Valera’s determination that this country should have a modern republican constitution. It has been continuously in place longer than the written constitution of any other European state.
It is a great pity that the coalition government refused to take any step whatsoever to acknowledge this anniversary. They have begun to step outside of the non-partisan consensus of the past which I mentioned, and have shown an unwillingness to acknowledge the work of people of other parties at all stages in our recent history.
It is right that we should review the constitution and update it to meet the needs of today. However, it is also right that we should acknowledge how progressive it was in its day and also key provisions which are as important today as they have ever been.
1937 was one of the darkest moments in history. Democracy was on the retreat, squeezed by extremist ideologies of different sorts which were unleashing totalitarian regimes that have left lasting scars on the world.
As a newly independent state which was inspired by nationalism and had a single faith which was practiced by an overwhelming majority, the fact that we avoided extremism was not inevitable. What is inspiring is that at exactly that moment – when the rest of Europe and much of the wider world were going in the opposite direction – we adopted a constitution which enshrined individual and minority rights, which reinforced democracy and gave the judiciary an assertive independence which could block an over-powerful executive.
Eamon de Valera was a man of strong personal faith and he was a man of his time in relation to the role of faith in public life. But he was also absolutely committed to respecting and protecting the rights of all.
Just as his constitution protected minorities, it also entrenched democracy in our state. He had a clear majority in Dáil Éireann and, therefore, he could have made any constitutional changes he wanted without reference to the people. Instead he decided that the Constitution derived from the people and should be ratified by them. He also included a measure setting a date, after which all future amendments could only be implemented with the consent of the people. In doing this he was fully aware that this was limiting the powers of government.
His constitutional revolution also included strengthening the independence of the judiciary and giving the courts the explicit right to strike down actions of both government and parliament where they conflicted with the people’s constitution. The Dáil debate on the Constitution shows that he understood full well that this was an extremely important check on the power of politicians.
Guaranteeing individual and minority rights, giving the people direct control of constitutional change and empowering the judiciary were the actions of a man deeply committed to a republican view of the state and the idea that liberal democracy is the best form of government. He was a master of politics, but equally he was profoundly democratic. There is simply no justification for anyone saying otherwise.
Another part of his legacy, which has been overlooked, was his commitment to international co-operation. From the first moment he took up office he asserted that this was a country which promoted peace and co-operation between nations. At the League of Nations he never missed an opportunity to appeal to other leaders to avoid conflict, respect the sovereignty of others and work together on what he said should be the goal of all governments, the happiness and prosperity of their people.
At a time where aggressive nationalism was about to destroy Europe he wrote a constitution which said, without any equivocation, that Ireland believed in, to quote Article 29, “the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality.”
The foundation of Ireland’s strong standing in the world is undoubtedly his leadership in those deeply troubled times.
Because of Eamon de Valera we have a strong and democratic constitutional tradition as a country which is founded on nationalist ideals but is fully committed to the international community.
The fundamental principles underpinning the constitution are as valid today as they have ever been. However, after 75 years there is no question that key structural elements of the constitution should be reformed.
As we saw last year with the defeat of the referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries, and last week with the high No vote on the Children’s Rights Amendment, when an amendment is proposed in a high-handed or complacent way the people react very negatively. If the government keeps up its approach of refusing to consult and repeatedly limiting debate, future reform amendments will be hard to pass.
The Constitutional Convention which will start its work shortly, is a good idea and we have supported it. What is a disgrace is the imposition of a limit to what it can discuss and a refusal by government to commit to bringing proposals before the people for a vote.
If we are truly trying to modernise our constitution and increase the level of popular engagement, this arrogant behaviour of the government is doing exactly the opposite.
I believe that a measure of real reform of the constitution will be whether or not proposals which limit the powers of government are introduced. Most importantly, will amendments be allowed which end the complete dominance of the Oireachtas by the government?
Until the government is willing to allow proposals which challenge its powers all we will have is yet more empty talk about reform.
Eamon de Valera was a true reformer. He was a brave man who fought for his country’s freedom. He led different political movements which repeatedly won the support of the Irish people. He raised the standing of Ireland in the world and built a republican constitutional tradition of which we should be proud.
It is an honour to be able to pay tribute to a great Irishman and a great statesman.