When Wolfe Tone died he left behind him words of defiance but the reality of a very bleak situation. Throughout the country the rebellion had been defeated and brutal repression was underway. He dreamed of people of all backgrounds coming together but sectarianism had become more entrenched and was being used as an instrument of state policy. He must have despaired as he sat on the floor of his prison cell denied a soldier’s death. Yet 214 years later his importance and place of honour in Irish history is stronger than ever.
Today we commemorate Theobald Wolfe Tone not just because of a noble act of rebellion in the distant past – but more importantly because of the great tradition of Irish republicanism of which he is rightfully acknowledged as founder.
In 1798 republicanism was still a relatively new idea. The great majority of the people of this island had always been essentially nationalist, though that is a term whose meaning changed over time. What they never had was a fixed idea of the form of government which we should have – and there had been a general acceptance that there would always be a monarch with significant powers.
With the departure of the old landowners and the breakdown of traditional structures, Irish political identity was to transform radically. It didn’t happen overnight, but it decisively moved to a situation where the ideals of republicanism became by far the most important political belief of the Irish people.
The republican tradition of Tone was born out of both enlightenment and revolution. Republicanism was the culmination of a century defined by the quest for greater understanding of the world and a belief in the worth of all people. The American and French revolutions were not small regional conflicts, they set the world alight – and Ireland was inspired too.
The records of the time show that the events in America and France were constantly reported and debated here. Those who sought religious equality and constitutional freedom gradually came to understand how republicanism provided the essential framework for achieving Irish aspirations.
The revolutionary movement which Tone and his colleagues built up faced insurmountable challenges; however before they were defeated they had led the largest popular rebellion outside of America and France in favour of republican ideals. 1798 was no small affair to be remembered for its characters rather than impact. The people rose against an oppressive state with no resources or training. They were dismissed as mere croppies, but they shook an empire.
Without 1798 and republicanism it is quite possible that what defines us as a nation would have been lost – certainly it is highly unlikely that we would ever have established an independent state, albeit an incomplete one.
It is right and proper to come to this place and to say that today republicanism is as important as it ever was: To say that we respect and honour the legacy of Tone as someone to draw inspiration from.
At its core Tone’s republicanism was defined by embracing change – by a willingness to find a new way forward. It was not a conservative ideology, setting out strict rules to be set in stone for every subsequent generation to follow. What matters is the objective of creating a state which is tolerant, outward looking and run in the interests of the people. This is what defines the ideals of Tone’s republicanism, the ideals of Irish republicanism.
It falls to each generation to respond to the circumstances of its own times – to develop the tradition and to make it relevant. The greatest abuses of Irish republicanism have always come from those who present it as an unchanging force – those who define it by the means of struggle rather than the objective.
In the last century the men and women who fought for Irish freedom in 1916-21 opened up new possibilities for our country. They achieved great things and they directly led to what remains the dominant belief of Irish republicans – constitutional republicanism.
It was because of the strength of the tradition and of its relevance to the people that Irish republicanism managed to survive the deep damage of the illegitimate campaign of those who bombed, murdered and terrorised as part of the Provisional movement. They used the same names for their organisations as the great national movements that they claimed to succeed. But the Irish people always rejected them.
The victory of constitutional republicanism is most clearly seen in the Belfast Agreement and the developments of the peace process as a whole. Bringing into the process those who sowed division and violence required great patience and bravery on the part of those who represented the fixed will of the Irish people – but that patience and bravery delivered what was rightly termed a new dispensation.
The sustained and essential role played by Fianna Fáil over two decades is something we have every right to be proud of. No party in Dáil Éireann showed anything like the deep commitment which we showed to getting the process underway and keeping at it no matter what obstacles were thrown up. We brought both urgency and a good faith to the process without which much of the progress would have been impossible. We knew that you couldn’t just let the protagonists get on with it, the Irish government had a duty to lead.
Unfortunately too many people today think that the work is over – that we can take for granted what has been achieved. This could be a mistake of historic proportions.
The Irish government has dramatically reduced its level of engagement with Northern affairs. Given the effort that went into this process over a very long time by very many people, this sort of disengagement and complacency by our own government is unacceptable.
I know that these are hard words, but they are fully borne out by the reality. The Taoiseach has had the bare minimum of meetings concerning the North and has outlined not a single new item for his agenda. There has been no attempt to move the process to the next stage. There has been no push for initiatives to undertake vital anti-sectarian work. There has been no discussion of how the long-term roots of division and underdevelopment are to be tackled.
At the very core of the Belfast Agreement are cross-border institutions which are designed to seek new areas of common interest in terms of development and culture. It was understood by everyone that the Irish government wanted to continue to extend their work into new areas and we wanted them to become a dynamic part of development on both sides of the border. And yet there has been a complete backing away from the ambitious agenda that should be being followed.
This is bad enough, but what is worse is how the disinterest of the governments is leading to a situation with the Northern Executive which may cause real problems and undermine the popular legitimacy of the process.
The Peace Process was always intended to be about more than an absence of violence. The people of the North deserve a political system that delivers progress that demonstrates that politics works and which is about making their lives better.
Any calm and objective analysis of the performance of the Assembly and Executive over the last year would, very reluctantly, have to question whether they are delivering in these terms. There have been notable successes – the ‘Our Time, Our Place’ campaign has been excellent, but we have seen just five pieces of legislation pass through the Assembly and we have seen the news dominated by old ‘parades politics’. More depressingly, we have also seen things get worse across a range of key indices. For example, the North was confirmed as having the highest levels of child poverty in the relevant comparisons, with an average of 28%. West Belfast currently has a staggering 46.2% of children living in poverty.
As a Republican Party we have to care about these issues .As long as any Irish citizen is being failed by politics, we need to take an interest and do what we can to address it.
Most of the major advances in the peace process required years of work in getting the DUP and Sinn Fein to change their policies. Getting them to accept the principles of the Agreement in all their dimensions delayed its full implementation for nearly a decade.
It is as best foolish and at worst reckless to step back and believe that the DUP and Sinn Fein are capable of working in the interests of all groups. They have constantly shown an interest in putting party interests ahead of broader interests.
This was in display recently when the Assembly voted on a Tory Party Welfare Bill which Sinn Fein supported but wanted to play politics with. Therefore they pretended to campaign against it and voted against it when it was clear that an Assembly majority was going to push it through in any case. As the First Minister Peter Robinson said in a largely unreported speech this week, “Sinn Fein wants devolution but they don’t want any of the difficult decisions that come with it.”
Playing politics and putting their party interest first is a consistent part of their ideology – something we see every day in the Dáil.
They have also refused to acknowledge the founding logic of the peace process – which is that the campaign of violence and division was wrong. Today they sell t-shirts and mugs with “IRA Undefeated Army” on them. They glorify the Provisional’s campaign, including some of the worst atrocities. They are trying to have it both ways of demanding to be treated just like any party but refusing to be open about their past or apologise for it.
What is actively dangerous about this is what it says to others that might be foolish enough to want to keep their tradition going. How can they stand against the Real IRA and other groups if they keep asserting the legitimacy of the Provisional’s campaign? How can they condemn those who present themselves as inheritors of the mantle of revolutionary republicanism if they honour a group which was rejected time and again by the Irish people?
Peace is not something to be taken for granted – it must be built upon. The idea that seems to have seeped into Government Buildings – that ‘the North’s sorted’ – is extremely short sighted. Equally, the unity of people on this island in one state remains the aspiration of the majority of the Irish people and it is the duty of our government to work for it with real commitment.
As republicans, we are always conscious of the need to renew our system of government – to make sure that it reflects the needs of today and the future. We understand the lesson of the last election both for us and the wider political system. That is why a wide-ranging programme of renewal of our party is underway. We are building an organisation which respects and values its members, which addresses the issues of pressing concern to people and which puts responsible politics first.
In our renewal process we are not seeking a return to the past. What defines success for us is not the recreation of the old balance between parties. For us renewal is about responding to the spirit of today – it’s about offering a programme and a politics which addresses the needs of the people.
It is increasingly clear that the other parties in Dáil Éireann simply want to go on with the old rules, switching roles but changing nothing else of substance.
In last year’s election people said they wanted a new politics. They have seen a massive increase in speeches about reform, but the reality is exactly the opposite.
Today there is no significant change in the powers and responsibilities of any part of government from the situation before the crisis. In the Dáil the government is using its majority to reduce accountability and stop genuine reform proposals. They will not even allow a discussion of how the Oireachtas should work and the important role which a second chamber can play in holding government to account.
They are in the process of establishing a Constitutional Convention which is being prevented from discussing most issues. In case the Convention proposes anything too radical, they will not even give a guarantee of a public vote on the outcome of the Convention.
Last week we saw more of this, where changes being proposed for local government will alter nothing about the delivery or accountability of local services. It is a cost cutting exercise dressed up as reform. It will make our local democracy the most centrally controlled in the western world.
We understand that the public want real reform, and it is our intention to push for it. We want to open up membership of government so that it can draw on the full talents of Irish citizens. We want to reform the Oireachtas so that the government no longer can strangle debate – and so that we have a second chamber which can ask the tough questions essential for accountability.
What we will also keep demanding is that the urgent needs of our people start being addressed.
The chaos which Dr Reilly is visiting on the health service is being felt in every community. Despite three specific commitments in their Programme for Government about increasing services in the community for older people they have already cut over one million home help hours this year alone. This decision makes no sense either economically or socially.
The deeply regressive policies on taxation and charges being implemented across government are placing enormous pressures on families already struggling. The targeting of education cuts against disadvantaged communities is taking opportunity away from those who need it most.
The abject neglect of families in trouble with mortgage and household debt is causing immense social and economic damage. Even the Central Bank is saying Irish Banks have to stop being in denial and asked them last week to step up to the mark so that the mortgage crisis can be dealt with in a radical way.
The spirit of republicanism is what drives us to renew our party and to focus on the concerns of the people.
Republicanism is much more than the essential goal of national unity, it is also about building a state which serves the people. This is why Fianna Fáil is proud to be the Republican Party and proud to honour the memory of Theobald Wolfe Tone.
As we commemorate the founder of Irish republicanism we should not only reflect on past events, we must understand the tradition he began and recommit ourselves to its noble objectives. It has achieved great things for our country in the past and I have no doubt it will do so again.
Fianna Fáil will play its part in the renewal of republicanism and the service of the people.