Theobald Wolfe Tone lived for only 35 years. When he died he despaired of whether the causes he believed in could ever prevail. He was defiant to the end, but nonetheless he knew that he and his comrades had been defeated.
Yet today, 250 years after his birth, he is one of our most honoured patriots and his legacy is more important than ever.
Tone is not some figure from the distant past with no relevance outside of the history books. He is not simply the key founding figure of the strongest political tradition on this island. His actions and beliefs continue to speak powerfully to all who care for the future of this country.
It is right that people come here to remember him, but the great challenge for us is to try to understand him and to learn the lessons from his life which matter as much today as they have ever done.
Tone could easily have settled into a comfortable life. He was born a member of an exclusive sectarian group which held in their hands the power and resources of Ireland. He chose a very different way. He saw the society around him and understood the injustices imposed on others others. He saw a country held back by its divisions. As he grew he embraced the questioning spirit of his time.
He first tried to achieve change within the system. The protestant nationalism of the 1780s was heavily inspired by the American Revolution, and Tone joined his contemporaries in putting faith in a strengthened College Green Parliament. He soon saw that the generous and reforming spirit of Henry Grattan was a marginal influence. The Irish Parliament in fact became a protector of sectarian interests.
It was in challenging sectarianism that Tone became radicalised. His place as a major public figure was secured in the leading role he played in demanding equal rights for Catholics. He came to believe passionately that the interests of the people of Ireland could only be served if they put aside artificial barriers and worked together.
Tone, like most of the great figures of Irish republicanism, saw Ireland as part of an international community. He and the rest of the members of the Society of United Irishmen wanted an Ireland which was confident and outward looking – which would not hide from the modern world but learn from it and join it.
This is why they embraced the republican ethos of the American and French Revolutions. In doing this they provided for the first time a coherent and inclusive framework for promoting Irish interests. This said ‘we have no need of a monarch, we must only be united as people to seek our common interest’.
Tone himself believed, as did the men of 1916, that the only way to promote this objective was to be “fair and open”. This is one of the many fundamental facts about true Irish republicanism which the Provisional movement and their offshoots have never understood – and it’s also one of the many reasons why they have always been rejected by the vast majority of the Irish people.
The core anti-sectarianism and outward-focus of the tradition started by Tone and the United Irishmen must always be remembered when we call ourselves Irish republicans.
The people of this country have always understood this and have always shown a deep respect for Tone’s place in our history. The more that is written about him and the more that his movement is understood the deeper this respect has grown.
While the respect which the public show for Theobald Wolfe Tone is not in doubt, the behaviour of this government in refusing to do anything at all to mark this prominent anniversary is a disgrace.
In contrast to this neglect, his 200th anniversary was marked by the commissioning of the statue on the corner of St Stephen’s Green and a range of public events. The statue is a very appropriate, modern and prominent tribute to him.
Unfortunately this government’s attitude is part of an increasingly tribal approach to our history, where they are only interested in commemorating and promoting figures and events which they see as part of the traditions of their parties. This is the type of mentality which leads to the Taoiseach to regularly make highly tribal comments about historical figures – and which has seen one member of the government going as far as to make the ridiculous claim that Michael Collins would have been proud of this week’s budget.
Through the last twenty years enormous strides have been made in making the act of historical commemoration a focus for unity rather than division in our country. No tradition has been asked to abandon the events and personalities that inspire them – but the focus has become finding ways to show respect and emphasise the ties that bind us.
The commemoration of 1798 was a very good example of this. The state took a leading role in supporting actions ranging from academic research to local rallies. It was a great success and showed how even sensitive sectarian topics could be dealt with in a constructive way.
While Fianna Fáil took the leading role in seeking out ways of building a more inclusive approach to commemoration in recent years – I want to acknowledge the important role of past Fine Gael Taoisigh in this as well.
The current government is different. It appears to see history as another partisan political battlefield. They act as if they want to assert the primacy of one tradition and one view of history. In this they are abandoning one of the most positive and successful developments of this generation.
Last year at this event I pointed to another area where this government has walked away from the progress achieved by others – the peace process. Here and in a series of other speeches I said that the neglect of the Dublin government of the process, the refusal to urgently engage in the urgent challenges, meant that major opportunities were being missed and we ran the danger of dangerous setbacks.
In the last year there has unfortunately been a growing sense of crisis in Northern Ireland. Sectarian disputes are on the rise and public faith in the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement has collapsed. The Assembly and Executive are dominated by the squabbles of the DUP and Sinn Fein as they focus on their own party interests.
There still continue to be important and highly symbolic moves forward. Martin McGuinness’ Warrington speech and Peter Robinson’s address to the GAA are welcome – however they are not enough. They do not make up for the failure to deliver on basic day-to-day matters – they do not make up for the escalating tensions at community level.
What has been missing is any serious engagement by either the Dublin or London government. They have been complacent and disinterested. Particularly damaging is how the entire issue of development through North/South cooperation has been ignored.
This is how you end up with Sinn Fein and the DUP going to Downing Street to launch a development plan for Northern Ireland which makes no mention of the Republic – and how you can have a major investment conference in Belfast with no participation by the Taoiseach. Worst of all it is how vital North/South infrastructure projects such as the Narrow-Water Bridge are being abandoned because of a lack of commitment from the governments.
The economic and social development of this island, and of the border region in particular, demands strong North/South cooperation. Over the coming months I intend launching a specific initiative by Fianna Fáil to identify and promote new areas of cooperation.
The achievement of historic progress for peace and reconciliation on this island could not have been possible without the priority which different Taoisigh, and Bertie Ahern in particular, gave to it. Formal meetings and dinners aren’t enough – you have to spend the time developing links and building trust. The current Taoiseach needs to start giving it his attention or the consequences may be much greater than we already fear.
The republican constitution of our state is one which puts the people at the centre. All of us who are given a mandate to represent the people must always understand that this mandate is not unlimited – that we must work to respond to their demands.
There is no clearer way for the people to express their view than through voting in a referendum. Two weeks’ ago the people gave their verdict on what the government claimed was its political reform programme. They heard the arguments and said ‘no – not good enough’. They objected to the emptiness of the proposal and the arguments used to promote it – and they could see that real reform would never happen if it passed.
When the Taoiseach got his wallop he said he understood it and would respond. This week we found out that his concept of understanding and responding is to carry on regardless.
On Thursday the government pushed through the exact same package of changes to the Dáil as it had announced during the referendum. It allowed less than an hour for debate and no amendments. Ministers stood up and gave speeches praising their own reforming zeal – but they did not change a single thing from the package which the people had been so unimpressed by during the referendum.
The government’s behaviour so far has been to show contempt for the people’s decision. They are carrying on regardless. Pushing through their old plans and even delivering the same speeches.
It is this same out of touch arrogance which lay at the heart of this week’s damaging and unfair budget. Only a government completely out of touch with reality could remove support for mortgage holders at a time when 143,000 families are in deep and growing trouble with their mortgages.
No one is denying that there were tough choices to be made – but there were still choices and they decided to weight this budget against weaker sections of society.
Three years out of three Labour and Fine Gael have decided that they will take no account of people’s ability to pay.
They have been so busy praising themselves and attacking others that they failed to even acknowledge that they have missed every growth target they have set in office – and that their decisions have undermined growth and employment.
This was a cynical budget, presented so as to try and cover up what was actually being proposed. In area after area ministers claimed to be increasing spending when the background documents showed cuts. They doubled property tax and removed important reliefs but have printed hundreds of thousands of leaflets claiming to have left people’s incomes intact.
The same type of sharp practice lay behind the three quarters of a million they have proposed to take out of health through cuts to spending and reliefs. This weekend we have learned that the true service cut may actually be as high as one billion.
They announced a welcome but small and completely unplanned initiative relating to GP care and spent a week briefing journalists about it. It was, ministers said, the start of universal access to primary care. When the detail came out it revealed the largest ever cut in primary care funding in our history.
What’s even worse is that it is now clear that the figures were made up. The Department didn’t supply them and the HSE has no idea where they came from.
Next year the combination of these cuts and the ill-thought out new policies of James Reilly will do immense damage in the health system. The people who work within it and rely on it are genuinely scared of what they face into. This doesn’t have to be. The government can and should pull back.
Fianna Fáil will fight against any effort to push through these flawed and dangerous Health Estimates. The Health Minister seems incapable of answering even basic questions on his own deficit and continues to deny that there is any change in the way discretionary medical cards are being given out .We will be demanding answers and explanations about where exactly these costings come from and who is going to be hit.
We will also continue to fight against the proposals in the Budget to target older people for the removal of key benefits.
For over forty years there has been a political consensus behind giving older people practical help to stay connected to the wider life of the community and to help them at their most vulnerable moments.
On Tuesday the government began an assault on this consensus – an assault on the social contract between Irish society and its older people. It proposed mean-spirited and callous changes which made only a small impact on the wider budget but will have a major impact on older people. It is now clear that it was intended as a first step – with the TV licence support already in the firing line.
These decisions arose directly from the refusal of this government to take a progressive approach to fixing the budget. They have adopted as core policy that they will not take account of ability to pay in any of their new taxes and charges. They have decided not that everybody should make a contribution but that everybody must pay the same whether or not they can afford it. In relations to services they have taken the opposite approach – making sure to limit access.
Fianna Fáil produced an alternative budget which showed how it didn’t have to be this way. There is a fairer and faster way to recovery – one which respects the pressures felt on many families and addresses the wider needs of the economy.
This Dáil has now passed its half-way point and the division between the different parties is becoming clearer. The government parties are so obsessed with positioning themselves for the next election that they are failing to address growing problems or to set a coherent vision for the future. Their main objective is to find things to claim credit for rather than to actually influence developments.
In the rest of the opposition the main tactic is to find problems to exploit rather than offer credible alternatives.
Fianna Fáil is the only party in a position to offer a constructive centre-ground alternative – the only party which rejects sterile ideological debates and combines a progressive approach to state services with pro-enterprise policies.
The republican tradition founded by Theobald Wolfe Tone and his colleagues, and to which we are proud to belong, grew because it was determined to respond to the needs of the Irish people. It remains a tradition which is focused on tackling the problems of today and set a new course for the future.
That is the spirit to which this party is committed and it is the spirit which will direct us as we continue our work.