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Collins’ legacy points the way forward

Wednesday, 22nd August, 2018 4:40pm

This is an edited version of Minister for Agriculture Food & Marine, Michael Creed's oration at the Annual Michael Collins Commemoration at Béal na mBláth last Sunday:

An unclaimed and uncelebrated bullet, fired on an unremarkable August evening elevated this unknown turn on a well worn track to the status of a Gaelic Calvary.

From childhood I’ve witnessed giants of public life – politicians, historians, commentators and comrades mount this plinth to pay homage to the one who fell here. The words honour and privilege do little to express the magnitude of the duty that has been bestowed on me today.

For I know I stand here not on my own merits, nor indeed because of the office that I am so very fortunate to hold – but ultimately at the discretion and invitation of the Commemoration Committee, a ferociously dedicated group which included my late father Donal Creed, who have kept vigil here on the dying days of summer over many decades past.

Being of this place as I am, it is right perhaps that I revere Béal na mBláth itself as well as its well acclaimed victim.

How could it be that this place became a crossroads in history? It has been well rehearsed on this spot throughout the years how Ireland lost a giant at that very moment. A moment of gunfire and confusion.

But perhaps less remarked has been how Ireland gained a monument. Not a monument of granite and marble but a cenotaph to our ultimate failure as a people to settle our differences without bearing arms and turning comrade on comrade, brother on brother.

Béal na mBláth stands as an enduring reminder to us of what results when we succumb to ideology and entrenchment. A timeless reminder and beacon to ward us from such ills. It was Collins’s stated hope that “it should have been the political glory of Ireland to show that our differences of opinion could express themselves so as to promote, and not to destroy the national life”.

Of course, this ideal was not to be achieved in his lifetime. Nonetheless the legacy of Béal na mBláth is that the failure of dialogue, of tolerance and of compromise is to surrender to a dark path.

Church and State

The monument here behind me is both Celtic and Christian. Should the State be tasked to memorialize a hero of today, there is no doubt that a similar type of construction would raise the ire of many.

Few areas of Irish life offer such contrast between Collins’s time and today than that of the relationship between the Catholic Church and Irish society. Indeed, Collins’s nephew Michael recounted the words imparted to Collins by his ailing father. “I haven’t been overburdened with the wealth of this life, but I will give you three things which I hope will always stand to you in life – namely a strong faith, a work ethic and a love of education.”

The appalling experience of vulnerable children in industrial schools and the women of the Magdalene laundries, serves to illustrate how the church assumed control of social policy with the aid of an acquiescent government and a cowed people.

This dark chapter of abuse and cover-up has seen a deep rift emerge between many of the faithful and the official church. Though Ireland is not unique in this regard, the fall-out for society as a whole has few international comparisons.

The steady separation of church and state in recent times is good for both. Constitutional reform, including divorce, the repeal of the 8th Amendment, and marriage equality are evidence of an endeavour to have a Constitution that is fit for purpose in a modern democracy.

This is not to advocate for a moment that Ireland should become a secular wasteland driven only by the values of the marketplace or of a virtual mob. Irish people are I believe deeply spiritual – a fact reflected in the pre-historic monuments such as Newgrange to the packed churches of most of the 20th century. The misdemeanours and criminality of the few should not be used to deny this innate Irish characteristic. In discourse on such matters we often refer to ‘The Church’, thereby inadvertently suggesting there is only one. As a practicing Catholic who is deeply uncomfortable with the ‘official Church’ and its response to various scandals, its attitude towards women and the LGBT community, I take great hope from reporting of a woman leading prayers in a Dublin church. I salute former President McAleese for her tackling head on of the Vatican on such matters. Many of us, closer to the back door than the front door in the church are encouraged to find ourselves in such exalted company on matters of faith.

It is in the context of this discomfort that I believe that we should extend a céad míle fáilte to Pope Francis. Our capacity for welcome is as innate an Irish characteristic as our predisposition towards spirituality. We should use the opportunity to impart on Pope Francis our deep felt collective hurt as a flock abandoned. And in turn I hope he may offer the comfort, guidance and grace of the shepard our faithful seek.

 

Ireland's place

As the politics of polarisation and division spreads across our world, Ireland must continue to strive for inclusion and challenge intolerance wherever it may exist. To be a “shining light in a dark world” as Collins himself put it.

Global events of recent years have served as a useful opportunity for Ireland to take stock of our position on the world stage and the alliances and friendships that sustain it.

Notwithstanding a troubled history over many centuries, our nearest neighbour in the UK has been one of our greatest allies in international affairs in recent years. Geographical proximity, a shared history (if not always a peaceful one) immigration, the economic ties of international trade and the English language make this relationship the most significant for Ireland of all bi-lateral relationships.

It is why the democratic decision of the UK to leave the EU is such a jolt for us, akin to an elderly married couple divorcing have endured the tumultuous ups and downs of a roller coaster marriage. Notwithstanding Brexit, our relationship with the UK will always be the most significant bi-lateral relationship for Ireland and one where we will have to redouble our diplomatic effort at after Brexit.

It’s why there is such intensive engagement across Government, as we all endeavour, within challenging parameters, to secure the best possible outcome to the Brexit negotiations including the closest possible trading relationship, post Brexit.

It will require a high and continuing level of political engagement, no little resources and a re-affirmation of the primacy of the Good Friday agreement and the necessary investment of political capital to ensure, post-Brexit, that Northern Ireland does not re-emerge as a stain on our shared endeavour of many decades.

On the other side of the Atlantic the current incumbent in the White House, regularly espouses an approach to world trade that threatens our economic well-being. As a small, open trading economy, a member of the EU and a signed up member of a rules based approach to such matters, trade wars and a retreat to a protectionist regime threatens our economic well being, not least in the agri-food industry where we export to over 180 different countries worldwide. This access is a direct result of our EU membership and the trade agreements negotiated on our behalf.

As with the UK, the ties that bind us with the US are strong, historical and enduring. The Irish diaspora in the US of some 30 million people, who come from all political persuasions and none, means we must redouble our efforts with the current administration, whilst also investing strategically in the next generation of leaders in the US and also placing a new emphasis on relationships at a state level.

The stated intention by this Government of doubling our global footprint diplomatically is borne out of these realities.

Conclusion

The Leyland touring car and Crossley tender which rolled from this place 96 years ago, took with it not only the hastily bandaged remains of a fallen soldier but the genesis of an icon. We salute him today.

That faithful cortège departed a plot transformed from an unmarked boreen into what might have been the shrine to our ultimate capitulation as a people to anger and unreason, but what instead has become a place of pilgrimage for those who choose the path of peace. We venerate it today.

As they departed this spot on that faithful day 96 years ago, in their wake were the people of this place – and beyond, who refused to leave the echoes of this valley fall silent to the memory of its victim and the values of his cause. In honouring Michael Collins today, we honour those people also.

And as we now depart ourselves – until next time – let us do so in the knowledge that here in the heart of Cork, stands a reminder to all – that though there will be differences – of ideal, of faith of history and of method – there are no differences so great which cannot be overcome by way of dialogue, tolerance and compromise.

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