Minister for Agriculture Food & Marine, Michael Creed TD
Oration at the Annual Michael Collins Commemoration, Béal na Bláth, Cork
Sunday, 19th August 2018
Check against delivery
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.
Cathaoirleach Comhairle Chontae Chorcai, a Árd Mhaora, Cathaoirleach Choiste Comóradh Béal na Bláth, Muintir Uí Choileáin agus a chairde. I thank you for inviting me to make this years oration. In doing so I wish not only to remember Michael Collins – but also the many women and men of the Commemoration Committee who have strived through the years to preserve his memory and the significance of this place – Béal na Bláth.
A place now etched forever in the folklore of our Island yet a place some would have erased from consciousness were it not for the persistence and courage of those who stood to perpetuate it.
Being of this place as I am, it is right perhaps that I revere Béal na Bláth itself as well as its well acclaimed victim. The familiarity to me of how Collins began his final day at 6.15am in Macroom and how he continued on his way through Ballineen, Bandon and West Cork before faithfully reaching this place to go no further serves to magnify the seeming futility of his killing. 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 Bláth 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 Bláth is that the failure of dialogue, of tolerance and of compromise is to surrender to a dark path.
Church & 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.”
Today’s landscape of religious practice and the climate in which it is practiced would be unrecognizable to Collins. However, closer examination of full churches and the unquestioned and unquestionable authority of the clergy of the time, reveal a devastating legacy. 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 endeavor 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 misdemeanors 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. Ireland has changed a lot in recent years and the patchwork of religious practice, although still predominantly catholic is a rich and varied tapestry of faiths and beliefs. As a society we are all the better for its variety and diversity.
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 reportings 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; a Pope named after Saint Francis – who himself often took the road less traveled and gave church authorities a difficult time. 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.
For all of these reasons and many more it is important that people of faith are not discouraged or marginalized. The values of Social Justice, inclusion and equality are needed in public discourse. They are at the very core for people of faith. Likewise people of faith should be encouraged not demonized in public life. Politics as a means of delivering social change is better informed as a result.
Ireland’s place in the World:
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 United Kingdom 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 is why there is such intensive engagement across Government, as we all endeavor, within challenging parameters, to secure the best possible outcome to the Brexit negotiations including the closest possible trading relationship, post Brexit, with the UK. 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 endeavor of many decades.
Within the EU we will miss the UK. We will need to build new alliances and friendships especially with smaller member states who share our outlook politically and economically.
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 & 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.
Confidence & Supply:
Closer to home we also have work to do on building and maintaining relationships. The last General election delivered a challenging Dail arithmetic. To their credit Fianna Fáil responded when others chose to stand idly by. As we progress through our decade of centenaries there is little doubt that the Civil War period will prove the most difficult in terms of the analysis and discussion it is bound to arouse. Therefore, perhaps the present era of confidence and supply Government, or ‘new politics’ as some have termed it merits more reflection in terms of its historical significance. The confidence and supply agreement has delivered in spades for the Country by enabling, at the most challenging of times, the Government to focus, undistracted by Parliamentary arithmetic, on the many obstacles we face at home and abroad. The last thing the Country needs is a General Election. The Government does not want a General Election. Fine Gael does not want a General Election.
It is appropriate to reflect on this matter in the context of the challenges and struggles faced by Collins and his contemporaries. Collins in his own words reflected how Ireland would have benefited from “the greatest amount of credit for us in the eyes of the world, and with the greatest advantage to the Nation itself in having a strong United Government” when he beseeched those who opposed him to take part in “interim Government, without prejudice to their principles”.
We in Fine Gael and our colleagues in Fianna Fáil are the rightful inheritors of the legacy of those founding fathers and revolutionaries. Confidence & Supply, with its pre-cursor in the Tallaght Strategy of Alan Dukes & Fine Gael is the most appropriate response to challenging times. It marks the normalization of Parliamentary democratic ways and means in Ireland though patently not liked or indeed understood by many commentators who have predicted its demise on many occasions.
It has not been lost on me in my preparation of this oration, that this platform has been used on many occasions to denigrate Fianna Fáil and its contribution to Irish public life. However we need little reminding that it was the Béal na Bláth Commemoration Committee that during Fianna Fails lowest ebb in Irish public opinion, extended an extraordinary invitation to the late Brian Lenihan to address this prestigious occasion, underlining further Béal na Bláth’s symbolism as a staging post for Irish democracy.
Many of the challenges faced by Collins and his colleagues re-emerge over-time in modern manifestations. He spoke of the “urgent problems of housing, land, hunger and unemployment”. Approaches to the provision of housing and public services, relevant to the Ireland of the 21st Century can be found without difficulty in the words and deeds of Collins, Griffith, Cosgrave and more. There are however areas of public policy in 2018, where it would stretch credibility to invoke Collins’s advice directly. But that is not to steer from the wisdom of Collins in seeking pathways to overcome our challenges as a society today.
Recent climactic events serve as a useful reminder that we are living with the realities of climate change. In Ireland alone the harvest problems of 2016, the floods in Donegal of 2017, the prolonged wet winter past and late Spring of 2018, followed by the current drought are a timely reminder that the time for talking on climate is well past. If we are not to compromise the quality of life, if not indeed the very lives themselves of future generations then we need practical responses to climate change.
The time for special pleading by sectoral interests is long gone. Every citizen, every household, every community has a role to play. Rural Ireland and Urban Ireland, farmers, fishermen, forresters, as well as industrialists, all sectors of society will have to carry some of the pain involved in the necessary Policy responses. No exceptions. No lecturing of others can be indulged when in truth we all have a considerable distance to travel.
As Minister for Agriculture Food & Marine I am very conscious of the sectors obligations and the need to move beyond our current credentials, which though not unimpressive are not sufficient where the trajectory on emissions needs to be corrected whilst acknowledging the potential for both increasing food production and greater carbon sequestration. So while this is a challenge very much of our time, it is worth reflecting on the ethos of duty and unity of purpose espoused by Collins in his actions in meeting this critical challenge of our age.
The Leyland touring car and Crossley tender which rolled from this place ninety six 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 ninety six years ago, In their wake were the people of this place – and beyond, who refused to leave the echos 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.