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Speech by Minister Heather Humphreys – Michael Collins Commemoration 2021

22nd August 2021 - Heather Humphreys TD

Thank you Garret for your kind words.

At the outset, I want to acknowledge the huge effort of the Commemoration Committee who have worked tirelessly to ensure that this year’s event can take place.

I know it was a great disappointment to many that the annual commemoration could not take place last year due to the pandemic.

While the virtual nature of this year’s event is very different to what has gone before, it is reflective of the times we are living in and indeed our ability to adapt.

Irrespective of the format, it is a great honour for me to deliver the Béal na mBláth Annual Commemoration for 2021 and I thank the committee for their invitation.

When I first entered politics as a novice County Councillor back in 2003, if you had told me that I would be here today giving the oration on the 99th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins, I would not have believed it.

People say Politics is a journey – it’s true – and sometimes the destination you arrive at can surprise even you.

In 1912, Michael Collins was a 21 Year Old, working in London, in the midst of his formative years.

He had become involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and just 4 years later, he would take up arms in the 1916 Rising.

At the same time, in 1912, a young man, aged just 19, a farmer who lived in Drum, Co. Monaghan, by the name of Robert James Stewart, signed the Ulster Covenant.

I am sure never in his wildest dreams would Robert have thought that a little over a 100 years later his only grand-daughter would be speaking at a commemoration for the man who led Ireland’s struggle for independence.

Nor indeed could he have imagined that she would be a Cabinet Minister in an Irish Government.

It is not lost on me that were it not for the fledgling free state – which Michael Collins fought for – I may never have had this opportunity.

This December will mark 100 years since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

It was a seminal moment in Irish history and one which shaped our political landscape for a generation.

While the Civil War ended in 1923, old enmities endured and some would argue the war continued to be fought for many decades thereafter in Dáil Éireann by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

Civil War Politics did not end in the Convention Centre on the 27th June 2020 when Fine Gael and Fianna Fail entered Government together for the first time.

In truth, I think the time had already long since passed where it was a determining factor in how people cast their vote.

In today’s modern and forward-looking Ireland, people are concerned with the issues that impact their own lives and that of their families rather than the events of 100 years ago.

The formation of the current coalition was none-the-less a significant moment in Irish politics.

The coming together of the two traditional large parties, who between them have led every Government since the foundation of the State, will redefine Irish politics.

Time will tell if it was the right decision for either party electorally.

One thing I am absolutely certain of however is that it was the right decision for the country.

At a time when the worst pandemic in living memory swept through us. When businesses closed their doors and hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs overnight – this country needed a stable Government.

And when push came to shove, when others shirked their national responsibility in favour of political opportunism: It was Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party who stepped up to the plate.

The new Government has not got everything right over the last year.

We have made mistakes.

We must own those mistakes, hold our hands up and learn from them.

When you look at the big picture however, the things that really matter, I believe this Government has delivered.

Our national vaccination programme, much criticised in some quarters only a few months ago, has proven to be one of the most efficient in the World.

The Irish public have responded in kind with vaccine uptake levels across all age cohorts exceptionally high.

For me, one of the most moving moments in recent weeks has been the response of our young people.

The sight of them queuing in their thousands at Vaccine Clinics will be one of the enduring images of the pandemic.

These are among the people who have lost most over the last 18 months, missing out on formative life experiences that previous generations took for granted.

And yet when their time came – our young people responded and continue to respond to the national effort.

Mol an Óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

As Minister for Finance, Michael Collins established the Dáil Loan which financed the work of the National Civil Service set up by the First Dáil.

Collins would rightly be proud of what the Civil Service has achieved over the past year and the sense of public duty they have shown.

Whether it’s our doctors and nurses on the front-line, our Gardai and Defence Forces, or the staff in the Department of Social Protection working tirelessly to make sure people got their payments on time – we have seen public service in its truest sense over the past year.

I was very proud in 2016 as Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to lead the commemorations marking the centenary of the Easter Rising.

My own background, as a Protestant, from a border county, and as someone with an instinctive revulsion for those who attempt to promote bitterness and division, made me particularly sensitive about the dangers we faced at that time.

My guiding objective was to ensure that the commemorations would be inclusive, respectful and appropriate.

Above all else, I saw my role not to interpret history but to commemorate it and recognise all of its complexities.

Michael Collins had no time for hiding behind romanticised views of the past, and neither should we.

During a heated Treaty debate, he noted how some other politicians used history as a weapon, cloaking their arguments in claims about what dead generations would have wanted, or future generations might someday want.

But they ignored the democratic principle of whether the living might approve of it.

I believe, like Collins, that we should respect the past, but we should not hide behind it to evade responsibility for our own decisions and their impact.

It is a lesson that some political parties on this island still have to learn, parties with an emotional reverence for the atrocities of the past.

They attempt to weaponise history and in some cases re-write it entirely to suit their own political narrative.

In 2016, one party, in particular, tried to stand apart from the State and conduct their own parallel events.

A real reverence for the past respects its messiness and its complexity, it does not commandeer or hijack it for political gain.

It is a lesson we should all learn as we remember the difficult events of the split over the Treaty and the Civil War.

A spirit of compromise was behind the great achievement of the winning of our independence.

Collins, the man of war, became the negotiator who helped bring us peace, and then the political leader who spent the final months of his life articulating his vision of the kind of Ireland we could achieve because of that compromise.

Too often we see the divisions on this island are made worse by those who see compromise as a form of weakness, rather than a sign of self-confidence and strength.

If we are to successfully minimise the damaging impact of Brexit, and build a new future north and south, we need to set aside the unshakeable certainties of the past, and approach things with a spirit of humility and a willingness to compromise.

That’s true for all sides.

As children we learn how to share, we learn that selfishness provides short-term gain, whereas compromise offers a way for long-term happiness.

Selfish self-interest will never deliver a shared island.

It may appeal on an emotional level, but deep down we know it will never deliver real change.

Compromise cannot be something we only like when the other person is doing it.

It must be genuine, it must go both ways, and it must require giving up a little of what we want, to persuade others to meet us half-way.

I want to acknowledge the work of Taoiseach Michael Martin in establishing a Shared Island Fund which is allowing us to progress vital and long awaited North-South projects.

While calls for border polls will get the headlines, real leadership is about putting in the hard yards, working behind the scenes, engaging with all communities in Northern Ireland and working to build back trust on all sides.

That means extending the hand of friendship and working with the Unionist community, recognising their concerns in relation to the Northern Protocol and trying to find solutions that will ultimately benefit us all.

As Collins realised in the autumn and winter of 1921, compromise takes courage, but it is the only real way to achieve peace, prosperity, and the prospect of a better future.

Over the past few months it has been my privilege to serve as Minister for Justice, while my friend and colleague, Helen McEntee, makes history by taking maternity leave as a minister.

I was surprised to learn that although the Justice ministry was only formally created in 1924, with Kevin O’Higgins the first minister, it can really be dated back to 1919 under a different title, that of the ministry for Home Affairs.

The first holder of the office, for the first three months of the first Dáil in 1919, was none other than Michael Collins.

Collins is more usually associated with his time as Minister for Finance, but underpinning everything was his belief in the need to build a just future for all Irish people, an Ireland that could be a shining light to the world.

Ensuring justice for all at home and representing those fighting injustice on the world stage.

In recent days we have been horrified by the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan, and the appalling consequences for women, children, and those who put their hopes in a brighter future.

Through our seat on the UN Security Council we are determined to play our part, providing a voice for those who have been silenced, a hand for those who have been knocked down, and hope for those who have seen their dreams destroyed.

Collins always believed that once we were an independent country Ireland would have an important role to play in the world.

We can demonstrate it here, in the leadership we show on the global stage and, at home, in the way we welcome those who are fleeing injustice.

We may not be able to provide the freedom that so many are crying out for, but we can be a stepping stone for the people who have already lost so much.

It is a mission that is true to the spirit of the man we are honouring here today.

Béal na mBláth is a beautiful part of our countryside that will forever be associated with the tragedy and loss of Michael Collins.

By gathering every year to commemorate that tragedy and loss we now find it is also associated with new ideas for facing the great challenges of our time.

In the past, this commemoration has been honoured by orations from people from different political backgrounds and beliefs, united by a shared love of our country and a belief in the promise and the potential of the future.

Part of Collins’ great legacy is that he showed us that while we should not be bound by the past, we can learn from it.

Our history challenges us, it provokes us, and it sometimes inspires us.

By commemorating Collins, we are making a powerful statement about our faith in the future.

As we emerge from the dark shadows of the pandemic, we now have a unique, generational opportunity to reimagine that future.

Now is the time to hang out our brightest colours.

As we look to the future our guiding objective should be, not just to build back but to build back better and fairer, ensuring an inclusive recovery for all our citizens.

Go raibh maith agaibh.

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