‘A small difference between parties’

Ryle Dwyer recalls his 1996 Béal na mBláth oration and the views he held then

IN his Béal na mBláth oration last Sunday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny referred to Michael Collins as “the brilliant minister for finance, the outstanding organiser who brought Lenin himself to Ireland to see how the national loan worked, the thoughtful disciplined leader who helped draft the Free State constitution, the passionate ideas man who wrote: ‘What we must aim at is the building of a sound economic life in which great discrepancies cannot occur’.”

I wonder would people have been honouring Collins over the years if they thought he had been involved in any way with the God-less communism that enslaved half of Europe for much of the second half of the 20th century?

“I think it is safe to say that the gigantic discrepancies that have occurred in recent years would leave Collins, like all of us, absolutely speechless,” the Taoiseach continued.

His mistaken reference to Lenin and the Government’s violation of its own salary guidelines to pay the Taoiseach’s advisers above the odds have undoubtedly left many people wondering what kind of advice he is getting.

There were suggestions that Michael Collins was involved with Bolsheviks when he sought to buy arms from John Charles Byrne, a supposed communist organiser who came to Ireland offering to supply guns.

Byrne, who was using the name of Jameson, was actually a British intelligence officer who almost captured Collins before he met his fate in Glasnevin, near the graveyard.

In 1920, Éamon de Valera loaned $20,000 to the financially embarrassed Soviet mission in the United States and secured Russian jewels as collateral in return.

The whole transaction remained a closely guarded secret for more than a quarter of a century until 1949, when the money was repaid and the jewels returned.

I delivered the oration at Béal na mBláth in 1996 and I thought what was needed then was a frank recognition that the difference between Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera and between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had been grossly exaggerated over the years.

In de Valera’s own words, it was “a small difference” over a “little sentimental thing”, or “a shadow of a difference”.

In 1923, when the Cumann na nGaedheal government had de Valera arrested, they accused him of inciting the Civil War and instructed the attorney general to bring charges against him as quickly as possible. But the attorney general reported that the only evidence of any kind of incitement that he could find against de Valera was an inflammatory letter that he wrote to the secretary of Cumann na mBan. If they had only charged him with inciting Cumann na mBan it would have been the biggest political joke imaginable.

It is one of the great ironies of Irish history that it was de Valera who used the treaty to achieve the freedom that proved that Michael Collins was right about it.

“While Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil, Albert Reynolds acknowledged that de Valera was wrong about the treaty,” I concluded my oration at Béal na mBláth in 1996, “surely it is time for both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to end their posturing, and their continued pretense that there are real differences between them. Their separate existence is but a debilitating reminder of the idiotic divisions that led to the civil war and the premature death, in the prime of life, of one of the greatest Irishmen — Michael Collins.”


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