No longer black and white

Enda Kenny’s partisan speech at Béal na mBláth missed the chance to appeal to a broad national consensus, writes Micheál Martin

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny’s speech in Béal na mBláth has led to a lot of critical commentary. One point which has been missed so far is that by being so partisan he did a disservice to both the modern position of Michael Collins as a genuinely national hero and the progress in building a shared public engagement in our history.

For many years the more bitter events of the Civil War and the years following led to different parts of Irish society having their own set of heroes and events to commemorate.

With very few exceptions, commemorations involved different camps celebrating the part of the national narrative which suited them.

The story of our revolution was used to reinforce division rather than build understanding.

It was almost as if the only thing which was required was to pick a side and keep the old arguments going.

For the past 20 years there has been a steady and resolute move to a more inclusive approach to commemorating and understanding the history of 1916-22.

With the exception of Sinn Féin’s ongoing attempts to misappropriate the history of that time to their cause, it has become widely accepted that it is futile and absurd to try to use people and events of nearly 100 years ago to justify political actions today.

People have been willing to move beyond old labels and look for colour and shade where once they could only see black and white.

In the huge public reaction to the Easter Rising commemoration of 2006 and many other occasions the Irish people are very clear in their pride in the revolution which founded this state and that this is a matter which is above politics.

Today people who are proud to be nationalist and republican have no problem talking of their respect for people on different sides of the civil war.

People of all persuasions respect and admire Michael Collins’ personal contribution to our country.

He was a unique leader who achieved immense things.

When he died it was not a matter for celebration for his opponents. All contemporary reports show that the reaction of republican prisoners to the news of what had happened in Béal na mBláth was silence and prayer.

As with all leaders who die so young, speculation about what might have been is both pointless and inevitable.

His adoption as a party icon by Cumann na nGaedhall was understandable from that group’s point of view but for many it represented a major problem.

Collins died seven months before the party was formed and 11 years before it merged into Fine Gael, yet for many years he was associated in the public mind with broad political programmes which didn’t exist on Aug 22, 1922.

Over time people have been able to see beyond this and embrace Collins as a moving force in a period where the Irish people achieved great things in the face of immense odds.

In his organisational ability and his clarity of action he had no equal.

What not enough people recognise is that he earned the respect of those he fought with and of the public because he understood that what he was participating in was a national rising.

He never saw himself as a messianic leader from whom all success origin-ated. He was something far more substantial — a leader who never stopped being part of the movement from which he emerged.

He had immense respect for the communities which bore the brunt of the fighting and he had far less bitterness towards those who opposed him than those in later generations who promoted his cause.

The work of the organising committee of the Béal na mBláth commemoration to invite a diverse range of speakers, including my late colleague Brian Lenihan, has had a really positive impact in broadening Collins’ standing.

In both personal and political capacities I regularly attend national and local commemorations.

They are increasingly large events where families gather to mark a history to which they have less direct contact but of which they are ever-more proud.

There is also a growing search for ways of showing respects and understanding for the other side not just in the Civil War, but also for unionists and those who fought in the First World War.

Enda Kenny’s speech was particu-larly unfortunate because it failed to respect this broader spirit of a history which has been reclaimed by the people and removed from partisan politics.

He missed the fact that Collins’ stature is based on rising above the issues of today and reminding us of a noble struggle which we can all feel a part of.

Before this, no Taoiseach for many years has made party political points at an event which involved the army and its chief of staff.

It is increasingly clear that, to use his own description, this is the most “tribal” Taoiseach for many years.

In his daily contributions to the Dáil he is more involved in party point-scoring than any predecessor. This can at times get very petty. For example he has gone to great lengths to avoid any acknowledgement of the central role of Brian Cowen in setting up the state visit of the British monarch.

What is more serious is that he has failed to show any inclination to reach beyond his own party’s traditions when it comes to the history of the state.

This is a marked departure from the policy of many taoisigh over many years — including his Fine Gael predecessors Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton.

In the Dáil he has seen no problem with the almost bizarre return of Civil War-related heckling from the Fine Gael benches.

With what is being termed “the decade of commemorations” on the way, this is a very bad development and one he should reverse.

The spirit which has allowed Michael Collins rise above partisan division to achieve a broad national stature is something which shows how we have matured as a nation and is the example that all those charged with political leadership should follow.

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