Varadkar addresses Collins-Griffith Commemoration

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Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is an honour to be asked to deliver this year’s oration, and I am grateful to the Collins-Griffith Commemoration Society and Glasnevin Trust for the invitation. One hundred years on from the Rising, we pay tribute to two men who worked to turn the dream of freedom into a reality. There are many people here who are connected to the events of the revolutionary decade, but in particular I would like to acknowledge, Geraldine Dalton who is a grand-niece of Michael Collins and led us in prayers earlier, and other relatives and descendants of the revolutionary generation.

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In this centenary year of the 1916 Rising, it is right that we remember and that we pay tribute to Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith.

On one level it is very easy to put them together, to celebrate them as two towering figures who led Ireland through one of her darkest periods, and then left us, just days apart, as their dream of a free Irish state was about to be realised.

But, of course, they were very different men. They each had strong views about what was required, and they sometimes clashed and fought.

One emerged from the Fenian movement: the IRB – the other had advocated dual monarchy. This, in some ways was reconciled in the Anglo-Irish Treaty they negotiated and Dominion status, not far from that which Griffith once proposed, but Collins and he both came to see as a stepping stone to greater sovereignty, a republic and unity. Some steps since taken. Others still to be taken.

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Collins was a keen sportsman, Griffith more literary and a man of the arts. Both arts and sports might have been recognised more by the new state had either man lived. But what united them most was a shared vision about the future of Ireland, and the bond they forged during the difficult Treaty negotiations sustained them in the terrible months afterwards when the country descended into civil war.

In terms of personality they may not have been natural friends, but they were bonded together by extraordinary circumstances, and they admired each other enormously. Collins said of his friend that ‘In Arthur Griffith there is a mighty force in Ireland. He has none of the wildness of some I could name. Instead there is an abundance of wisdom and an awareness of things which are Ireland.’ Griffith said simply of Collins that he was ‘the man who won the war’.

But while both are founding fathers of the state, Griffith has been somewhat overshadowed by Collins and other figures. I believe they deserve to be honoured side by side as equals as we do today.

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The Economy

The distinguished barrister and historian, Frank Callanan, has rightly described Arthur Griffith as ‘the most underestimated major figure of twentieth century Irish history.

Indeed, in the years after his death, Griffith was criticised by some for the perceived narrowness of his economic views, and he was even blamed for the failed economic protectionism of the 1930s. Other criticised him for being a ‘narrow nationalist’.

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But as Owen Magee has shown in the most recent biography of the man, this is perhaps too simplistic a belief. He argues that ‘Griffith represented an ideal of Irish economic freedom that was not practical in his lifetime’. Griffith’s genius was that he saw that Ireland would never truly be politically independent until she was free of economic restrictions.

He recognised that the economy would define the limits of our independence. And he was right.

Economic freedom, not protectionism, was at the heart of his philosophy and he knew it was the only way for Ireland to be truly sovereign and free. The same principles are true today. We have seen how the loss of our economic freedom can affect our sovereignty, and we have also seen how it can impact on the lives of every single citizen. It is not good enough now for us to say that we have restored our economy and our sovereignty.

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Now we have to decide what we want to make of it. What is our long-term vision, and how will we ensure that we use our economic freedom to truly liberate people? So that they can achieve their ambitions in a true enterprise economy, where they are rewarded for hard-work, innovation and excellence, and are supported, not hindered, by the state in providing for themselves and their families?

If Arthur Griffith provides the parameters of this challenge, then Michael Collins provides the answer. Weeks before his death, Collins set out his vision for the future. He said that ‘our object in building up the country economically must not be lost sight of’. It was to ensure that people were not exploited in work, working without reward or making money for others without any personal advantage. The objectives he set out in 1922 could equally be set today.

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Collins believed in economic opportunity for all and again I quote: ‘What we must aim at is the building up of a sound economic life in which great discrepancies cannot occur. We must not have the destitution of poverty at one end, and at the other an excess of riches in the possession of a few individuals, beyond what they can spend with satisfaction and justification.’

You can see the influence of the ideals of the 1916 Rising. It is no surprise that the person Collins admired most in the GPO was James Connolly. He later said that he would have followed him to hell and back.

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But Collins’ economic vision was not the same as Connolly’s. He was no socialist and he did not believe a socialist prescription was the right medicine for Ireland. His was a more complex understanding of way economies work, and how they must be developed.

It was forged in his West Cork upbringing, time working for the Royal Mail, a stockbrokerage and living in London, the busy world capital of trade, business and enterprise of the time. Collins said that ‘Taxation, where it hinders, must be adjusted, and must be imposed where the burden will fall lightest and can best be borne’, and crucially ‘where it will encourage rather than discourage industry.’

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That is the same belief we have in Fine Gael today. That a functioning tax system should both encourage business and reward individuals as well as providing for those who need protection.

Increasing general taxation is not the solution to all of our social and problems and infrastructural deficits and increasing it too much creates a problem in itself. Collins recognised that ‘the essence of our struggle was to secure freedom to order our own life’. And that is the vision that should be at the heart of our thinking in the 21st century. We need to advance and expand the recovering economy so that more people are free to order their own life; they are free to achieve their ambitions and their dreams.

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It is the role of the government to help make that happen. To provide freedom and opportunity. Griffith and Collins were both right. Without economic freedom and prosperity we cannot have real independence. And without freedom to order our own lives, any improvements in the economy will be meaningless.

It is a difficult challenge. But it is achievable if we recognise that we need sound economic policies to achieve better living conditions for all our citizens and that social justice and inclusion, in turn, help to build a stronger more sustainable economy. A virtuous circle of sorts. Economic gains on their own, without a vision for society to accompany them, will result in a squandered prosperity that will ultimately be unsustainable. We had that during the boom years. We must ensure that we do not have it again in the recovery years.

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Northern Ireland
Brexit complicates matters considerably for this country, and we have to be prepared for a period of uncertainty before it is settled. There are also implications for Northern Ireland. Here I believe we need to bring a respect for diversity, rather than a triumphalist attitude to bear. The only way we will achieve real unity is by respecting the different traditions, identities and values on this island, not by trying to obliterate them.

During the Treaty debates Griffith was criticised by another MP for meeting some southern Unionists. He was accused of treating them as a privileged people. Griffith’s response was brilliant. To much applause, he explained that he ‘met them because they are my countrymen; and because, if we are to have an Irish nation, we want to start with fair play for all sections and with understandings between all sections’.

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The same logic, he said, applied to Ulster Unionists. Real unity would only come from mutual respect for the different traditions on the island, and ‘absolute justice and absolute fair play in the Irish nation’ was the only way to achieve lasting peace. The words of Griffith in January 1922 might well have been used in the preamble of the Good Friday Agreement.

It was easy for some to jump on the Brexit result, and use it to make a land-grab for Northern Ireland. And it was counterproductive. Often the people who speak loudest about republican values, are the least when it comes to honouring them. The inclusive vision of Griffith is better than the opportunistic rhetoric of assimilation, and it is the only chance we have of securing lasting peace and achieving genuine unity on this island.

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I share the vision of An Taoiseach that foresees a united Ireland at some point in the future, and I share his belief in how it should be achieved. Through respect and consent, by accepting the identity of the minority tradition and honouring their values by finding a special place for them to thrive, not through assimilation or the crude majoritarianism in a border poll.

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Griffith
Michael Collins would not begrudge us paying special tribute to Arthur Griffith here today. Collins, more than most, was aware of the enormous contribution and selfless service of Griffith. Collins would agree with Erskine Childers who described Griffith, magnanimously it has to be said- as ‘the greatest intellectual force stimulating the national revival of 1916-19’.

There is much about Griffith to cherish as that loyal and faithful group of people –often small in number- who have assembled at this spot at this time every year have done to their great credit. Sadly too few of our people are aware of the true extent of Griffith’s greatness.

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Although only 51 when he died of a cerebral haemorrhage in St Vincent’s nursing home in Leeson St on Aug 12 1922, Griffith was seen as a father figure by his comrades. This was in part because he had packed so much into his thirty years of active political life.

We see Griffith at twenty years of age, the loyal Parnellite who attended Parnell’s last public meeting in Dublin, just weeks before his death. We see Griffith present at the founding meeting of the Gaelic League, an ardent language enthusiast but whose own cultural outlook was truly European. We see a man honest and unworldly, a man who at times could be priggish as in his hostility to Synge’s ‘Playboy of the Western World’ ; a sociable man who was loyal to his friends but could be a ferocious and unforgiving opponent. Indeed he was jailed for horsewhipping an editor whom he blamed for an attack on Maud Gonne.

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But most of all he was a man of ideas- restlessly, relentlessly seeking new ways of realising Irish nationhood, scouring the world for new ways, new ideas, never afraid to be novel and challenging. It was he who long advocated that Irish MPs should stay away from Westminster and set up a parliament in Dublin – the very prototype for the establishment of Dáil Éireann in 1919. He was also an early advocate of proportional representation as the fairest possible electoral system and it too was adopted.

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But it was with economic ideas he was most preoccupied. He realised Independence without economic sustainability was not acceptable. He wanted Ireland to be a modern democratic state and his approach was always pragmatic, concerned with issues such as industrialisation, mining, afforestation, excessive taxation and the protection of Irish goods.

Griffith died broken and despondent believing that the civil war would result in the destruction of the gains already made. He was wrong. The foundations he had helped lay proved enduring. Within ten years the new Free State was a stable and respected democracy. It is time the major contribution of Arthur Griffith be fully and generously acknowledged.

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Conclusion
The poet Ezra Pound met Griffith during the Treaty negotiations, and later immortalised him in verse as ‘this stubby little man’ who provided intriguing advice about economics and politics. The line often quoted is something Griffith told Pound.

He said you ‘Can’t move ’em with a cold thing like economics’. Pound disagreed with this advice, and challenged it in his writings, but he missed a deeper wisdom. Griffith prefaced the advice by saying, ‘it’s a question of feeling’.

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In other words, you had to inspire someone to believe in your economic vision; you had to appeal to their heart as well as their head. Cold economics and policy on its own was not enough. There is a lesson there for politicians today. Our challenge – the challenge for all political parties – in the 21st century is to communicate that mission effectively, and persuade people of a greater vision that is worth striving for.

It should be one of political independence based on economic freedom, where every citizen has the opportunity to reach their potential. As Michael Collins said in the final weeks before his death: ‘Of all forms of government, a democracy allows the greatest freedom—the greatest possibilities for the good of all’. We hold in our hands today, greater wealth, human resources and technology than our founding fathers could ever have imagined possible.

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I believe the best way of honouring Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, and the other men and women who fought and won Irish independence, is to complete their mission. It is a legacy we should all be proud to work for.

Thank you.