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Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), at the Wolfe Tone Commemoration, Bodenstown, County Kildare, Sunday 19 October 2003



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Text: Bertie Ahern ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), at the Wolfe Tone Commemoration, Bodenstown, County Kildare, Sunday 19 October 2003

 

Wolfe Tone’s closest friend was Thomas Russell, affectionately known as PP, and later in romantic ballad as ‘The Man from God knows where’.

His attempted rebellion in the North in 1803 like Robert Emmet’s in the South, brought to an end for a century efforts to create an independent Irish democracy on the lines of France and America. Both men were executed.

When Wolfe Tone left Ireland, first for America, Russell was the friend he missed most. He was nevertheless glad Russell had been able to stay in Ireland. ‘Stick to your country, to the last plank, as I would have done, had I been able’, he wrote to Russell from America. Tone’s memoirs and diaries were kept for his wife Matilda, from whom he was often separated, and for Thomas Russell. Given the enormous influence these writings had on the future development of Irish Republicanism, it is clear we owe Russell, who later sought to rescue Emmet and Matilda Tone, a great deal.

Russell, born close to Mallow, of partly Catholic and O’Kennedy parentage, became the centre of radical Belfast society and was much admired by Mary-Ann McCracken, sister of Henry Joy. Russell served as a soldier and later resigned as a Northern magistrate on the grounds that he never could reconcile it to his conscience to sit on a bench, where the practice prevailed of inquiring what ‘a man’s religion was before inquiring of what crime he was accused’. He was one of the first Linenhall librarians. He had strong religious convictions, was vehemently anti-slavery, and pro-Catholic rights. He was proud of the United Irishmen as the first club ever instituted in Ireland ‘for the removal of religious and political prejudices’, and believed that if properly managed it would be the dawning of liberty.

Russell’s definition of national well-being would have some resonance today. A country’s prosperity was not to be judged by the fortunes of its great merchants or landowners only ‘if the majority can procure a comfortable assistance with little labour, and have something to share with those also who are in want’, could it be said to be truly prosperous. He shared an interest in the collection of ancient Irish music by Edward Bunting, and also took lessons in Irish, seeing unifying possibilities in Ireland’s Gaelic heritage.

2003 brings to a close the bicentenary commemorations of the era of the United Irishmen, of Bantry Bay, 1798 and the Emmet Rebellion. They have stimulated enormous interest in this period of our history and its inspiring possibilities. The Commemoration has been conducted in an inclusive and reconciling spirit, while doing justice to our past, and especially the noble ideals and the leaders who were prepared to sacrifice all in the cause of their country. I congratulate all the historians, both professional and amateur, the historical societies, communities and civic authorities, who have given their full support to many imaginative programmes.

Today, Irish history has returned full circle to the beginning, to the original constitutional and democratic spirit of the United Irishmen, at a time when this can now flourish without further obstacle. Europe is no longer divided into friends and enemies, and Ireland is no strategic threat to its larger neighbour. Next year, indeed, we will hold the Presidency of what will be from 1 May, a 25 strong European Union. If Tone and Emmet could have conceived of the possibility, their pride and joy would have been immense. They might have been surprised and puzzled on the other hand that Belfast has not hitherto been at the centre of Irish liberty.

That may yet be about to change. The divisions that they could only partially overcome and which for a long time since have widened deeper than ever, can begin to be bridged, if all political groups work together the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. Cooperation within the North, between North and South, and between the two islands has the potential to overcome finally the legacy of history. The party in many ways closest to the ideals of the United Irishmen is the SDLP, without whom it would be difficult to conceive either the peace process or the Good Friday Agreement. The United Irishmen, which began as a constitutional movement, was forced underground, and become what has been described as violent democrats.

Today, the Republican Movement must complete the journey back to the United Irishmen’s roots as a purely constitutional movement. And if we can achieve this in a way that commands widespread confidence, and can secure commitments on the stability of the institutions, then we can offer the people the prospect of the full and complete implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and delivery of all the commitments of the Joint Declaration of the two Governments.

We have been here before, and close before. Nobody should underestimate the scale of the challenge or its enormous importance. Building trust is essential. We, therefore, welcome the direct and intensive engagement between the UUP and Sinn Fein in recent weeks. We hope that this will be fruitful and that it will prove possible to turn a further decisive page in the long history of our island.

However, trust is not the same as confidence. That is why both Governments have also established the International Monitoring Commission which last week met in shadow form. It is our intention that the Commission be in a position to go live by the end of November. It will report on the fulfilment of any commitments on the cessation of paramilitary activity and security normalisation. The Commission can furthermore recommend remedial action if they conclude that a Party is in breach of its commitments, for example on the pledge of office.

In everything we have done and every action we have taken, over the last few months I, and my colleagues in Government, have been unremitting in our attempts to create the best circumstances in which to hold elections and let the people of Northern Ireland have their say. We have always said that we want elections to take place. We did not agree to their postponement earlier this year. The coming days will be of crucial importance for the democratic life of Northern Ireland.

For nationalists today, taking forward the great vision of the United Irishmen means giving effect to the Good Friday Agreement, particularly in terms of the work of the democratic institutions within Northern Ireland, the North South Ministerial Council and the British Irish Council. It is those institutions that allow all of the great traditions on this island work together.

Today, we are able to work constructively for the betterment of the people of the whole of Ireland, with those whose decided constitutional preference is to maintain the British connection. There is recognition, nevertheless, that many of our interests, in peace, democracy and the rule of law, in economic and cultural development, are the same or run in parallel. We want to let North-South relations develop organically without attempting to force the pace. A lot of healing has to take place. Trust needs to be repaired and built up.

In the cultural sphere I would like to see more emphasis on what is shared, rather than purely on what defines us against each other. A militant exclusive in your face Irish identity or a militant in your face British identity always on the march will not assist in building peace, and can only divide rather than unite. The United Irishmen sought to bridge cultural difference and use it as a positive resource for nation-building, not as a means of exclusion except on very one-sided terms.

I look forward in the near future to resumed political progress, which will enable us to consolidate the Good Friday Agreement, and bring the peace process to a successful conclusion. We cannot hold everything in suspense forever. While the immediate result might be different from what Tone, Emmet and Russell or indeed more recent generations of patriots might have aspired to, the establishment of an agreed Ireland is more substantial progress than anyone up until now has been able to achieve.


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