Oration by Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice & Equality
Commemoration of Michael Collins
Béal na Bláth
23 August 2015
Chairman, Colleagues, Ladies & Gentlemen,
We have gathered here these many years - down all the days since the man whose name means so much to us all died here. We meet to commemorate, to reflect, to celebrate and to learn from a life cut short in this place.
None of the soft words fit the death inflicted here. Even to speak of Michael Collins' life being ended here is to deny the shocking, the absolute sudden brutality of the event.
And therein lies a danger - the danger that the manner of a man's dying might be allowed to define him. That would be to do a sad injustice to his greatness.
But more than that. It would be to lock Michael Collins into a time and a place and a destruction, which would be to miss how much his life mattered and still matters in twenty first century Ireland.
It is, I believe, pivotally important that we realise not just that we stand here in reverence of a massive figure in Irish history, but that we stand here together on the cusp of the anniversary of 1916. In that event, led by poets and dreamers and extinguished by the might of one of the great powers of the time, the man we call "the Big Fellow" played his part and wove the Insurrection into the very fabric of his being.
He was twenty-six in that year of 1916 when he carried life and death duties. Not old before his time, but responsible beyond his age.
Energetic beyond imagining.
Optimistic beyond logic.
Even as he was marched away, after the surrender, Collins found a reason for hope. He looked back at the burned-out GPO, and muttered to his colleagues, "Well, at least the flag's still flying."
It didn't fly over the building for long, but that never diminished Collins' sense of responsibility to the future - a responsibility manifest in simple ways during his imprisonment. He would share what rations he had, and if that meant being caught and punished - well, so what? He would ask for and receive books, stilled into reflection by the printed word.
Collins was one of the rebels who ended up in a rat-infested camp originally built for German prisoners in Wales: Frongach.
"There is only one thing to do while the situation is as it is," Collins wrote to a friend back home. "Make what I can of it."
It was a throwaway remark and a quintessential truth. Michael Collins had a life as brief as that of a falling star, but the one thing we know for sure is that he made what he could of it, driving himself and others in a relentless pursuit of the best.
As legend calcifies around the death of a hero, what falls away is the importance to many of them, but particularly to Michael Collins, of the organised life, the life of rigorousness, attentiveness, planning and structure.
He understood the need for cellular structures when it came to intelligence gathering, so that what one group knew could not endanger another group. He understood the value of the unexpected. When someone lent him the G.K Chesterton book, The Man who was Thursday, one sentence uttered by one of the characters changed his understanding of intelligence work.
"If you don't seem to be hiding," the character says, "nobody hunts you out."
That's what lay behind the apparent bravado of his movements during the years when he was a target - the lesson that if he didn't seem to be hiding, it gave him the capacity for freer movement than if he did seem to be hiding.
But if we look at the totality of his life, what we see is a man who understood that every section of the emerging nation needed structure, needed planning, needed control, needed measurement. He carried - willingly carried - on broad shoulders the responsibility to build statehood out of subservience and subversion. The task was without precedent - and, remember, this was a man who had been part of an insurrection led by men who believed that freedom was enough: that once the shackles of oppression were shattered, Ireland would emerge into the sunlight of liberty whole and entire.
Collins' patriotism was no less idealistic, but it was visionary in a more practical, realistic way.
It was Collins who set Ireland on the first steps towards statehood, and it was Collins who understood that public administration and economic management go hand in hand with social idealism: that the dreams a nation dream, and the visions a nation has depend utterly on structure, planning and rigorous controls if they are to be made manifest.
The reality, as hindsight has taught us, is that freedom is the first step, but safety is the second, and the two are intertwined. A free society is one where it is safe to imagine a different future, where it is safe to disagree, to challenge, to champion a direction unimagined in the past.
That intellectual freedom, that capacity to speculate about possibilities unsought by the freedom fighters, is arguably more essential to the development of a mature, confident, world-leading nation than is physical freedom, although of course, one is not possible without the other.
Think, my friends, about that great cluster of grey stone buildings in the heart of our capital city that once stood as a monument to oppression- Dublin Castle.
Then think of the great cobbled square within Dublin Castle where a cross-section of our nation - our mature, confident, world-leading nation - met after the referendum on equal marriage.
Was there ever so happy and important a day? It was the occasion of a massive statement about democracy, about freedom, about family, about faith. No blood was shed to reach the decision - the freedom to vote, hard-won by Collins and by centuries of his like, was used by individuals, by friends flying from halfway around the world, by families coming out of the shadows of fear, stepping into the sunshine of equality, abandoning the bitter restrictions of the past and the crippling memories they carried with them and painting a rainbow of possibility.
That is how Michael Collins always reacted: with an overwhelming sense of the possible and a matching sense of duty to achieve it. Having been described as "one of the most effective and efficient officers in 1916," he put it behind him before he ever climbed the gangplank to the ship that was to take him to internment, patting his pocket and telling a friend that inside that pocket was a list of the men - the best of men - that he would develop to take over when the takeover came.
He looked to the future and in one significant area, he pulled that future into his present. When he returned to Ireland, as a young and ambitious leader, he saw - as few before him had seen - the potential of the women around him, their determination to contribute to the effort in a real and risky way, and their right to do so.
As one of his biographers puts it: "Neither Collins nor the Volunteers would have survived without the country-wide network of women supporters who acted as intelligence agents, couriers, secretaries, providers of meals, shelter and nursing services."
Most of those women never talked after the Civil War, of what they had done. The few who did described him as a man who pushed for them to go as far as they could, and further.
While they responded to his inspirational leadership, some of those women, like the invaluable Nancy O'Brien, baulked at some of the gaucheness of his approach.
He would yell and deride anyone, man or woman, who didn't measure up to his extraordinary standards.
It is speculative, of course, to imagine that - had he lived - the future of women, the freeing of women to deliver on their full potential, whether as politicians or as economists, doctors, lawyers or in any other calling might have been different. But it is fair to speculate that the one man who had built a network of trusted, courageous, smart and savvy intelligence officers who happened to be women, would not - could not - have stood over their retreat, not only from history, for they hardly appeared for fifty years in the history we learned at school, but from key roles in shaping the new state.
Without him it took longer than it should have, but the women of Ireland are now shaping Ireland and with every successive election, thanks to Government action, we will see more and more women stepping up to the plate. Today's young women may never have heard the old sop that "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world." For way, way too long it was the anti-female get-out clause. Not anymore. Many of the young women currently going through our education system will rock the cradle, all right. But it won't be a forced choice. And they will know that -- should they choose to want to govern -- that option will be there for them, as it always should have been.
It is important that we also remember that, for Collins, in Government, the rule of law was paramount. Fine Gael has always stood for the rule of law, believing that with rights come responsibility -- the solemn responsibility of all Irish men and women to respect and adhere to those same laws.
For Collins, disagreement was to be cherished, but interference with the people, their safety and their property was unacceptable and was to be clamped down upon.
That position is precious to Fine Gael.
Disagreement is democratic.
Terrorising those with whom you disagree is not.
Fine Gael must never cease in challenging the propaganda that suggests violent protest is virtuous and effective.
It is neither. We must challenge the misuse of our flag, as if it belonged to a group who use it as a symbol of violence. The flag that billows in the great painting of Michael Collins at Griffith's funeral was always meant to be a symbol of tolerance, of inclusiveness, of unity and of peace.
Good governance, just like prosperity, freedom and safety all depend on hard work, on discipline, on the motivation of people and on record-keeping. Out of nothing, Collins created an army that was to sustain, to develop and to become one of the great peace keeping forces in the world. My own father was an army man - a product of Christian Brothers' education, a man with an understanding that it was possible for someone coming from a small town in Cork to reach the top ranks in an organisation that fostered and recognised effort and commitment.
The Irish Army is just one of the golden threads that links the best of twenty-first century Ireland with the man who created it. A man known, all of his brief life, for his love of the very young and the very old. The men and women on our ships in the Mediterranean are doing a job that would have resonated with him: rescuing the very young - sometimes the newly born - and the old from the churning waters of a terrifying sea.
Collins also created what was to become An Garda Síochana, vesting in them the guarding of the peace and the safeguarding of citizens' freedom.
Freedom to love and marry who you wish
Freedom to build a life in your own country, not to be forced to leave in order to earn your livelihood
Freedom to be born with a disability, yet live a full respected life
Freedom to grow old with dignity
Freedom to support and promote what you believe in
Freedom to stand fast and say "No."
Collins played a major role in winning freedom for a sovereign nation. Today we owe it to Collins to continue with that path, to continue to put our country on a sound economic basis so that there can be fairness and equity and where every man, woman and child can look forward to a bright future.
As we emerge from an economic meltdown, we must always remember that the damage to the economy may have been temporary, but the memory of losing a business, losing a job and losing the self-respect that comes with employment is very definitely not temporary. The pain lasts, as does a fear of the future.
It is Fine Gael's task to acknowledge, not just the contribution or suffering of the last few years, but the lingering pain, anger and fear. It is Fine Gael's task to convince our citizens that trust matters and can be re-created - and that rejection of politics, as a system, leads only to chaos and a deeper fear, as we see, even as I speak, in the most beautiful of countries, Greece.
Trust starts with stability. A sound economic base is pivotal to our future as a country with full employment, with the continuing input of Foreign Direct Investment matched by increasing focus on the Small and Medium Enterprises that form the backbone of the Irish economy.
Fine Gael cannot “create” jobs but it can, and must, create an environment in which our small and medium enterprises are incentivised to create new jobs and to grow and expand our economy as they have shown they can do in the past.
Fine Gael in Government won back our right to self-determine and our right to run our own finances to create a nation of prosperity, of pride, of equality. A nation that cares for the vulnerable and rewards work, innovation and enterprise.
This is the social remit every politician receives, once elected. That social remit is the centre, the core, the heart of our mission: to make a country that inspires, that blends history and hope, discipline and ambition.
Democracy is not a narrative of entitlement. It is a narrative of contribution, of equality and of moral sovereignty.
When we have an Ireland in which every single child can turn their needs into reality, then, and only then, will we have won our moral sovereignty. None of us - none of us - should be in politics, still less in Government, if that is not our aim.
It is not good enough to treat a nation as if it were an economy that the people must serve, rather than the other way around. It is not good enough to manage the present when we should be looking to the long-term future. It is not good enough to tolerate the reflex of defence and excuse when we fail.
What makes the life of Michael Collins instructive in our own times is the marvellous ungovernable mix of the man, the contradictions united by a passion for the best. "Good enough" never was, for this man. Anything short of the best was never good enough. He drove himself and he drove others past the point of exhaustion because of a sense of duty. He had a missionary sense of diligence, and we must have that, too.
Fine Gael must always aim at what Collins wanted for Ireland, and I quote: "The building up of a sound economic life in which great discrepancies cannot occur.”
For a man without academic education in my own discipline - social work - or in any economic discipline, Michael Collins had an acute and nuanced view of how the economy must serve the nation.
“Our object in building up the country economically must not be lost sight of," he wrote. "That object is not to be able to boast of enormous wealth or of a great volume of trade, for their own sake... It is not to show a great national balance-sheet, nor to point to a people producing wealth with the self-obliteration of a hive of bees. The real riches of the Irish nation will be the men and women of the Irish nation, the extent to which they are rich in body and mind and character. What we want is the opportunity for everyone to be able to produce sufficient wealth to ensure these advantages for themselves.”
Friends, this venue and this gathering has a multitude of functions, not least of them their capacity to stimulate in us a deeper reading of a man who packed a long lifetime's learning, analysis and insight into a life that was tragically short.
His was a breadth of vision that applies with as fresh a relevance now as it did when he put pen to paper.
It is the vision of a state that stands for social justice, for equality of opportunity at every one of the great challenge points of life.
It is the vision of a state with a particular care, respect and love for the very young and the very old.
It is the vision of a state that can take the toughest of times and emerge buoyantly positive.
That's the saddest, yet most instructive virtue Collins' life teaches us: positivity. His was the politics of optimism, an optimism so demanding, so pragmatic that he sometimes pushed others extraordinarily hard in order to achieve what was possible. And when he did, let us never forget, he did that simple and most difficult thing. He said sorry.
Put simply, that is the essence of what we must learn from Michael Collins.
That anything is possible.
That when determination skews judgement, we must stop, acknowledge it and move on with undiminished optimism.
And - finally - that being in Government requires energy, prudence, honesty - and above all, concern for our children and our elderly citizens.