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Unveiling at Memorial Garden at the Croppies Acre in Collins Barracks


We are gathered here today to honour the memory of the many United Irishmen who were buried here in the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion. I want to stress that while the commemoration here today is at one level about history, at another it is just as much about the present.

The United Irishmen and their republican project remains intellectually vibrant, because they never flinched from facing the only real question of politics - the creation of a society fit to live in, a human home for ourselves, but more crucially for our children.

The 1790s was an extraordinary decade in Irish history, when the opportunity presented itself to transcend the age-old sectarian, ethnic and political divisions of the island. The United Irish movement had, as its central aim, the demolition of a political system rooted in sectarian privilege, and its replacement with a secular democratic politics, founded on universal ideas of equality and justice. Their project of creating a secular Republic, recasting political participation on inclusive lines, was deliberately blocked in 1798, using the weapons of sectarianism, military terror and the suppression of the Irish Parliament.

With the blockage of the United Irish project, Irish politics split into two fragments - Nationalism and Unionism - which still dominate the political landscape two centuries later. Like the United Irishmen, we face the task today of negotiating an agreed political structure, capable of representing Irish people in all their inherited complexities.

It is precisely because of its enduring relevance, that 1798 has never truly passed out of politics and into history. The United Irishmen's ideas did not die with the events of 1798, but are still potent, valid and unrealised. In the sense that they faced the same problems which bedevil modern Ireland, the United Irishmen are very much our contemporaries.

We need to stress their enduring legacy - the political vision and moral choices which impelled men and women into the field in 1798. It is this political vision that we reclaim, not the physical defeat of the revolution on the bloody battlefields of '98. As Milan Kundera has noted, "the struggle for power is the struggle of memory against forgetting".

The power of political memory, which links past and present dynamically, needs to be a central interpretative focus in any understanding of 1798. Almost as they were happening, the events of 1798 were being recast in terms of memory. As with the politics, the memory also split into fragments. In the Unionist one, 1798 was figured as a sectarian blood bath, yet another chapter in the Protestant Book of Martyrs. In the Catholic Nationalist one, 1798 became a struggle for faith and fatherland, in which the United Irishmen and Presbyterians were airbrushed out of the picture. This partisan confiscation of the memory of 1798, by the Catholics, erased a distinguished moment in the history of Ulster Presbyterianism. Today the global image of Ulster Protestants is dominated by the apocalyptic footage from places like Drumcree and they are often presented as reactionaries, lost in the mists of sectarian bigotry.

Yet in the 1790s, Belfast, the 'Athens of the North', was the birthplace of Irish separatism and the cradle of the United Irish movement. The Ulster Presbyterians were at the cutting edge of the emerging radical movement, and provided many of its most talented leaders. Their generosity of spirit, political vision, imaginative inclusiveness and commitment to the principles of justice, remain to this day an adornment to the tradition from which they sprang.

While the past cannot be restored, memory can. We need a process of commemoration and a retrieving of memories which have been deliberately suppressed. 1798 cannot be claimed by any single political tradition in Ireland. The Catholic Nationalist version which dominated the centenary, the 1938 and the 1948 commemorations, created the 1798 which people think they know. By getting behind these commemorations, we reopen 1798 as an event in the history of Presbyterians as much as in the history of the Catholics. By elevating politics out of the sectarian rut in which it has been largely confined since 1798, the dead weight of the continuous past can be lifted, and political buoyancy restored.

Republicanism is always about opening rather than slamming the door on the future. It is about moving on, neither handcuffed to our history, nor heedlessly fugitive from it. Republicanism is always - and only - about how to create a human society fit for our children to live in. It understands that tradition is the dynamic force which uses the past to shape the future, to create a mature, modern nation, of economic prosperity, social harmony and cultural creativity - of liberty, equality and fraternity. Back in the 1840s, the veteran Presbyterian United Irishman, James Hope, wrote the following prophetic words:

Physical force may prevail for a time, but there is music in the sound of moral force, which will be heard like the sound of the cuckoo. The bird lays its eggs, and leaves them for a time; but it will come again and hatch them in due course, and the song will return with the season. History is only important while it is being made. What matters most is what we do today and tomorrow.

Today, here at Croppies Acre, we renew our commitment to the principles of the United Irishmen. We honour the memory of a generous, talented and brave generation. We recognise the sacrifices they made, for the sake of future generations of Irish people. The most fitting tribute that we as a government, and as a people can pay them, is to strive to ensure that these principles are fully implemented in the Ireland of the 1990s, in a way that was not possible in the 1790s.