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Speech at the ‘Ireland 1905’ Conference, University College Dublin


I am delighted to be here to address the Ireland 1905 conference. 

Any conference that gives fresh understanding on Ireland’s rich past is welcome but this conference is even more so because it marks the centenary of the founding of Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Council.

Both of these key events are pivotal to our understanding of Irish history and are significant dates in the development of the two great traditions of Republicanism and Unionism. 

At the outset, I want to pay tribute to Professor Mary Daly for putting together such a fine array of speakers.  The Conference Programme reads like a Who’s Who of the most distinguished historians on these islands and my only regret is that I cannot be with you for longer here today. 

Ireland 1905

At the turn of the last century, the Ireland from which Griffith’s Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Council emerged, is in many ways unrecognisable from the island we live in today.

Economically and socially, Ireland’s past is increasingly a different country.  A child born in 1905 had a life expectancy of about 55 years. Today, life expectancy at birth is in the high seventies.  A century ago Irish GDP per head was only about three-fifths of the UK; today, Ireland’s GDP per capita is higher than the EU average.  The wage of an unskilled male worker in 1905 would have been about a pound a week compared to today’s average industrial wage of €577 per week. 

In the political sphere, much has also changed in the one hundred years since 1905, and particularly in the period from which Ireland became a recognised independent State.  In the formative years of the State, there is no doubt that partition was a great wrench, which cut off the most prosperous and industrially advanced part of the island from the rest, and which seriously inhibited the progress of the whole island.  It also separated communities, many of whom longed to be part of our State.  That is the reason why my Party, and indeed successive Irish Governments, opposed partition. 

Since the foundation of this State, we have consolidated our democratic institutions and established our status as a full member of the European Union and the United Nations.  Irish society today is tolerant and pluralist, as never before.   We have also made great strides forward economically, especially in recent times.

There is a confidence around this island today that has almost never existed in the past.   The rate and scale of change over the past century has been extraordinary and could not have been accurately predicted.   In 1904, the famous Irish politician and agrarian reformer, Horace Plunkett, published “Ireland in the New Century.”  Unsurprisingly, Plunkett did not foresee the seismic events of the first two decades of the century, let alone later developments.  However, his seminal work did astutely observe: 

 “Those who have known Ireland for the last dozen years cannot have failed to notice the advent of a wholly new spirit, clearly based upon constructive thought, and expressing itself in a wide range of fresh practical activities.”

In large part, the new spirit detected by Plunkett was the burgeoning growth of cultural nationalism which was soon to ferment into political revolution.  The Sinn Fein Party established by Arthur Griffith in November 1905 was central to this journey. 

Sinn Féin 1905

The founding principles of the original Sinn Féin were set out in another book published in 1904, the Resurrection of Hungary.  This book was based on Arthur Griffith’s writings and it proposed an Austro-Hungarian type solution in which Ireland would have its own parliament but share a dual monarchy with Great Britain.  Griffith argued :  

“The Hungarians resorted to a manly policy of passive resistance and non-recognition of Austria’s right to rule – the Irish resorted to parliamentarianism, implying recognition of an English right to rule this country.  And one nation today is rich, powerful and able to defy her conqueror, while the other is poor, weak and more tightly held in the conqueror’s grasp.”

Though Griffith’s Sinn Féin was pro-monarchy and advanced the notion of only a limited form of Home Rule, while keeping Ireland under the dominion of the British Crown, the Party laid the foundations for the fast-emerging separatist tradition.

Griffith viewed the early Sinn Fein as less of a political party in the traditional sense and more of a means to educate public opinion.  His writings in the Party papers - Sinn Fein and the United Irishman - promoted a strong sense of Irish identity and it is no coincidence that Sinn Fein’s first President was Edward Martyn, a key figure in the literary revival. 

Sinn Féin in this period overlapped with a number of other nationally minded political and cultural organisations.  For example, Sean MacDiarmada was an organiser for both the dual monarchist Sinn Féin and the separatist IRB.  His role was to travel around the country looking for new members and he found the GAA and Gaelic League rich recruiting grounds.  Bulmer Hobson saw no contradiction between being a Sinn Féin organiser and running the republican Dungannon clubs which specialised in anti-conscription campaigns and covertly recruited for the IRB. 

Such cross-fertilisation made Sinn Féin a melting pot of nationalist ideas and it was not until the aftermath of 1916 that the party was moulded into a coherent political force.  This was largely due to the new personnel who took-over the Party after the Rising and pushed a definite republican agenda. 

While I am looking forward to hearing Professor Ronan Fanning’s paper on “Who owns Sinn Féin?” I am going to be diplomatic and refrain from joining in that debate. 

However, I will say that for people of my political perspective, that though significant, 1905 is not the key date in the development of Sinn Féin, as the national movement which played a big part in securing our independence.  That key date is rather October 1917. 

Prior to this date, Sinn Féin had been, in the words of Arthur Griffith, a “King, Lords and Commons Party.”   However, as a result of the 1917 Ard Fheis, control of Sinn Féin passed from the pro-monarchy old guard to the sizeable post-1916 republican intake.  Veterans of Easter Week, such as, Michael Collins, Sean T. O’Kelly and WT Cosgrave came to the fore of the Party’s organisation and Eamon De Valera, the subseqent founder of my Party and the sole surviving commandant of the 1916 Rising, was elected Party Uachtaráin.

1916 Commemoration

2006 is the 90th anniversary of 1916.

The Government wants next Easter to be an expression of our pride as a nation in all those who took part in the Rising and the subsequent War of Independence. 

As far as I am concerned, Collins, DeValera, Griffith and many of their leading contemporaries, were all great Irishmen, who played an equal and honourable part in winning Ireland's independence, as did many distinguished women patriots. 

It is my firm intention to mark, in the most inclusive possible manner, the passage into history of both these great achievements and deep wounds associated with the transition to political independence.  We will honour both the statesmen who founded the Free State, as well as those who stood by the Republic, recognising that they were all patriots, who shared the same ultimate objective of full national freedom by one route or the other. 

We will also recall the suffering and loss of that time and emphasise the imperative of building a just and peaceful future for everyone on this island.

The Government has decided that it is appropriate to restore the military parade at the GPO by Óglaigh na hÉireann  - the Defence Forces – that has been in abeyance since the early 1970’s.  The parade will reflect the evolved role of the Defence Forces and include significant representation of their peacekeeping service abroad with the United Nations.

The Government also wish to have a major commemoration of the 100th anniversary in 2016 and the 90th anniversary is a suitable point at which to commence planning for it.  We intend that planning should proceed on the basis of widespread consultation.  I have recently asked Parliamentary Party Leaders in the Dáil to nominate representatives to commence the process. 

While the specific mechanism that will be used to advance planning for the centenary has yet to be agreed between the Parliamentary Parties, it will clearly need to facilitate input by experts from key sectors and from the academic community.  I am also anxious that Irish people, and people of Irish descent all over the world, have an opportunity to contribute. 

I envisage that an Inter-Departmental Committee will be established to co-ordinate implementation of whatever programme is agreed and overall management of the preparations will be supported by a special Commemoration Office that I propose to set up in my Department.

The complexities regarding the Rising were examined almost 40 years ago in the Thomas Davis Radio Lectures in 1966, the 50th Anniversary of the Rising.  F.X. Martin's Leaders and Men of the 1916 Rising, broadened the context of the Rising. It drew focus on the interaction between the Rising and the Ulster Crisis, the UVF, Carson, Lloyd George and others. It placed the Rising in the broader history of these islands and indeed, our shared European continent.

I am determined that the 90th anniversary of the Rising will be seen in this broad context.  I believe the only way to build a shared future is by understanding our shared past.  And not just the past of political leaders but of the ordinary men and women who shaped this island.  To that end, we do not commemorate the events of 1916 to bolster a particular reading of history.  We commemorate it to advance a greater understanding of the period as a whole. 

Somme Commemoration

In 1966, the then Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, spoke of the contribution and highly motivated purpose of so many heroic young Irish people who gave their lives in the First World War.  We cannot ignore that essential part of our history.  We are deeply conscious of the trauma caused by the Great War throughout the length and breadth of this island.  Last month, it was my privilege to visit the Somme Museum in Belfast and I hope that, North and South, we can all work much more closely together over the coming years to remember this time of pain and loss in Ireland’s history. 

In a similar vein, we will commemorate next year, the Irish who fell at the Somme 90 years ago.  5,000 men of the 36th Ulster Division fell in the first two days of that Battle in July 1916.  They fought alongside 200,000 Irish men from every county of Ireland.  Their bravery was no less than that shown by the insurgents of Easter Week.

The loss of Irish people to war - whether Catholic or Protestant, Nationalist or Unionist, whether on the streets of Dublin or the fields of Flanders - is a tragedy for us all.  There are no hierarchies of sacrifice, suffering or loss.  Only grieving families and lost potential.

In years to come, we must also recognise, with less inhibition, the Unionist contribution and tradition on this island.  We need to acknowledge openly that there are also positive aspects to our long interaction with Britain. 

It is becoming easier to do this now, with our independence fully respected by our neighbours, and as mutual respect for both traditions grows. 

In that spirit of peace and reconciliation, it is our task at the beginning of the 21st century toheal the wounds of division that have festered on this island and in these islands.  We now have two Governments working closely together.  We are building a relationship of peace and friendship throughout the island. 

We must end, once and for all, the scourge of sectarian hatred. We must become reconciled with each other.  We cannot have real political progress without genuine reconciliation and friendship. 

This generation must end the violence, the hatred and the wasted potential for good.

Ulster Unionist Council 1905

Against that background, I am glad that this Conference is exploring the history surrounding the foundation of the Ulster Unionist Council.  The UUC came into existence in the immediate aftermath of the “Devolution Crisis” of late 1904 and celebrated its centenary in March of this year.  One of the prime movers behind the UUC was James Craig, subsequently the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, and a man with a genius for organisation.

Edward Carson would later generously state “it was James Craig who did most of the work and I got most of the credit.”  Craig organised the practical plans for Ulster’s resistance to Home Rule and even managed the most famous of Ulster Unionist demonstrations, the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant.  While I would not agree with their views, I acknowledge that Carson and Craig always acted in the interests of the people they represented, as they saw them. 

They are as much a part of our shared history as Pearse, Collins and De Valera.

Earlier this year, there was a service in Belfast Cathedral to mark the Centenary of the Ulster Unionist Council.  At that service, the Dean spoke about the values of Carson and the benefits of Unionism.  Speaking of Carson, he said:

“I think he would acknowledge fully the massive changes in both parts of Ireland. He would welcome the prosperity evidenced throughout Ireland today. And I am convinced the great Dubliner would have worked for economic co-operation between the two states in Ireland.”

I believe that is true and I share that sentiment.

I also think we need to listen to the voice of unionism and of loyalism.  If we are serious about a shared future, we need to recognise and respect both what we have in common and what we disagree about.

When I visited Belfast earlier this year, I made clear that I passionately believe in a United Ireland.  I think it is in the interests of everybody on the island.

But I also made clear that there is absolutely no intention on our part to engage in the folly of trying to coerce a majority in the North into a united Ireland against their will.  No one on this island is threatened or needs to feel under threat.

I said that the constitutional question had been settled.

There are fair and reasonable arrangements through the Good Friday Agreement to accommodate everybody's interests, concerns and aspirations in a peaceful manner.

This Conference helps us to acknowledge and examine different perspectives on the past and alternative visions of the future for this island.

There are those who believe the best opportunities for Northern Ireland lie in continued union with Britain. There are others who campaign for a united Ireland.  While I aspire to a united Ireland, I am utterly convinced that the Good Friday Agreement is the best chance we have had on this island for peace and stability and prosperity for a century - since the foundation of those parties we commemorate today


Perhaps we should all, Nationalist and Unionist alike, look afresh at our history through the eyes of those with whom we share this island. 

Many unionists do not share some of the views we have of the history of this State.  We may not agree with their views, but we should listen to them and we should try to learn from them.

This can only foster greater understandings and draw us together, without compromising or denying individual traditions.

These inclusive principles are at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. These are the principles I am determined to uphold in our ongoing efforts to restore partnership Government to Northern Ireland.

Ireland has journeyed a long way since 1905.  There has been great achievement.  But there has been too much suffering and conflict.  There has been huge economic and social progress.  But there has been too much wasted potential and too many missed opportunities.  Next year - 2006 – we must complete that journey that has taken too long and cost too much.  Next year, we want to see the modern day leaders of all strands of Unionism and Nationalism in Northern Ireland sit down together for the mutual benefit of the people they represent.  Yes, we must understand the past.  But we cannot change it. Only politics, and politicians, can change the future.  All political leaders have a responsibility to the people. Throughout the last year we achieved unprecedented progress.  The IRA has ended its campaign and decommissioned its weapons.  We cannot let the opportunity that there now is for progress to drift away.  I want 2006 to be a year of positive politics in Northern Ireland. I hope that all the parties will join with the two Governments in meeting this challenge.