Brian Cowen's speech

 

The full text of the speech given by the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, at the special Dáil sitting to mark the 90th Anniversary of the First Dáil.

Táimid anseo inniu ag suí speisialta de Thithe an Oireachtais le ceiliúradh a dhéanamh ar eachtra an-tábhachtach i stair parlaiminte na tíre.

Nócha bliain ó shin, san áit seo, i dTeach an Ard Mhéara, a bunaíodh ár bparlaimint náisiúnta. Smaoinímid anois baill an tríochú Dáil agus an fiche tríú Seanad Éireann, ar na daoine cróga, misniúla, éirmiúla sin a chuir tús leis an daonlathas nua-aimseartha in Éirinn.

Cuirim fáilte speisialta roimh na hionadaithe tofa ó thrasna na teorann. Ina measc an Leas-Chéad Aire Martin McGuinness agus Mark Durkan, Ceannaire an SDLP.

Rinneadh a lán machnaimh roimh ré ar pharlaimint dár gcuid féin a bhunú i mBaile Átha Cliath. Chreid na hionadaithe tofa a tháinig le chéile anseo in Eanáir 1919 san fhéinrialú agus i rialtas le toil na ndaoine. Ba chearta iad sin ar throid glúnta tírghráthóirí ar a son roimhe sin.

D’fhulaing go leor de na Teachtaí Dála sa Chéad Dáil Éireann ar mhaithe leis na prionsabail sin.

Is fiú smaoineamh ar an dílseacht agus ar na cúinsí inar thug comhaltaí na Céad Dála faoina gcuid dualgas mar ionadaithe tofa. Ag an gcéad chruinniú de Dháil Éireann ní raibh i láthair don rolla ach fiche ocht teachta, bhí an chuid ba mhó mar a dúradh ‘fá ghlas ag gallaibh’ no ‘ar dibirt ag gallaibh’. Dúradh go raibh Teachta amháin, Michael Collins, i láthair cé nach raibh - ní raibh siad ag iarraidh aird a tharraingt air.

Bhí sé ar a bhealach le cuidiú le Éamon de Valera, éalú as príosún Lincoln i Sasana. Mar chomharbaí ar an gcéad ghlúin sin ní cóir dúinn dearmad a dhéanamh ar an muinín a bhí acu sin in Éirinn neamhspleách ó thaobh saol níos fearr a bhaint amach do na saoránaigh ar fad.

Ba chóir dúinn a bheith buíoch freisin as an traidisiún bunreachtúil a chuir siad anuas chugainn.

Thuig siad agus thóg siad ar an tábhacht a bhain le cur leis an am a bhí thart. Ba rud radacach ann féin a bhí i nDáil a bhunú, mar a bhí na cuspóirí sóisialta a bhí sa Chlár Daonlathach radacach.

B’iontach an rud é don am toghadh an Countess Markiewicz, agus gur ceapadh í mar Aire Saothair le feabhas a chur ar shaol gnáth-oibrithe.

Tá na páirtithe polaitíochta ar fad sa lá atá inniu ann go mór faoi chomaoin acu sin a bhunaigh an Céad Dáil agus a thug anuas chugainn an pharlaimint dhaonlathach a bhfuil sé d’onóir againn a bheith páirteach inti faoi láthair.

Ninety years ago tomorrow, the elected representatives of the overwhelming majority of the people of this island who were not otherwise detained or in flight from the forces of occupation, met in Dublin’s Mansion House with the purpose of asserting the self determination of a sovereign, democratic, Irish Republic. Dáil Éireann – a National Parliament for the Irish Nation – ratified and gave democratic legitimacy to the Proclamation of Independence for which the Republican vanguard had laid down their lives at Easter 1916.

As of 21 January 1919, foreign rule in Ireland was relieved of any claim to democratic legitimacy. The Declaration of Independence adopted by the First Dáil ordained “that the elected representatives of the Irish people alone have the power to make laws binding on the people of Ireland, and that the Irish Parliament is the only Parliament to which the Irish people will give its allegiance”. From that day on, there has been an Irish parliament and Irish governments which have governed in the interests of the Irish people.

When the First Dáil met, partition was a fear rather than a reality and civil war unimaginable. Partition disfigured our island and scarred the psyche of Irish people. It has sapped the energy and resources of our island and its people over generations. Only in the recent past have political leaders on the island been able to find the will and imagination to identify a path through the barriers to reconciliation.

When, in 1998, the people of Ireland voted by a majority, and by majorities North and South, in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, it was the first occasion since the General Election of 1918 – the election at which the people selected the representatives who sat in the first Dáil – that the people of this island had voted on the same day on the issue of their constitutional status. It now falls to our generation of Irish republicans – a heritage to which all political parties represented in the 30th Dáil can legitimately lay claim – to rededicate ourselves to the challenge which animated the members of the First Dáil: to build a sovereign, democratic, Irish republic embracing all the people of our Nation.

But if our challenge is the same, it is different in nature from that which faced the men and women of 1919. The First Dáil had one, single, overriding ambition: to secure “the evacuation of our country by the English garrison”. Today, Ireland is no longer in conflict with Britain.

A sovereign, independent Republic exists in the twenty-six counties and Britain has entered into a binding international treaty obligation with the Republic to withdraw from the six counties of Northern Ireland, if and when a majority of the people in Northern Ireland should ask it to do so. The Irish people, North and South, have for their part accepted that Northern Ireland remains in union with Britain unless and until the majority in the North desire otherwise.

As successors to the generation who convened the First Dáil, our task is to persuade those of our fellow Irishmen and women who currently hold fast to the union with Britain that their future is best secured in a closer accommodation with the majority with whom they share the island.

How can we achieve such an aim? We know for sure how not to succeed. Violence, intolerance, discrimination and name-calling have led the communities in the North up blind alleys where walls of concrete present physical and psychological barriers.

What Republicans must do is two-fold. First, we must redouble our efforts to build a prosperous, peaceful and fair society in the Republic. Secondly, without abandoning our own ideals and traditions, we must seek to better understand and accommodate the strong identification with Britain felt by many hundreds of thousands of Irish people.

The Good Friday Agreement acknowledged the right of people living in Northern Ireland to be British, Irish or both. This has to be about more than simply recognising that people have different symbols on their passports or tick different boxes on their census forms. It should be about people on this island having the opportunity to celebrate their culture and language free from harassment and discrimination.

It should involve institutions of government recognising and supporting our common heritage in all its rich diversity.

It is a fact that relations between Ireland and Britain have never been better than they are today. Never have the Irish living in Britain felt more comfortable, or the British more welcome to make their homes in Ireland. Whatever about the past, it cannot be denied that recent British governments have played a positive, constructive role in seeking to heal divisions on the island of Ireland.

This steady improvement in our relations during the course of the twentieth century, beginning with Independence, through our common membership of the European Union and political agreement in the North, has enabled old enemies to become new and close friends. But we should not forget that this positive relationship exists only because it is based on equality and respect between sovereign nations. Such a condition as exists today would not have been possible without the action of the First Dáil in reasserting what it described in its Message to the Free Nation’s of the World, as Ireland’s “historic nationhood”.

The fact that Ireland and the United Kingdom sit together as Member States of the European Union has played a significant part in our reconciliation.

While the members of the first Dáil could hardly have foreseen the creation of the European Union, they were very much aware of Ireland’s place in Europe. In its “Message to the Free Nations of the World”, the Dáil described Ireland as “one of the most ancient nations in Europe” and as “the last outpost of Europe towards the West”. It regretted that English occupation prevented Ireland “from being a benefit to the safeguard of Europe and America” and argued that “the permanent peace of Europe can never be secured by permitting military domination for the profit of empire”.

The history of Europe up to that point had been defined by a regular cycle of war as in turn, tribes, kings and nations sought to subjugate or dominate their neighbours. The First Dáil met in the aftermath of the most terrible or all such wars.

I am certain that, given the opportunity, the members of the First Dáil would have wished Ireland, once it had secured its right to independent nationhood, to join with other nations ready to share sovereignty in the common cause of peace, prosperity and freedom in Europe. Sadly, another half century and a World War was to pass before Ireland was presented with such an opportunity.

As Europe lay in ruins in the aftermath of a war of then-unprecedented destruction and brutality, the first Dáil met. Even then, it had an extraordinary sense of the need for Ireland to engage with the world. The Dáil’s “Message to the Free Nations of the World” is cast in a strikingly internationalist tone: Ireland... believes in freedom and justice as the fundamental principles of international law because she believes in a frank cooperation between the peoples for equal rights....”

The world, however, did not respond. The Paris Peace Conference, in thrall to the Great Powers, ignored our plea for recognition. Ireland learned early that the world can be a lonely place for small states. This lesson is as valid today, in the depths of a global economic crisis, as it was in 1919, in the aftermath of a war of unprecedented devastation.

Experiences such as this have helped us to understand the true meaning of our country’s sovereignty: that properly understood, it means independence of action, not insularity; and that while in theory all states enjoy unfettered sovereignty, in practice, the real freedom available to an individual country to chart its own course in the world may be rather less.

Since 1973 therefore, we have applied this principle to guide our participation in what is now the European Union. Our membership puts Ireland squarely at the centre of one of the world’s most influential players. Amplified by the Union, Ireland’s voice, unlike that of the first Dáil, can no longer be ignored internationally. In 1919 terms, not only are our requests now heard by the Great Powers; we are sitting regularly around the table with many of them as equals. On six occasions, we have presided over their meetings, most recently in 2004, at the head of a Union of almost 500 million people.

Our influence within the Union is pervasive, whether at the highest levels of its institutions, or as a mediator helping to resolve different positions at inter-governmental meetings. We have been extremely successful participants in the Union and it has given us a reach and a power unachievable to us alone.

In short, our membership of the Union gives life to the aspirations of the First Dáil. It is surprising, therefore, to hear some so consistently question our role within the Union.

Those who oppose every development of the European Union are unmoved by fact, experience or progress. Where we see a landscape populated with opportunity and cooperation, they see one of threat and interference.

This narrative is a fiction unrelated to any reality I have experienced of Ireland’s engagement with our partners in the European Union. It is a crude distortion that seeks to obscure the Union’s role in assisting Ireland’s fulfilment, these past 36 years, of the aspirations of that first Dáil.

The truth is that Europe empowers us. It gives us a place at the table, from which we can deploy our resources, our influence and our sovereignty to the benefit of the Irish people.

That, ultimately, was the goal of the first Dáil: to empower the Irish people to elect Irish men and women to an Irish parliament to serve their best interests honestly and unselfishly. My parliamentary colleagues and I are deeply conscious as we gather here today of the great task that the first Dáil entrusted to us, and of the responsibility we bear of carrying forward and seeking to perfect the work of that and subsequent Dáils.

Alongside peace and a respected place at the heart of Europe, together we have also used our independence to build a stronger, fairer Ireland.

In every decade since our independence, this country has faced serious economic challenges. Despite the hardships involved, we confronted each of those challenges successfully. We face into this global recession after a period of unprecedented economic growth which has seen living standards rise beyond expectations. During that period, we have seen an era of full employment, record investment and migration to Ireland replacing the historic experience of forced emigration of our people.

The next few years are going to very difficult for all of us, as the economic turmoil which the whole world now faces will touch many lives in this country.

The scale of the adjustments now required represent a major political, economic and social challenge for every single person in this country. Everybody in this country will be affected and everybody will have to play their part in overcoming the challenge.

With unemployment rising, we must not allow the full burden of adjustments fall on those who lose their jobs.

Those who are in employment, whether in the private or the public sector, will also share the burden. A particular responsibility lies on those who have benefitted most from the rapid growth of the economy over recent years, whether as investors, self-employed or employees. They are being asked to show solidarity with those who are less well off.

It is that sense of solidarity which marks Irish society at its best. It is the spirit which gave rise to the social partnership process, which has contributed so much. It is the basis on which the Government have engaged so fully in developing our response to the current economic challenges.

Solidarity is the assurance that the Ireland which we can shape together for the future beyond the current turmoil will be worthy of the sacrifices we need to make now, and of the vision which inspired members of the First Dáil.

For my part, I will lead the Government and ensure that we shoulder our democratic responsibility. We will take action to ensure that this country has a future by making the necessary decisions, but we will do our best to be fair.

In our time, on an island at peace, no-one will be asked to lay down their life for their country, as the generation we celebrate today did. For this generation, without taking corrective action, we will face the return of long-term unemployment and economic decline.

The essential question now before us all is simple:

Are we prepared to work together, in partnership, to tackle this crisis, for the benefit of our fellow citizens and of our children?

Those who founded Dáil Eireann and who carved an independent Ireland out of the most powerful empire in the world faced daunting challenges.

They succeeded.

So too will we.

Seasaimis i dteannta a chéile.