Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins were “pragmatic men” who did not believe there was “no alternative to war”, targeting the modern-day Sinn Féin at a commemoration for the two men.
Speaking at an event on Sunday marking the centenary of the death of the two men, organised by the Collins/Griffith Commemoration Society, Mr Varadkar praised both men at length, but made a sideswipe at the party that today bears the name of the group founded by Griffith.
“As we all know,” he told a crowd including several politicians and figures from his own Fine Gael party, “the name Sinn Féin has been used in more recent times by those who have never understood the principles by which people like Griffith and Collins lived their lives, or tried to follow them. Both were pragmatic men… and neither believed there was no alternative to violence or war”.
Recently Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill has come in for criticism for saying there was no alternative to the IRA’s armed campaign during the Troubles.
Mr Varadkar said that Michael Collins was “the person who more than anyone else made possible the Ireland we live in today”, and that the presence of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders in Béal na Bláth next week will show “the wounds which have been healed” and act as a “reminder that the bold prophecies of freedom one hundred years ago are still being fulfilled”. He said the two parties “which emerged from the shattered political movement founded by Arthur Griffith” will come together to pay tribute to Collins, whose life, he said, was a “profile in courage” and he paid tribute to him as Ireland’s “soldier politician”.
Mr Varadkar said Griffith was a “leader of thought who helped bring the flame of liberty into existence, protected it during times of darkness, and then made it catch fire across the country”.
“Throughout long years of struggle Griffith never lost heart, he never wavered in his belief, he never stopped working for freedom,” Mr Varadkar said. “His greatness was the way he made his case so convincingly for almost 20 years, bringing people with him, and taking advantage of changing political circumstances to put his ideas firmly into operation.”
Griffith had a “broad and inclusive” vision of Ireland and not a “narrow nationalism”, to which end he met with unionist leaders “because he knew that the starting point for any discussion of our shared island had to begin with ‘fair play for all sections and understanding between all sections’.” He said the revolutionary leader’s doctor, after his death at the age of 51 from a brain haemorrhage, said Griffith had not had a holiday for 30 years.
Mr Varadkar was accompanied at the event by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, who laid a wreath at Griffith’s grave, and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, who laid a wreath at the grave of former minister for home affairs Éamonn Duggan, who is buried next to Griffith. Major General Anthony McKenna, deputy chief-of-staff of the Defence Forces, laid a wreath at Collins’ grave.
Backbench rebel TD for Carlow-Kilkenny John Paul Phelan was the only TD at the event not participating in the ceremonies. Fine Gael Senators Barry Ward, Regina Doherty, Martin Conway and Maria Byrne were also in attendance, as were former Fine Gael minister for justice Nora Owen, who is a grandniece of Michael Collins and laid a wreath at his grave, and Mr Varadkar’s chief-of-staff Brian Murphy. Ms Owen laid a wreath at Collins’ grave following the oration. Mark Daly, a Fianna Fáil Senator, was also present.
The event was organised by the Collins/Griffith Commemoration Society, whose chairman, William Lavelle, is a former adviser to Fine Gael tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and a former councillor for the party in Lucan.
Seamus Scally, patron of the society, recited W.T. Cosgrave’s graveside oration for Griffith, and prayers were said by Geraldine Dalton, great grandniece of Michael Collins.
The armoured car Sliabh na mBan, which formed part of Collins’ convoy when it was ambushed at Béal na Bláth in west Cork resulting in his death, was on display at Glasnevin Cemetery for the occasion.