Béal na mBláth

Mairead McGuinness1041 views
Béal na mBláth
Sunday 20 August 2017
Mairead McGuinness MEP
First Vice-President of the European Parliament

A dhaoine uaisle, táim thar a bheith buíoch as an gcuireadh a fuair mé a bheith anseo libh inniu. Is mór an onóir dom an óráid seo a thabhairt ag an ócáid tabhachtach seo, san áit speisialta seo, an áit a bhfuair Mícheál Ó Coileáin bás ar son na hÉireann.

Good afternoon, members of the Collins family,

Elected representatives,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s really a great honour for any Irishwoman or man to be asked to speak on this important occasion.

And I thank the organising committee for inviting me to make the address as we mark the 95th anniversary of the death of General Michael Collins.

This has become much more than an occasion of remembrance.

Today we gather to reflect on the tragic event that occurred here so many years ago at a tumultuous time in our history.

The Collins family has made this a time to reflect on the past and all its complexities, but also a time to look to the future and to reflect on our nation’s progress – or otherwise – socially, economically and politically.

Michael Collins in death continues to contribute to the shaping of the nation he so dearly cherished.

When asked to give this address many weeks ago, I began re-reading books and essays about “The Big Fella”.

I re-read “The Path to Freedom” in an effort to get a deeper understanding of what drove him and to get better acquainted with this exceptionally talented and brilliant organiser and strategist.

This brave soldier, the outstanding administrator, a man, a minister with an ordered mind who displayed decisiveness at all times.

I liked that despite his passion for Irish independence and his struggle to achieve it, he also lived a life and had time for love too.

His life was brutally cut short here.

He might, had he lived a long life, witnessed Ireland join the European Union, along with the United Kingdom and Denmark in 1973.

He would have been deeply conflicted and saddened by the troubles in Northern Ireland but rejoiced, as we all did, when peace finally broke through and people voted for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The path to peace on the island owes much to our shared membership of the EU – the United Kingdom and Ireland’s.

The EU provided political space and political support along with funding to help rebuild communities torn apart by years of violence.

The EU continues its commitment to our Peace Process because fundamentally the EU was born from a desire to build peace and avoid wars.

Michael Collins was shot at the latter stages of a war that changed relationships on this island and between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

He died at the height of a bitter battle over a treaty that set out the conditions of our leaving the UK.

Today we’re at a point where those relationships are in sharp focus. In less than 20 months the UK is set to leave the EU.

The ramifications of the UK referendum outcome for the UK, for the European Union and this island continue to unfold.

Before June 23rd, 2016 we knew where we stood with our nearest neighbour and with the citizens of Northern Ireland.

Since 1973 we have had the certainty of shared membership of the European Union and the rights and responsibilities that come with that.

We have enjoyed free movement of goods, services, people and capital.

We developed strong links in health care provision, in agriculture, in education, all made possible by that shared membership of the EU.

We know the benefits of an all-island economy and, now that these are threatened, we understand the value of the Single Market and the Customs Union.

This is particularly true when it comes to agriculture.

Michael Collins was a man of the soil – born on a farm, not far from here, he understood the importance of farming to family, community and country.

“The earth is our bountiful mother,” he wrote. “Upon free access to it depends not only agriculture, but all other trades and industries. Land must be freely available. Agriculture our main industry must be improved and developed.”

He saw agriculture as the chief source of wealth for the fledgling nation.

In the hard times of our recent economic crisis, we turned again to agriculture to help rebuild our economy.

Michael Collins would be happy to see the developments in our farming sector with milk produced on farms north and south sold on EU and international markets.

The same holds true for livestock.

Brexit threatens to challenge and change what we have come to take for granted.

And it is rural communities and the farming sector that could potentially be worst hit.

I represent the constituency of Midlands-North-West which takes in all of the counties which border Northern Ireland and I know there are huge concerns about what lies ahead.

EU membership is more than about trade and commerce. As we moved from the Common Market – the EEC – to the European Union we have deepened our links with our fellow EU member states.

In 20 months’ time the regular and informal engagements between UK and Irish ministers at EU Council meetings will cease. The next European Parliament will not have members from the UK.

These formal and informal meetings were pivotal in getting to know each other.

Membership of the EU lessened our differences.

Increasingly we became closer allies. In fact, the diversity of the EU enhanced our shared understanding of many economic, social and political issues.

It is profoundly regrettable and difficult to understand why at a time of global uncertainty, of increased volatility and a need for greater co-operation to solve so many global problems, the UK is opting out of political co-operation of a very unique kind.

The particular issues which Brexit poses for this island and our peoples, north and south, were not given due consideration by those who peddled lies about the joys of a “free, independent and sovereign” United Kingdom.

This has been a significant week in the Brexit saga with the publication of two position papers on Northern Ireland and Ireland and a separate paper on Future Customs Arrangements.

These papers are detailed and reflect a desire of the UK to minimise any change to the current situation on the island of Ireland – a position which many of us also hold.

No one wants a return to the borders of the past and there is a desire for trading relationships to continue.

But seamless and frictionless trade is what we have today BECAUSE we – the UK and Ireland – are members of the EU.

ANY change will have consequences.

The UK proposals for a transitional arrangement and for a new future partnership with the EU, are more than the UK wanting to have its cake and eat it.

It’s an attempt to have its cake and eat ours.

The idea that in the period after March 2019, the UK would leave the Customs Union and come back in, under terms written by them, is fanciful.

Every time a British politician repeats their determination to leave the Customs Union, another brick gets placed back in that border wall.

But it is the UK that must take responsibility for re-instating borders and we must strongly resist attempts to shift that responsibility elsewhere.

Any attempt to divide and conquer must be resisted.

There is more than a hint of irony in the desire of the UK “to take back control” and break “free” from the European Union.

Michael Collins fought for a free, independent and sovereign Irish nation.

Little did he know that within a century the United Kingdom would be speaking the language of “freedom” and seeking to “take back control”.

In the months before his death he was engaged in protracted negotiations with the British government to extricate Ireland from its Union with Britain.

The UK government is today in protracted negotiations with the EU as it seeks to negotiate its way out of the European Union.

In as much as the Treaty signed by Michael Collins shaped the future of our nation, so too will the new “treaty” between the UK and the EU shape our future.

Today we are in the dark about the shape of this new “treaty” or whether there will be one.

All the fine words spoken and written cannot diminish the negative impact of the UK decision on our future prosperity.

Ireland will need to find new markets and focus our efforts both internally in the EU and externally. And we have to face the uncertain future with determination – as Michael Collins did in his time.

The people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union.

It is regrettable, indeed reprehensible, that there is no functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland to give voice to the many concerns of citizens, of community groups, of business leaders and the farming community in Northern Ireland.

Brexit has reopened hardly-healed wounds of division and deepened the polarisation of politics in Northern Ireland.

The decision of the British Government to accept the support of the DUP to remain in power has added sharply to that polarisation.

If ever we needed the art of compromise we need it in Northern Ireland today.

Michael Collins knew the importance of compromise but he also found out that it’s not achievable if one party sticks rigidly to its position and is not open to the concerns of the other.

Michael Collins died here believing that the compromise he signed up to would deliver possibilities.

And that in time, as he wrote, “the general trend of development, and the undoubted advantages of unity would have brought the North East quietly into union with the rest of the country”.

Nineteen years ago the people on this island voted to end violence and build peace through the Good Friday Agreement. We welcome the commitment of the EU to ensuring that the Good Friday Agreement is implemented in all its parts. The Irish and UK Governments remain fully committed.

As of now it’s the one and only point of agreement between the EU and the UK.

But we cannot mince our words in saying to our neighbours that it is they who are putting at risk the good that has flown from the Good Friday Agreement.

It is the UK who will be responsible for re-instating borders and controls.

The UK has the capacity to stop this unwelcome development by remaining, at the very least, in the Customs Union.

The European Union, in the Brexit negotiations, is putting people first and insisting that Brexit must not weaken the rights of EU citizens who today live and work in the UK.

The Common Travel Area with the United Kingdom gives Irish citizens a special status in the UK, but it should not and does not dim our concerns for our fellow EU citizens in the UK, many of whom fear for their futures there.

There is also a focus on financial commitments entered into by the UK, which must be honoured. It is to be hoped that progress can be made on this before the talks enter a critical phase in October.


Brexit, as profound as it is, must not be allowed sap our energies and efforts.

We need to start looking beyond Brexit to what type of Europe we want to see in the future.

One year ago there were concerns about whether the EU had a future at all as a wave of populist politics appeared to sweep the continent.

There are still forces who want to see the European Union fail and they will not go away.

Scepticism and indeed cynicism about the EU was certainly fuelled by the economic crisis.

Mistakes were made giving rise to justifiable concerns among citizens.

These must be addressed in any discussion about the future of the EU.

However, there are wider forces that seek to deliberately exploit any perceived vulnerability.

We’ve witnessed in recent days the terrorist attack in Barcelona and we send our heartfelt sympathies to our Spanish friends and colleagues as they deal with the terrible aftermath and to the many families of so many nationalities that lost their lives or were injured in the attack.  We also think of our Finnish colleagues in the aftermath of the terror attack and loss of lives there.

The refugee crisis is a big challenge. Many fleeing violence or economic destitution see the EU as a beacon of hope and opportunity.

Since the UK referendum there is a renewed sense of optimism and vigour as across the EU, citizens express more support for the EU.

But it would be wrong to think that the EU enjoys and will continue to enjoy widespread support.

The options for the Future of Europe have been set out in a paper from EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker – ranging from settling for the status quo to deeper integration.

Ireland is ideally placed to take a leadership role in that conversation and play a constructive role in shaping the new Europe.

It should help inform Brexit discussions.

We need to have an open and frank conversation about how we see the EU evolving and in what direction. It shouldn’t be left to politicians alone, all elements of society and media need to be invested in this.

What are our views on economic governance?

Do we want deeper integration?

How do we see the EU dealing with globalisation?

What is our view on some member states doing more in terms of security and defence policy?

What are our responsibilities in relation to the security and defence of Europe in a rapidly changing geo-political scene?

What is our view about how the EU is funded?

The conversation must go beyond just defending our corporation tax rate, which we do.

We must try and imagine how the Union can meet the challenges of automation, of youth unemployment, of an ageing population, of inequality, of environmental degradation and climate change, while also dealing with the rise of sinister movements which seek to divide people.

Too much about modern politics is short-term and reactionary.

The news cycle is relentless. Social media has a voracious appetite for more, now, immediately, snappy and sensational.

Where is the space for thoughtful reflection?

We in politics need to reclaim that space.

On Saturday 25th March, the leaders of the 27 countries who are committed to the European Union met in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

The UK absented itself by voting to leave.

Those leaders who believe in the power and possibility of co-operation through the EU made a pledge to make the EU “stronger and more resilient, through ever greater unity and solidarity.”

It was on that day, in that very room that 60 years previously the leaders of Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signed the original Treaty of Rome.

At this year’s event Donald Tusk, European Council President, said leaders met to renew “the unique alliance of free nations initiated 60 years ago by our great predecessors.”

The EU, he said, is not about slogans…. procedures ….or regulations.

“Our Union is a guarantee that freedom, dignity, democracy and independence are no longer only our dreams, but our everyday reality.”

As a nation, Ireland committed itself to this European Dream – a dream started by a few that became the hope of many.

Yes, countries may move at different paces and intensity, but the determination is that we will move in the same direction.

A strong and united Europe is important on the global stage.

The alliance with the US is different than in the past and Russian intentions in Eastern Europe remain unpredictable.

Meanwhile to the south we need to start building new relationships with the Islamic world and with Africa, if we are to tackle the refugee crisis at its roots.

I would appeal for a national debate about the future.

Michael Collins and his contemporaries fought so that Ireland should be a country and not a province. The challenge for us – today’s political leaders – is to ensure that Ireland, in its relations with the EU, should not be obscured behind an island that is outside the Union.

Michael Collins would not be impressed to see Irish politicians hide behind Europe and blame it for decisions and choices that are their responsibility.

We have seen how the EU is used as a handy scapegoat by populist politicians with a narrow nationalist agenda or those with no agenda at all except a desire to be elected.

We need look no further than across the water where decades of anti-EU propaganda brought about a referendum, which yielded a result that the political elites did not predict.

But we should challenge the European Union to do things better.

To be big on the big things and small on the small things.

Perhaps we need to rediscover the spirit of the Irish monks in 17th Century Leuven and in the Low Countries who kept alive the consciousness of Ireland as an integral part of Europe.

We also need to remember those early diplomats of the Irish Free State who conducted their diplomatic business entirely through French.

In focusing on our European future, we could begin by putting in place a practical strategy for learning the great languages of Europe and becoming like many of our fellow citizens in the EU –  multilingual,  and in that multilingualism to reinvigorate Irish language teaching and learning – something which the Taoiseach is giving leadership on.

Michael Collins would be proud that the nation he shepherded into life should now be engaged in the pressing issues of our time and making a contribution on the global stage.

To achieve a stronger Europe, we need deeper links between the European Parliament and national parliaments. As First Vice-President, this is my area of responsibility.

In times of crisis it is all too easy to forget the progress on equality, on the environment, on food standards and traceability, on citizens’ rights, on free movement, on student Erasmus programmes and much, much more that the European Union has fostered and delivered.

But above and beyond anything else, the European Union has fostered and delivered peace.

Today we stand where a great man’s life was taken in the active service of his country, as a political leader and as a soldier.

Just three weeks ago I represented the European Parliament at Tyne Cot Cemetery remembering the fallen in the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele.

The Irish poet and soldier, Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge died on the first day of the battle and is buried nearby in the Artillery Wood Cemetery.

I was touched by the reading of his poem ‘A Soldier’s Grave’, written in 1916 at the Ypres Commemoration. It followed an address by Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales.

Later that evening we remembered Francis Ledwidge as a group from Slane, Co Meath and further afield gathered at his graveside.

In glorious sunshine at manicured graves it might be easy to forget the horrors of war.

Sadly, the awful battles of World War One were repeated in World War Two.

The founding fathers of the European Union who signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957 laid the blueprint for economic integration, with the explicit political purpose of preventing future war and creating a more united Europe.


Brexit has reawakened discussion on the re-unification of the island. Michael Collins died believing in Ireland and in the people of the Irish nation. He died trying to convince people that what had been achieved under the Treaty was a stepping stone to the achievement of the dream of nationhood.

There are those who would use Brexit as a weapon to reunite our country.

That would be misguided.

The path to reunification is already set out in the Good Friday Agreement.

Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny successfully got agreement that in the event of a United Ireland the entire territory of such a united Ireland would be part of the European Union.

This is in line with the European Council acknowledging that the Good Friday Agreement expressly provides for an agreed mechanism whereby a united Ireland may be brought about through peaceful and democratic means.

Our relationship with the UK will be more radically changed by Brexit than it was by the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, the Treaty or the Declaration of the Republic in 1949.

If the shape of Brexit is a hard one then the separation will be more definitive and absolute than anything envisaged by those involved in the foundation of the state, including Michael Collins.

Our challenge is to be as brave as Collins was, to embrace and give ourselves fully to the commitments we have signed up to.

We cannot and do not turn our backs on the UK as near neighbours and trading partners.

But as they choose to retreat behind their borders and go it alone, –

We remain global as a full, active and engaged member of the EU.

Cuig bliana agus nócha ó shin bhí deacrachtaí móra roimh Mhícheál Ó Coileáin agus chuaigh sé i ngleic leo le neart, le spiorad agus le misneach. Tá deacrachtaí móra romhainn inniu freisin, agus le cúnamh Dé, beidh an neart, an spiorad agus an misneach ceanna againn.