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Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach, at the Wolfe Tone Commemoration, Bodenstown, 17 October 2004

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Text: Bertie Ahern ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), at the Wolfe Tone Commemoration, Bodenstown, County Kildare, Sunday 17 October 2004


It is often overlooked that the United Irishmen, founded in 1791,started out as constitutional democrats. It was only when they were forced underground or into exile and all meaningful reform was refused that they became revolutionaries.

But their republicanism was inherently democratic. So, also is our republicanism.

Wolfe Tone acted as secretary to the Catholic Committee. He sought equal rights for the disenfranchised majority of the population. He was also involved in trying to defuse outbreaks of sectarian tension liaising with the authorities at Hillsborough Castle; a familiar scene of much more recent negotiations.

One of the paradoxes about Wolfe Tone was that he combined a republican activism for the rights of the oppressed majority with a critical attitude to the papacy and certain formal aspects of Catholicism. This latter viewpoint is more typical of a perspective of traditional unionism. But modern Ireland, while continuing to respect the contribution that organised religion makes to society, has moved to a new, healthier model of Church/State relations than existed in the past. Today, we have a dynamic and changing society. We value religious liberty and practice religious tolerance. Our success in Ireland is based on democratic republicanism and is inspired by the principles of equality and fraternity.

Over the past fourteen years, we have been consistently the best economic performer, not alone in the European Union, but in the OECD. We can be proud that so many new member States regard Irelandís rapid catch-up as a model they wish to emulate.

We are also glad to have been able to make a major contribution to the European Union during our Presidency by achieving agreement on the new constitution, and on a new President of the EU Commission.

Ireland is on the way to becoming one of the most prosperous countries in Europe. In that context, I believe that there is an enormous amount to be gained by everyone on this island working together in the closest possible way.

The Good Friday Agreement allows us to do this in a manner which threatens no one and embraces the best features of all traditions and to do so to our mutual advantage.

The objections to Irish society that could have been made 50 years ago have no force today. Ireland now plays a very full part in European and international affairs. We cannot be accused of isolationism. From being under-developed, we have moved to the fore in a globalised world. We are continually accumulating public wealth in terms of infrastructure. We have better-funded services. Our society is improving on all fronts.

There is nothing monolithic about any aspect of public life today. We have a participative democracy, with a social partnership dimension, that is well ahead in terms of social inclusion and progressiveness than other parts of these islands. We are a dynamic society with a new-found prosperity and a real sense of inclusiveness.

Every generation of Irish patriots has been convinced of Irelandís immense economic potential. For a long time, even after independence, that seemed wildly optimistic, even misplaced. But the strong economic growth we have been able to sustain in recent times and all the social and structural improvements we are able to make as a result have vindicated their vision.

It is, I believe, our national independence that has enabled us to create the circumstances that have resulted in our modern economic success. We owe a debt of gratitude to earlier generations who possessed the vision of an independent Ireland serving the interests of the people of Ireland.

I would like to see all the people of the island of Ireland enjoy the fruits of this success by extending it to the all-island economy through structures and policies that do not threaten anyoneís tradition or sense of identity. That is a true republican aspiration.

Our perspective today is also truly international and is like that of our precursors in the United Irishmen. Wolfe Tone saw Irelandís place among the nations of the world. So do we. There was huge enthusiasm in the Ireland of Wolfe Toneís day for the young United States and for revolutionary France.

There was also much sympathy with the tragic fate of Poland, carved up by greedy neighbouring states. Echoes of that can be heard in the speech we have just heard from his trial.

We ought to acknowledge the generous contribution over the long period that both France and the United States made to Irish freedom. They took in Irish immigrants and exiles. Our tricolour came from Paris in 1848. Both countries helped Ireland at different periods towards independence, and to find its feet afterwards. Both Europe and America remain crucial to our further progress as a nation. Both helped us with our peace process.

Nationalists of past generations naturally looked to Europe and America and saw relations with them as vital to the well being of our small island nation. This was not just in terms of achieving independence. They saw our international engagement as an essential avenue guaranteeing our economic prosperity and with that our empowerment as a free nation. That analysis remains as valid today in practice as it was then in theory. That is why we must remain committed to the European Union and to deepening our already strong ties with the United States. In todayís world, divorce from either is not an option.We have gone from strength to strength economically and internationally. But at home, we still have unfinished business.

The Good Friday Agreement is one of the key documents in the history of our nation. I have no doubt that it will endure as one of the great texts defining our times. It behoves us to leave no stone unturned, no decision untaken, to ensure that it is fully implemented.

Given the scale of our ambition and the opportunity that now exists to achieve it, there is a heavy burden on all of those within republicanism to bring this about. A new Ireland based on the ambitions and ideals of the Good Friday Agreement is now an option within our grasp.

History will judge harshly those who temporise and in so doing lose this historic opportunity. The elections of November of last year yielded the leadership of unionism to the DUP. I am aware of the fears and doubts that were raised by many nationalists about what this would mean, but as a republican, I believe that engagement with unionists of every hue is essential to achieving an historic reconciliation.

I regard it as essential that the Government has constructive relations with unionists and loyalists as well as with nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland. We have always sought to apply an even-handed and fair approach to the outworkings of the Agreement.

We have worked hard to build and maintain trust. I believe that this approach has brought us to the point where all parties are prepared to engage with us in an open and constructive manner.

And so, since we last gathered here last year, I and my colleagues in Government have engaged in intensive discussions with the DUP leadership. These talks have been focussed primarily on the objective of restoring the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement.

We have been clear and consistent that the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement cannot be renegotiated. That is not to suggest that some sensible changes in the operation of the Agreement cannot be accommodated. I have sought to be helpful in facilitating an outcome that would allow people to accommodate themselves within the Agreement.

That accommodation cannot and will not be made at the expense of its fundamental principles and protections. There can be no return to the failed ways of the past and there can be no eroding of the fundamentals of the Agreement affirmed in democratic referendums by the people of this island in 1998. Majoritarianism is dead and gone.

The strength of the Agreement and its ability to deliver lasting peace and stability of our island are derived from its fundamentals. This means partnership and power genuinely shared. The Agreement cannot be held prisoner to any one political tradition.

It follows that all the political institutions must function and be allowed to function in a manner which faithfully reflects the underlying principles of the Agreement.

It means a Northern Ireland Executive where Ministers discharge their proper mandate. It means a North-South Ministerial Council and British-Irish Council that are allowed to operate to their full potential, subject only to the test of mutual benefit and democratic agreement. It means a commitment to human rights and equality for all.

And it means a recognition that policing is a central issue for which support from all sections of the community is essential.

In any well-constructed democratic system of government, support for policing is naturally expected of all those who hold public office. The Agreement instituted a radical reform of policing to make it much more representative of the community at large. The new system includes an obviously independent and vigorous police ombudsman. It also provides, through the District Policing Partnerships, a system of local liaison and consultation.

They address, with the support of the community, the social problems that fall within the remit of policing. Parallel reforms will also be carried through in this State, when the Garda Síochána Bill is enacted. Little more can be done to change policing from the outside. The spirit of Patten is clearly being fulfilled. Further improvements depend on the involvement and engagement of all sections of the community. Good will and good faith are essential elements in the way forward for Northern Ireland.

One of the issues that remains to be agreed is the context for devolving policing and justice. No party has expressed opposition to this principle and it remains an objective set out in the Good Friday Agreement. To achieve it, the primary task facing us is to restore the institutions in a context that inspires confidence for all the parties concerned.

Restoring and working the institutions of government without further interruption will be the best symbol of peace and stability in Northern Ireland. With the Good Friday Agreement the people of Ireland have spoken with one voice. There is no place in modern Ireland for paramilitarism.

The future of Ireland will be defined by democracy, not by paramilitaries of any description. We will not abdicate our responsibilities to uphold the democratic values of our Republicanism. Our Constitution provides for only one army, one Óglaigh na hÉireann. With the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation, there remains no conceivable justification for maintaining paramilitary armies. Democracy and private armies do not mix.

Many of those who were once involved in paramilitary activity now accept that the time has come to draw a definitive line under the conflict. I am certain that the people will not excuse or understand any party failing to take up the historic opportunity of bringing a long era of political violence to an end. The Good Friday Agreement has firmly recognised that it is for the people of Ireland alone to exercise our right to self determination.

As Irish Republicans, our objective is a united Ireland. That is our long-cherished political goal. It remains one of the fundamental objectives of Fianna Fáil.

The unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter and the promotion of the common good of the nation has always been at the heart of our Republicanism. The Agreement provides a framework of engagement to achieve these objectives through consent. It is also an international recognition of their legitimacy.

The unity of our country is a constitutional objective of this State. We see a unity that respects the rights of the different traditions on the island of Ireland. It is a unity to be achieved only by agreement, through harmony and in friendship. It is our firm will to unite all of the people on the island of Ireland.

The coming weeks represent a window of opportunity to copper-fasten peace and stability. This opportunity must not be lost. Otherwise we risk having restoration of the institutions deferred for some considerable time. Such further delay is in no oneís interests and it will not benefit any of the political parties.

We have made progress both at Leeds Castle and since. We have talked about the outstanding issues to the point of exhaustion and frustration. People now want outcomes. Everyone, on all sides, knows what they must do.

We must now successfully bring all of our efforts to a conclusion.

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