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Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach, at the Wolfe Tone Commemoration, Bodenstown, (22 October 2006)

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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 22 October 2006)


"Long before anyone coined the phrase "zero sum game", Wolfe Tone denounced the concept behind it, and the idea "that Catholic freedom is incompatible with Protestant liberty, so that whatever one party gains, the other must necessarily lose in the same proportion". He argued, on the contrary, that "liberty, like light, is universal", "though millions may at once enjoy it, the blessing is equal to each, and the right of no man is abridged by participation with his neighbour". The increase in prosperity and decline in sectarianism were closely linked. He could have been writing about the thinking behind the Good Friday Agreement, now amplified by the St. Andrew’s accord.

The American and French Republics were the chief model and inspiration for the United Irishmen in the 1790s, as they were later for the 1916 leaders. The enemies of democracy in those days were the ascendancy with monopolies of land, power and religion to lose, too ready to sell the only recently acquired legislative independence of Grattan’s parliament, "a parcel of rogues" in the nation, to use Robert Burns’ famous phrase about some of his own countrymen.

Back then, the vast majority of the people were excluded from government. The long journey towards an inclusive Irish democracy and national independence began on the Cave Hill in May 1795, when Wolfe Tone and his friends, most of them Belfast Protestants, pledged that full freedom should be the goal for the people of this island. Wolfe Tone was the most eloquent advocate of an independent Irish republic, and of equal rights for all.

They understood that, if the franchise were extended, the government would be more responsive to the needs and interests of all sections of the population. They also saw the economic potential of an Ireland unfettered by British control.

Their ideals spread throughout these islands, and there were United Scotsmen and United Englishmen, as well as United Irishmen. It was to date by far the most successful attempt to unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman.

Unfortunately, the forces of reaction and division proved stronger, and inflicted a tremendous setback.

It is the hallmark of Fianna Fáil, since its foundation that ideals have to be matched with practical realities. We have at long last made real advances.

The dawning of lasting peace in Ireland has - and will - contribute enormously to the transformation of our nation from poverty towards greater prosperity and equality for all.

Under this Government, real and tangible change has occurred: a final and lasting peace is within our grasp; significant and sustained economic growth has been consistently secured for the benefit and welfare of all; increases in social welfare continue well above the rate of inflation; and radical investment in our public services and infrastructure nationwide is ongoing.

The facts of the matter are clear, Fianna Fáil - working with our coalition partners - are sensibly and strategically steering the Irish economy and Irish society.

Under this Government, I am proud to say that Ireland is now delivering on the promise which republican heroes like Tone and Pearse dreamed of.

It is now important for us in Fianna Fáil, as a national political movement, to ensure that those who have not yet benefited do so.

As Taoiseach, working with the Irish people, I am committed to bringing the benefits of our economic progress into every home and every community:

Where people have been left behind, we must redouble our efforts and target our resources.

Where young families struggle with the strains of modern life, we must help them and ease their burden.

Where there is frustration with the system and a feeling of detachment from the State, we must ensure that the services are provided in a fast and efficient manner.

These are the challenges. Fianna Fáil are the Party who can - and will - face these challenges head on in the coming months and years.

But these are goals which can only be achieved against the backdrop of a final and lasting peace.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay warm tribute to my colleague the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with whom I have worked in partnership over the past 9 years. His contribution has dramatically helped to make these goals a reality. There can be no doubt that he has made an extraordinary historic contribution to the consolidation of peace in Ireland.

Gladstone in 1868, at the beginning of four separate terms in office, contemplating church disestablishment and land reform, once famously said, "My mission is to pacify Ireland".

It is Tony Blair who has actually achieved it. He has done so not in a manner hostile to Irish national or indeed Unionist aspirations, but in a way that provides a settlement without preempting any future choices that the people of Northern Ireland and of Ireland as a whole may freely make.

We are also mindful of the support that this country has received from the United States of America, and especially from President Bush and President Clinton and their Administrations through all the critical years of the peace process.

We thank them for it. And we thank all our friends in America, Europe, Canada, and Australia and across the world.

President Kennedy, when he addressed the Oireachtas in June 1963, said "self-determination can no longer mean isolation; and the achievement of national independence today means withdrawal from the old status only to return to the world scene with a new one".

Leaving to one side for the moment longer-term constitutional wishes, the modern Irish State has much to offer through cooperation and joint effort, which can serve the welfare of all the people of this island, as well as providing a model for other countries with similar difficulties or at a similar stage of development to ourselves a few decades ago.

For two centuries, there was no common project and little natural understanding between the two main traditions North and South on this island.

All that has changed.

In 200 years, there has never been as much dialogue and interaction between all the significant political groupings on this island as there is today. Nor has there ever been such broad agreement as exists now on the political framework that will govern the future evolution of relations within the North, between North and South, and between Britain and Ireland.

Let me quote, perhaps for the first time at this commemoration, from Dr Ian Paisley.

He said at St Andrews that we were at a crossroads. He spoke of a new light that could shine on our children and our grandchildren.

We do not agree on everything, but we fully share those sentiments.

That crossroads comes at the end of a long road. It stretches back through the centuries.

It is paved with great achievements, certainly, but also with pain and division and massive lost opportunity.

Seizing that opportunity is now the single greatest duty of political leaders in these islands - Irish and British, nationalist and unionist.

This year, we paid tribute to the heroes of 1916. We also paid tribute to the dead of the Battle of the Somme.

They dreamed of a better future, of a new Ireland and a new Europe. Many of them were prepared to give their lives for what they believed in. The tragedy is that many of their dreams were not realised.

Those who died at the Somme came from the different traditions that Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen wished to unite. They had different hopes and different dreams for their country.

We are now at a precious moment in our history where a shared future lies before us.

The meeting at St Andrews took place against a background of the ending of the IRA campaign, the decommissioning of its weapons and the recent IMC Report which confirms that the IRA is honouring its commitments.

This summer was also amongst the most peaceful for many decades.

All of these developments offer real hope and unprecedented opportunity.

I believe the agreement at St Andrews will finally and fully unlock the massive potential for permanent peace and progress on this island. That agreement addresses the reasonable concerns of all in relation to the outstanding issues. It underpins the Good Friday Agreement and envisages full support by all for policing and the criminal justice institutions.

The conditions for concluding the peace process have never been more promising.

As they reflect on the agreement at St Andrews, the leaders of the Northern parties are carrying the burden of history on their shoulders.

But I believe that they have the strength and capacity to deliver.

The overwhelming response to St Andrews has been positive. There is a new impatience for progress. People can now see that agreement and a shared future is achievable.

It is essential that the momentum out of St Andrews is maintained. I would strongly urge parties not to walk away at the first challenge. This push for final completion must not be allowed to stall.

For my part I am absolutely committed to bringing this process to a successful conclusion.

Peace and prosperity has brought us a long way down the road towards what Tone, appealing to parliament, and foreshadowing Emmet, called "no less than fixing the rank of your country among the nations of the earth".

I have never been more convinced that the descendants of the United Irishmen, of the men of Easter Week and of the Somme, Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, can now begin to look to a better future together."


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