Beal na mBlath Address

Michael Collins Commemoration

Beal na mBlath

Ed Walsh

21 August 2011

It is some 47 years since last I stood here.
It must be admitted my motives were romantic rather than political:  I was madly in love with Stephanie, the
youngest daughter of Fine Gael TD for Cork, Stephen Barrett.

There was also another good family reason for being here….of
which I was unaware at the time.

It certainly had nothing to do with my mother’s side. They were happy
to see Ireland part of the United Kingdom and the British Empire: indeed their
world started to fall apart when ‘those ruffians [as they saw them] took over
the post office in Dublin’.

My father’s family felt otherwise and were deeply involved in the Irish
independence movement.

Piaras Beaslai, the person invited by Collins’ grieving
comrades-in-arms, on the first anniversary of the fatal ambush, to speak here
at Beal na mBlath, was a frequent visitor to my grandparent’s home in Cork. Beaslai was a member of the First Dail Eireann and he directed party publicity. He was strongly pro-treaty and was totally devoted to Michael Collins. He wrote his biography.

In August 1923 he recorded in his diary:

I have stood on the spot at Bealnablath where Michael Collins fell and addressed his old comrades-in-arms drawn up before me. I have visited his birthplace  and spoken of him to the old people, saw the
forge, the school, the cross, the great cliffs at Rosscarbery…all the ‘shapes
and sounds’ that nursed his spirit’s power in childhood. I have strolled down
Patrick Street amid ruins of buildings and called into old resorts.  I have visited Eibhlis in Sunday’s Well and found myself thinking of that day…was it eleven or twelve years ago…when I strolled there with Seandun pretending to listen to his old-world discourse while all the time I was conversing by signals with a party of pretty girls.[1]

Well, the Eibhlis he mentions was my aunt. Beasley and she ‘did a
line’ for many years before she chose to marry another member of the movement, Michael Grimes; later UCC professor of Dairy Bacteriology.

In the Dail Treaty Debate on 3 January 1922 Beaslai said

To me, Ireland is the
Irish people. Not the pure souled Republicans alone, but the plain men and
women that live in the cities and on the hillsides of all
Ireland, including North-East Ulster. Arthur Griffith and Michael
Collins have the national vision to sense that people. They see and know the
country as it is— the old women by the fireside, the young men working in the
fields and the girls in the shops, the Orange working-man of Sandy Row and the Molly Maguire of South Armagh, the men on city tram cars, all types and
classes, good, bad or indifferent; and they stand for them all. Remember those people are Ireland. Ireland is not a formula but a fact. You cannot love
Ireland without loving the whole Irish people
.[2]

These sentiments suggest that Collins and Beaslai would
roundly endorsed the spirit of reconciliation in which last year’s invitation
was both extended to and accepted by, now sadly departed, Brian Lenihan.

Michael Collins would have empathised with Brian…a man of courage, ability, energy and integrity. Collins would have joined with us in mourning an untimely death. He would have recognising Lenihan’s unrelenting commitment to his public duties and to Ireland, while knowing his own chances of survival were slim, and most likely he would shortly die.

Let us pause for a few moments in memory of two fine Irishmen who
met:untimely deaths:  Brian Lenihan and
Michael Collins.

The dire crisis in which Ireland is ensnared,  the opportunist way in which the strong took  advantage of the weak last Christmas, and brought us to our knees, would certainly be on Michael Collins’ mind were he with us today.  He would be anticipating the skirmishes that lie ahead and thinking of how best to secure bargaining chips that a small state might use in facing down major European powers.

In hindsight joining the Euro in 1999 was a dire mistake.    Unlike Denmark, Sweden and the UK, Ireland entered
and lost control of the two vital fiscal instruments: setting interest rates
and setting currency exchange rates.  Had
Ireland remained outside the Euro its bankers would not have gained access to the Eurozone’s vast and low-interest borrowing opportunities.  Without the outlandish credit available
within the Eurozone the building bubble, the resultant government tax windfalls and Ahern’s, McCreevy’s and Cowen’s spending splurge would have been impossible.
The country would not now be in receivership.

Yes, Irish banks were guilty of foolish borrowing, but hardly more
so than those German and French banks that lent recklessly, or the ECB that
failed to effectively regulate the activity.

The IMF’s Ajai Chopra called it as it is:  “The problems that Ireland faces are not just an Irish problem.  They’re a shared European problem”

But for Ireland there has not been a shared and equitable European
solution.

The banks, mainly German, which lent rashly, are receiving a 100 percent bail-out, not from those who borrowed, but from the Irish tax payer.  Apart altogether from the unfairness of the
imposed solution, it will not work, because it cannot.  The Irish economy does not have the capacity to repay. Without a new deal and a shared Eurozone restructuring of some kind Ireland will inevitably slide into default at some future date.

Bumbling, constrained and nationalistic leadership has exposed the
inadequacies both of European governance structures and the weakness of
European leadership.  We are now living
through a moment in history not knowing where we are heading, only that the
consequences…whatever they may be…will be momentous.

The crisis that is convulsing Europe has its origins in the partisan
management of the Euro currency from the outset. Sustained low interest rates to facilitate a dominant Germany in the process of reunification were exactly what the overheated economies of Ireland and many other countries did not need.  Ahern, McCreevy and Cowen, with
the economic insights of intoxicated joy riders, made no attempt to counteract
this; but perversely poured fuel on the flames by incentivising speculative
building and borrowing. They permitted uncontrolled expansion of the public
sector; doubling the cost to the taxpayer. For electoral gain they dislocated central government by attempting to dispatch parts of it to favoured regional
constituencies. They eroded the tax base, appointed people of doubtful
competence to public bodies, and ceded control in key areas to Social Partnership; resulting in public sector wages rising to the highest levels in the EU. They
pursued votes and won an election by increasing social welfare payments to
levels three times greater than those in Northern Ireland; making Irish job-seeker’s allowance greater than the average industrial wage in most of the EU accession states.

Ireland, the fourth most competitive country in the world in 2000,
with a sound economy, was brought to its knees in a decade by political
opportunism and gross mismanagement.

The new government has now the unenviable responsibility for
getting the national finances in order again. It will have to balance the
national budget by reducing our standard of living to match our means.
Government will have to reform and prune a flabby, overpaid public sector, and face down public sector unions in the process.

The latter has to happen. Croke Park was yet one more incredible deal that the public sector unions managed to extract from a weak and disoriented former government. The new one has yet to show the courage and determination necessary to stop the public sector unions walking  away, yet once more, brazenly and unmolested from the ‘ATM machines’ without honouring undertakings.

For the most part individual public sector workers want to get on
with their jobs and make a contribution to national recovery, but they are
working within an antiquated and dysfunctional public sector.  There has been no comprehensive reform of the
public administration system since it was inherited from Britain. Its
effectiveness has been eroded over the years by a succession of ministerial
decisions that found conceding to unreasonable demands preferable to opposing them. The public sector is rife for the kind of radical reform introduced with such excellent results in New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Hidden away in Volume 2 of Colm McCarthy’s 2009 report[3]
are a startling litany of strange payments and concessions to public servants
that have been conceded over the years. As a result the terms and remuneration
of Irish public servants far exceeds those of their counterparts in Germany.

Those who are struggling to make ends meet and do not enjoy the remuneration, perks and job security of the Irish public sector look to government to bring about
fundamental reform. Failing this, many would be happy to see the Troika insist
on an exercise to benchmark and align Irish public sector remuneration and
concessions with EU norms.

There is growing concern amongst the general public as reports emerge
of extraordinary public sector work practices and concessions in education, health and most other sectors. The fact that the Labour Relations Commission should see fit to be an instrument of negotiation with FAS workers, who wished to retain some 70 additional days of holidays in the years before retirement, highlights
the cocoon of unreality in which the public sector abides.

Teachers complain about inadequate school resources, yet last year
Ireland had to borrow over €115 million[4] to provide teachers with extra
payments, in addition to salaries that are already amongst the highest in the
EU, for doing school supervision and substitution; activities that in most
other countries are considered part of the job. Were teachers to forego the
supervision and substitution perks it would permit the recruitment of over
2,000 new teachers, or the upgrading of every science laboratory in the country to best international standards in the course of a few years.

Michael Colllins, were he around today, would put the fear of God
into those who abuse their secure positions and fail to put Ireland first at
this time of great crisis. Reforming our public sector and cutting back on
public expenditure in order to balance our budget, sooner rather than later, is
the priority.  Only when our budget is
balanced, and we are no longer dependent on others to pay public sector wages and welfare, can we start to play hardball within the EU to alter the unreasonable terms of the bank deal.

Collins was good at hardball. What would he have done?

Collins’ attention would be directed less towards Brussels than
Berlin.  He would recognise that Germany
is calling the shots and is the dominant power source strongly influencing EU
policies. At the insistence of Germany, it would seem, the penal terms imposed on Ireland last Christmas were intended to make an example of us. Subsequently these terms were relaxed somewhat, through default, rather than out of any particular concern for Ireland’s predicament.

Berlin, having just completed the 90-year repayment of its WW1
reparation debts, has reason to recall that the Allied victors of WW11, rather
than keeping Germany on its knees by imposing punitive sanctions on all its
citizens, wisely did the reverse.  In a remarkable pragmatic mixture of
forgiveness, altruism and concern for Russian containment, major investment wa made and policies adopted, led by the US Marshall Aid programme, to rekindle and rebuild the German economy. A devastated Germany was resuscitated and, with guidance and support, emerged surprisingly quickly as a successful and strong
state.

This forgiveness and concern for the economic recovery of post war Germany contrasts sorely with the treatment that was meted out to Ireland last Christmas.  There is good reason now to expect that
Germany, which was so fostered towards recovery and growth,  should now give leadership in Europe and repay
some of its moral debt, now that in can do so, and ensure that the needs of a
troubled Europe are placed to the fore.

This may be an unrealistic expectation and Collins would see the
need for bargaining chips to help fend off a repeat of the kind of harsh
treatment Ireland received last Christmas.

If he looked at present he would find few. He would realise that Ireland must create circumstances and change EU public opinion in such a way that the prime target of his concern, Germany, could be made feel somewhat uneasy, when overstepping the mark, in whatever way that might readily be done….whether through initiatives having a
bearing on its global economic interests, its international reputation or its
political authority within the EU.

In recruiting and developing support for his ‘Volunteers’ Collins
knew that public opinion and perceptions were of prime importance and had to be carefully nurtured  in order to succeed.  Public opinion has been kind to Germany, but bitter memories lie dormant that could readily be reawakened, if this proved necessary.

Decades of strong leadership under Adenauer, Brandt, Schmidt and Kohl left small nations in Europe assured that Germany was repentant and would not again revert to form.  Germany’s external policies had
regard for the sensitivities of its fellow Europeans as it gave leadership in
pursuit of the European ideal.  The
message is still mouthed but the facts belie the intent. Nationalistic
leadership under chancellor Merkel with the quisling-like support of President
Sarkozy now give cause to recall the old concerns.

ALLIANCE OF SMALL STATES

Small
European states, especially those with economic difficulties, must have reason
to worry that the old bossy self-serving traits of Germany, and France to some
extent, are re-emerging, and, if they are not restrained, may result in a
European Union dominated by both in a way that was never intended by Monnet or Schuman.

Dangerous days lie ahead, especially for the vulnerable. So there is good reason that the small states of Europe should see that their own interests are best protected by acting with some sense of unison to thwart any moves by large member states to damage their interests. Were Ireland to the fore in leading such a grouping of small EU states its negotiating position might be stronger and outcomes more fruitful.

DIASPORA

Given its remarkable international diaspora Ireland is in a position to influence public opinion and policy in the US, Canada, Britain and Australia; especially if one had reason to evoke the spectre of the re-emergence of the old bossy Germany. The potential of collaboration with our international friends was highlighted by Minister Michael Noonan’s trip to Washington in June. It looked unlike a coincidence that shortly after his return the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, was rushed to Dublin for discussions. Michael Collins woul have approved and he would have seen the merits of building a creative tension between Washington and Berlin.

CHINA

Indeed he might see similar opportunities in doing so with Beijing.  China
has made great inroads in Africa and SE Asia using its financial clout. Ireland,
as an English speaking country with little international baggage, could represent a useful and helpful partner for China in the EU.  The bank debt burden imposed by the EU on Ireland might well be altered as part of a deal.  The same close relationship with China could
also provide Ireland with special access to the Chinese market. Germany’s
current economic boom is fuelled primarily by exports to China. Were Ireland to develop a special relationship with China this could result in some valuable
leverage positions.

In 2011 Europeans are faced with decisions that rank amongst the
most important since they emerged from the devastation of World War ll. Europe is at an historic juncture where one of
two outcomes appears inevitable: deeper EU integration in fiscal and political
terms and a relatively orderly evolution towards a federal Europe, or disruptive
disintegration with unknown and possibly dire consequences.

Deeper integration of the Eurozone would appear the safer route, but
could involve a major transfer of powers from member states to EU institutions
and, in Ireland’s case, a threat to its corporate tax policies. The ECB would
acquire powers similar to those of the US Federal Reserve in controlling money
supply. Eurobonds would be issued against the combined assets of the EU;
eliminating the current damaging market speculation against weak member states.

But the politicians and electorate in Germany are likely to remain opposed to closer fiscal union and resist until disaster is at the brink: the disintegration of
the Eurozone and the unfathomable social and economic consequences for the
whole of Europe. It can only be hoped that wisdom will prevail and steady, if
difficult, progress can be resumed towards a peaceful and prosperous Europe.
But Europe’s century-long history of periodic convulsion gives us no reason for
complacency.

As we stand here today we have good reason to feel as concerned
about Ireland’s future prospects as Piaras Beaslai and his audience must have
felt when they came to this place for the first time in 1923. Unlike Greece and Portugal Ireland still retains a sound core export economy and has many strengths to assist it pull through
this challenging period. But, if this is to happen, the harsh and unfair terms imposed by the EU must be altered. Ireland must be energetic and relentless, and offensive where necessary, in bringing this about.

We should prepare for a difficult and perhaps nasty decade ahead. While hoping for the best Ireland should prepare for the worst. We should go about acquiring the kind of bargaining chips that will help defend this small state and, when necessary, permit it to act assertively in the inevitable skirmishes that lie ahead.

Michael Collins would have understood.


[1]Ó Siadhail, Pádraig.   An Béaslaíoch.
Coiscéim. 2007.

[2]
Beaslai, Piaras. Oireachtas Debates, 3 January 1922. Dublin.

[3]
Report of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure
programmes. Government Publications
Sales Office, Dublin. 2009.

[4]

The cost of the “supervision and substitution scheme” whereby
teachers are paid
additional amounts to be available to provide supervision cover for break times an also to provide some substitution cover for absent colleagues. This is estimated to cost €115m in 2009. The agreement concluded in relation to payments to teacher for supervision and substitution duties provides additional and pensionabl remuneration to those teachers contracting for those duties. At primary level thids means that teachers are now paid an additional amount for performing duties tha they previously carried out without additional compensation. At second level, it means that teachers are now paid additional amounts for supervision and substitution duties which they perform while they are not timetabled for tuition.”

Extract from: Report of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes. pp. 58-59, Vol. 2.Government Publications  Sales Office, Dublin. 2009.

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