CARLETON: MARY O’ROURKE

Mary O'Rourke at the Willia Carleton summer school, Clogher

Mary O’Rourke at the Willia Carleton summer school, Clogher

Mary O’Rourke’s speech at the William Carleton summer school in Clogher, County Tyrone, made headlines when she proposed a coalition between her party Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. She also gave an interview to Lise Hand of the Irish Independent. This is her speech:

“I was very pleased to accept Michael Fisher’s invitation to come here today to Clogher and to talk on the theme “How Differences Can Be Accommodated”.  I appreciate that the theme and the speakers to it will be mostly reviewing the Northern Ireland situation.  I have chosen to talk about my own mixed political background to the theme of the Summer School. I tell in my Book “Just Mary” of my parents’ mixed political backgrounds. My father and mother met as students in University College Galway in their very late teens and early ’20s, my father studying Arts and Law and my mother studying languages on her BA course.   My father came from a pro-treaty background from his own father.   As a student, he fought in the Free State Army in Athenry and later in other skirmishes in the Civil War.  My mother’s family were strongly republican. Her mother, my grandmother, providing a safe house in Drumcliff in County Sligo at the foot of the Benbulbin Mountains.  My mother’s brother, Roger, was the boy soldier on the mountain who alerted and brought down the bodies from the skirmish on that mountain in which Michael Mac Dowell’s uncle, Brian MacNeill, was shot.  The bodies were laid out firstly in the small dairy, which was part of my grandmother’s house.  She had been left a very young widow in her late 20’s with a clutch of young children and her husband brought home to her mortally wounded in a local skirmish. I have elaborated on these details in my Book. When love struck them both political differences went out the window but I and my two brothers and one sister were always conscious of that mixed parental political background. In 1943 my father ran for the local Athlone Urban District Council. Despite the generosity of Seán Lemass and the admiration my father felt for him, he ran as a Rate Payer’s Association candidate which was then understood to be another term for Fine Gael. He made it to head the poll on that occasion and on his later Local Authority forays he ran as a Fianna Fáil candidate.  Seán Lemass and Éamon de Valera must have swayed him in that regard. He in time became Mr Fianna Fáil Athlone and later on entered the Dáil for five short years before his death. So why am I telling all of this story?   It is because I feel it will explain my later thoughts. Fast forward to Sunday, the 22nd August 2010 in County Cork when Brian Lenihan, the then Minister for Finance, spoke at the Annual Commemoration of the life and legacy of Michael Collins. Brian Lenihan was greatly honoured to havend  August 2010 in  Béal  na mBláth received this “quite unexpected offer from the Collins Family and the Commemoration Committee” and he expressed so publicly on that occasion. I have spoken to Dermot Collins since then, who initiated the invitation to Brian and he was quite emphatic that he and the Committee were unanimous in wanting Brian Lenihan to have this privilege.

I went to Béal na mBláth on that occasion with two friends from Athlone and will always be glad that I did so as I have the eternal memory of Brian standing clear and tall and confident but humble as he spoke at that hallowed spot.  I quote directly now from his Speech:

“The differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael today are no longer defined by the Civil War nor have they been for many years.  It would be absurd if they were. This period of our history is  graadually moving out of living memory. We ask and expect those in Northern Ireland to live and work together despite the carnage and grief of a much more recent and much more protracted conflict. Nevertheless, keen competition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael remains as I am very aware every time I stand up in the Dáil but the power of symbolism cannot be denied, all the more so as we move towards the centenaries of the Easter Rising and all that follows. If today’s commemoration can be seen as a further public act of historical reconciliation, at one of Irish history’s sacred places, then I will be proud to have played my part”.

Brian went on to say in his talk that he had taken:

a particular interest in Michael Collins’ work as Minister for Finance between 1919 and 1922.   In a meeting room in the Department of Finance, where I have spent many hours over the last two years, hang pictures of all previous Ministers.  They are in sequence.   Eoin Mac Néill’s portrait is the first because he was actually the first to own that office in the first Dáil though he served for less than ten weeks.  The picture of Collins is placed second and regularly catches my eye.   He is the youngest and I dare say, the best-looking, of us all”.

Brian went on to say “there is no substantive connection between the economic and financial position we come from today and the totally different challenges faced by Collins and his contemporaries. But as I look at those pictures of my predecessors on the wall in my meeting room, I recognise that many of them, from Collins through to Ray MacSharry, had in their time to deal with immense if different difficulties.  I am comforted by what their stories tell me about the essential resilience of our country, of our political and administrative system and above all of the Irish people.

That is why I am convinced that we have the ability to work through and to overcome our present difficulties, great though the scale of the challenges may be, and devastating though the effects of the crisis have been on the lives of so many of our citizens.” Brian’s closing lines on that memorable day in Béal na mBláth were “the spirit of Collins is the spirit of our Nation and it must continue to inspire all of us in public life, irrespective of Party or tradition”. Here we are now in 2013 and here I am too, somebody who was in successive General Elections elected on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party and proudly representing my constituency of Longford/Westmeath. And yet and yet surely it is not too fanciful for me to put forward today as the theme of this Summer School that it is time that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would bridge the political divide between them and give serious thought to coming together in a political coalition come the next General Election.  I know quite well that there are plenty who will dismiss my reflections here today as ‘Summer School Speak’ or even the wild rantings of somebody who has left the political system. It is very easy to dismiss my thoughts in that cavalier fashion. We, as a people, have long forgotten that the bone of contention between us as Parties since the Civil War is the Treaty signed in London in those far off days.   I put the thought out there conscious that I can do so coming, as I am, from a lifetime of observing the tribal political theatre that is Dáil Éireann – coming, as I am, from someone who has reflected in historical terms long and hard on the thoughts I am putting forward today and coming as I am from a mixed political pedigree.

I am inspired to do so by the generous thoughts and reflections in the Speech Brian Lenihan made in Béal na mBláth.  It is, to my mind one of the most generous non-tribal speeches ever made by anyone in either Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Labour. But I am most of all inspired by what has been able to be done in Northern Ireland, of the differences which have been overcome and  accommodated.   Is it not time to bury the totem poles and fly the common flag of Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera?   I quote finally from Brian Lenihan’s speech:

But even if we can never know how the relationship between Collins and de Valera might have evolved, surely now we have the maturity to see that in their very different styles, both made huge contributions to the creation and development of our State. Neither was without flaws but each had great strengths.  Each was, at different periods, prepared to operate with the constraints of the realities facing him without losing sight of his greater vision of a free, prosperous, distinctive and united Ireland”.

Is it not time now in this year of 2013 to note the similarities and to forgo the differences?   Is it not time now for us to think the unthinkable – to allow our minds to range over the possibilities which could emerge from the voices of the electorate in 2-3 years’ time.   It is enough that the mind is engaged and that is all I ask for.  To engage the mind on this possibility and to reflect on the courage and vision of those who have gone before us.

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