Taoiseach Bertie Ahern delivered the graveside oration at Fianna Fail's annual Wolfe Tone Commemoration on Sunday. The following is the text of his address.
Tone and his great colleagues, Napper Tandy, Henry Joy McCracken, Lord Edward FitzGerald and many more illustrious radicals from late 18th century Ireland, were inspired by a vision of what this country could become. They were patriots of rare bravery, intelligence and distinction, with an over-brimming passion for freedom and for the dignity of the Irish people. Through the Society of the United Irishmen, they sowed the first seeds of modern Irish republicanism.
It is fitting that this commemoration occurs at this moment in time. This very week marked the 216th anniversary of the first meeting of the United Irishmen. At that inaugural gathering, on 18 October 1791, Wolfe Tone and his great comrade, Thomas Russell, were sworn into the society alongside a number of prominent Northern Presbyterians, who played an honoured and unforgettable role in the formulation of the political and democratic traditions on this island.
We proudly recall today that the republicanism that Tone and his Belfast compatriots, men like Samuel Neilson, Robert Simms and William Sinclair, espoused was a politics that abhorred sectarianism, and this sentiment roused their deepest convictions. At that famous meeting in October 1791, a declaration, and set of resolutions, drafted by Tone, were adopted as the guiding principles of the society. Tone wrote and I quote :
"We think it is our duty, as Irishmen, to come forward, and state what we feel to be our heavy grievance, and what we know to be its effectual remedy. We have no national government and we are ruled by [those] whose object is the interest of another country, whose instrument is corruption and whose strength is the weakness of Ireland.... We require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland [and] a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament.... [We acknowledge] that no reform is practicable, efficacious or just which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion."
This Declaration and Resolutions of the United Irishmen of Belfast inspirationally urged the "promotion of constitutional knowledge", "the abolition of bigotry in religion and politics", "the equal distribution of the rights of man through all sects and denominations of Irishmen" as well as the essential goal of "the prosperity and freedom of Ireland." More than two centuries on, those aims remain our aim.
This time last year, I stood here and expressed my hopes and my optimism for the future of all of the people of this island. I had just returned from St Andrews, where I had heard words of hope echo from all sides in Northern Ireland.
The challenge then was to see those words of hope translated into action. It seemed at that time a daunting challenge.
We needed to see full cross-party support for policing and the rule of law and we needed to see cross-party support for power-sharing.
The Agreement at St Andrews set out how this could be achieved in a way that was fair to all and that benefited all.
In March, the people of the North were given an opportunity to give a democratic mandate for a new future, based on those core principles.
They gave their unequivocal verdict.
They voted for a better future - a future based on peace, democracy and respect for all.
A shared future.
And they clearly rejected those who want to return to the past.
In doing so, they copper-fastened the democratic will of the people of Ireland, North and South, as expressed in the overwhelming support for the Good Friday Agreement nearly 10 years ago.
We have now truly entered a new era for all of our people.
Looking back, not even the most optimistic observer could have foreseen the transformation that we have seen on our island.
May 8 in Belfast saw the restoration of the democratic institutions. At Farmleigh, Dr Ian Paisley and I were able to cement the new relationship as leaders between the two great traditions on this island.
I was also delighted to welcome Dr Paisley to the site of the Battle of the Boyne. That was a further expression of the mutual respect and tolerance that must be the foundation of a better future for us all. I hope and believe that future generations from all traditions on this island will be able to visit and enjoy that historic place in a way that few thought possible even a few years ago.
In July, we held meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh and of the British-Irish Council in Belfast, meetings ably co-chaired by the First and deputy First Ministers, Dr Ian Paisley and Mr Martin McGuinness.
Those meetings are of great symbolic significance. They represent the practical expression of the agreed approach for addressing the relationships on this island and between these islands. They involve leaders of all backgrounds and traditions, working together for the good of all of the people we represent. They also unlocked the massive potential that the Agreement of 1998 always held.
Given our history, of course, it was important merely that these meetings took place.
But they meant more than that.
While they helped heal the wounds of centuries past, they also dealt with real issues that matter to our people in the 21st century.
For example, in Armagh we agreed with the Northern Ireland Executive that we would commence a project to re-open the Ulster Canal, a project with enormous potential for the border region. We also agreed an unprecedented investment in the cross-border road infrastructure. That investment may well prove the most significant action ever taken to help develop the North West of our island, and will help address the historic difficulties faced by the people of Derry and Donegal in particular.
The National Development Plan, published earlier this year, contains a wide range of ideas and projects, across all policy areas, to develop all-island co-operation.
We made these proposals on the basis that they benefit everybody, North and South.
The key to the future lies in sticking to our principles and building on our achievements.
That means full and unequivocal support for the settlement endorsed by the people, North and South, in the Good Friday Agreement and underpinned this year with the implementation of the St. Andrews Agreement.
It means an absolute opposition to violence, bigotry, hatred or coercion.
And it means working together openly and honestly with all people, from all traditions and all strands of opinion, to build a better future for our island.
It took years of hard work to get where we are today.
Through that hard work, we have reached a great moment moving beyond our often tragic history.
It is a new beginning.
It is a moment worth seizing.
In shaping a new politics for a new era of peace and prosperity on this island, I believe Fianna Fail, as a national organisation, must be to the forefront. We must always seek to be open, to be inclusive and remain true to the traditions of our republicanism.
For more than eighty years, establishment in the North remained a long-term goal. But for more than eighty years the conditions eluded us.
We refused to compound the isolation of northern nationalists by splitting the vote. And more recently we refused to endanger the delicate balance of the peace process. But all is now changed.
Because of the hard work of our Party
. holding out the hand of friendship to unionism;
. advancing the cause of constitutional nationalism;
. leading militant nationalism from violence;
. driving negotiations for equality, partnership and demilitarisation; and,
. transforming the relationship between Ireland and Britain.
today, out of isolation and alienation has come equality and confidence. Out of process and engagement has come peace and prosperity. And so, only now, on these foundations of peace and of prosperity, can we advance where our predecessors could not.
For the first time in eighty years we can decide to become a thirty two county organisation. Fellow members of Fianna Fail, this is not a move to be taken lightly.
We must advance gradually and strategically.
We must understand the complexities and the dangers. We must consult widely within our Party and externally and only then will we develop a considered and appropriate strategy.
We must advance responsibly.
And we must advance only on the basis of internal agreement and with the input of all units of our party organisation.
To begin that process, today I am setting out the details of several important initiatives which will take place over the coming months.
In the past week, I wrote to each of our 3,000 units setting out details of a consultation process within our Party.
I have asked each Cumann, Comhairle Cheantair and CDC to hold a special meeting between now and Easter Sunday next, on this important matter and to make a submission to the Party on their deliberations and recommendations.
Individual members and supporters of our Party can make submissions via our website.
All submissions will be reviewed by the Northern Strategy Committee, recently established by me and chaired by Dermot Ahern.
This Committee will later engage in a series of regional party meetings and will seek the input of interested groups and individuals North and South.
And, based on these contributions, it will inform our thinking on the way forward on this issue. This Committee's recommendations will come before the Ard Comhairle and ultimately an Ard Fheis for debate and decision.
I wish the Committee well in its important work in the months ahead and I strongly urge as many members and interested individuals to engage with it and to bring forward their views.
In the context of these important moves, it is important that we send out a clear message to unionism.
Today, I want it to be unequivocal, that in whatever move we make in the period ahead, Fianna Fail will never deviate from the responsible and positive role we have played in developing the Irish Peace Process.
Fianna Fail will never succumb to the sectarian narrative of catholic versus protestant or a narrow nationalism that fails to take account of unionism.
The only future we envisage for our people is a future based on respect and equality and partnership with unionism.
The cause of an island where all our people can expect a decent living. And where families can live in peace and in safety. And where our children and our children's children will never know the violence and the hurt and the criminal waste of human potential which we had to witness together.
Last week, I was privileged to launch a new historical study to coincide with the 125th anniversary of the birth of another great Irishman - the founder of this party, Eamon de Valera. Like Theobald Wolfe Tone and Pearse before him, de Valera is a giant of our history and we in this party are hugely proud of the unmatched contribution he has made to the development of our country.
De Valera entered Irish public life as the senior surviving commandant of 1916 and he always maintained that the men and women of the Rising were Tone's political heirs. In a famous speech at Arbour Hill in 1933, de Valera specifically referred to the twin influences of Tone and Pearse on our party's republican goals. He said in words that still have relevance today :
"Ireland must mean for us not merely a combination of chemical elements but the living people of our own country. We must be prepared, in the words of the Proclamation to 'cherish all the children of the nation equally'. We must too .... hearken resolutely to Tone's exhortation to 'abolish the memory of all past dissensions'."
Moving forward, Fianna Fail will hold fast to Tone's aim to rid this island of the evil of sectarianism and "to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter." We will continue to "pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts."
In our time, the best way we can honour the heroes of our past is to ensure every single person on this island - irrespective of class, colour or creed - is given the opportunity to live the dream of freedom and prosperity which the generations before us at home and abroad sacrificed so much to make possible.