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Iveagh House Commemorative Series with First Minister Peter Robinson

Northern Ireland Peace Process, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Ireland, 2012

You are all very welcome to Iveagh House and to this first in a programme of commemorative events. 

The coming weeks will see the centenaries of events which in different ways have shaped our memory and our politics: the first mass demonstration against Home Rule at Balmoral on 9th April, the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill on 11th April, the sinking of the Titanic on 15th April. 

That April week one hundred years ago was a momentous week.

And it was followed in the succeeding months by the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the foundation of the Ulster Volunteers, the Lockout, the formation of the Citizen Army and of the Irish Volunteers.

This evening we are advancing a process of remembering together events which once divided us so profoundly, recalling the words of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in Dublin Castle last year when she spoke of the complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions, of “being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it”.

I want to pay a particular welcome to members of the Northern Ireland Executive, to First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, SDLP Leader Alasdair McDonnell and to the Ministers and Members of the Assembly from across the political spectrum who travelled to join us tonight.

I want to welcome representatives of the British Government, especially Secretary of State Owen Paterson, and of many other governments with whom we will soon be recalling the events of the First World War.

I also want to acknowledge the presence this evening of representatives from Belfast City Council and from the Oireachtas Consultative Group chaired by Minister Jimmy Deenihan and the Advisory Group chaired by Dr Maurice Manning.

This evening’s programme considers Edward Carson, a Dubliner born a short distance from here in Harcourt Street in 1854 who played such an influential role our history 100 years ago. 

Carson was no stranger to this house.   A hundred years ago, this was home to Earl of Iveagh, Edward Guinness, - unionist, philanthropist, brewer, and brother of Arthur Guinness, described by James Joyce, as “those two cunning brothers, Lords of the vat”. 

By then, Edward Carson was MP for Trinity College and leader of the Ulster Unionist Alliance. 

In 1913 he and Conservative Party leader Andrew Bonar Law stayed here at Iveagh house with Edward Guinness while visiting to Dublin to address a rally for Southern Unionists at the Theatre Royal on Friday 28th November.

It had been another momentous week. 

Dublin was in the grip of the lockout.  That Monday, 24th November, the Irish Citizen Army had begun drilling in the ITGWU grounds in Fairview.  Within three days it had enrolled 1,200 members. 

On Tuesday a new organisation, the Irish Volunteers, was launched at the Rotunda.

On Thursday, the Irish Times published a letter from 150 businessmen including Edward Guinness warning of the dire commercial consequences of Home Rule. 

On Friday morning, Edward Carson and Andrew Bonar Law left Iveagh House to have lunch at the Kildare Street Club.  On the front steps, they encountered a protest against the Conservative Party’s opposition to votes for women.

The protest was organised by the Irish Women’s Franchise League and the Irish Women’s Reform League.  Two suffragettes, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and Meg Connery broke through the police cordon. 

The scene was recorded by a photographer with the Independent.  Bonar Law stands bemused as Meg Connery, hotly pursued by an officer of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, holds a poster before him. 

The two suffragettes ended up in police custody.  Carson and Bonar Law continued on to lunch and attended the rally that evening where the orchestra played ragtime and the Irish Times described the stage as “a cave of Union Jacks”.

Ireland was in ferment - political and social.  This was an era of greatness.  Great ambition. Great achievement.   But great failure too.  And great opportunities missed. 

When we think of these centenaries, we inevitably think of the momentous political events that shaped Ireland, Great Britain and Europe.   But that is only a part of the story.

Iveagh House has changed little since Edward Guinness lived here.  But Edward Carson and Andrew Bonar Law stepped out that afternoon into a very different Dublin – one where 15,000 workers were locked out of their jobs, where a third of the population lived in slums and rates of TB were much higher than anywhere in England or Scotland.

The collapse of two tenement buildings in Dublin that August had prompted an inquiry into the housing conditions of Dublin’s working classes. The report published photographs of a Dublin that has now vanished, of tenements housing over 87,000 men, women and children in the inner city many of them taken that same November during the lockout. 

Men, women and children can never rise to the best that is in them under such conditions” the report concluded.

Let us not lose sight then of how life was lived by most Irish people - whatever their politics, whether they lived in Robinson’s Cottages or Magennis Court in Dublin’s inner city, in Belfast or indeed in Liverpool or New York.

Politics has an unfortunate tendency to turn history to caricature and reduce complexity to a slogan.  The events we are recalling had the effect of fixing national and religious identities for the decades that followed in a way that was exclusive and confrontational. 

Carson has been a notable victim of caricature. The man who came to personify unionism was an admirer of the Irish language and an opponent of partition. 

Republican leaders too have been too easily caricatured.  Thomas McDonagh’s last lecture to his students in UCD before going out on Easter Monday was not on politics nor even on Irish literature but on Jane Austen.

Ah lads” he said, concluding his lecture, “there’s nobody like Jane!” 

Over the decades that followed we somehow lost a sense of comfort with our complex identities.  I hope that through these commemorations we will continue to regain that comfort.   History at its best facilitates this.

Though Carson’s statue stands in Stormont and not on Leinster Lawn, he and the southern unionism he represented are a part of our political heritage.

If we make a point of understanding how ordinary life was lived, we should ask how life was lived by the more than 35,000 people in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan who signed the Ulster Covenant. 

What of the hundreds of Dubliners who attended the rally in the Theatre Royal that night in November – what became of them?

What of the families of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police – 498 of them – who died in service between 1916 and 1918?

What of those who fought in the southern regiments during the First World War, not to secure Home Rule but simply to serve King and Country?  What of their families?  The grief and loss endured quietly without adequate public acknowledgement?

These centenaries are an opportunity also to recall those Irishmen and Irishwomen whose memories we have neglected - or even forgotten.

They are an opportunity to acknowledge failures as well as successes, opportunities taken but also opportunities lost.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been working with the County museums in Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan and with other partners in these counties to remember the local men and women who were drawn to the message and promise of the Covenant, but whose story has not often been told in the century since.

Next September, we will be supporting exhibitions and public lectures across Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan that will explore their lives and stories and the effects on them of those turbulent months.  

Tonight’s programme mixes history and politics. 

I am grateful to Professor Paul Bew and to Professor Michael Laffan for agreeing to share their thoughts on Carson’s place in our history and his political legacy.  I am especially grateful to Dr John Bowman for helping us to develop this programme and for agreeing to moderate the discussion.

Of course, history belongs to all of us.  Politics is at its best when it is informed by and draws inspiration from history. 

Every practitioner of politics is formed by those who came before. Edward Carson played little role in my own political development.  Yet as a Galway man with Dublin connections, I fully understand how Carson, the Dublin man with Galway connections, can be a thoughtful and instructive mentor. 

That is why I am particularly grateful to First Minister Peter Robinson for agreeing to offer his reflections on Carson’s influence and on Irish Unionism as we enter this decade of commemorations. 

Peter Robinson is no stranger to Iveagh House.  He visited shortly after the Anglo Irish Agreement - not to take hospitality as Carson had done that day in November - but to protest as Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and Meg Connery had done.    

Peter stood outside Iveagh House to remind us, in an echo of Edward Carson, that - some 75 years later - Ulster still said no.

Peter Robinson has also been working to address the caricatures handed to us by history. At his Party Conference last November that traditional unionism as espoused by Edward Carson was never about prejudice, sectarianism, wrecking or division.  He has demonstrated that in many ways since not least in his attendance at the Armagh-Tyrone McKenna Cup match. 

I invited Peter to speak in the conviction that this decade of commemorations is as much about looking forward as about looking back. 

Like the decade we are remembering, this decade is an opportunity to re imagine the Ireland that we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.   How will they remember us when anniversaries are recalled?  

Ideas emerge from debate - they are tested and adapted through debate, though listening to different voices.   It is in that spirit that I invited Peter to address us this evening. 

Thank you for travelling to join us tonight.   And thank you, John Bowman for moderating tonight’s discussion.