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National Day of Commemoration - Address to Diplomatic Corps

National Day of Commemoration - Address to Diplomatic Corps

Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, T.D. to the Diplomatic Corps on Ireland's National Day of Commemoration


Your Excellency, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps,

Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps,

Honoured guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On this National Day of Commemoration we honour all the Irish men and women who lost their lives in war, or in service with the United Nations.

In speaking to you today, I am conscious that this is also the first opportunity I have had to address you since taking up the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  I look forward to continuing the very close and fruitful engagement that I know you have had with my predecessors and with my Department.  For those of you based in London, I would like to thank you particularly for making the journey to be here on this significant day for us. 

To the Ambassadors of Germany and Argentina I would like to offer my particular congratulations.  I promise that my remarks will not be so long as to cut into your own pre-match preparation!  

I have only just begun my time in this position but you cannot serve in any capacity in Government without being fully aware of the importance of international engagement for everything we do. 

We are a small country, but we are a home to a global population.  We also have an economy that is exceptionally open and globally connected.  We are on the physical periphery of Europe, but we are determined to remain at its political and economic heart. 

I intend to work as Minister to help Ireland adapt to a changing global reality.  That is always our task and often a particularly urgent one for small countries.  We have recent and painful experience of how global economic forces can converge with domestic vulnerability to very destructive effect.   This is true in other areas as well – whether that means climate change, cybersecurity or a host of other issues.

We have been emerging steadily and with determination from economic crisis.  We have restored stability to our finances, growth to our economy and credibility to our international reputation. 

But it is a clinical focus on reform and results that has got us this far, and we will not lose that focus now.

I intend shortly to bring forward a comprehensive review of Ireland’s foreign policy to underpin our approach to the global challenges we face.   As I said, I believe that this is not something that can be held separate from the many policy priorities we are dealing with at home.  Rather it is the context, and often an important determinant, of what we wish to achieve.

It is something of a political cliché to say that ‘we need to look forward, not back’.   

It is a cliché because there is truth in it and this Review will indeed be about looking forward.  But today demands reflection on our past.  

This year is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.  A war which would claim more Irish lives than any other. 

We have a human duty to remember that experience, and that loss. 

We have a national opportunity to understand those events better and to learn from them. 

And we have a collective obligation in commemorating them, to do so in a way that leaves each of us with a greater knowledge of ourselves, and a greater appreciation of the perspectives of others.

It is, of course, a global centenary.  One that people from almost every nation represented here will pause to reflect on: a grim harvest of the youth of a continent and a wider world.  More than 200,000 men from this island fought in that war and some 50,000 did not return.

Our commemoration of this loss, and our efforts to deepen our understanding of these events, will, in many ways, mirror those happening in other countries.  However, in each, there will be a unique story of national significance. 

For Ireland, it is an extremely important dimension of a decade of centenaries taking in some of the most dramatic and consequential events of our history – including the Great War, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

These events shaped the century for Ireland.  In an extraordinary number of ways, they shaped our present.  Their complexity makes deepening our national historical understanding of the time a daunting task.  Their sheer significance makes the imperative of appropriate commemoration a solemn and challenging one. 

These events are fundamental to how we see ourselves as a people and as a country.  Divisions on our island and in our society have been intertwined with, and reinforced by, divided interpretations and divided memories of these events.

I believe we are showing every sign of rising to that challenge: through the work of our national cultural institutions and our historians – those for instance who contributed to the excellent recent volume ‘Towards Commemoration: Ireland in War and Revolution’ – as well as the engagement of writers and artists, our media and the participation of people from every walk of life. 

At the political level, we have seen concerted efforts across parties, as well as North and South, and across these islands, to ensure that our remembrance of this period is marked by genuine mutual respect.

These efforts reached new heights with the exchange of State Visits by Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011 and President Higgins to Britain in April this year.  During those visits, words were spoken and images created, that simply could not have been imagined not very long ago.  

Shortly after the end of the First World War, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George declared that “There is a path of fatality which pursues the relations between the two countries and makes them eternally at cross purposes”.

It only took us a little under a century to disprove that assertion but I believe we have done so emphatically.

Those visits demonstrated how coming to terms with our shared past is an integral part of deepening a stable partnership and friendship into the future.

In a like spirit, and on this particular centenary year, I would like to touch on four ways that I think we should reflect on our experience of the First World War.

As Minister for Foreign Affairs, I think I can begin with noting its enormous significance for international relations through the last century and into the current one.   It was a war unprecedented in its destructive power and it transformed our ideas of how deeply our security was connected.

In retrospect, it was incomprehensible how an event so sweeping and terrible had come about in so seemingly haphazard a way.   Given the intricate political calculations of the time, it is misleading to say that nations had ‘sleepwalked into war’.  Rather they knew they were walking a tightrope but they did not realise just how high up they were and that the safety-net was gone.  In the wake of the war, there was a new visceral recognition that regional security threats could rapidly become a global security catastrophe.  There was a decision to establish a global forum where nations could come together systematically to attempt to prevent future conflict. 

The fact that we now call it the ‘First World War’ shows that we failed.  However, we continue to strive today to implement that lesson.  For Ireland, the United Nations and multilateral efforts to ensure peace and security remain the indispensable framework for our global engagement. 

As we speak, some 400 Irish men and women are serving with UN missions in Lebanon, Syria and worldwide.   There are few better representatives of our people and our ideals.

Secondly, the Great War transformed Europe.  Again, it is impossible to explore its consequences without considering the conflict that shook the world within another generation, but it is a critical moment in the chain of events that led to the creation of the European Union – a still unique experiment in conflict prevention and political and economic cooperation. 

Wracked by two world wars, the decision was taken that only by embracing political and economic interdependence could we avoid another.  We cannot right at this moment - without the benefit of much historical perspective - think about the European project without being all too conscious of the powerful economic challenges it is weathering, as well as the important political decisions it faces. 

However, it is vital also to remember why we needed it in the first place, and how its very success in its founding mission means that it is taken for granted.  A peaceful union of countries.  A partnership of countries defined by mutually-beneficial cooperation and trade. 

For all our challenges, for all our mistakes, for all our compromises, this is an undertaking that has fundamentally lifted Europe up, and Ireland with it.

This terrible war also transformed the course of Irish history.  It converged with a time of political turmoil and uncertainty on this island, as the prospects for home rule had never seemed closer, while the prospect of violence and conflict was urgent and threatening.   The history of this island would undoubtedly have been very different without the advent of the First World War.  The 1916 rising could only have happened as it did in the context of that war.    

People from this island fought and died in the war – to provide for their families, in defence of Britain and the empire, in the cause of Irish independence, or any of a range of personal ideals and motivations.   Earlier this year, my Department worked with Google to create a public digital archive of the records of the almost 50,000 men who died in that conflict, each with a different story.

While it was happening, and afterward, there were attempts to draw straight lines between those who served in the British army, and those who fought for Irish independence at home.  To make some right, some wrong.  To make some ‘us’, some ‘them’. 

Those attempts were all too successful.  It is only really in the last couple of decades that we have stretched ourselves as a society to understand how misleading those clear lines were.  

We forgot all those, like Tom Barry and Emmet Dalton, who served in Europe and returned to take up arms in the war of Independence.   We forgot how many families were wrenched apart in two directions, even that of Éamonn Ceannt, executed for his part in leading the 1916 rising, and his brother William, killed in action with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers one year later in Ypres.

We forgot the shared experience of those Irish servicemen from North and South who fought shoulder to shoulder in Messines.  We let it be felt that the families who had lost their husbands and sons should stay quiet, because they had been on the wrong side of the history we had written.  Those divisions were made harder, sharper and more painful by the legacies of grief carried by families from the violence of that time.

And, when conflict returned to this island fifty years later, we continued to let the past be demarcated and divided up along with the peace walls dividing one Belfast street from the next.  Just another way that we know who’s who.  They can have their history and we’ll have ours.

A relatively unsung part of the enormous collective efforts of the peace process is the way we have been able to jointly reclaim the ability to talk together across community lines about the momentous events of our shared history – from the Battle of the Boyne to the First World War.  Not to whitewash history, or make new myths of some glorious homogenous past.  But to recognise that history doesn’t conform to these artificial boundaries. 

We can, if we wish, choose to remember the 1916 rising and the War of Independence completely separately from the First World War, but if we do, we will not understand them. 

We certainly will not understand them in a way that bears any relation to how our countrymen lived those events.

The hard, unclear choices that faced them, their torn loyalties and complex sympathies, their desire to do right and secure a better future for themselves and their families and their country, and their fears that they would fail: all this they had in common with each other – North, South, Ireland, Britain, Europe and across the world.

And if we choose to do that – to remember without any genuine effort at fuller understanding - what honour does that do to those who served in the trenches, or in the GPO?  And what purpose does that fulfil for us a society in the here and now? 

Finally, and on this Day of Commemoration, these events had an impact on people and families across this island that, even a century later, deserve commemoration.  We remember this conflict because lives were lost on a terrible global scale, and each was mourned on a scale that was heartbreakingly personal. 

We demand that we pause and reflect as a society – and remember our duty not to let this generation or this generation’s children be wasted in this way, wherever they are in the world.

I have not seen this summed up better than in the evocative words of Sebastian Barry from his superb novel, A Long, Long Way, and I quote:

And all those boys of Europe born in those times, and thereabouts those times, Russian, French, Belgian, Serbian, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Prussian, German, Austrian, Turkish—and Canadian, Australian, American, Zulu, Gurkha, Cossack, and all the rest—their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life, certainly.  Those millions of mothers and their million gallons of mothers’ milk, millions of instances of small-talk and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps, with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for death’s amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of a coming war.

There are no words that I can add to that. 

So I will simply conclude by extending my thanks to you for joining us on this our National Day of Commemoration, and as a token of sincere respect and appreciation, offer a toast to the Heads of State represented here today.