By Jim O'Sullivan As Fine Gael lurch ever further to the right, its time they found a more appropriate hero to commemorate.
Enda Kenny never disappoints; whenever the opportunity arises he fails to inspire. And so it was with his speech at the commemoration marking the 90th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins. The speech, instead of respectfully confining itself to the praise of Collins, veered into party politicking reminiscent of a soapbox rant delivered during a county council election campaign.
The predictable blame game regarding our fiscal ruin only served to bring on the depressing feeling that we are indeed set to, not only struggle to resolve our present difficulty under the present government, but are already well along the road that will ensure we will be forced to repeat it within a decade or so. (Let’s be clear here, Fianna Fail per se
did not “cause” the financial ruin, it was caused by an ideology of money-grubbing which poor leadership and low ethical standards allowed to consume the party and dictate policy direction. Fine Gael and Labour are merrily ploughing the same furrow---and most probably for the exact same reasons).
But on what basis does Fine Gael lay claim to Collins and his legacy?
Fine Gael did not emerge until over 10 years after the death of Collins and followed on from the ousting from power of its forerunner Cumann na Gaedhael (CnG). The contention is that because Collins’s close associate Richard Mulcahy was amongst the founders of CnG it therefore follows that Collins would have went along with its establishment. This is a very weak basis for such an assertion as Collins was always his own man with very clear and definite views on the issues to hand.
While it is reasonable to suggest that Collins might well have agreed to the foundation of the new party, although by no means certain, there are a number of issues which Collins could never have agreed with over the 10 years that the party was in government---and which clearly suggests that he would not have ended the decade still a member.
Take for example the issue of reparations. Although Article 5 of the Treaty signed by Collins stipulated that the Free State would "assume liability for the service of the public debt of the United Kingdom", Collins evoked the qualification contained in the wording which stated "any just claims on the part of Ireland" would be taken into account.
Collins subsequently made the case that the British owed money to Ireland based on over-taxation that had occurred over an extended period prior to the Treaty. A Royal Commission had already acknowledged this over-taxation. It is not plausible to conclude therefore that Collins would have agreed to the “Ultimate Financial Agreement” reached in 1926 which contained a clause agreeing to pay the British state £5 million a year in “land annuities”? (A colossal sum, which brings into question other motives: were members of CnG deliberately trying to undermine the new fledging state?) In any event it is perfectly clear from Collins’s many statements on the matter that he never intended to pay any reparations to the British in any circumstance.
On a more basic point, the differences between Collins and CnG on the issue of the “oath” were hardly bridgeable had Collins been still alive when the matter came to a head in 1933. When deValera came to power in 1932 and sought to abolish it, members of CnG made private pleas to the British not to concede to deValera. What this demonstrates is that CnG had moved immeasurably away from Collins’s position that the Treaty was a mere stepping stone to full independence. Members of CnG were now acting in the background in a manner designed to thwart any progression to full independence. Taking these 2 issues alone, it is very doubtful if Collins would have survived the decade a member of the CnG at all.
Fine Gael come into being in 1933 with the amalgamation of CnG, the Farmers and Ratepayers Association (who were formed seeking both cutbacks in public spending on the one hand and subsidies for large farmers on the other) which in turn became the National Centre Party and the Blue Shirts. This grouping would without any doubt have presented very serious problems for Collins given its capacity to splinter the population rather than unite them as Collins worked for.
It is clear that the basic bias towards those with wealth is present from the outset and is evidence of a disparate group seeking political relevance. With the electoral success at the 1932 general election Fianna Fail successfully moved into the middle ground and in addition, with its socially radical platform, countered the Labour Party and scuppered that parties efforts to become the party of the “workingman”. Fine Gael was effectively to be little more than a counter to Fianna Fail’s policies on distributive justice at that time. This “spreading of wealth” policy saw Fianna Fail copper-fasten its position as the “party of the people” in the early years in office---social housing completions quickly reached 12,000 a year which compared to a mere 2,000 achieved by CnG in its best year while in office.
The political philosophy of this grouping was totally at variance with Collins’s thinking---particularly on matters to do with social justice.
As with CnG, the Fine Gael party’s first instinct was, and remains, to cut welfare supports---rather than levy fair and progressive taxes on wealth---and as evidenced today, particularly when times are hard. This is anathema to Collins’s thinking on wealth distribution. In his “Pathway to Freedom” document, Collins wrote, “We want such widely diffused prosperity that the Irish people will not be crushed by destitution...” And to emphasis his very strongly held view on the issue he continues, “Neither must they be obliged, owing to unsound economic conditions, to spend all their powers of both mind and body in an effort to satisfy the bodily needs alone. The uses of wealth are to provide good health, comfort, moderate luxury, and to give the freedom which comes from the possession of these things”
Clearly Collins was utterly opposed to any policy that foresaw sections of the community living on subsistence, a proposition that finds no resonance in the current Fine Gael leadership. Fine Gael’s current indifference to the plight of those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder stand in stark contrast to Collins’s views encapsulated in his expressed belief that, “the uses of wealth are to provide good health, comfort, moderate luxury, and to give the freedom which comes from the possession of these things.”
And what is more, the leadership of Fine Gael are fully aware of the yawning gap that now exists between them and Collins on those vital issues. Kenny let the mask slip when he trailed off a Collins quote which left some ambiguity regarding what Collins had intended to convey.
In making a pro-Fine Gael point Kenny quotes Collins thus, “What we must aim at is the building of a sound economic life…in which great discrepancies cannot occur”.
This is a dishonest quote because it skews Collins’s intended point by leaving out the vital part which gives clear and unequivocal expression to what Collins believed. The missing next sentence reads “We must not have the destitution of poverty at one end, and at the other an excess of riches in the possession of a few individuals, beyond what they can spend with satisfaction and justification.” Kenny was being untruthful and cowardly in omitting this vital part of the quote, and for good reason, he knows full well that the policies that he is pursuing are in the interest of the “few individuals” Collins referred to and is running contrary to what Collins would agree with.
The difference here is stark and it is disingenuous in the extreme for Fine Gael to continue to claim that they are somehow the heirs of Collins. This last year saw the poorest in the land suffer a reduction of 18% in their incomes while the richest gained an increase of 4%, yet senior members of Fine Gael are urging that these low incomes be cut again.
How could anyone proffer the notion that Collins would have sat around a table with the likes of Hayes, Varadaker, the Bruton brothers, Hogan, Shatter et al
and assist in the plotting to push the impoverished into penury? It just is not a credible suggestion.
If Mr Kenny is minded to mark a more appropriate commemoration next year---given the policies being pursued by his government---may I suggest the small town of Szeged in Hungary. It is strongly believed the last resting place of Attila the Hun is to be found there.