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Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD speech on the centenary of the outbreak of the Civil War

28 June, 2022 - by Mary Lou McDonald TD

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD spoke this evening at a commemorative event in Dublin's Pearse Centre to mark the 100th anniversary of the shelling of Republicans in the Four Courts by Free State forces.

Her full address is below:

The 1916 Rising, the War for Independence - the Tan War - and the First Dáil were defining moments in our nation's history.

So too, the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Civil War.

The Treaty divided Dáil Éireann, Sinn Féin and the IRA. 

It divided families and communities up and down the country.

Despite browbeating by Church, by big business and the media, the Treaty passed in the Dáil by a mere seven votes.

As divisions deepened, efforts to prevent civil war and to find a basis for unity among Republicans failed amid British threats of "immediate and terrible war".

The Free State, backed by powerful economic interests, decided to forcibly suppress their Republican opponents.

On 28th June 1922, it bombarded the Republican garrison in the Four Courts and so began the Civil War. 

This event presaged a human, political and economic tragedy for our island and our people.

Ireland was to endure a short but bloody and brutal period marked by assassinations, firing squads, widespread destruction, draconian repression and suffering.

Republicans saw the hope of a free, united and socially just Ireland dashed. 

Thousands suffered imprisonment. Seventy-seven were executed officially in Free State prisons. Many more were murdered on the outside. 

My granduncle, James O’Connor, was one of those executed.

He was executed on the 19th December 1922 in the Curragh Camp along with six comrades: Patrick Bagnall, Joseph Johnson, Stephen White, Patrick Nolan, Bryan Moore and Patrick Mangan.

Two generations on, I am moved by my great grandmother’s letter seeking a pension for his service and her powerful refutation of her son being branded a criminal.

James was a good man. An Irish solider. A patriot 

Through her words, I reflect not only on his sacrifice, but also on how nation building is not some intangible notion.

It is a journey woven together by the threads of the human stories of our shared history; a tapestry of the lives lived by ordinary people in extraordinary times.

I think about how the Ireland shaped by the tragedy of the Civil War connects to the Ireland of today.

It is something that is often hard to capture in analysis or theory.

Because we are linked to that tragic period, not only by the legacy of the political aftermath but by the massive sense of loss and the deep scarring to the national psyche.

It is a scarring and a division that only happens when a family goes to war with itself.

Reading my great grandmother’s letter, I think also about how much of her life was sculpted by the razor-sharp chisel of colonialism and domination. 

For her, the loss of her beloved son to a bitter Civil War, executed by his own, was the ultimate and heart-breaking manifestation of the oppression she experienced.

Free State executions of Republicans were a brutal betrayal of the solidarity, comradeship and togetherness that drove and galvanised the struggle for independence.

A betrayal of the dream so poetically expressed in the Proclamation.

The executed lost their lives. 

The executioners lost us the future that was promised.

The Civil War, perhaps more than any other chapter in our history, calls on us to think about how power is manifested in our country, not only in the past but also today. 

To think about who has power, who wields it, and, in whose interests, they exercise it.

To think about how all this affects the lives of ordinary people today, just as it affected my family and so many other families in 1922.

The loss. The exploitation. The suffocation of the hope of a nation and the aspirations that people have for their lives. 

The relationship between war and power is a terrible one. 

The powerful use war to become more powerful. 

The powerless are often forced to take up arms to overthrow injustice, to liberate, to fight for a better future and for ideals beyond their own self-interest.

Exploitative power, which is the nature of British rule in Ireland, will always seek a route for survival.

That hasn’t changed in a century. 

Just as the British government manipulated Edward Carson one hundred years ago, Boris Johnson today manipulates political Unionism in a threadbare attempt to cling to power at all costs.

When the Free State aimed British guns at Rory O’Connor and his comrades in the Four Courts, it was, essentially, an action that reflected the survival route chosen by the British Empire.

To threaten, to manipulate, to coerce with the aim of turning Irish person against Irish person.

The Free State succumbed to that tactic. 

The IRA resisted it.

Divide and conquer has always been the modus operandi of those who seek to dominate others, and it is Ireland’s great tragedy that the British were successful in this respect.

Division was sown and fostered.

The Civil War is typically described as strife between brother and brother.

But we must remember that the Civil War, first and foremost, was the outworking of an Empire losing its grip on power in a country it considered its property. 

It was a counter-revolution.

It is no surprise that, in the Ireland that took shape following that painful period, power has rarely been wielded in interests of the people of no property.

Those who today struggle to put a secure roof over their heads, put food on the table and clothes on their back, they struggle despite Ireland being a wealthy country.

For decades, power has been on the side of financiers, big landlords, the golden circles. 

Connolly’s prophecy came to pass.

While the Civil War was bitterly divisive, I don’t believe those who fought it did so in the name of the Ireland that followed or for the Ireland that we have today.

For whatever else might be said about the causes and the course of the Civil War, this can be said: most on both sides were motivated by patriotism as they saw it and did not see their goal - whether Free State or Republic - as a means of personal advancement in careerist politics. 

Most had suffered imprisonment under the British regime or had been on the run or injured in the war. 

Service and sacrifice meant something to them. 

Nonetheless, the Civil War and its aftermath were incredibly damaging to the aspirations of our people. 

While the vandalism of partition split the territory of the country, it was also an attack of the very essence of Irish nationhood, an attempt to fracture the ties that, in all our difference and diversity, bind us together as a people.

In the Six Counties, a one-party State excluded nationalists from power, denied them opportunity and subjected them to sectarian pogrom. 

Essentially, it was another British system to turn the people of this island against each other.

The South became a deeply conservative state, which marginalised women, the poor, and political progressives.

Inter-generational poverty and deprivation became embedded. 

Even at times of economic progress, too many people were left behind and ordinary people forced to pay for the reckless gambling of those at the top.

All this dysfunction are symptoms of a colonial hangover, of the damaging interplay between power, war, and dominance.

But power can be a force for good too.

When it is used to lift people up and bring them together, rather than keep people down and divide them.

There is a power in remembrance; not forgetting so that we can be inspired to something better.

When we recall those who came before us, when we commemorate even the difficult chapters of our history, it is not an abstract exercise.

The act of remembrance brings to life the ideals and the principles of those who wanted a better Ireland.

In the past, people disagreed, and people made their choices often with heart-breaking, bitter consequences. 

The debate about the Civil War will always be a part of who we are.

The lesson it teaches us is that the destiny of the Irish nation can never be fulfilled by settling for less than full freedom, equality, and opportunity for everyone. 

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael used the misnomer of Civil War politics as a comfort blanket, as a space to occupy when their failures in the Ireland of today are called-out and challenged.

People are no longer fooled by that.

Because the beauty of life is that while we remember, we are not bound by the past.

This generation gets to make new choices today, choices for a new Ireland and new future.

Today, we reach for the Republic anew, with positivity, courage, and confidence.

These are interesting times and exciting times. 

Ireland has changed and Ireland is changing. 

We are living in the dying days of partition. 

North and South, we have a generation brimming with talent, potential and ambition.

A generation that, with compassion, decency, and togetherness, is determined to realise the Ireland denied to our parents and our grandparents before us.

A generation that will not settle for less. We strive again for the future that was promised.

Liam Mellows believed that the Republic was a living, tangible thing.

We are closer than ever before. 

We are now challenged to reach out beyond the shadow of the Civil War, to see the light of a new dawn breaking.

Because Mellows was right. 

A nation is a living, breathing thing. It pulses through the hopes of its people to endure, to continue, to achieve its destiny. 

The destiny of the Irish nation is on the horizon. 

A living Republic, a home to all. That remains our goal. 

My friends, the achievement of the Republic is the letter that this generation will write to our all grandchildren.

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