“Arise Knocknagoshel, and take your place among the nations of the earth!” I don’t mean to be flippant, but it was that bold and brave declaration, that I associate with Parnell and his Kerry supporters, that came to mind when I listened to the Taoiseach’s speech yesterday.
He was speaking about Cloyne and child abuse. But he was also speaking about a republic, and what accountability means in a republic. In fact, he did more to advance republican values in one short speech than 30 years of Provo violence ever did.
And he also threw down the gauntlet to the Vatican. I’ve been writing here about the importance and value of real, two-way diplomacy, and about how we need to take steps to ensure that our position is properly respected by the Holy See. Well, the Taoiseach certainly upped the ante yesterday. Diplomatic relations between our two small states are historically low today — but it’s precisely because the Taoiseach cut through the arrogance of the Vatican’s smug superiority with his speech.
But actually, the speech did more than any of these things. Don’t get me wrong — I have to say I felt immensely proud of our Taoiseach and our government when I heard it. It was the kind of speech that many of us in my generation never thought we’d live to hear, whose impact was all the greater because it came from a Fine Gael leader.
It will go down in history, I suspect, alongside some of the great speeches — DeValera’s reply to Churchill at the end of the Second World War, Des O’Malley’s famous “stand by the republic” speech, Mary Robinson’s victory speech in the RDS in 1999 — the Mna na hEireann speech. All of those speeches had one thing in common with Enda Kenny’s speech — they reflected the way we feel about ourselves right now. They all represented watersheds. So did Kenny’s.
It did one other thing. It set the bar high. This was a speech, after all, about child abuse — how it had been perpetrated, and how it had been covered up. The last Taoiseach Brian Cowen made a powerful speech about that subject when he responded to the Ryan Report in the Dail. He concentrated more on the role of the State in colluding with corruption in the Church and apologised for that. And he concluded by saying that the only possible response was to make Ireland a model of how children are treated.
His government drew up a 99-point implementation plan to do precisely that. By the time they had left office, nearly two years later, they had delivered on some, but actually very little, of their own plan. They left a huge agenda of change behind, that Fine Gael and Labour must now deliver on.
The present Government has made a good start. And by saying what he said — by making it clear that a real republic will never tolerate the abuse, the cover-ups, the denial of accountability — the Taoiseach has ensured that he and his Government will now be judged by the high standards he has set.
Yesterday’s speech allowed us all to stand a little taller.
Implementing the promise of the speech will be a bigger task still.