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Political hijack Minister Heather Humphreys accuses Sinn Féin of seeking to 'weaponise' Irish history

'When push came to shove, when others shirked their national responsibility in favour of political opportunism: It was Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party who stepped up to the plate'

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Justice Minister Heather Humphreys. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Justice Minister Heather Humphreys. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Justice Minister Heather Humphreys. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Minister Heather Humphreys has accused Sinn Féin of seeking to “weaponise history” to “suit their own political narrative”.

In an address to mark the 99th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins, Ms Humphreys said politicians should respect the past and “not hide behind it to evade responsibility for our own decisions and their impact”.

“It is a lesson that some political parties on this island still have to learn, parties with an emotional reverence for the atrocities of the past,” the minister added.

Ms Humphreys does not name Sinn Féin but said: “In 2016, one party, in particular, tried to stand apart from the State and conduct their own parallel events.”

The reference relates to Sinn Féin’s decision to hold its own series of events to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising which were separate to the commemorations organised by the State.

“A real reverence for the past respects its messiness and its complexity, it does not commandeer or hijack it for political gain,” she said. “It is a lesson we should all learn as we remember the difficult events of the split over the Treaty and the Civil War.”

Speaking virtually at the annual Béal na mBláth commemoration for Michael Collins, Ms Humphreys admitted the Government made mistakes since it took office last year.

“We must own those mistakes, hold our hands up and learn from them,” she said.

“When you look at the big picture, however, the things that really matter, I believe this Government has delivered,” she added.

“When push came to shove, when others shirked their national responsibility in favour of political opportunism: It was Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party who stepped up to the plate.”

Ms Humphreys noted the National Vaccination Programme was “much criticised” a few months ago but has now “proven to be one of the most efficient in the World”.

The minister also said her own grandfather Robert James Stewart signed the Ulster Covenant which opposed the decision to introduce Home Rule in Ireland.

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“I am sure never in his wildest dreams would Robert have thought that a little over a 100 years later his only grand-daughter would be speaking at a commemoration for the man who led Ireland’s struggle for independence,” she said.

“Nor indeed could he have imagined that she would be a Cabinet Minister in an Irish Government. It is not lost on me that were it not for the fledgling free state - which Michael Collins fought for – I may never have had this opportunity,” she added.

The Béal na mBláth ceremony marked the 99th anniversary of the fatal shooting of the Free State military commander with a special online ceremony and no physical event staged in west Cork because of Covid-19 concerns.

Ms Humphreys warned that voters in modern Ireland do not cast their ballots based on events of 100 years ago but, rather, on the needs and priorities of the current day.

"Civil War politics did not end in the Convention Centre on June 27, 2020 when Fine Gael and Fianna Fail entered Government together for the first time," she said.

"In truth, I think the time had already long since passed where it was a determining factor in how people cast their vote."

"In today’s modern and forward-looking Ireland, people are concerned with the issues that impact their own lives and that of their families rather than the events of 100 years ago."

"The formation of the current Coalition was none-the-less a significant moment in Irish politics."

"The coming together of the two traditional large parties, who between them have led every Government since the foundation of the State, will redefine Irish politics."

"(But) time will tell if it was the right decision for either party electorally. One thing I am absolutely certain of however is that it was the right decision for the country."

Ms Humphreys said Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party put the national needs first at a time of crisis unlike other parties.

"At a time when the worst pandemic in living memory swept through us, when businesses closed their doors and hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs overnight - this country needed a stable Government.

"And when push came to shove, when others shirked their national responsibility in favour of political opportunism - it was Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party who stepped up to the plate."

She said events like Béal na mBláth underlined the importance of Irish history and carefully learning from the lessons of the past.

"I was very proud in 2016 as Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to lead the commemorations marking the centenary of the Easter Rising," she said.

"My own background, as a Protestant, from a border county, and as someone with an instinctive revulsion for those who attempt to promote bitterness and division, made me particularly sensitive about the dangers we faced at that time.

"My guiding objective was to ensure that the commemorations would be inclusive, respectful and appropriate.

"Above all else, I saw my role not to interpret history but to commemorate it and recognise all of its complexities.

"Michael Collins had no time for hiding behind romanticised views of the past, and neither should we.

"During a heated Treaty debate, he noted how some other politicians used history as a weapon, cloaking their arguments in claims about what dead generations would have wanted, or future generations might someday want.

"But they ignored the democratic principle of whether the living might approve of it. I believe, like Collins, that we should respect the past, but we should not hide behind it to evade responsibility for our own decisions and their impact.

"It is a lesson that some political parties on this island still have to learn, parties with an emotional reverence for the atrocities of the past.

"They attempt to 'weaponise' history and in some cases re-write it entirely to suit their own political narrative," she warned.

Ms Humphreys said that by commemorating General Collins "we are making a powerful statement about our faith in the future”.

It is hoped a major public event will be possible next year to mark General Collins' centenary.

General Collins was shot and killed on August 22, 1922 by anti-Treaty volunteers who ambushed his army convoy at Béal na mBláth as he returned to Cork city from meeting Free State commanders in his native west Cork.

His death marked one of the darkest periods of the civil war.

His legacy has grown to the point where, in a special poll, he was identified alongside General George Washington as one of the most formidable opponents ever faced by the British empire.

Some of the guerilla tactics and intelligence warfare strategies he employed are still taught in military academies today.

A monument was unveiled to General Collins at Béal na mBláth in 1925 by then president of the executive council WT Cosgrave.

Annual commemorations have taken place at the site since the 1930s on the anniversary of the death of General Collins.

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