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Fine words don't do Collins justice

The death of Michael Collins in a pointless civil war 90 years ago robbed us of a hero who excelled both in military leadership and in the exercise of the political power which he wielded for so tragically short a period.

His stature in Irish history, once bitterly disputed, has long been secure, and some of his words are regarded as prophetic. He famously said that the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 would give us the "freedom to achieve freedom". Later leaders -- most notably and most ironically, his one-time opponent Eamon de Valera -- proved him right.

Every year, he is commemorated at Beal na mBlath in west Cork. Every year, eminent persons who deliver the oration at the ceremony face the question, how to assess the legacy of a man who died at the age of 31.

They cannot say, nobody can say, how our economic development and political governance would have progressed with Collins as a towering figure for perhaps a whole generation. They cannot attribute to him views that could only have been formed, and actions that could only have been taken, long after his time.

But at Beal na mBlath yesterday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny made a valiant effort to describe Collins's attributes -- "a reformer, a thinker, a moderniser" -- and relate them to our present economic woes and the principles on which the Government conducts its business.

He spoke with characteristic verve and optimism. He declared that the Government will not rest until we have regained our economic sovereignty. It will not allow a "financial straitjacket" to damage our children's future. More remarkably, he expressed his determination to carry out radical political reform.

Nobody can quarrel with the need for reform, or the background the Taoiseach described: the loss of the values of "decency and sincerity . . . accountability and ethics and ambition" and the necessity to restore them. But the record does not match the rhetoric.

The Fine Gael-Labour coalition has been in office for almost 18 months. It has struggled with great pain and effort, and to some effect, to overcome our dreadful financial troubles.

But the political and bureaucratic system remains almost identical with what went before. Attempts to improve it have been slow, feeble and in serious respects misguided. The lobbyists are still there, still keeping up the pressure always exerted by special interests.

And the Constitutional Convention, of which Mr Kenny spoke favourably yesterday, will be unelected and powerless. Not so the First Dail of 1919, that radical democratic exercise. If the Taoiseach wants to hold up Michael Collins as a model, he must emulate Collins and his colleagues in both toughness and imagination.

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