‘Irish unity should be about people, not territory’ - Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin

Micheal Martin, leader of Fianna Fail.
Micheal Martin, leader of Fianna Fail.

Michéal Martin, T.D., has represented Cork South Central since 1989.

He has held a number of ministries, including Education and Science, Health and Children, Trade and Employment and Foreign Affairs. He succeeded Brian Cowen as leader of Fianna Fáil in January 2011 and led the party to its worst ever election defeat a few weeks later.

Mich�al Martin and Alex Kane in the Fianna Fail leader's Dublin office

Mich�al Martin and Alex Kane in the Fianna Fail leader's Dublin office

Alex Kane interviewed him in his office in The Oireachtas on Wednesday, February 12, 2014

AK: On a political level, as well as a personal, emotional level, how much of a priority is Irish unity for you?

MM: I would love to see a united Ireland. But how does one define what one means by a united Ireland? I would say a genuine unity of people who can work in harmony, meet in harmony, engage in harmony and break down the barriers

that are still there between north and south in many instances. The political definition of that would have to reflect a unity of people rather than a unity of territory: and to allow that to develop in a non-threatening manner. When I hear talk of border polls and that sort of thing, I just say “oh, my God, this is just trying to threaten and intimidate people even when you know it isn’t going to happen anyway”!

And it’s coming from the wrong vantage point completely, because I think unity of minds and hearts is a slow process. I’ve come round to that view. I’ve had a personal interest in Northern Ireland for a very long time and one of the reasons I joined Fianna Fàil was because of the Northern Ireland issue. It’s one of the reasons I got into politics.

My own family were a republican, Fianna Fàil party: my grandparents on my mother’s side took part in the war of independence. My father was strongly republican, although his three brothers fought in the British army in World War 2. One endured the horrors and tortures of a Japanese POW camp and the other two fought in different parts of the world. So I have a mixed background. It’s not a narrow background.

I was born in 1960, so when I was 10 or 11 I was picking up on the civil rights stuff on RTE and what we would have seen as the suppression of that.

And I was asking myself why there was partition in Ireland and having studied history I often thought that those nationalists who found themselves on the northern side were given no choice—there was just an arbitrary line drawn.

I remember being a student when the hunger strikes were on and I went north—naively perhaps—to investigate for myself. And it was quite intimidating, with troops everywhere and a hunger striker about to die: you could feel the tension

everywhere. So yes, I have had a strong engagement with the north, right up to now and as Minister of Foreign Affairs I was involved with the devolution of justice talks in 2009/10. It’s been a long journey.

AK: Sixteen years after the Good Friday Agreement do you think that the political parties, particularly the DUP and Sinn Fein, are at the hearts and minds stage of progress?

MM: What depresses me about the Haass process for example is that we are still talking about parades. I can remember both the DUP and Sinn Fein swearing blind in Hillsborough, during the talks on devolution, that parades aren’t an issue

at the end of the day—we have our point men and we can resolve this ourselves.

I can remember Sinn Fein saying for six or nine months before devolution “no way will we allow the Parades Commission to be undermined.” At three o’clock in the morning they agreed with the DUP that they would move into a new dispensation on parades, saying “we have the people on the ground and we can solve it.” Yet here we are, five years on and Haass’s job is to arbitrate on parades.

AK: But why do you think that is?

MM: Because I’ve come to the conclusion that the parties find protection and security in just keeping their base happy.

AK: But doesn’t that conflict with your view that this is a hearts and minds battle. The parties are just playing to the old fears and suspicions?

MM: There’s a lack of leadership in my view. They need to make the step change that is required to move beyond their traditional bases.

AK: But, isn’t there a danger, that if they move beyond their traditional base they will end up like Trimble and Hume—with both parties destroyed?

MM: That’s true to a certain extent, although you could also argue that there were already signs of decline in the SDLP for example, which was maybe too focused on the structures and on leading personalities and those were a factor in

the decline. But there’s no doubt that the SDLP and UUP brought Sinn Fein into the political process.

But when people think of John Hume they don’t think of someone who was just an ordinary, mediocre party leader. They think of someone who, fundamentally, changed the game. They think of someone who was a visionary, who had the

extra commitment that had gone beyond the ordinary party bonds: and he made a difference. Hume and that leadership were leaders. That’s how we think of them in the republic. And to their own party’s cost, too. But Northern Ireland is a

better place because of that.

I don’t think the same analogy applies now because Sinn Fein, electorally, are much stronger than they ever were. They exercise a kind of control which sometimes one doesn’t like—almost a social community control in some areas,

which is certainly something I would have concerns about in terms of the quality of democracy that operates and the quality of contrarian voices to emerge. I don’t mean contrarian voices in terms of going back to violence, I mean just

genuinely contrarian voices to Sinn Fein within their own communities.

That sometimes gets suppressed fairly quickly. The intolerance, for example, of a civic forum, is evidence of that. One can only draw the conclusion that they draw comfort in going back to the traditional ways.

AK: Ok, I get the impression that for the first two or three years after the agreement you thought that Northern Ireland was a better place but that now — while you wouldn’t say it was worse—it’s more stalemate than solution?

MM: What I would like to have seen is significant political institution dividends.

In terms of the working class communities (a term I don’t like to use) and health, employment, education, social issues, I would have thought that the executive would have launched an all-out, major investment programme to transform

areas which heretofore were breeding grounds for dissent and all sorts of activities. That didn’t happen.

AK: Why didn’t it happen?

MM: Well, I remember Martin McAleese (President McAleese’s husband) trying all sorts of initiatives with unionism and loyalism and he also brought on board a lot of middle-class opinion economically who wanted to help. And I was always

struck by a certain sense of lethargy in response to that initiative. I mean, it did help create the pathway for loyalist decommissioning and so on, who wanted a really major plan then to replace what had gone on then for thirty years: in other words give people an opportunity in life, give them something to aim for. You can change the pattern of life and behaviour in those areas with these initiatives: and I’m always surprised that there wasn’t that extra, almost Marshall Plan, major programme of investment in those areas to bring people on board.

AK: Does that unwillingness to do this go back to your original point that the DUP/SF didn’t do it because they just concentrate on their own key voter bases. Anything else might cost them support?

MM: There’s a strange paradox there, because parallel to that political side you have a whole range of social, sporting connections that carry on regardless — in some ways almost in opposition to what is going on politically. But the political environment is in danger of making all that more difficult. I mean, I would have pumped more money into the cross-community thing. Have we collectively done enough really in scale to back the civic, social and community organisations?

Once the DUP got into the executive they had a lot of issues around their perspective on the Good Friday Agreement and their perspectives on north-southery as they call it and they will say they just want the informal context, we

don’t want the formal institutional arrangements; so they spent quite a while initially trying to undermine, for example, InterTrade Ireland—but that changed.

But there was that negativity going into government, which took some time and is even still manifested in the fact that there is no fresh impetus into the north-south thing.

AK: Do you think Sinn Fein and the DUP are actually serious about agreement. Are they actually serious about power-sharing?

MM: I think my worry with Sinn Fein in government is that they tend to change ministers at will. Somebody could be doing reasonably well—Gildernew is an example—and suddenly they disappear. They seem to use ministerial posts in

some instances for just electoral purposes—which is their absolute priority.

Sometimes seems that government is there is satisfy the electoral ambitions of the party as opposed to exercising governance and power: and you want to go into government with ideas and a platform to implement. I often feel that Sinn

Fein lacks that overarching sense of mission.

AK: Is it in Sinn Fein’s long term electoral interests to have a Northern Ireland that works? And similarly, is it in the DUP’s interests to have a good relationship with Sinn Fein?

MM: The incentive for the parties working together is that if they don’t then things won’t stay the same and things will get worse in my view.

AK: In what sense will they get worse?

MM: I think we’ve had a taste of what can happen over the past two years in terms of rioting on the streets over the flags issue for example. That’s a very strong indicator of what can happen very quickly. That complacency, that sense

of look-we-can-still-do-it-this-way and everything will stay the same: so I think the incentive has to be that things will not stay the same.

I’m conscious that there’s a middle-ground in Northern Ireland that are becoming impatient. I actually think that there’s probably room in the north for some middle-ground politics to emerge, because I’m getting a sense from ‘middle

Northern Ireland’—if I can use that phrase—that they are getting really brassed off with what’s going on. There’s an alienation from the executive. So the incentive for both parties is—be careful.

There’s different strands within the DUP from my observation and sometimes they want to go forward, but as they go forward they sometimes find that they have to go two steps back. In the talks it’s often about how far Robinson can go.

And for Sinn Fein it’s often about how far Peter can go and how far we can go to accommodate it. There have been flashes of Peter Robinson, times when he has seemed broader than his party.

AK: You mentioned the middle-ground here: but how is it possible to engage it?

MM: The kind of disillusion we see now will ultimately find expression somewhere. Obviously you need strong personalities to come forward and harness that feeling of frustration. But I can’t predict anything for you now.

AK: Do you think they can ever get past the constitutional issue, the ultimate question of a United Kingdom vs a united Ireland?

MM: I would have hoped that the Good Friday Agreement would have put that issue to bed for a while and created the space you’ve talked about for normal politics to emerge. But I can’t disagree with you that it hasn’t to date. But maybe

what’s happened in east Belfast recently has been a reaction to Alliance and Naomi Long’s success there: and we’ll have to see if that negativity of the DUP will work for them in the long term. We’ll wait and see.

But—and we have it down here too—there is an alienation with politics generally and if politicians of all persuasions don’t cop on they will find themselves left behind. Particular issues and cause will activate people into

politics and the parties need to be aware of that. Parties have to be conscious of it and adapt and change. Parties can be dominated by people who have been in it for a long time and they might miss what’s going on out there if they don’t have a healthy infusion of new blood, younger people, women and so forth.

AK: Fianna Fàil has two branches here. Could your party become part of the ‘middle-ground’ you’ve mentioned if they were to field candidates here?

MM: I think we could, in time. We are still talking to people and a lot of our northern members are impatient and keen. But the fact that we had a major, major electoral setback in 2011 sets limits to what we can do in a reasonable

timeframe and we have to be realistic about that. Clearly we are rebuilding and renewing the party and the northern dimension is an important part of that.

The initial platform was to speak out on the north and to have strong policy statements on the north—which I’ve done—and also to have a level playing field with members in the north and the republic in terms of structures. But we’re

getting there. The first phase of our engagement was policy. The next stage has to be electoral. But we have to be very incremental: it isn’t going to be a big bang.

We made mistakes before—saying that Fianna Fàil was going north, but frankly, there wasn’t anything behind it in terms of capacity. That won’t happen under my leadership. When I make a step forward it has to be with a bit of beef and

bodies, personnel and a campaign plan.

AK: Isn’t there a sense, though, that in terms of Irish unity and the case for it, you have allowed Sinn Fein to make the running and set the parameters?

MM: I wouldn’t accept that it has been led and directed by Sinn Fein. And my view is that we have to begin by allowing the Good Friday Agreement to work and make Northern Ireland work. Let’s make the institutions—that have been

voted for by the people—work first. Can we get that done? That ultimately leads to the unity of hearts and minds that I have spoken about.

The problem for Sinn Fein is that they are doing a great disservice to the concept of unity of Ireland. Unionists look at Sinn Fein and that’s a no-no before you start.

The border poll stuff is just another ruse to satisfy their base, knowing full well that it was just reducing the whole thing to numbers. 51 to 49 is just so infantile in my view. And they haven’t gained traction on that issue in the republic at all.

Fianna Fàil is a major catalyst in the Good Friday Agreement. We proposed the deletion of Articles 2 and 3—something which people didn’t think we would have agreed to just a few years earlier. I don’t think that making the Good

Friday Agreement work or making the institutions work defeats the idea of a united Ireland at all. There are bigger immediate issues—like education and employment—to solve in the north before unity.

AK: In a recent speech you described the Agreement as an historic breakthrough, but it was never intended as a conclusion. How would you define the conclusion?

MM: The solution for me would be those social and economic issues addressed very comprehensively: that there’s almost a parity of esteem and opportunity and that young people in the most deprived areas of the north have a way of

breaking through that cycle of disadvantage—just like kids in the republic would have. I’m not as hung up on the political manifestation via the institutions.

There’s a whole range of ways in which you can have a unity of Ireland in terms of both how the politicians engage. I think it’s a great shame that there’s been a logjam in north-south institutions and I would want to expand—in a non

threatening way—those north-south bodies.

AK: What do you mean by non-threatening?

MM: Because unionists have always perceived it as a threat: the slippery slope to a united Ireland. I said in a recent speech that surely people realise that it isn’t a slippery slope to a united Ireland anymore. For example, I think there should be just one Enterprise Ireland on the island of Ireland. There’s no reason why you can’t have a unified system of supports and that we all pool our resources so that outside of Ireland the offices all over the world would help companies across Ireland. But the thing has gone dead on north-south. You just sense a lack of ambition now.

And maybe Sinn Fein believes that north-south progress takes away from their ideal of a united Ireland as well and that’s why they’re not really working them.

AK: So you’re idea of a united Ireland—at this stage anyway—is less of creating a new independent sovereign state and more about a ‘unity’ built around education, business, socio/economic issues etc?

MM: We moved from this territory definition thirty years ago. And the world is changing. Globalization has changed borders. One of the worries I have about Northern Ireland is there is that sense of insularity amongst the leaderships still and that continues to have an impact on attitudes.

AK: Do you think that Sinn Fein is planning to do to you down here what it did to the SDLP in Northern Ireland?

MM: Well, we do find it nauseating that Gerry Adams will talk about the political corruption in the republic—notwithstanding his own background—and does it with a straight face. And we are ruling out government with Sinn Fein.

AK: How do you respond to the comments by your colleague Eamon O Cuiv? Do you agree with what appeared to be his suggestion that there was a cause and effect dimension to the murder of David Black?

MM: I went to the funeral of David Black to show my abhorrence at what had occurred. The responsibility for that lies solely with those who carried out the murder. There was absolutely no basis for it. There was no excuse for it. It’s

reprehensible: and that’s my position and that’s the party’s position. I spoke

to Eamon and he equally believes that those responsible are those who pulled the trigger and he condemns it unreservedly. And to be fair to him he has had a lifelong interest and has good friends on the unionist side of the equation as well and has worked on those for many years. His sincerity is beyond question.

In terms of the earlier narrative about the thing, I speak to ex-combatants, former IRA volunteers who were extremely disillusioned with the Adams leadership and the direction which the party took and they—although I don’t agree with them—will say that they can see some rationale up to 1974, but they now feel that they were led up the garden path by Adams and that there really was no justification for any person being shot.

It’s very striking when someone who was a former member of the IRA says that to you: that this wasn’t worth one person’s life. I think that’s a huge indictment on Sinn Fein, on the Provisional IRA and on Adams’s leadership.