It was the afternoon of St. Valentine’s Day when the DUP declared there was ‘no current prospect of a deal.’ In the two weeks since then the general shape of the draft agreement has become apparent. It is clear that significant work had been done to construct an agreement that would allow the institutions to be restored. A couple of hours later, despite the clear evidence that it was the DUP that had crashed the negotiations, the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin tweeted: “The continued failure of the two dominant political parties in the North to agree restoration of government is bitterly disappointing… “
Neither he nor anyone in his party had bothered to talk to anyone in Sinn Féin about the talks and their outcome. I don’t know if he spoke to anyone in the Irish government. Given the tone of his criticism I suspect not. Micheál Martin did not know the detail. But then as has been evident in his public approach to the North since becoming leader of Fianna Fáil he doesn’t really care about the detail. The bipartisan approach in the Oireachtas between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael when it comes to the Good Friday Agreement was long ago abandoned by Teachta Martin.
His sole focus is, and has been since 2011, to get back into power. Everything else is secondary. Even the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. The growing electoral strength of Sinn Féin in the South was long ago recognised by Teachta Martin as an obstacle to his ambition. His response has been to use every opportunity to attack Sinn Féin. Hence the constant refrain that Sinn Féin is one of “two problem parties” in the North. The Fianna Fáil leader knows this is untrue. He knows the obstacles to progress in the North arise from British government stupidity and indifference to Ireland allied to elements of unionism which are against positive change.
Micheál Martin’s other favourite line is that Sinn Féin conspired to bring down the Executive in January 2017. He deliberately ignores his own call for the suspension of the Executive in 2015 or the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal which emerged in November 2016 and which could cost the taxpayers of the North up to 700 million pounds. He is not interested in the serious allegations of corruption from within the DUP about others in the DUP. Or the crass bigotry and sectarianism that has been increasingly on display by some in that party. As for the rights of citizens – whether Irish language speakers or the families of victims who want truth and legacy inquests – or those who want to be able to marry their partner of choice – Martin isn’t interested in any of these, except in so far as they allow him to attack Sinn Féin.
Should citizens in the six counties, abandoned over many decades by successive Fianna Fáil governments, be expected to tolerate the denial of human rights available to Irish citizens living in the 26 counties – or indeed by citizens living in Britain? Micheál Martin thinks they should.
In the Dáil he can barely contain his anger and venom. At Bodenstown and Arbour Hill and at other set piece speeches a sizeable slice is always reserved for attacking Sinn Féin which is “not fit to govern”. He says this with a straight face despite his role for 14 years in a Fianna Fáil government, noted for the corruption of some of its senior figures. This same Fianna Fáil leadership wrecked the economy. It forced hundreds of thousands of citizens into exile in Australia, Canada and Britain and it brought in the Troika, acquiesced to their demands, and gave 64 billion euro of taxpayers money to the banks. A debt that our grandchildren will still be paying for. And yet he has the gall to claim that Sinn Féin is not fit for government!
Last year I wrote to the Fianna Fáil leader and asked for his support in establishing an Oireachtas Committee to prepare for Irish Unity. To me its common sense. If we want to persuade unionists, or at least a section of unionism to vote in a referendum for Irish unity then we need to engage in a dialogue with them; we have to ask them what they mean by their sense of Britishness, and convince them that a new Ireland will protect their rights, defend their Britishness, be flexible and imaginative in how we do that, and improve the lives of their children. An Oireachtas Committee could also look at the economic arguments, as well as the cultural and societal elements of such a process to create an agreed Ireland.
Micheál Martin said no. Talk of unity, he claimed, will frighten unionists. If for a second – and it should only be a second –we assume he believes what he says – that he doesn’t want to scare the unionists, but is serious about wanting a united Ireland – is he seriously suggesting that we should sneak up on them? Don’t tell them until it’s too late for them to object? Try and hood-wink them? Does he think unionists are so naive?
It’s that sort of banal thinking which limits the potential for progress. It’s about conceding a veto to unionism. One of the great ironies of this period is that Fine Gael has a sounder position on the North than Fianna Fáil. True it is all words but I’m sure it drives some sound Fianna Fáil folk mad. And the Fianna Fáil leader dares to complain that Sinn Féin is the problem party?
Finally, there is the absurdity of a party which lauds Countess Markievicz as a true republican leader, but ignores her abstentionist attitude to Westminster because it sits uncomfortably with its demand that Sinn Féin MPs swear an oath of allegiance to the English Queen. Would Micheál Martin?
Finally, finally. Micheál Martin gets up at leaders questions in the Dáil twice a week and lambasts the Fine Gael government for its policies on the mutiple crises in the Health system, in homelessness and housing, on households in mortgage distress and much more. And then he ensures that Fianna Fáil deputies vote to keep that same government in power.
It is a mark of Fianna Fáil’s resilience that it can pretend to be in opposition, while actually in government at the same time. Because with Fianna Fáil support this Fine Gael led government would not exist.
The truth is that its really about sustaining the status quo. That‘s why Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael spokespersons talk about protecting the middle ground of politics – they are about protecting themselves.
Liam Mellows, who participated in the 1916 Rising and was summarily executed by the Free State forces during the Civil War, put it well during the Treaty debate in 1922, when he spelled out the consequences of partition. He said: ‘men will get into positions, men will hold power and men who get into positions and hold power will desire to remain undisturbed …’ He could have been writing about Micheál Martin.