The ideological and political differences between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have now formally ended. On Saturday last, in the National Convention Centre in Dublin, Micheál Martin finally succeeded in becoming Taoiseach with a Fine Gael Tánaiste.
The big spin from all of this is that civil war politics is dead and gone. But the truth is that for most career politicians they have been dead for decades. What we now have from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is the same old, same old – with the Green party propping it up. But there is one new significant historical difference. As Micheál Martin takes his place as Taoiseach, and Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party occupy the government benches, they will be faced by an opposition led by Sinn Fein. Mary Lou McDonald TD is now the Leader of the Opposition. This is the first time that position will be held by a woman. It is also the first time since 1927 that the main opposition party is not from Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. And of course it is the first time that Sinn Féin have held that position.
Change happens slowly. Political systems are especially resistant to reform. In the general election the majority of citizens did not vote for the two conservative parties. There was a general mood, a desire and a vote for change. For a different approach to tackling the problems facing the Irish state than those that have been recycled over the decades by the tweedledee and tweedledum parties of FF and FG.
The establishment parties circled the wagons and fearful of another general election, they refused to speak to Sinn Féin about government formation. Instead they eventually cobbled together a Programme for Government with the Green Party. Of course, they are entitled to do that but their refusal to talk to the Sinn Féin leadership is a sad little undemocratic echo of the way the unionist leaders and British and Irish governments used to behave. Denying Sinn Féin voters their right to be included in talks shows how far the Dublin establishment is prepared to go to minimize and to delay the ongoing process of change across this island, including the movement towards Irish Unity.
Their objective was and is to hold onto power and to continue with their conservative policies tweaked here or there to give the impression of change. They know that they will have to bring in some changes especially on the cost of living crisis affecting the vast majority of people. But they will want to avoid any significant change which would alter the status quo or which would tilt the balance of power towards a greater and more democratic control or creation of public services and the redistribution of wealth.
Their view on economic matters is contaminated by an ideological position based on the belief that market forces rule and that citizens must serve the economy instead of the economy serving citizens. Under this government the housing crisis will not be tackled by the state. Instead it will be a for profit opportunity for developers, vulture capitalists, bankers and big building corporations. Citizens who wish to, will not be able to retire with a pension when they are sixty five. Unless they are politicians or executive types. Our health service will not be a public service. Neither will childcare. Disability rights will have no real legal standing or appropriate funding. There will be no government planning for Irish unity.
The Programme for Government agreed by the three government parties lacks detail or ambition or the big ideas needed to effect real and positive change in people’s lives. It contains no substantive financial costings for the vague policy commitments that it makes. The big issues that exercised the voters in February - homelessness, sky high insurance costs, a lack of new house building, a failure to tackle high rents and evictions, childcare and much more – are not properly addressed. The Covid-19 crisis reinforced a long standing desire for a single tier health system. The Programme for Government opts for reviving the old two tier system.
This ‘new’ government also has no national vision - no all Ireland vision. Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar are about recasting their twenty six county state. Their Republic. Not the national Republic committed to in The Proclamation. They are about re-entrenching partitionism. This much is evident in the section of the Programme for Government entitled “Mission: “A Shared Island”. Fianna Fáil which describes itself as ‘The Republican Party’ and Fine Gael which boasts it is the ‘United Ireland Party’ produced a document which fails to even mention Irish Unity or a United Ireland or to set out a plan or strategy for advancing this objective.
Moreover, both parties ignore their constitutional obligations on this primary issue. These are spelt out in the Good Friday Agreement which people North and South voted for in the May 1998 referendum. It is also a core part of Article 3 ‘1’ of Bunreacht na hÉireann, which was changed by the GFA, and which states;
“It is the firm will of the Irish nation in harmony and friendship to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a United Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of the majority of the people, democratically expressed in both jurisdictions on the island ...”
Sinn Fein and others have urged Martin and Varadkar to take firm actions to fulfil this obligation. These actions require the government by the end of this year to:
- Fully implement the Good Friday Agreement
- Establish a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Irish Unity.
- Convene an all-island representative Citizen’s Assembly or appropriate Forum to discuss and plan for Irish Unity.
- Publish a White Paper on Unity.
- Initiate a process to secure a referendum, North and South, on Irish Unity as committed to in the Good Friday Agreement.
It makes sense for the new Irish government to plan for and establish a process of inclusive dialogue, particularly in engaging with unionist concerns. Thus far they have refused to do this.
Consistent speculation that An Taoiseach Micheál Martin would appoint someone from the North to the Seanad proved unfounded. So much for the influence of the SDLP! Instead he used 10 of his 11 seats to appoint Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party members, including several high profile TDs who lost their seats in the general election. The one welcome exception is Traveller rights activist Eileen Flynn.
Ian Marshall, the first unionist elected to An Seanad in 2018, with Sinn Féin support, says he is ‘astonished’ that no unionist voice was nominated. He quite rightly describes the ‘shared Island’ commitment as a farce.
The reality is that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and the Greens in government is not change. But the merging of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is. The political contours are clearer now. Those who remember the aftermath of the 2016 general election will recall all the talk about ‘new politics.’ It was supposedly the era of a new beginning in southern politics. It never happened. ‘New Politics’ was old politics dressed up in new media spin. It was the same old political parties and same old politicians putting a slightly different gloss on how they did things. It was all a lie. Now ‘new politics’ has been replaced by a formal coalition arrangement.
However, the realigned establishment parties are now challenged by an opposition led by a determined and strengthened Sinn Fein party with a coherent policy agenda and with the political leadership and talent to stand up for working families, border communities, the North and rural Ireland. A Party that is for fairness and for a new direction in Irish politics, with Irish Unity at the heart of our policy platform.
The process of change making is by its nature a challenging process for those of us who want maximum change. We are now into a new more clearly defined phase. We need to consolidate the changes which have happened and which will continue as we set the pace on the journey to the new fair united Ireland. Politics throughout our island are realigning. Isn’t it great to be part of that?