Speech by FF Leader Micheál Martin TD at the Kennedy Summer School, New Ross

Published on: 06 September 2019


I would like to thank the Directors of the Summer School for the kind invitation to speak with you today.  I very much look forward to the open questions period.

I first of all want to acknowledge the remarkable work of the School’s founder and driving-force Noel Whelan.  Noel was deeply proud of his home community and wanted to create a unique event where people from throughout our country and internationally would come to discuss important events of the past and the great issues of our day.  Its success has been beyond anything which could have been expected and it is now a well-established fixture in Irish public debate.

Noel’s family has every right to be deeply proud of the legacy he has left in this Summer School, its unique link with the community and the prestige of its programme.

Noel’s idea of linking the School to remembering John F. Kennedy’s visit in 1963 could on the face of it have been seen as very traditional.  However I think we should actually see it as challenging us to do something which is rare and badly needed –to look beyond image and celebrity and to engage with much deeper substance.

No one can doubt that the Kennedy visit marks an important moment in modern history for both countries – however in very different ways.

For the United States it was unquestionably a time of transition and the symbolism of the new political Camelot was powerful.  In fact, the symbolism has too often stood in the way of understanding the substance of the change which the Kennedy administration began. During his all too short time as President he changed both the tone and direction of American society in very important ways.

He showed the strength which their society drew from citizens who remained proud of their families’ original homeland while also being unequivocally American.  He began a new era of progressive legislation which rapidly expanded rights provided public supports and he showed the world a great country which wanted to both lead and inspire a new commitment to democracy and freedom.

Because of the compelling nature of his story and image, we often miss when looking back at his visit, is what was happening in Ireland at the time.

In fact, I believe that the very reason why the visit was so important was that he was welcomed by a country which had itself begun a decisive period of change. It absolutely was not a question of an old country being indulged by a younger one.

The protocol of official visits involves a lot more than just the public events and one of those in 1963 was a formal political discussion between the President and Taoiseach Seán Lemass in the American embassy.

The photo of the two of them afterwards is very striking.

On the right you have the younger, tanned President who is smiling but his body is hunched forward, obviously in pain from the health problems which were then unknown to the public.

On the left of the picture is the Taoiseach – a man nearly twenty years older and in the fifth decade of his public service. Yet there is Lemass, who had fought in the GPO in 1916, had an intense career, standing upright, smiling and clearly in strong health. Internationally, and indeed here too, there were many who dismissed the idea that this veteran could be a transformative figure, but this is not a mistake John F Kennedy made.

Welcoming the Taoiseach to the White House a few months later President Kennedy described Ireland as “a vigorous new country which looks to the past with pride and the future with hope.”

He very well understood that Ireland had tremendous potential and that Lemass was showing real leadership. At every point his focus was on a long-term vision and he was intolerant of gesture politics.

Progress in modern Ireland has been built on the foundations which Lemass put in place as he looked at the obstacles Ireland faced and sought a way around them.

These foundations are active participation in a strong European community of nations, open pro-enterprise policies, the search for partnership with all communities in Northern Ireland and investment in the knowledge and skills of the Irish people.

At every point where we have achieved sustained progress or overcome serious obstacles for the last half century these policies have been at the very centre of the progress.

This is something we must remember as we cope with a new era of dramatic change.  Brexit is the worst and most immediate part of this, but many of the challenges were there before Brexit and they will be there no matter what happens in the coming weeks and months.

Before we have our open session, where I’m happy to answer much broader questions, I would like to address two of the areas – our relationship with Europe and relations with Northern Ireland.

Support for Ireland’s EU membership is today at historic highs.  It can sometimes be that a consensus as strong as this could actually be excluding reasonable debate.  I don’t believe that this is true in this case, and that there are overwhelming cultural, social and economic reasons why we must stand with Europe now and in the future.

Given the febrile atmosphere in London this week I think it is very important that we demonstrate that Ireland is different.  The destructive forces of elite populism, media propaganda and a major party which has abandoned any interest in putting facts before prejudice are causing immense damage.

They hold to the idea of returning to a period before the First World War where sovereignty and national interest were defined by rejecting common rules and a zero-sum approach to cooperation.

Most damaging of all, they have rejected the approach followed by previous British governments from John Major onwards of sensitive, inclusive and generous behaviour towards Northern Ireland.

The fanatical Brexiteers could not care less about the impact of their crusade on ordinary people because they belong to a caste which knows it will always be OK.  As the remarkable working life of Boris Johnson shows, they have resources and networks to fall back on no matter what they do.

If ever we needed a powerful demonstration of why our future should be with Europe we are seeing it in Westminster at the moment.

Brexit is something I and my party have been talking about in great detail from well before the holding of David Cameron’s disastrously ill-prepared referendum in 2016.

We are the first party to make any proposal about how to handle the impact of Brexit and we tried both privately and publicly to create more support for the idea of special arrangements for Ireland.

Last year it became clear to us that there was a lot more uncertainty about the outcome of negotiations than was widely understood.  This is why we took the unilateral to give our government guaranteed stability to be able to focus on Brexit at a critical time. This gives them a unique position in Europe of being a minority government which has not had to look over its shoulder.

Some parties and others have demanded an immediate election and attacked us for refusing to deliver one. But every day I am more and more convinced that our decision to refuse to play party politics with Brexit is the right one.

To be honest, this is not easy.  We believe that the government has comprehensively failed in vital areas and has an obsession with putting image before substance.

Rising homelessness, waiting lists and pressures on communities need a new direction in government.  Equally the lack of candid briefing, partisan sniping and electoral manoeuvring hasn’t helped.

I think we all have the right to be concerned about briefings which emerged from this week’s cabinet meeting about the impact of a no deal Brexit.

According to senior sources quoted in the media, ministers were shocked by what they heard, arrangements are being finalised for checks which in the past we were told wouldn’t happen and it was decided to withhold the briefing from the public.

What concerns me most about this is that it is five months after Brexit was originally supposed to happen.  In March we came within days of a crash-out Brexit for which Ireland manifestly was not prepared – something the Taoiseach admitted during Dáil questions.  Even today less than 10% of Brexit planning funds have been allocated and core customs training is only beginning.

We dodged a bullet earlier this year and simply cannot afford the same failings in a much more serious situation.  I think it is long past time for the government to publish everything it has about no deal preparations.  Let’s see the full details. Without the spin and with the full costs and administrative arrangements outlined.

The Irish people and Irish business have shown that they understand the seriousness of the challenge and that they can handle even the toughest information.

Our government has to end the policy of hoping that something will turn up to stop it all happening – and a full openness and transparency about what will have to be done is long past due.

We need to reject the idea that someone asking hard questions is letting the side down or risking our national consensus of remaining true to the European ideal.  In fact, the biggest threat to our consensus on Europe is an approach which is intolerant of debate and which treats the public as if it cannot be trusted with hard facts.

But we also need to do far more than get through Brexit, we have to renew Lemass’ vision of Ireland’s role in Europe.  Europe is under threat from many dark forces and also the clear failings of key parts of the Union’s rules.  Far too often Ireland is silent in these debates.

We have so far made no contribution to the ambitious reform agenda President Macron laid out, we have said little on the rule of law and we have actually supported the highly damaging move to limit the EU’s budget and its ability to help countries and regions get out of recessions.

Look at the sense of loss and outrage felt by millions in Britain who are having part of their identity taken from them.  It is impossible to miss the fact that this passion was limited to very few people during the long years when the acid of Euroscepticism was destroying the public standing of the European Union, particularly in England.

We cannot be bystanders on wider European issues.  We must be far more active in challenging the anti-EU forces.  We must as a country take more seriously our need to participate in and help lead much needed reform.

Another key foundation for modern Ireland set by Lemass was a tradition of seeking to reach out and develop constructive relations between all groups on this island.

When he went to Belfast to visit the unionist Prime Minister at Stormont it was an almost revolutionary development – and he consistently signalled a desire to move away from the adversarial relations which had more or less prevailed since 1922.

In fact when he retired as Taoiseach the only official role he accepted was to lead the work of a constitutional review which explicitly called for measures to build trust across traditional boundaries on this island.  This was, for example, the origins of the removal of the provision in the constitution which recognised the special status of the Catholic Church.

Of course it was far too many years before this seed planted by Lemass bore fruit – and the terrible carnage of the lost thirty years of violence gave every reason to despair.  However, the peace process fundamentally rests on his idea of building trust and looking for ways to reduce fears.

If you look, for example, about the stunning achievement of Bertie Ahern in getting first the Ulster Unionists and the then DUP to share government, there were countless opportunities where he refused to engage in potential public disputes.

He spoke proudly of his family and political tradition and its history – but at all times he and his ministers worked to show these hard unionists that we could work together in the interests of all of our people.

Lemass also began the tradition of seeking to have strong and close working relations with London on Irish matters.  He had constructive and important relationships with both McMillan and Wilson – and together they were capable of defining and promoting shared interests.

During the critical years of the peace process Albert Reynolds, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen worked very hard to have respectful and ultimately very close relations with John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.  The consistent threat in their relationships was the idea that they would deal with each other in confidence and give a real priority to their shared issues.

The collapse of Dublin/London relations from well before Boris Johnson got to Downing Street has caused deep damage.  First there was the agreement that there should be hands-off approach to Northern Ireland.  Then there was the reduction of meetings to an emphasis on form rather than substance and finally there was of course the disaster that is Brexit.

This is something which began being a concern as long as seven years ago and has led to the complete breakdown of representative government in Northern Ireland – with the people of Northern Ireland being left without a voice at a critical moment in their history.

So there are two challenges –how do the people of Northern Ireland have their voice heard and, once Brexit is addressed, how to we rebuild a political settlement devoid of trust and increasingly radicalised?

In recent weeks the majority of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly wrote to the European Union to express their support for the Withdrawal Agreement rejected by the London government in part due to claims about it being undemocratic for Northern Ireland.  That unfortunately didn’t have much of an impact.

The obvious and urgent thing which is required is for the Assembly to meet and to pass a resolution on this issue.  There is only one party blocking this.  In the morning it could help to transform the debate and return the possibility of a reasonable settlement by agreeing to re-establish the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.

And they should remember that they have zero credibility in attacking the undoubted disinterest in the Good Friday Agreement being shown in certain quarters in London if at the same time they are responsible for the Agreement being effectively suspended.

But again, once Brexit is settled, and it will be at some point, where do we go to next?

We simply have to understand that the rising divisions and radicalisation in Northern Ireland are profoundly dangerous.  They can only be challenged by a return to the spirit of the peace process.

We need less angry tweeting and more quiet engagement.  We need real efforts to reach out and rebuild trust.

And central to this is the need for a new economic plan not just for Northern Ireland but for the many communities in different parts of this island which need help and will need more because of Brexit.

If there is a spirit to be seen in the images of Kennedy in Ireland in 1963 it is the spirit of new possibilities.  From very different perspectives our two countries understood that it was time to honour traditions, renew policies and work for a new vision of the future.

We are at a very similar moment in history today.  Public faith in the interest or ability of government to address their concerns has never been lower.  We face a series of social and economic challenges which are entirely new.  We are witnessing key foundations of our progress being damaged.

But history shows us that we can and I believe will overcome these challenges.

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