Speech of FF Leader Micheál Martin at the Institute for International and European Affairs

Published on: 31 January 2020


I would like to thank you for the kind invitation to speak to the Institute this morning.

Europe has been a foundation for progress on this island throughout the last fifty years.  But it cannot be taken for granted and over the last decade it has been faced with crisis after crisis which have threatened the core ideas which have meant so much for Ireland and Europe as a whole.

These threats remain and as we look forward there is an urgent challenge facing us. 

After Brexit, after the rise of anti-democratic populists; after the Euro crisis; after attacks from outside countries and after a near collapse of public legitimacy – will Ireland get off the sidelines and play our part in renewing Europe?

Will we step-up and start working for a Europe which can do more to serve its people, will help regions and communities in trouble, will protect democracy and will secure a prosperity for all which also tackles the climate emergency?

Brexit has been a dominant issue for our politics for three and a half years.  This has been correct because the scale of threat has been historic. But as we face into the completion of the formal exit of Britain from the Union tomorrow, we need to more than react to Brexit.

We must deal with Brexit but we must not let it define us or define Europe.

We must be resolute in protecting our interests in the next negotiations, but we also have to move far more urgently on other issues.

The next five years mark a new defining moment for Ireland.  At home we face historic challenges in rebuilding public faith that we can achieve progress in our health services, in making housing affordable and in tackling other pressures hitting communities and families.  These are the challenges at the heart of our election campaign and they are the issues which will decide its outcome.

But to meet these challenges we need an invigorated Europe which is stronger and more effective – a Europe which gets out of the defensive posture it has been in and has the confidence to show how now, as much as ever before, it is the only way forward to peace, progress and security for Ireland and the other democracies of Europe.

So what I want to talk to you about today are the different parts we need to come together to make sure that Ireland and Europe succeed and prosper in the years after Brexit.

I will first outline the elements of Irish domestic policy which I and my party want to implement to protect and grow our country.  I will then address the issue of Northern Ireland’s place as a special economic zone with a unique place in the European market and our shared future. Arising from this I want to talk about how we can build a constructive relationship with the UK and, finally, the role which Ireland should play in the work of renewing the European Union.

Before I do this I would like to start by talking about Fianna Fáil’s core principle on Europe and on politics in general.  We have a very clear and distinct position which set the framework for our absolute commitment to Ireland being an active and positive member of both the European Union and the wider international community.

We are a constitutional republican party, proud of the role of our founders in securing Irish sovereignty and understanding that to protect that sovereignty strong, rules-based international organisations are absolutely essential. 

Our republicanism is an internationalist one – inspired by the revolutions in both America and France and committed to the idea of a national identity which must be outward-looking and open to change.

The constitution of 1937, which our leaders wrote, was the first in the world adopted by a genuinely free referendum.  It has flaws but it also has great strengths – and set in the context of its time it is a remarkable document.

Written at the darkest moment in modern history, it defined the nation inclusively, gave protection to groups being persecuted elsewhere and committed Ireland to respect international law.

Even more remarkably, it is the only example of a formerly revolutionary group of that time which won an election and reduced its own powers through strengthening the judiciary, guaranteeing freedoms and allowing free referendums.

This is a spirit built upon by the last great leader of our party and our country to come from the revolutionary struggle – Seán Lemass – and his guiding principles for the development of our country remain an inspiration for us.

Having fought in the GPO during 1916 as a teenager, he eventually became Taoiseach in 1959.  In a few short years he created each of the pillars upon we have built Ireland’s positive progress since then.

Lemass demanded that social and economic issues be seen as two sides of the same coin – you could not have real progress in one without the other.

He believed that education was the essential ingredient to national prosperity – so his government began a dramatic expansion of educational opportunity at every level.

He insisted that enterprise must be valued and enabled – beginning Ireland’s efforts to become a long-term base for world-leading companies.

He was profoundly committed to cooperation on this island to overcome historic divisions – and reached across the border to show friendship to our fellow Irish women and men of different traditions.

And of course Lemass led us with determination and foresight into understanding that participation in a deep and evolving European community of nations and open trade with others offered Ireland the historic chance to prosper and have influence amongst the nations of the world.

In every role I have held in my political life this blueprint for Ireland has inspired me and helped to guide me in finding ways through the challenges of today.

And that is why I have so often in recent years come here to address at length and in detail the need for Ireland and Europe to renew the spirit which drove that brilliant and visionary generation which created and expanded what is today the European Union.

Starting in 2012 I have given a series of addresses here which have set out my party’s belief in a more active, secure and effective European Union.

Brexit is not an issue we took up after the referendum.  In fact in May 2013, a full three years before the narrow majority for Brexit I talked here about how the Union should handle Britain’s threat to leave and the need to protect the Union’s core rules and values.  In March 2015, I called for Ireland and Europe to begin preparations for at least the possibility of Brexit.  In our 2016 election Fianna Fáil was the only party to address Brexit and since then we have been far ahead of others in the depth and seriousness with which we have addressed all issues concerning Brexit.

I think that this is necessary to say because there have been unfortunate attempts in recent weeks to politicise Brexit – to say that Ireland can’t have a new government because only current office holders have the skills and knowledge to handle Brexit.

What is particularly disappointing about this is that it is dismissive of the fact that Ireland should be proud of how political unity has reinforced our national strength at a time of real risk.  Indeed it ignores the reality that we had a functioning government and parliament during the threat of a crash-out Brexit solely because Fianna Fáil acted.

Against this background by us of positive engagement and leadership on the threat of Brexit during the past seven years, the idea that Ireland cannot change its government because of Brexit is cynical and desperate in equal measure.

The national unity which we helped construct on Brexit will continue.

As you can all see, the nature of our next government is dominating a lot of political coverage.  I think we would be better served by having a deeper debate about the next government’s programme, but it is a perfectly reasonable thing for the public to ask the party they might vote for to outline who they might be willing to become partners with in a government.

An absolute, and fundamental position for my party concerning the next government is that it must believe in working with Europe. It must be Euro-positive and it must seek the strengthening and renewal of the European Union.

The Sinn Fein party has been loudly demanding that it must be allowed into government no matter who leads the government.  I’ve discussed at length the many reasons why that party is not acceptable to us – and it is a basic tenet of democracy that each party has a right to determine how it uses its own mandate.

On top of Sinn Fein’s destructive agenda and policy of always putting its own interests ahead of the public interest, there is the fact that it is Ireland’s most consistent and obsessively anti-EU party.

It campaigned against us joining the European Union and it has opposed every development of the Union.  100 times out of 100 it attacks the EU when the opportunity arises and it is allied with hardline anti-EU parties.  It never has anything good to say about the EU, and its Euroscepticism is hardwired into the party.  This can go to ridiculous lengths, such as its spokespeople standing up in the Dáil and blaming the EU for Russia’s decision to invade and partition Ukraine.

Sinn Fein in government would mark a decisive move away from a constructive, active and effective policy of being positive to the EU.

This would do enormous damage and undermine one of the basic foundations for Ireland’s economy.

Ireland has achieved a lot through its united position and the solidarity of its partners in the Union.  But there are many Brexit-related challenges which are solely within our own hands, and these are directly linked to the wider domestic challenges we face as a society.

One of the most consistently observed developments in modern European politics is that the old left/right divide has lost its ability to define party systems.  The best performing countries, those which best serve their people, have a vibrant debate between parties in the centre which reject the cynical populism of the extremes.  And within this debate people must have the ability to change their government without being forced to accept the extremes.

We want to form a government which is driven by an urgency to tackle social problems and to ensure that our economy is both strong and works in the interests of all sections of our society.

Brexit is only at half time in terms of negotiations, but it has hardly begun in terms of domestic preparations.  There are many ads about being Brexit-ready, but the reality is that Ireland was absolutely not Brexit-ready last year and needs to rapidly increase activity if we are to be ready by the time the Withdrawal Agreement expires later this year.

The challenge is both urgent and long-term – and it goes to the heart of how our economy will perform in the years ahead.

In terms of immediate actions – a majority of companies have still not completed basic registrations required to trade with the UK after it leaves the Single Market and Customs Union.  Few have developed the expertise required to handle more complex regulations and controls – and the impact of a weakened sterling has already hit investment.

So we have to step-up efforts to be ready no matter what happens in the trade negotiations.  As has been said repeatedly, the closest arrangement possible under the UK’s minimum conditions for the deal will require a significant increase in compliance and administration costs.  2020 has to see a step change from the work in recent years to prepare businesses for these costs. 

This is particularly urgent for indigenous businesses which are both more dependent on the UK market and less experienced in trading outside of the EU.

But there are equally serious challenges which are still urgent even if their impact will be long-term.

The hard Brexit which is envisaged in the Withdrawal Agreement will permanently cut Ireland’s growth prospects.  And unless the UK government develops some credible and secure long-term connection to the EU which is based on enforceable rules, exchange rate volatility will continue to threaten our competitiveness.

We have to diversify our markets and our products.

We have to be less reliant on the UK market and we have to begin a major national effort to find new opportunities.

The schemes designed to help companies have simply not worked.  They have been delayed by months and years – and have had no significant impact so far.  There’s an unanswerable case to conduct a rapid review of their operation and to ensure a much higher uptake this year.

But beyond these direct aids for adjustment there is the need to redouble our commitment to people and ideas – to education and research – as Ireland’s key to development.

So we have to immediately address a funding crisis which threatens quality in our higher education system, to invest more in helping disadvantaged communities so that everyone’s skills and ideas are harnessed and to return Ireland to a place leading development in advanced research.

That’s why we intend immediately establishing a new ministry – the Department of Higher Education & Research – to kick-start the next, post-Brexit, phase of Ireland’s drive to be a world-leader in innovation.

And of course we have to redouble Ireland’s commitment to international trade as a driver of economic development.

We cannot indulge the knee-jerk and ideological anti-trade politics of some. 

Expanded trade is the enabler of economic development and social opportunity.  Ireland needs a strong international legal framework for trade and we have to support ambitious new agreements which are consistent with our other obligations – particularly our social and environmental goals.

So Ireland post-Brexit has a lot to do to adjust to whatever happens after December.  We want a government which engages with urgency not just with the negotiations element of the process, but also with the need to support businesses and communities hit by Brexit and to invest in people and ideas as the only sound route forward for economic security.

My party is passionately committed to building a shared future for all who live on this island.

We are the party which negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and overcame enormous obstacles to deliver its implementation.  The genius of the Agreement lies in how it allows a framework where we no longer have to define all our relations solely by constitutional objectives.  We can respect each other’s differences and work together to minimise them.

In relation to the issue of unity – the very last people who should be listened to are those who use it as an issue for party politics and ignore the fundamental challenge of building a unity between communities. 

When the point is reached that we can have a referendum in a constructive and respectful atmosphere, with all issues about what might happen dealt with openly and conclusively, then no party will be more energetic in campaigning for it than Fianna Fáil.  But that point will only be pushed off further into the future if we continue seeing the essentially sectarian and partisan approach to this issue promoted by one party.

We have lost a lot of time in recent years.  Time which should have been spent on building bridges was thrown away on senseless inter-party disputes – and this has delayed the process of deeper understanding without which nothing positive can be achieved.

When the conditions are right.  When sectarian tensions have been reduced.  When we are able to do more than just offer a swapping of roles.  When we don’t just talk about reconciliation but actually practice it – that is when the time will be right for a unity referendum

The clarity of the fact that Northern Ireland’s residents retain their right to EU citizenship is very welcome and is something which we put on the agenda before the EU’s negotiating mandate was agreed.  I would like to acknowledge the fact that Taoiseach Enda Kenny was willing to adopt our point and was also genuinely inclusive and open in all matters relating to Brexit. 

The centrality of the negotiating mandate adopted while he was Taoiseach has been too easily written out of the official history of Brexit.

Unfortunately a complacency was allowed to develop in Northern Ireland in recent years and a big party monopoly narrowed the space for agreement – ultimately setting-off a cycle of dispute and suspension from which we can only hope we have actually emerged.

It was in this context that the England-driven Brexit vote was so disastrous.

Shared EU membership is in the DNA of the peace settlement – and we have not yet settled how this will be handled in the future.  As the High Court in Belfast has stated, it assumes membership – and we now have a situation where the UK will be outside the European Union but a formal international treaty and the domestic law of both Ireland and the UK requires consideration for EU law and policy in the work of bodies established by the Good Friday Agreement.

The special economic zone status which Northern Ireland will have is a good start and we should not underestimate the complexity of this being made operational.

We are ready to work closely and urgently with businesses, the EU, the Northern Executive and the British government to make sure we and they are ready late this year for whatever is required.

As I have said in speeches going back six years, we believe that the fundamental principles of the European Union must be protected and we understand how difficult this makes shaping arrangements on this island and with our neighbour.

If we are in government we will push at the European Council for the maximum urgency and immediate work on defining the range of options open to Ireland in how to handle trade with and through the UK post-December.

As I’ve said here many times over the last six years, the ending of the close and permanent interaction between Irish and British ministers and officials in the context of the EU is a major concern.  There are no bi-lateral bodies or meetings currently in place which are capable of replacing these contacts – so we have to construct them from the start.

No party has been more negative then we have been concerning the behaviour of the Tory party towards Europe and the role of Europe in Ireland. 

This is a matter of record and one we have no problem justifying. 

But we fully accept that we must seek to develop a constructive relationship with the government in London and our profound differences about Brexit must not get in the way of this.

We had constructive and at times exceptionally close relations with previous Conservative administrations.  John Major was and remains a deeply committed unionist, but the progress achieved through his partnership with my predecessor Albert Reynolds was historic.  Brian Cowen worked closely with David Cameron on many issues, including agreeing and planning for the visit of Queen Elizabeth, which was such a dramatic demonstration of our new relations.

Of course our working relationship with the Labour governments delivered the core of the peace settlement.  Bertie Ahern’s working relationship with Tony Blair will always remain a high watermark for these islands.

So we have no illusions about the policy of the Johnson administration, but we are ready and eager to engage in the urgent work of putting in place a long-term structure to protect and enhance the relationship between our governments.

A dramatically-enhanced ministerial forum for bilateral relations is essential. 

Let us not stumble into disputes because we no longer meet every day in Brussels. 

Let’s protect the great dynamic of close understanding and cooperation which defined every major piece of progress on these islands in the last half century.

And we must also understand that the Common Travel Area has to be maintained – it cannot just be left in place as it is.  Many of the policies in areas such as health and social protection which enable our people and trade to move so seamlessly have been underpinned by shared EU regulations.  Let’s make sure that we do not undermine it through ignoring the need to identify and address potential problems arising from the UK’s departure.

However, let no one be in any doubt, Ireland’s future is European.  Ireland must be a positive, active and always determined member of the European Union.

But we do not want a passive, defensive EU.  The constant attacks of Euroscepticism over the years has left the Union in a defensive crouch – too accepting of the attacks and too reluctant to get to grips with the problems and needs which have arisen.

After the exit of Britain we need to renew our spirit and renew our agenda.

We need to turn again to looking at what Europe can achieve rather than what it can get past the British veto.

No topic has taken more of my party’s time in the last nine years than talking about the need to strengthen and reform the European Union.  The financial crisis, was first allowed to become a Eurozone crisis and then a crisis of democracy.

When you look back it is almost frightening that Europe could have fallen apart without the words uttered by Mario Draghi – whatever it takes.

We did whatever it took to get through that crisis – often in the face of bitter opposition by those who remained wedded to failed ideas.  In fact, if the policies in place today within the Union had been in place ten years ago there is no doubt whatsoever that Ireland and Portugal would have avoided the need for a support programme.

When the shackles were thrown off – when the institutions of the Union accepted the need for change – stability and growth returned.

But the very worst thing we could do would be to believe that Europe is now secure – that the threats have been overcome.

The lack of urgency we have seen in recent years is only partly due to Brexit dominating the agenda.  President Macron’s visionary reform agenda should have sparked a dramatic new debate about Europe but too many countries, including Ireland have refused to step-up and engage.

Fianna Fáil believes that now is the time for Ireland to move on fundamental issues concerning the reform and strengthening of the European Union.

Too much of what the Union does is focused on implementing the ‘hard power’ of regulation – and not enough is about enabling practical development. 

Its budget is wholly inadequate for the task that has been set.  Europe needs to break the cycle of destructive negotiations over the Budget and to create a larger resource.

1% of combined EU income is simply too small to make a difference.  It forces the zero-sum approach of countries trying to take away from one important policy, the CAP, in order to fund others.  We believe a mechanism needs to be adopted to allow at very least the research, innovation and climate challenges which we have all agreed to be funded at a much higher level without undermining other programmes.

We also believe that the work has to continue to develop the Banking Union until it is complete.  There have been small, welcome steps forward in the last year.  This has to continue.

As the Union develops it also has to remember that it must allow each state to retain the reasonable opportunity to grow and prosper.  The agenda of tax harmonisation and limiting legitimate competition in competitiveness between countries is economically marginal to the Union as a whole but potentially dangerous in terms of its basic legitimacy.

A Union focused on enabling states rather than controlling them is a Union which can gain, retain and build a secure legitimacy in the years ahead.

And of course we have to be absolutely resolute in defending the core European values of democracy, freedom of expression and the rule of law.  Without these the European Union has no purpose.  It is just an economic block indifferent to what happens to its citizens.

There can be no stepping-back from our values.  And in a world where others are increasingly unreliable, we need to step-up and say to the wider world that human rights are our concern.  We threaten no one – but we have the right to assert our values.

It is important within this for every member state to understand how communities in many parts of the Union, and particularly the newer member states, have become detached and see a conflict between their needs and the agenda of Europe.  The major demographic waves within Europe have left many isolated and feeling neglected.  We have to work harder to build relations away from the Council chambers.  We have to try to return at least in part to the much closer sense of common purpose which defined the Union when it was much smaller.

For Ireland, both the process of joining the then EEC and our first decades of membership were profoundly empowering. 

We were then by some distance the poorest member of the Union but we had little difficulty developing deep connections with the other states.  In today’s Union this is much harder, and its absence is a real problem.

The renewed Europe which we want has to understand this and to show that we respect and value the contribution of all states – and that our shared values are relevant to all.

I and my party are campaigning to deliver a new government for our country. 

We believe in taking urgent action on critical issues like health, housing and the cost of living.  But we are also determined to deliver a new government which is more active in promoting reconciliation on this island, deep and permanent cooperation with our neighbour and making Ireland a leading member of the effort to renew Europe.

To make the European Union, stronger and more effective.

To increase its ability to directly enable development and to tackle the generational challenges of innovation and climate change.

To protect the core values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

For us a strong Ireland is an Ireland that gets off the sidelines and helps Europe to move on from Brexit.

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