Speech by FF Leader, Micheál Martin on Northern Ireland

Published on: 29 March 2017

Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil

Statement on Northern Ireland Executive

Dáil Éireann, Wednesday 29th March 2017

In the nearly two decades since the victory of democratic politics on this island we have faced many moments of truth.  The process of reaching and implementing an agreed future was never going to be easy.

However many of the barriers to progress which we have faced was not inevitable.  They have involved key participants stepping away from both the spirit and the detail of different agreements.

It has directly frustrated the will of the people of Ireland that its representatives move beyond old fights to focus on the urgent economic, social and cultural issues of today.

One of the most destructive strategies adopted by certain parties has been to always manoeuvre to place blame on others.  Because they never accept their own contribution to reinforcing distrust and undermining progress we have been constantly caught in a cycle of denial, distrust and crisis.

We have now had two Assembly elections in a year.  We have had three parties refuse to serve in the Executive because of the behaviour of the DUP and Sinn Fein in systematically excluding them from information and negotiations.  And we have had Sinn Fein withdrawing from the Executive because of a refusal to establish an inquiry which has actually been established.

There is no more manoeuvring possible.

The two largest parties either agrees to create an Executive or the entire foundation of the agreed institutions could fall.

Fianna Fáil has for a number of years been consistent in pointing to the dangers posed by the behaviour of the two parties in government.  For some time this was angrily denied by them and their cheerleaders, but the gross dysfunction of how they have run the Executive meant that a deep impasse was inevitable.

They have consistently failed to show respect for the core principles of the Agreement, and in particular the requirement that the Executive operate in an open and inclusive manner.

And while this has been going on deep problems have been allowed to escalate.  Northern Ireland has the highest poverty rates on these islands.

The crisis in its health service gets worse every year.  Sectarian incidents have increased as have shootings and beating by paramilitary thugs.  And of course we have the British government moving forward with the historically destructive Brexit process with no political leadership speaking for the people of Northern Ireland.

Enough time has been wasted.

Not days or weeks – but years have been wasted.

It’s time to stop the manoeuvres and start delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.

It is instructive that the Cash for Ash scandal has been referred to less and less in reports about negotiations.  It was never the real cause for the collapse and addressing it now is not difficult.

Given how fast the Inquiry is likely to be completed and how the Sinn Fein Minister for Finance both established it and set its terms of reference, calls for an independent investigation have obviously been met.

If some extra guarantees are required to demonstrate that the DUP leader cannot interfere with the Inquiry these should be relatively easy to put in place.

What is needed is not just an agreement for the next few weeks but for the next four years.  We believe that there are a series of specific issues which must be addressed if the past cycle of inaction and crisis is to be broken.

First, there must be a clear commitment by all involved to fully implement past agreements.  These are not optional extras; they are formal and binding agreements.

Equality legislation, an Irish Language act and other measures are core parts of the architecture of the settlement.  It is true that Deputy Adams caused considerable trouble when he referred to the equality agenda as “the Trojan Horse of the entire republican strategy.

Because he is only ever dismissive of criticism he has refused to withdraw this comment – but the equality agenda is not a party or sectarian agenda, it is about protections which will be in place irrespective of who forms the majority in the years ahead.

In fully implementing the agreements both the DUP and Sinn Fein must also address those areas where they have jointly agreed to ignore commitments.  The Civic Forum was shut down by them and must be restored – especially to provide outreach to politically marginalised communities.

And the requirement to share information and have inclusive discussions must be honoured.  Respecting the mandates of others is not an option.  The duopoly they have operated ignores nearly half of the population and must end.

The next element of a lasting agreement is for a new programme for government which shows a commitment to ambitious action on Northern Ireland deep social and economic problems.  The financial reality is that there are limits to what can be implemented, but there are no limits on undertaking proper planning and showing what can be done with the right support.

There will be no stable Executive unless the two governments understand that their decision in 2011 to take a hands off approach to the North has been disastrous.  The basic analysis that the parties in Northern Ireland had to be left alone was and remains flawed.  The two governments have an essential role in creating the environment for constructive dialogue.  They were never intended to be external observers – they are supposed to be full participants in shaping a positive future for Northern Ireland with the Good Friday settlement being a starting point not a conclusion.

On a related point any new agreement which can last must address the continued failure to engage properly in the North/South dimension of the Agreement.  There has been no progress at all in the review and expansion of formal North/South bodies.  This is partly because of our government’s stepping back and failing to demand progress – but crucially the Executive has adopted an approach of doing as little as possible.

This cooperation threatens no one and simply offers communities on both sides of the border access to improved services and economic development.

The final element of a new agreement which can last is that it must address the critical issue of Brexit.

Irrespective of the DUP’s position in the referendum, Northern Ireland is facing a large and permanent economic threat.  The ‘Hard Brexit for All’ policy from London is the worst possible scenario for Northern Ireland.

The absence of the Executive in recent months has seen Northern Ireland nearly disappear from the Brexit agenda in London.

The White Paper explicitly insists on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach being imposed on the devolved administration.  The London government has not even been willing to commit to retaining the place of the European Convention on Human Rights in Northern Ireland’s courts – surely one of the easiest commitments they could give.
In fact, the interests of Northern Ireland have been so marginalised that it did not even merit a direct mention in the detailed Brexit policy outlined by the UK Labour Party last week.

Northern Ireland and the whole of this island needs the Northern parties to agree a Brexit agenda which seeks special status where this is possible and achieves recognition in London and Brussels for the fact that every permanent resident of Northern Ireland will retain the right to full EU citizenship after Brexit is complete.

The Assembly election did not fundamentally change the structure of Northern Irish politics.  No party changed its support by more than 3.9%, while an undeniably bad result for the DUP saw it lose only 1.1%.

Just as the core support levels are largely intact the problems which caused the early election are largely intact.

This is not about one party or one individual, it is about a wider series of problems which must be addressed if the potential for real economic and social progress in Northern Ireland is to begin to be realised.

We need full implementation of agreements.

We need a respect for the mandates of all parts of the community and not just two parties.

We need a programme for government which addresses poverty, a health system in crisis and other entrenched issues.

We need the governments to once again become partners in Northern Ireland’s development.

We need a new commitment to North/South cooperation.
And we need an urgent commitment to a united approach to reducing the damage which will be caused by Brexit.

Enough time has been wasted.  There has been enough political manoeuvring.  Now is the time for the governments and for the parties to get on with working on behalf of the people.

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