Speech of Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil, Statements on Northern Ireland, Dáil Éireann
Published on: 15 December 2017
By any objective measure we are at a major crisis point in relation to Northern Ireland. If we are to overcome this our first challenge is to be honest in recognising the scale and origin of the problem.
In statements earlier today and last week I dealt with the Brexit issue in greater depth than is possible in this session – so I would like to concentrate on the fundamental, ongoing issues we face.
Nearly 20 years after the people of this island voted in free referendums for an agreed set of constitutional principles, institutions and a path to reconciliation we are at a moment of deadlock and disillusionment.
Where once there was rising hope that different sides could work together today we find a rising detachment and cynicism.
The agreed institutions are suspended. The two increasingly dominant parties in Northern Ireland continue to focus on their own rather than shared interests.
Public faith in politics is at a new low, which civil servants and ministers from English constituencies impose cuts across already strained public services. And of course the anti-Brexit majority has been left voiceless as this destructive policy moves forward.
Most damaging of all, the central engine behind past progress, which was the close and active collaboration of the governments in Dublin and London, has effectively broken down. When even senior government ministers in the two administrations are trading jibes in the media, something is deeply wrong.
This is not a situation which developed overnight. It is the inevitable outcome of years of complacency and drift. It has been a slow-motion car crash lasting years.
Fianna Fáil takes no comfort in the fact that our party has been warning since late 2011 that a crisis was likely. The governments had moved to an explicit policy of leaving the DUP and Sinn Fein to sort out matters between themselves. Initially their focus was squeezing parties they saw as communal rivals and asserting their dominance.
In area after area their priority was to maximise their party control rather than to deliver good government. That’s why there were so many scandals about funding being channelled to front groups and about sectarian appointments by ministers.
Many key elements of the 1998 settlement were allowed to be marginalised and the dynamism of various initiatives was undermined. Too often the emphasis was on holding meetings rather than ensuring that they achieved anything.
For example, it is six years since we were first told that proposals for developing North/South institutions were on the way, yet nothing has appeared. The British/Irish Council meets regularly but the British Prime Minister no longer sees it as important enough as to merit attendance.
If you look back on the record of this House in the last six years we have paid nowhere near enough attention to Northern Ireland. However on those occasions when we did hold debates there was a consistent pattern. First of all the government would state how well everything was going.
Then we would challenge this, warn against a potential breakdown and point to clear evidence of inaction on key issues. This in turn was followed by Sinn Fein agreeing with the government that everything was going fine in Stormont and aggressively dismissing the idea that it had any case to answer on any issue. The record is full of examples of Deputy Adams brushing off the significance of events and statements which deepened divisions.
Separately we saw regular statements from the First and Deputy First Minister about how well they were working together. On one occasion, Peter Robinson and the late Martin McGuinness attended a dinner in Dublin at which they said relations had never been better and problems were simply the imagination of people who should know better.
This complacency was followed last year by a new dynamic where the two parties became more aggressive. This culminated in the decision of Sinn Fein’s leadership to instruct its Executive members to withdraw and to cause the second election in a year.
The deadlock we have seen since that election is causing sustained damage not least to public faith in politics.
No one can be complacent about the future in Northern Ireland. It is impossible to miss the fact that the foundations for conflict and division, albeit at a much lower level than in the past, remain in place.
Sectarianism remains entrenched in important parts of the community. When Deputy Adams can, as he did, laugh off saying about Unionists that he would “break these bastards” a shared basis of democratic respect in clearly not fully established.
Deep poverty and disillusionment remain in marginalised communities which have in the past been exploited by violent groups.
And of course the ideology of violence is still promoted even by groups which have been persuaded to join democratic politics. The Provisionals movement continues to glorify an illegitimate struggle rejected by the majority of nationalists in all parts of this island. At the recent Sinn Fein Ard Fheis the loudest cheers were for people who murdered and maimed in the face of the overwhelming and constantly renewed opposition of the Irish people. Equally, in some loyalist areas paramilitarism continues to be admired and honoured.
Simply because the open violence is largely gone does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that we have fulfilled the potential of what Seamus Mallon, a genuine Irish republican hero who faced down the sinister extremes terrorising his community, described as not a finality but “a new dispensation” to work for the interests of all.
It is noteworthy to compare the very different experiences of devolved government in Scotland to that of Northern Ireland.
Both achieved devolution within a year of each other and with a similar level of support in referendums. Comparable polling in 2001 and 2002 showed similar levels of trust in the devolved administration’s commitment to work in the best interests of the people. However in recent years there has been a stark divergence.
In Northern Ireland less than one third trust that the people they elect are working in their interests. In contrast, nearly two thirds in Scotland have had this trust.
We don’t just need to find a way of getting through this crisis, we need a determined effort to address the recurring problems which have undermined the working of the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement and have undermined the delivery of the good government which the people of Northern Ireland so desperately seek.
One of our most important challenges is to understand how the governments have moved away from basic principles and actions which were central to every piece of progress achieved in the past.
One of the most disturbing elements of last week’s events was the repeated insistence not just by the DUP but by the British government that Northern Ireland cannot be treated as a separate case to other parts of the UK. This is the reversal of 43 years of policy.
In Sunningdale, in the Anglo-Irish Agreement and most importantly in the Good Friday Agreement the British government explicitly accepted that Northern Ireland is distinct from the rest of the UK. For 43 years they have conceded the principle that the Irish government should be consulted on matters concerning Northern Ireland. In the various agreements, structures requiring such consultation were created. It is this recognition of Northern Ireland’s distinct position that has been the very core of overcoming historic problems.
Each of the four elements of the UK has a distinct constitutional status. Each has separate rules on various matters, including important taxation matters. For example, Northern Ireland has the right to vary corporation tax.
The idea that for the UK economy to function all parts must be equal in all things is a radical departure from 20 years of devolution and stated policy in relation to Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular.
In fact the new policy is actually more extreme than that of Margaret Thatcher. She abandoned the “as British as Finchley” idea in government and signed an agreement which gave Irish officials a formal role in Northern Ireland. Equally she developed failed devolution initiatives.
I am glad that the Taoiseach has backed away from the clearly wrong and self-serving statement that he is somehow departing from the practice of previous governments by refusing to ignore the position of people in Northern Ireland.
What he should now do is to return to the policy of many predecessors in terms of trying to build active and meaningful cooperation with politicians in Northern Ireland and Britain.
No matter what other crises were in hand, Taoisigh such as Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen ensured that they had a strong and productive set of relationships in Belfast and London. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have spoken about how their strongest bilateral relationship was with Dublin. The relationship between Albert Reynolds and John Major showed how breakthroughs could be achieved with London even with a weak Tory government in office.
The absence of this dynamic and the absence of permanent, informal and informal engagement across the community in Northern Ireland has led to the situation where the governments are speaking at each other through the media and our government is engaged in public sniping with a major party.
It also leads to the situation where statements from Dublin can be easily misrepresented, such as the manifestly absurd idea that Sinn Fein, our most anti-EU party, is somehow driving Brexit policy.
The idea of an inclusive government for Northern Ireland remains its best hope of permanently overcoming entrenched problems. It is the only way of developing and implementing policies to address the unique problems faced by communities in all parts of Northern Ireland.
Of the actions we need the first and most important is for an end to the blockade on the Assembly and Executive in order for the Brexit emergency to be addressed.
The majority of people in Northern Ireland today have no voice in the running of their affairs or in addressing the overwhelming danger posed by Brexit. Deputy Adams quite rightly recently described Brexit as “the greatest challenge of this generation”. Yet he insists that nothing will be done on Brexit until other matters are dealt with first.
Those other matters are very important, even when they were largely ignored as a reason for collapsing the institutions in the first place. They must be addressed and time cannot be limitless. But nothing is as pressing and potentially irreversible as the likely damage of the Brexit mess.
It is sad reality that the only Northern Irish voice currently working to block the worst parts of tory policy is the Independent Unionist MP from North Down. Her efforts to have respect for the Good Friday Agreement recognised in Brexit legislation has shown a fearless fighter and earned her far more respect than those who are blocking the pro-Remain majority in the Assembly from being able to speak.
It is only when the institutions are working that the complex arrangements required for Northern Ireland post-Brexit can realistically be addressed. In fact, it is only then that an impact study can be carried out.
We also need a renewed commitment by our government and the British government to show the commitment and leadership required to restore the institutions and to make them work. The hands-off approach has failed disastrously and we must have a return to a situation where, to borrow a phrase, the Irish government refused to leave Northern Ireland behind in its list of daily priorities.
In developing a Brexit response, we have to work to ensure that there is a plan in place which no matter what happens on the overall UK/EU deal prevents economic and social barriers being erected on this island.
And we also need a new effort to develop a long-term agenda for tackling poverty and disadvantage in Northern Ireland and in the Border region as a whole. There is currently no credible development model for Northern Ireland. All there is a constant effort to try to mitigate the worst impact of the withdrawal of funding from London. Growth and prosperity are the only way of removing the foundations of division and conflict – and its long past time we had an effort to find a new approach.
After two decades of undoubted progress, this moment of crisis in Northern Ireland cannot be dismissed as a passing problem. It is the result of failures over a number of years and a strategy which was at best complacent.
Every person and every party of goodwill needs to acknowledge the crisis and act. They must act to restore the institutions. They must act to develop a plan for addressing the damage of Brexit. They must act to renew the effort to overcome sectarianism. They must demand that our governments return to close and active cooperation.