Micheál Martin invokes Hume to argue that the centre has, can and must continue to hold…

“Will it be said, when the array of tombs which stretch from end to end of Europe have been multiplied, that there had been plenty of time.., but that the statesmen waited too long and the soldiers took control?”

– Eamon De Valera, address to the League of Nations

I’ve been away over the weekend so I missed Micheal Martin’s speech at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties. The media generally picked up on his observation that Brexit could make the prospect of a border poll much closer than before.

Of course, that’s not quite what he said…

The most urgent thing which is required is an immediate end to the hands-off detachment of recent years.

It is a sad reality that our government and our media have tended to ignore Northern Ireland except when there is a crisis.  Meeting the challenge of Brexit is a moment to end this and also to begin rebuilding public faith in politics.

No one can seriously question the deep social and economic impact of erecting a hard border on this island.  We have a community of interest which spans political beliefs and we must act accordingly.

It may very well be that the decision of Northern Ireland to oppose the English-driven anti-EU UK majority is a defining moment in Northern politics.  The Remain vote may show people the need to rethink current arrangements.

I hope it moves us towards majority support for unification, and if it does we should trigger a reunification referendum.  However at this moment the only evidence we have is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to maintain open borders and a single market with this jurisdiction, and beyond that with the rest of Europe.

Last week the government confirmed that it is willing to proceed with an inclusive dialogue on defining and promoting an all-island approach to Brexit.  This is an opportunity to reach out to excluded groups, to show that a broader range of interests than those articulated by the dominant political parties can be heard.

I have in particular stressed our belief that civil society must be included together with business, unions and professional organisations.

But we also have to insist that the core principles of the Belfast Agreement about promoting inclusive governance be honoured in Stormont. [Emphasis added]

Most striking is his pitch for the power of the centre ground in politics, and not just in Ireland…

The complacency of the post-Cold War ‘End of History’ thesis has disappeared and it is far from clear what will replace it. As we have seen in recent days and weeks, dramatic events are unfolding all the time.

What is most striking is that so far it is the extremes which are setting the terms of the debate.

They fully understand the nature of economic insecurity, cultural suspicions and political inertia – and they have set about seeking to ruthlessly exploit them.  They are not in the business of tough choices and credible alternatives.

They are offering easy solutions – providing targets to blame and pretending that all problems can be overcome if only an identified enemy would get out of the way.

And in the face of this there has been a mixture of denial and detachment which has fed a sense of alienation from government, politics and the established media.

The most common response has been to seek a quick return to business as usual. In fact crises have been presented as once-off distortions to be overcome rather than signalling substantial change which must be adapted to.

And this is why time after time, at national and international levels, we see events where the accepted wisdom is proven wrong. Quite simply the gulf between expectations of public opinion and the reality of public opinion has never been larger.

This is not some abstract problem, it goes to the heart of what is today the deepest challenge to democratic societies.

There has been a near complete failure to engage with and understand the ways in which change has impacted on people’s lives and attitudes.  This is a detachment which threatens a dangerous escalation in the cycle of distrust, discontent, division and in some cases violence which is being seen in too many places.

If we do not find a way of reconnecting with the people we serve and standing against those who seek to exploit the current detachment then we are taking immense risks.

And on the particular challenge posed by Brexit

We also face a critical moment in relation to the future of our island as a whole.  After the rush of excitement which followed the new dispensation of the Belfast Agreement, the last few years have been defined by drift and disengagement.  Growing disillusionment amongst the people of Northern Ireland with politics has been reflected in rapidly declining participation and growing sectarianism.

Last year’s general election saw the return of openly sectarian campaigning to the mainstream. Sinn Féin went as far as to publish a leaflet calling for Catholics to vote for them in order to get one over on the Protestants.

Most dangerously, many marginal communities are showing patterns of disillusionment with politics which could provide a breeding ground for new extremism.

Against this background the Brexit vote has added a new risk.  It threatens to set back a model of shared development which, in spite of many problems, has achieved a lot and could achieve much more.

The introduction of new barriers between both parts of this island would potentially set us back decades.

The most urgent thing which is required is an immediate end to the hands-off detachment of recent years. It is a sad reality that our government and our media have tended to ignore Northern Ireland except when there is a crisis.

Meeting the challenge of Brexit is a moment to end this and also to begin rebuilding public faith in politics. [Emphasis added]

He pivots to ‘first cause’…

England is not an extreme country, but there was a dark and unsavoury side to the anti-EU advocacy which helped deliver the England-based majority for the UK to leave the EU. We saw the classic scapegoating of an “other” or a “them” who could be blamed for all discontents.

Their campaign was based on the idea that ‘if only “we” took back power and “they” were kept out we could rediscover a glorious past’.

I have no doubt that this is where you will always end up if you indulge divisive rhetoric and allow it to become part of the mainstream.

The Tory party, once a force for international cooperation, encouraged the scapegoating of Europe, which became a scapegoating of immigrants and ended up with a referendum which threatens fifty years of progress in Europe.

If you look at the strength of the French National Front, Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria and many others throughout Europe there is an inescapable conclusion – if you indulge the extremes you strengthen them.


It is easy for national politicians to point to it, and to its many obvious flaws, and say that Europe must get its act together.  But blaming Europe and ignoring its achievements has become a direct threat to our national and collective interests.

What we must do now is to get through the Brexit issue through a relentless focus and an inclusive process.  We must not appease aggressive behaviour on Europe’s borders which has seen countries invaded and partitioned in the name of a new imperialism. Beyond this we have to adopt a new approach where we show respect and take responsibility.

Most of all we must reject the false definitions of Europe’s enemies.  We must not co-opt their rhetoric of division and fear – we must fight it by showing tolerance at home and abroad.

You don’t need to know much history to see the parallels of this moment with what happened in the last century.

There is no doubt that our democratic institutions are stronger than they were then, but the growing detachment from politics and falling trust in law-bound international cooperation is a very deep threat.

There is a whole middle section worth mulling on how reporting of politics is breaking down that’s worth reading too.

But in brief, there’s no shortcut to a united Ireland; which can only be achieved through moderation, partnership, the abiding wisdom of people and the value of occupying the centre.

And the Good Friday Agreement must not be bypassed for anyone’s convenience.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Declan Doyle

    ‘I hope it moves us towards majority support for unification’

    That says it all. He has caught up with SF and now FG are on board. Lets approach it head on rather than try twist and turn in the breeze.

  • eamoncorbett

    Good speech from someone who is not a fan of FF ,mbut I feel it will like the Taoiseach’s own speech be binned by the DUP before the ink is dry . No surrender on any front to Nationalism or the ROI . If an economic case were offered to Unionism guaranteeing them a 10 % increase in their standard of living in a UI situation it would be rejected , that’s the nature of the beast . The Unionist position is based primarily on vengeance toward SF and not the prosperity of NI per say , it is also motivated by an irrational hatred of the South which when pinned down it cannot be rationally explained . I’m not referring to pro union evenhanded Protestants in this post , more to agenda driven hatemongers who spout this stuff all the time . SF would do well to keep out of this debate as the past will be constantly thrown at them
    and vice versa.
    Any lead up to such a referendum would be even worse than the one we’ve just witnessed with raw hatred on a grand scale , with everything from Le Mon to Bloody Sunday rehashed for political gain , stories about NHS versus private , how to deal with an inflated public service in the North , policing and justice , the threat from Loyalism .
    I think a spell of some form of joint authority would have to endure before a referendum would even have a chance of success and if the new found enmity between the 2 main parties intensifies such a scenario could well become closer .

  • Thomas Barber

    Eammon your under the illusion that unionism will always have a veto over the constitutional issue and the British will always honour it, the British did not get the name perfidious albion for nothing. The fact that the British government has accepted that people born in this region of the UK are not British says it all about the illusion that Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley.

  • Obelisk

    I’m still of the opinion we are playing a waiting game.

    The constitutional issue is back on the table here, but (and I know I keep going on about this) it’s really all down to Scotland.

    If Scotland stays, it will be as radical for us as Brexit is. It will mean there is no prospect of the United Kingdom breaking up in the next twenty-five to thirty years. And it may augur a constitutional re-ordering across the United Kingdom specifically designed to head off Scottish Independence becoming an issue for a very long time.

    Such a re-ordering would again up-end our assumptions and I believe it would more or less fortify the Union for a time. Not forever, but likely beyond our lifetimes.

    If Scotland leaves, then it is again a whole different ball game. But it’s all down to Scotland.

  • Thomas Barber

    Yes Gavin Scotland would indeed be the first chink in the armour of the union and yesterdays Trident vote all but ensured there will be another referendum in Scotland. Why would the Scottish people want and be forced to pay through the nose for weapons of mass destruction in their county when England wouldn’t have them. Why would the Scottish people want to make themselves a target for terrorists housing a nuclear deterrent that is totally dependant on others not of the same nationality, not even of the same side of the planet and to eternally pay for the privilege of doing this without the consent of the Scottish people.

  • Obelisk

    All those questions were asked the last time and they voted to stay in.

    We cannot presume what answer the Scots will give next time either. But we must recognise that if they chose remain a second time, the path for reunification in Ireland becomes immeasurably more difficult…I would say impossible.

  • eamoncorbett

    No Thomas unfortunately I didn’t get to finish the article as I was called away , I was about to talk about change and how it comes around in all our lives and that includes Unionism , obviously I don’t know what that change will be , only that it is inevitable .
    I voted against the GFA because it did not equalise the constitutional position of NI .
    Most of the problems that plague Stormont can be traced to partition in some form or other , but the point I was trying to make was that staunch Unionism will play every card in the book including ridicule , IPJ already at it to rubbish a UI , expect street demos worse than any fleg riots . I don’t think any serious person ever thought NI as British as Finchley except for that Tory whose name escapes me that visited S Armagh in the eighties.

  • Brian Walker

    Well yes Mick. this might be a counterblast to me. But themes in political speeches have a charge of their own that isn’t always subsumed in context. As every savvy politician knows. Commenting on Martin’s speech alone I said, “ nothing too terrible here.” But when Kenny echoes it apparently ad lib, it takes on a new significance. For instance, the Armagh- born Irish historian of the age of enlightenment Ian McBride sees it this way, writing in the Guardian.

    “After Brexit, Northern Irish politics will again be dominated by the border.”


    Martin has a go at everybody including the EU. It is in Fianna Fail’s interest to downplay the performance of the Assembly as Sinn Fein is the main target and biggest threat. This is good opposition stuff

    But the immediately relevant question is raised, whether the Irish government intends to raise a border poll as a factor if they don’t like the way the Brexit negotiations are going. For me it’s the wrong question at the wrong time. And right away it marks a change in the British-Irish relationship and makes cohesion in the Assembly that bit more difficult.

  • mickfealty

    To be fair to both Martin and the Taoiseach they never quite said what they were alleged to have said Brian. It’s surely naive to think that the UK could slam the brakes on the EU and there be no reaction in the Republic to what might be looked at as a hostile move.

    At the same time Martin is clearly trying to claim the moral high ground by extolling the primary virtues of moderate. centrist politics.

    What I think we are seeing here is a self concious attempt to secure a smooth path for any future transition now that the UK is on its way out of the over-arching supranational structure of the EU.

    That will inevitably lead to discussions about the timing of any future border poll but only SF is pressing the case for one right now. Brexit has reproblemstised the border in a way no Irish party wanted or looked for: which makes it incumbent on all Irish political leaders to secure the means transferring a smooth transition should it occur in due course.

    As noted in the piece Martin is careful to emphasise the primacy of the GFA, a back reference to SF’s serial breaches of same (in the link) in its call for an unconstitutional single referendum of all of those eligible to vote on the island.

    SF are still not a primary target in the south at least for Martin. It’s far more existential than that. FF pride themselves as one of the key players who delivered the GFA, which is one reason why they are keen to re-place it at the centre of business.

    It was they after all who secured the necessary changes (by public plebescite) to Articles 2 & 3. The other aspect hinges on the centrality of the treaty in regulating relationships on and between these islands. As he rightly points out such agreement only persist so long as the centre is able and willing to hold.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, you pay them both a bit too much credit in your eloquent interpretation. Brexit of course was not directed at Ireland. One can hardly have expected the situation in Ireland to be a decider. Even the most extreme Brexiteers want to minimise the damage. And as Deaglan de Breadun said: Dublin clearly needs to be London’s strongest ally in securing the best voluntary redundancy terms, provided of course those conditions do not affect Irish interests in a seriously negative way.”.

    I did link to Martin’s text in full, noting that he left out the DUP from his forum in chats with journalists not in the main speech and that Enda added a border poll ad lib in an obvious reaction. This suggests that neither had fully thought out his position. An “existential” subject rather than a bit of dirty politics? Perhaps both. Both men are honourable and well intentioned but anxious about guarding their republican flank.

    I think the Dublin establishment have always tended to smother the issue of a divided Ireland in the balm of “Europe” which was once an ever closer union and now even without Brexit, is nothing of the sort. Humeism alas, is out of date. (See Vernon Bogdanor for a view which be music to Irish ears but not exactly on the current agenda).


    An ever closer Ireland in a constitutional sense may be equally further away. I wonder if that’s what they really fear deep down or want to flush it out, as one possible consequence of Brexit?

  • Declan Doyle

    With respect you are sounding a bit like someone who is caught in a state of irrational denial. Martin said in his speech that he hopes Brexit will lead to a majority support for a UI. Left, right or centre; it is difficult for him to be any clearer on what he wants, eventually. Enda Kenny himself only a couple of years ago said he believed a United Ireland was inevitable; again a clear sign of how FG want the future to pan out. Essentially both FF and FG are moving into the same space as SF but doing so through a combination of over diplomatic verbosity and cute hoorism. They are attempting to sell their aspirations as moderate centre ground reason but the subtext is as clear and as sharp as a slap in the face. How anybody thought that a vote in favour of Brexit would not put the border on the table is simply astonishing. The conversation has started and it’s not going away you know.

  • Zig70

    FF can bear some responsibility for Brexit in that the draconian application of blame for bankers and politicians was placed firmly on the common man and his offspring. The EU as a neo-liberal out of control nightmare with armies of unelected technocrats running it to feather private companies nests is firmly planted in peoples attitude to it. Martin may well extole its virtues but I cannot believe he can overlook its failings while the wound is still open. It isn’t just immigration and English nationalism.
    As for his cuts as SF, come on up and see how your rhetoric sits, even the SDLP or Alliance can’t find light in the centre that crosses divides.
    SF risk repeating the ideological errors of 1916 without the kick that resulted in Ireland’s partial release from England’s control, with a political thought wedded to a utopian socialist Republic that didn’t happen then and won’t happen now, but repackaged as a ‘new Ireland’. It is this that prevents them from describing a path to a UI that they believe in as they know it would be ridiculed by all sides.
    For all his fine words, all we are left with is FF support raising UI up the agenda and there are plenty within his party that will be expecting more.

  • mickfealty

    That last point about fear, in contradistinction to the ‘red meat’ of a border poll now getting greedily consumed here and elsewhere, is probably true. You’re right too about how all southern based parties have used Europe to imply unity is on its way when reality it remains deeply problematic.

    Hume gets a run out because of the title of that first lecture, but the relevance is Martin’s pitch for FF as a centrist party which can make things hold together at a time when everything else is getting smashed to pieces.

    Look at the dear old UK Labour Party? There are rewards for a party which chooses to stick together at moments of crisis as FF did after 2011.

    There’s a segment on domestic politics where he lays into political analysts for getting the story wrong over FF by choosing to focus on facts and material which only confirmed their own biases.

    He has a point, particularly with those who lectured the party to go in with FG (in part because this is what they’d long predicted from reading the polls.

    I also think that Martin is raiding Dev to throw a much larger shape than he’s assumed heretofore, and one cast against the meltdown in the Republic as early reflection of what’s now happening in much larger countries.

    Good government, he says, is to be preferred to strong government – so the evolution of FF continues apace.

    As for the red meat of a border poll, now the UK is self ejecting itself from the EU unification must become explicit, whether it’s driven by fear or otherwise. It’s hard to measure whether it’s less likely to happen now than it was before, because despite the glad optimism of some here on Slugger, it’s never looked remotely likely with the U.K. inside the EU tent.

    If there’s dirty politics afoot (isn’t there always) then it’s not because FF see SF so much as a threat as an opportunity.

    The prediction was that SF would own Dublin in 2016, therefore 2016. The state celebrations pushed them out. This might be seen as an attempt to take possession of a border poll and reshape in FF’s (and the GFAs) more moderate and longer term image.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, It’s good to have a little dialogue about this. It has helped me reach a simple fundamental point about the unintended consequences of tours d-horizon at summer schools which are attractive in themselves. Of course we want leading politicians to think freely and aloud. But the immediate aim of countering Brexit is to preserve the Common Travel Area and shift whatever border controls we unfortunately end up with to GB ports of entry. This won’t be easy. Politically if not perhaps legally, it will require the support of the unionists. That is why it helps not to bang on about a future border poll just now and in Martins’ case, really silly to blurt out that the DUP needn’t be asked to take part in an all-Ireland forum. In today’s world “all-Ireland ” needs the DUP.

    I’ve also questioned the point – which seems to be taken for granted by many nationalists – that the GFA intrinsically binds NI to the EU. I don’t see how. It certainly makes NI law like all UK law subordinate to EU law where EU law applies and assumes that EU membership continues. But it could never have gone further than that. Although it has been given an aura of Irish unity the GFA is not an instrument of joint sovereignty. Amending the NI Act will be tricky to remove subordination to EU law. It will be claimed that it breaches the GFA as an international treaty and that Irish permission is required. Standby for legal argument here. But the essential pillars of the GFA are unaffected and the Irish should accept that. The alternative is to keep the EU provisions hanging there and let the courts d sort it out .

  • mickfealty

    Declan, in my experience “with respect” is a cliched parlance which usually indicates the opposite. What precisely do you think the leaders of the two main parties felt on the matter of unification?

    Every republican I’ve ever known knows exactly what they want, but few have spent much time thinking about how to get it. Calling for a border poll every five minutes is just another space holder.

    It’s in every article of association of every republican body founded since partition. It is an article of faith. FF and FG aren’t moving anywhere in terms of their espousal of a UI or even a Border Poll.

    The news for slow learners is that it’s been sitting on the table, bold as brass, ever since the GFA was signed between the UK’s New Labour and Republic’s FF administrations (SF did not sign up).

    Martin argues that it cannot be achieved by espousing sectional or sectarian interests but through an Irish Republican project which expands the definition of what constitutes the Common Good.

    Many of the lazier assumptions that have held heretofore (via the pooling of sovereignty within the EU) are almost completely null and void. A new fresh start must now be made.

  • mickfealty

    I agree with you on the second. Magical thinking is a popular participatory sport in NI, particularly amongst nationalists (Unionists have mostly had it beaten out of them by an aggressive liberal media).

    Politicians abandon core narratives at their peril Brian. Blair’s Clause Four moment brought the Labour party huge short term benefits, but it is arguable that the debate now raging is a consequence of that.

    Pragmatically, yes, the CTA is the only game in town. But surely the Republic would be remiss not to re-iterate a case for unification at a juncture when it is the UK which has set political matters in flux?

    In politics narrative still matters.

  • Declan Doyle

    What it actually means is – I have grear respect for you and your views generally but in relation to this statement it seems like you might have just banged your head or are possibly under the influence of a mood altering substance.

  • mickfealty

    Okay, so start again if I’ve missed the point you were trying to make…?

  • Roger

    Joint authority isn’t an option. GFA lays down the options.

  • Roger

    UKNI will be marking its centenary shortly. Perfidious who?

  • Roger

    Not of the same nationality ? Who was the last Labour PM again?

  • Thomas Barber

    Would you like me to post up all the countries the Crown used to lord it over where im sure people like yourself thought the same thing.

  • Thomas Barber

    Obviously you haven’t a clue about Trident, who supplies the system, who maintains it and who ultimately decides whether it actually does the job its supposed to do.

  • eamoncorbett

    St. Andrews and Stormont House are the latest instalments of the GFA and under St Andrews the Irish government would have an enhanced role in the affairs of NI should Stormont collapse , if Brexit means a ‘hard’ border then expect SF to pull the rug from under Stormont . The Irish government along with its British counterparts have underwritten all agreements to date and have to be consulted if glitches occur . Paisley in his haste to grab power at St Andrews signed up to this deal against the wishes of most of his party.

  • Roger

    With respect to matters in the domain of the local government executive in UKNI the Irish government has no right to be consulted. That’s been the position since GFA institutions established. So, for sure, where the local executive is suspended there is a broader range of matters concerning UKNI that the Irish government would have modest rights in respect of. Limited consultation and a formal arena within which to express its views. Which views can be entirely ignored by the government having jurisdiction over UKNI. The GFA rules out joint authority, not that it was ever really something the UK would consider. Out, out, out etc. GFA formalizes that. It sets out in a legally binding treaty what the options for UKNI are as regards constitutional status. Joint authority isn’t in there. Of course treaties can be amended by agreement or even broken.

    I can’t really imagine a hard border. Queues waiting to cross and customs searching boots. It could happen I suppose. Somehow seems unlikely. Could they really step that far backwards. Time will tell.

  • eamoncorbett

    Are you saying that the Maryfield secretariat and Charlie Flanagan and the rest of the Irish civil service were all just playing cards or something . The Maryfield secretariat spoke directly for the Nationalist community , it had the authority to do so under a binding agreement , it was never a talking shop i know i remember it , im writing from memory not Wiki or any other kind of bias .
    Charlie Flanagan is co-guarantor of the GFA , that in itself is a diminution of sovereignty albeit in a small way , to put it in another way Boris Johnson does not have any input of any sort in the internal affairs of the Republic .

  • Roger

    Boris Johnson is an MP. He helps pass laws for Northern Ireland.
    Charlie Flanagan is a TD. He helps pass laws for Ireland but not for Northern Ireland.
    There’s never been an inch of diminution of UK sovereignty. There has been more cooperation and even modest formal consultations.

    Under the arrangements agreed under the GFA Ireland renounced all its former claims to sovereignty over Northern Ireland. Bizarrely it even included in its own constitution, extra hurdles to reunification. If the UK decided to cede the Isle of Man to Ireland, the U.K. could do so (in theory) by a simple treaty between UK and IRL. But if UK decided to cede UKNI to IRL under IRL’s own constitution 1) the UK would need to establish that the majority of UKNI people had democratically consented plus; without democratic consent it could not legally happen and 2) IRL would also have to hold a referendum in its own territory to determine if its people consented.

    For a state that campaigned for decades for reunification article 3 of its own constitution beggars belief. I don’t know who exactly was the draftsman. Probably a committee. Perhaps it had a few undercover UKNI unionist members. It really is extraordinary to me.

  • eamoncorbett

    It is Charlie Flanagan ‘s job to guarantee the survival of an internal UK institution ie; Stormont along with the UK government , that alone is a derogation of British sovereignty in UKNI as you call it , the Maryfield secretariat was also a breach of sovereignty ,how could it not be . As for Article 3 I’ll concede that one to you.

  • Roger

    Supreme power and authority to govern
    There’s a few definitions but I think above sums up sovereignty fairly. Let me know if you disagree.
    Conferring on another state rights to express views (which views the receiving state can freely choose to ignore) just does not affect sovereignty.

  • eamoncorbett

    And yet Mrs Thatcher says the Republic must have a say in our province , we say NEVER, NEVER,NEVER, NEVER. With that quote I will end my debate with you Roger.

  • Thomas Barber

    Seems like Sinn Fein is open to suggestion Roger.

    “Sinn Féin ‘willing to look at alternatives to united Ireland’”


  • Roger

    They should have brought it up then….years ago. Not that it was ever an option. Now it’s formally off the table. GFA contemplates a Brexit style in out vote. No other options. In out vote in UKNI plus a vote in IRL too.