Micheal Martin: NI’s ‘establishment parties’ are failing the Belfast Agreement

Micheal Martin QUB

So Micheal Martin’s speech last night, revisited with my own analysis appended. First the word cloud (kindly generated by John) of Micheal Martin’s speech has one word which stands far out above any other. And it’s Agreement.

Not surprising perhaps since the speech was themed around the coming 15th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. And, it seems, he came to Belfast not to bury, or even just to praise it, but remind his audience of young students at Queens last night of…

…how the potential of that document remains unfulfilled, and to lay down a challenge to us all; to lay down the challenge of unleashing the power and potential of that Agreement, especially in the context of all-Ireland politics, in a way that the political class has so far failed to do.

Fightin’ talk Micheal. Certainly the focus of comment both on our initial thread and in Conor Bradford’s studio interview this morning on Good Morning Ulster was on his candid and sustained attack on Sinn Fein as the major representatives of Irish Republicanism in Northern Ireland: part of Northern Ireland’s ‘political establishment’ as he chose to put it.

Yet Mr Martin did also hammer the British Secretary of State and the Irish Governments for a degree of detachment from the issue of Northern Ireland now devolution appeared to be under sail:

Unfortunately, what has also happened is that the British and Irish governments have significantly disengaged. That’s not to say that they are disinterested, but no one could look at their level of activity at the most senior levels and say that they view the development of the Agreement as a real priority.

In the last two years there we have seen no ambitious initiatives, no new agenda, no sense of urgency. The formal basic structures of the Agreement have been the only focus. There are a lot of warm words, uttered with absolute sincerity – but the scale of involvement and hands-on management required to tackle entrenched problems has been missing.

That’s pretty much the same roster of criticism that Sinn Fein themselves have been criticising for many of the same reasons. The difference is that Sinn Fein themselves are implicated in a grand cycle of negativity that’s been gripping Northern Irish politics for much of the last year.

Mr Martin’s party – now releived of government responsibility in the Republic – is not.

He also notes that the Belfast Agreement was brought about by the self sacrifice of parties and politicians of the moderate middle, who put a peaceful settlement before the direct interests of their own political parties (although there is a decidedly nationalist bent to the subjects of his praise):

The risks for peace taken by John Hume, Seamus Mallon and the SDLP, and their work with Dublin governments, remain a foundation without which the Agreement would have been impossible. On every major issue at every point, they put the people’s interests before their party’s interests and this should never be forgotten.

It is a great success of the Agreement and a victory for moderate politics, that the DUP and Sinn Fein are now sharing power. Without the steady leadership and commitment of centre-ground, constitutional parties over the last twenty years this would have been impossible.

However they remain two parties deeply committed to their own interests. Just as they happily exploited the risks for peace taken by others in the early years of the process, their approach to all issues remains, to this day, primarily motivated by party interests.

Deeper than that he hammers the lazy idea that the mere fact of the existence of power sharing institutions in and of themselves would solve all problems. Along with the sense, perhaps, that those now working these institution remain (however cackhandedly they handle their briefs) above criticism:

Only last week the Taoiseach told me during Dáil questions that he is very happy with the level of engagement on Northern issues. This he justified not because of any particular achievements, but because there have been more meetings of ministerial council than before.

This is exactly the sort of formulaic approach that causes disillusionment. If the main political leaders concentrate on formalities rather than substance, and if they let party interests take precedence over real cross-community engagement how can the potential of this part of Ireland possibly be realised?

Securing all of the benefits of the Agreement require all who care about the future of this island to renew their commitment to a process based on active cooperation. We must have a more urgent focus on the wider agenda of the agreement.

In other words the eschewing of political delivery as a legitimate measure of progress in favour of a continuous (and at times uncontrollable war over symbols is leading to a slow rot in actual politics in Northern Ireland.

One of the more striking passages is where he says that the imperative of the Agreement leadership binds both political traditions on the island to engage positively for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland. Shades of Peter Robinson’s “if we want a better society, it can’t be them and us”:

Parties have a major role to play by changing the ways in which they assert their traditions. For example, as President of Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party, I believe that I have an added responsibility to respect the symbols and traditions of Unionism.

Perhaps the biggest thing which has been missing in the last 15 years has been a willingness of behalf of some to be more challenging of themselves and their own roles in fostering division. To overcome those divisions we need much more openness about the past and more honesty about, and regret for inexcusable actions.

For twenty years my party has been relentless in seeking opportunities to show how all traditions can be valued – and how the act of commemoration does not have to be either triumphalist or sectarian.

We’ve repeatedly addressed what we acknowledged as the failures of the Irish state and sought ways to strengthen supports for minority traditions. For example, for the first time ever the Irish state has specifically commemorated those who died in the service of the British flag.

A culmination of this was the invitation from former Fianna Fáil Leader and Taoiseach Brian Cowen to Queen Elizabeth to undertake a state visit to Dublin. During that visit, she was accompanied by the President and leaders of an independent Irish state as she paid tribute to both those who died on the Somme and those who died in the fight for Ireland’s freedom.

Yet where was Sinn Fein when the British monarch bowed her head in tribute to Padraig Pearse and James Connolly? It was on the street outside chanting and holding protest signs. It was seeking to discipline the one Sinn Fein councillor in the country who knew the party’s position was inexcusable and had the courage to defy it. These were empty and divisive stunts, witnessed by millions.

Sinn Fein cannot be fully committed to all-island, all-community politics if it continues to insist on its own version of history and what it means to be Irish. How can a party be truly all-island and committed to convincing unionists if it sells t-shirts and mugs emblazoned with “IRA undefeated army”?[Emphasis added]

Undoubtedly he pinpoints Sinn Fein as the weak point in the critical fulfilment of the Belfast Agreement. Why? Well apart from the bleedin’ obvious that they are his political rivals, he argues they are obsessed with curating their own legacy and thus failing to create a functional platform for powerful present day action on behalf of its own electorate:

…the non-stop effort at trying to be “more republican than thou” is a direct impediment to fulfilling the potential of the Agreement in terms of all-island development.

It stands in the way of building a credible cross-party agenda and it reinforces the fears of some in Northern Ireland that Sinn Fein does not genuinely respect their place in Irish society.[emphasis added]

And to those who still believe that all that’s needed is an upturn in the southern economy to convince a small section of Unionists to ‘convert’ to United Ireland, he argues that good will cannot be manufactured out of thin air after some fictitious 50% +1 point in the future.


Unionists that will need to be convinced of the benefits of a new Irish State must first be convinced that republicans respect their identity within the current constitutional arrangement.

Parties need to return to the founding principles of this process, which see everyone as having a shared stake in success and which say that we should all try to respect our histories in a way which is non-divisive.

He then goes on to point what’s already happening because of cross border funding and what can still be done without even the least hint of a border or implied threat of an agressive takeover. For instance:

Agriculture is also an area that is crucial to the economies of both north and south.It makes sense that there is co-operation particularly during the CAP negotiations, animal welfare issues and in areas of cross border rural development .

Expanding the shadow of the future…

These are a few of the many, many areas where a greater cooperation on an all-island basis would be a benefit to all. Equally I have no doubt that the broader perspectives of a deeper and more systematic engagement about social and economic policies between our political systems would be to the benefit of both.

I have specifically not gone into the work of the cross-border bodies because I want to make the point that the all-island agenda cannot be defined by their tasks or the compulsory agendas of ministerial councils. Genuine cooperation doesn’t need a legal basis, it is an ongoing search for areas of mutual interest. [Emphasis added]

And finally, he warns his audience not to take at face value anything any politician tells [including himself, presumably? – Ed]

There is nothing inevitable about peace and there is nothing inevitable about progress. You have an obligation not to accept the assurances of any political party or orthodoxy at face value.

You have an obligation to take up the process and make it bigger, make it better – to deliver the potential that was written into the Agreement and remains untapped today.

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