Fianna Fail in Northern Ireland: “We have to be very incremental: it isn’t going to be a big bang.”

Alex Kane has done a fascinating interview with Micheal Martin for the News Letter. He covers a lot more Northern Irish bases than he has before and makes it clear that his past interventions on policy are part of long slow iterative engagement with Northern Irish politics, which he hopes will grow into a separate challenge to the business as usual of the current status quo. Here’s some of the highlights:

MM: What I would like to have seen is significant political institution dividends. In terms of the working class communities (a term I don’t like to use) and health, employment, education, social issues, I would have thought that the executive would have launched an all-out, major investment programme to transform areas which heretofore were breeding grounds for dissent and all sorts of activities. That didn’t happen.

AK: Why didn’t it happen?

MM: Well, I remember Martin McAleese (President McAleese’s husband) trying all sorts of initiatives with unionism and loyalism and he also brought on board a lot of middle-class opinion economically who wanted to help. And I was always struck by a certain sense of lethargy in response to that initiative. I mean, it did help create the pathway for loyalist decommissioning and so on, who wanted a really major plan then to replace what had gone on then for thirty years: in other words give people an opportunity in life, give them something to aim for. You can change the pattern of life and behaviour in those areas with these initiatives: and I’m always surprised that there wasn’t that extra, almost Marshall Plan, major programme of investment in those areas to bring people on board.

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AK: Does that unwillingness to do this go back to your original point that the DUP/SF didn’t do it because they just concentrate on their own key voter bases. Anything else might cost them support?

MM: There’s a strange paradox there, because parallel to that political side you have a whole range of social, sporting connections that carry on regardless — in some ways almost in opposition to what is going on politically. But the political environment is in danger of making all that more difficult. I mean, I would have pumped more money into the cross-community thing. Have we collectively done enough really in scale to back the civic, social and community organisations?

Once the DUP got into the executive they had a lot of issues around their perspective on the Good Friday Agreement and their perspectives on north-southery as they call it and they will say they just want the informal context, we don’t want the formal institutional arrangements; so they spent quite a while initially trying to undermine, for example, InterTrade Ireland—but that changed.

But there was that negativity going into government, which took some time and is even still manifested in the fact that there is no fresh impetus into the north-south thing.

AK: Do you think Sinn Fein and the DUP are actually serious about agreement. Are they actually serious about power-sharing?

MM: I think my worry with Sinn Fein in government is that they tend to change ministers at will. Somebody could be doing reasonably well—Gildernew is an example—and suddenly they disappear. They seem to use ministerial posts in some instances for just electoral purposes—which is their absolute priority.

Sometimes seems that government is there is satisfy the electoral ambitions of the party as opposed to exercising governance and power: and you want to go into government with ideas and a platform to implement. I often feel that Sinn Fein lacks that overarching sense of mission.

AK: Is it in Sinn Fein’s long term electoral interests to have a Northern Ireland that works? And similarly, is it in the DUP’s interests to have a good relationship with Sinn Fein?

MM: The incentive for the parties working together is that if they don’t then things won’t stay the same and things will get worse in my view.

AK: In what sense will they get worse?

MM: I think we’ve had a taste of what can happen over the past two years in terms of rioting on the streets over the flags issue for example. That’s a very strong indicator of what can happen very quickly. That complacency, that sense of look-we-can-still-do-it-this-way and everything will stay the same: so I think the incentive has to be that things will not stay the same.

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AK: Do you think they can ever get past the constitutional issue, the ultimate question of a United Kingdom vs a united Ireland?

MM: I would have hoped that the Good Friday Agreement would have put that issue to bed for a while and created the space you’ve talked about for normal politics to emerge. But I can’t disagree with you that it hasn’t to date. But maybe what’s happened in east Belfast recently has been a reaction to Alliance and Naomi Long’s success there: and we’ll have to see if that negativity of the DUP will work for them in the long term. We’ll wait and see.

But—and we have it down here too—there is an alienation with politics generally and if politicians of all persuasions don’t cop on they will find themselves left behind. Particular issues and cause will activate people into politics and the parties need to be aware of that. Parties have to be conscious of it and adapt and change. Parties can be dominated by people who have been in it for a long time and they might miss what’s going on out there if they don’t have a healthy infusion of new blood, younger people, women and so forth.

AK: Fianna Fàil has two branches here. Could your party become part of the ‘middle-ground’ you’ve mentioned if they were to field candidates here?

MM: I think we could, in time. We are still talking to people and a lot of our northern members are impatient and keen. But the fact that we had a major, major electoral setback in 2011 sets limits to what we can do in a reasonable timeframe and we have to be realistic about that. Clearly we are rebuilding and renewing the party and the northern dimension is an important part of that.

The initial platform was to speak out on the north and to have strong policy statements on the north—which I’ve done—and also to have a level playing field with members in the north and the republic in terms of structures. But we’re getting there. The first phase of our engagement was policy. The next stage has to be electoral. But we have to be very incremental: it isn’t going to be a big bang.

We made mistakes before—saying that Fianna Fàil was going north, but frankly, there wasn’t anything behind it in terms of capacity. That won’t happen under my leadership. When I make a step forward it has to be with a bit of beef and bodies, personnel and a campaign plan.

AK: Isn’t there a sense, though, that in terms of Irish unity and the case for it, you have allowed Sinn Fein to make the running and set the parameters?

MM: I wouldn’t accept that it has been led and directed by Sinn Fein. And my view is that we have to begin by allowing the Good Friday Agreement to work and make Northern Ireland work. Let’s make the institutions—that have been voted for by the people—work first. Can we get that done? That ultimately leads to the unity of hearts and minds that I have spoken about.

The problem for Sinn Fein is that they are doing a great disservice to the concept of unity of Ireland. Unionists look at Sinn Fein and that’s a no-no before you start.

The border poll stuff is just another ruse to satisfy their base, knowing full well that it was just reducing the whole thing to numbers. 51 to 49 is just so infantile in my view. And they haven’t gained traction on that issue in the republic at all.

Fianna Fàil is a major catalyst in the Good Friday Agreement. We proposed the deletion of Articles 2 and 3—something which people didn’t think we would have agreed to just a few years earlier. I don’t think that making the Good Friday Agreement work or making the institutions work defeats the idea of a united Ireland at all.

There are bigger immediate issues—like education and employment—to solve in the north before unity.

Do read the whole thing

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