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.


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.


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

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  • sherdy

    Is he taking an interest in NI because he realises FF will never regain their former brown-bag glory in the South?
    Don’t think we need any more splinter groups in NI.

  • @Mick,

    The thing that struck me about the interview, and I read the whole thing that was published in the press, was how much he sounded like Garret FitzGerald in the 1980s. Haughey would be rolling over in his grave. This just shows that FF was 30 years behind Fine Gael. FitzGerald’s approach was based on making the Republic an attractive place that unionists would want to join voluntarily. Not that he really had much chance with that. FF’s approach was based on repeating republican nostrums about how artificial the North is, etc. They never explained how this was going to make unionists want to leave the UK and join the Republic. I think that FitzGerald realized that unity was a very long term project. Haughey thought about it as a source of rhetoric to get FF through the next election.

    But as far as future plans go it was simply a teaser. He never really said what FF was planning to do in NI-he didn’t rule out setting up branches there (other than the two they already have, although I have no idea what function those branches serve) but he didn’t give any indication that the party intends to set up an infrastructure and run candidates in the North.

  • FuturePhysicist

    While having heard some from the SDLP Dublin group and the William Drennan Cumann, there is a sort of belief in both camps of the SDLP and Fianna Fáil that these are broad churches in different parishes to merge or co-exist in each other’s doorsteps.

    This would look at things as two distinct grassroots bodies, opposing partition but seeing Irish unity come not from the sort of ideological oligarchies they accuse Sinn Féin of having but community based politics of the republican ethos as an emergent phenomenon.

    To others this is about “nationalist realignment” Fianna Fáil, the SDLP and Sinn Féin taking their three different views and forming some pan-political pan national front of liberal democrat, social democrat and I guess the “Nordic Left”.

    It also might change Irish nationalism into something broader that political and economic unionists might actually vote for and advance the cause of unity. It might help reform Unionism to issue based politics instead of peace process politics and we might see the agreed end of the “ugly scaffolding” of community vetoes as both sides try to offer a safe house for all.

    Let’s be realistic here, Irish Unity can only come from consent, not just under the Good Friday Agreement but under the Irish Constitution as well. The Sinn Féin of De Valera failed to get Unionist consent to form a functional United Ireland, so merely having another All-Ireland party trying to do it or indeed two or three is not enough.

    In the whole ho ha around Unionist Unity, a whole list of Unionist parties mean more Unionist votes, while a small selection of nationalist parties mean less Nationalist votes. Those who only believe in Happy Families there, don’t really take the fact of the effect UKUP and the Donaldson splinter group and all those other anti-Agreement groups did in the decline of the Ulster Unionists, and the UUP did counterattack this by merging albeit temporarily with the Conservatives.

    The problem with the Unity pacts is that Unionists aren’t Borg they want choice, and so do Nationalists.

    However, for Fianna Fáil they are not detached from Northern Politics, you would argue that the real reason they can’t move earlier than 2019 is that the fallout of the banking guarantee in the North, and the failed merger with the SDLP are still bigger negatives than the few positives they have such as the nomination of Mary McAlease which was a politician who was admired across the political spectrum here.

  • Charles_Gould

    The big bang approach worked for Sinn Féin.

  • Mick Fealty

    SF beautifully exploited the theatre of historical events. That’s not a luxury available to any rival just now.

  • Zig70

    The SDLP are sitting in FFs nest and would be very hard to shift. No one seems to tackle him on this. Most of the SDLP have realised that attacking SF on green/orange issues is not good way to win nationalist votes. He seems to go on about focusing on the economy but devotes most time to unity. Is that the media obsession, AKs or MMs?

  • constitutional publican

    FF have sounded the starting gun before in the North in 2007, and nothing happened, resulting in many northerners having egg on their faces and looking like fools. If MM wants to take FF into the North, he will have to announce it at an Ard Fheis and set a deadline for contesting elections (which seems to be 2019). Otherwise there will be no chance of them growing their numbers in the North as it will be a case of “once bitten, twice shy”. Mick that’s why I think there hasn’t been as much activity on this thread as you would of expected, people are waiting for something of substance that is definitive. You can’t recruit into a “maybe party”, there have to be definitive deadlines for organisation and contesting of elections or else you risk misleading people, as FF did before and that resulted in some of their members in Crossmaglen actually being attacked once Cowen pulled away from northern organisation.

  • Mick Fealty


  • FuturePhysicist

    SF beautifully exploited the theatre of historical events. That’s not a luxury available to any rival just now.

    Is that because nothing historical is happening in your opinion? Doesn’t every party “beautifully” exploit the theatre of historic events when their vote increases, and ultimately an increase in vote becomes a historic event.

    I tell you this is not the spirits fault, it’s down to the mundane world of folk voting.

  • IrelandNorth

    Given that former radical political parties generally tend to go pastel on competing for the electoral franchise of constitutional politics, (what Dublin working-class playwright Brendan Behan referred to (tongue in cheek) as the disease of respectability), might the inverse not be the case with Fíanna Fáil (FF) on throwing their hat into the the ring in the 6. If Sínn Féin (SF) becomes a paler shade of green in the 26, (as Labour has become a pinker shade of red), might FF very well become a deeper shade of green in the 6 to out-nationalise or out-republicanise their immeditate competitor. Or maybe they should just coalesce into Fíanna Féin/Soldiers Ourselves. Or Sínn Fáil /Destiny Alone.

  • Mick,

    Alex Kane did mention that FF had two branches already in NI. What is their function or raison d’etre?

  • Mick Fealty

    Very good IN… There’s a cumman at QUB, and I’m not sure where the other one is.

    The real question to be asking is: does Northern Ireland need Fianna Fail? Or Not?

    I think what impresses me about MM’s approach is that it’s not the kind of boardroom takeover bid Bertie and his deputies always hinted at, or the ill fated Empey/Cameron deal they could not sell. It’s more open and deliberately slower.

    That gives him the advantage of building capacity slowly and over time (a necessity since the real capacity building effort has to be reserved for the south). But it also gives them time to develop a recipe that matches actual needs.

    The key is to offer some form of effective agency that’s not currently on the table for anyone in the north, and certainly not for nationalists.

    If they can manage to get the ball onto the pitch and into the penalty area with their good foot (policy), there is a wide open goal (consider the talent SF has squandered, in McAteer and Green).

  • sean treacy

    Mick, as someone from a nationalist heartland I can assure you there are no “open goals” for FF north of the border.Apart from wrecking the 26 co economy they are regarded as having abandoned us to our fate decades ago.I grew up in a family where my father and my uncles almost worshipped “Dev” and FF and awaited salvation from unionist tyranny.But as they entered their final years they acknowledged that no help would ever come .I remember them saying “they are all ‘staters’ now.They would be treated with scorn on the hustings and rightly so.

  • Mick Fealty


    Whilst the war was on, I’m sure that was right. But the peace has yet to get a proper grip on people. The open goal I’m suggesting is the sheer indolence in the policy area. Well articulated by Orla Young here:

  • Mick Fealty

    I’d add that the public narrative in the south is taking a fascinating turn at the moment. Interestingly its being done inside the democratic institutions that have been taking such a hammering recently.

    FF is making precise, ordered and very public use of Dail Eireann to pressurise the Executive and to cleanly raise issues of grave public concern (alleged mishandling of various police related matters).

    The narrative that parliament counts contrasts with the current voguish protest that it doesn’t matter at all particularly when expressed via actions (rather than unsupported promises) thereby underlining parliament’s relevance on matters which cause real and sustained social stress to ordinary people.

    The challenge that FF or any other ambitious party face in developing a credible north south policy how to make sure proposed actions connect public institutions (often sidelined for the conveniences of realpolitik), with the real concerns of the public themselves.

    I do take cp’s point that the glacial progress is in danger of wasting enthusiasm and energy and (one he made elsewhere I think) that there is a chicken and egg problem re the functional development of policy only as and when you have a contesting base in NI.

  • sean treacy

    Mick ,the “police related matters” were in the public domain long ago and had been raised by others previously.Mehole Martin was simply engaged in bluster ,waving papers about for the cameras.Such playing to the gallery would cut no ice with northern nationalists.

  • Mick Fealty

    Which is exactly my point Sean.

  • Coll Ciotach

    I have been watching them, they set up Forums (Fora?) to cover the counties of Down, Armagh, Fermanagh and Antrim, but not Derry or Tyrone from my understanding. They have set up cumainn in UU and Queens. From what I gather they have all went quiet, I would expect this was due to the implosion of FF south of the border.

    I’d think that MM is approaching this right if he is serious. They would have to build capacity and local profiles and I cannot see that happening in a year or two. I cannot see them doing it before that.

    They obviously have a constituency in the north that would be right of SDLP and SF providing that they do not become another me too party supporting non issues such as comprehensive education, integrated education, abortion and gay (sic) rights.

  • sean treacy

    Michele Gildernew will be quaking in her boots !