“We need to sort out a dysfunctional and deeply cynical approach by the dominant parties.”

There’s a strong sense of politicians going through the motions each time there’s a plenary debate on Northern Ireland issues. Two exceptions this afternoon were Paul Murphy of the Anti Austerity Alliance who gave a pretty blistering account of SF’s role in the signing up to the so called fantasy budget, and Micheal Martin…

I’ll add Murphy’s speech when we get the text, but here’s Martin’s in full:

The sad reality is that the situation in Northern Ireland is now extremely serious. The slow but steady progress of previous years has been replaced by a growing sense of alienation and crisis. The many economic and social opportunities opened up by peace and agreed institutions are being lost – and with this the core challenge of reconciliation is side-lined.

The disengagement of our government and the Cameron government is something I have been challenging for years. I take no satisfaction that the crises I predicted would follow this policy have all happened. However there is no question that root cause of the current problems has been the approach of the DUP/Sinn Fein tandem.

They have sought to maximise party advantage in government rather than work in a consensual way. Cases of sectarian funding, the abuse of expenses and the marginalisation of day to day issues continue to mount.

No can now question the impact that the DUP/Sinn Fein administration, which has systematically excluded other parties from playing a meaningful role, has had on the public.

Last month the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey report was published. This has tracked political and social attitudes since 1998 and is the most detailed work of its type carried out anywhere in Europe. The latest survey shows a major deterioration of public faith in institutions and a belief that the Assembly and Executive are more detached than ever.

By a measure of 66% to 11% people are dissatisfied with the work of MLA’s. This is similar across age, social class and national identity.

76% of people say that the Assembly has made no difference or given people less of a say in Northern issues.

84% say the Assembly has achieved only a little or nothing at all.

And when asked what the Assembly and Executive should be focused on, people didn’t choose political issues that said the economy and the health service. Their overall demand was for parties to make “devolution work in a way which is fair to all”.

In most areas there has been an undeniable disimprovement in attitudes towards politics which traces directly to the manner in which the Assembly and Executive have operated under DUP and Sinn Fein control.

And a very good illustration of the impact of this was seen in the recent UK general election, where over 40% of people did not vote. Northern Ireland has gone from having one of the highest turnouts in these elections to having one of the lowest.

Much of this reduced turnout is concentrated in marginal communities and amongst the supporters of other parties who see themselves excluded from all policy discussions and are drifting away from political engagement.

The long-term damage this could cause in Northern Ireland is profound.

It’s not just in political attitude that you can see a deteriorating situation. While the two parties have worked hard to divide the spoils of power between themselves, they have presided over a marked deterioration of the economic and social situation of Northern Ireland.

Last year Deputy First Minister McGuinness attacked me on this matter and claimed to have delivered economically for Northern Ireland. At the recent Ard Fheis of his party he said it again and added the patently false claim that “Sinn Fein doesn’t do austerity”.

Rates of poverty and child poverty in particular, in Northern Ireland have continued to worsen, with the gap with the UK expanding. Over 46% of children in West Belfast are living in poverty, not just at risk of poverty but actually in poverty.

Pensioner poverty in Northern Ireland is 1/3rd higher than in the UK.

Tackling this through an ambitious development plan should be the issue dominating Northern discussions but it is at most marginal. The current development plan is limited and more about appearing to do something rather than actually doing it.

Agreed by the DUP and Sinn Fein with London without even the courtesy of mentioning it to the Dublin government beforehand, there is no proposal to unleash the huge potential of cross-border economic development and there is economic vision for Northern Ireland.

Providing a blueprint for economic opportunity and tackling poverty is what is desperately needed in the North. Yet the largest parties are focused on everything but this. It is striking that Sinn Fein has during the last seventeen years chosen never to nominate a person to hold one of the principal economic ministries.

The current political impasse is the logical outcome of an approach which is focused on maximising political positioning rather than operating in the spirit of cooperation which the Irish people voted for.

It is not just about the UK government’s welfare policies. When Sinn Fein signed up to the Stormont House Agreement it signed up to implement these policies with some minor changes. What we are seeing at the moment is a desperate attempt by Sinn Fein to find a way of allowing these cuts through but still claiming to be against them.

This is the party which is savagely cutting back on school staffing and threatening 50 schools but still delivering speeches claiming “Sinn Fein doesn’t do austerity.” This is the same party which clams in the South it will abolish property tax and is voting to increase it in Northern Ireland.

Let no one be in any doubt, the welfare cuts are wrong and will cause serious damage in Northern Ireland – just as the other cuts which Sinn Fein and the DUP are enforcing without complaint are causing serious damage already.

As Fianna Fáil said to the British government when in office and as we have said since, London has to understand that you must invest in overcoming entrenched division and conflict. Northern Ireland is a special case and deserves extra leeway. This should be our government’s position but unfortunately it is not.

However the crisis goes well beyond the welfare issue. In fact the implementation of nearly all of the important issues addressed in the Stormont House Agreement is delayed.

Arrangements to allow the effective review of policies by parties other than the DUP and Sinn Fein were supposed to be in place in March – this has not happened.

The Commission on Flags Identity Culture and Tradition was supposed to be established last month and legislation on parades was due to be proposed – this has not happened and another contentious marching season is underway.

A Civic Advisory Panel was supposed to be established last month – again this has not happened.

The Budget Act is not required for any of these measures but they remain frozen.

Northern Ireland desperately needs a new impetus for progress. Stagnation and drift is deeply dangerous. It breeds alienation and threatens a return to cycles of sectarian violence which at times seem very close.

There are a range of concrete steps which can and should urgently be taken. The governments can, if they have the will, take the initiative on these and break the deadening grip of the largest parties on the whole process.

First of all a new economic and social development plan is urgently required. Entrenched poverty and unemployment have to be tackled. Independent of the funding issue, what is required is at very least a sense of direction and a demonstration of ambition.

We need a new energy behind the North/South dimension of the agreement. The disinterest of the British government, the party politics of the DUP and Sinn Fein and the lack of urgency from our government has reduced the North/South dimension to a series of meetings and photo-opportunities.

All parts of this island are suffering because of the failure to unleash the full potential for cooperation on economic and service development. There are individual examples of progress, but they represent only a fraction of the true potential.

For four years we have been hearing about discussions, it’s time for action setting out specific plans for the development of North/South initiatives – both formal bodies and other initiatives. There is an overpowering case for seeking a joint Border area economic and social services development plan.

A lengthy history of sectarianism and thirty years of an illegitimate campaign of violence have caused damage which cannot just be wished away – and an ambitious Border regional plan is badly needed.

We also need a new urgency around challenging sectarianism. While the majority of people are showing a new commitment to cross-community understanding, there is a substantial minority wedded to a deeply sectarian approach. A renewed anti-sectarian initiative is needed and a start should be made by calling out politicians who use sectarianism to further their own agenda’s.

Gregory Campbell’s childish mockery of the Irish language was not harmless and the fact that he faced no consequences reflects badly on his party.

So too does the blatantly sectarian campaign of Sinn Fein in North Belfast in the recent election. Calling on people to vote by religion and get one over on the other side is sectarianism pure and simple – and Sinn Fein should stop trying to find excuses for it.

The failure of political leadership to properly assist the fight against sectarianism and to promote a genuine spirit of equality was demonstrated by Deputy Adams’ disgraceful comments when he talked about “breaking the bastards” and said that equality is “the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy”.

He can do his usual twisting and turning – claiming that black is white and vice-versa – but his words are on the record.

Equality is not a strategy, it is not something to be exploited – it’s the fundamental and core foundation of the entire strategy of the people of Ireland. When a party of government in Northern Ireland speaks so cynically about equality it is inevitable that the others will continue to resist it.

The equality agenda remains essential and needs the governments to insist on the implementation of past agreements.

Addressing issues of the past should not be an option it is essential. So far the Irish government, due to initiatives taken by past governments, is the only party to the process which has been willing to be fully open and honest about its failings. Everyone else has been taking the position of demanding openness from others while protecting their own.

The evidence of state collusion with loyalists in grotesque sectarian crimes in overwhelming. It must be investigated independently and the families of victims given the right to know what happened and who was responsible.

So too the collusion with elements of the Provisional IRA must be investigated.

The Dáil has called for a full investigation of the revelations of the ongoing protection by the Provisional IRA of their own members when accused of child abuse. This is a problem which Deputy Adams has admitted was known about.

While Sinn Fein did their usual trick of calling for cooperation with the justice system yet again no one has come forward. Sinn Fein has been able to expel people for wanting to deselect a TD but cannot find anyone to take action against in relation to the systematic covering up of child abuse within the Provisional movement.

Of course there are limits to what can be done, but our government has a duty to demand a proper independent inquiry so that victims North and South can come forward and begin a process of healing which must start with accountability for those who abused them and those who worked to prevent justice being done.

The parliament promised Mairia Cahill and other brave victims that we would not rest until their abusers were held to account and we must honour this promise.

The increasingly dysfunctional political situation in Stormont needs to be tackled. Growing detachment and disengagement from politics is the direct and inevitable outcome of how the DUP and Sinn Fein are controlling the Assembly and Executive.

They are focused on obtaining as much party political advantage as possible. Other parties are routinely excluded from discussions and the system is milked for party advantage. Northern Ireland has half the population of Wales but its leaders have twice the number of publicly funded political advisers.

Ministers of both parties have been found to favour their own in decisions – with a Sinn Fein Minister found by a court to have made a major appointment on a sectarian basis.

Through the tenacity of journalists a large scale abuse of political funding has been revealed – none of which would be possible under the legislation in operation here for nearly two decades.

Deputy Adams never sat a day in Westminster but took over €1 million in expenses during the last decade. BBC spotlight found that over €1 million had been funnelled by Sinn Fein MLAs to Research Services Ireland Ltd – but was unable to find details of any research work carried out by the company. This is on top of the money funnelled by Sinn Fein to fictitious cultural organisations.

There is an urgent need for the governments to demand a tightening of the controls on public funding of politics and for the establishment of controls along the lines of those operated here which would make such abuses illegal.

The revelations in relation to Cerberus and the NAMA portfolio have rightly led to concerns about political involvement.

In the referendums of 1998 the people of this island chose to support a new way forward. They acknowledged our shared future and set all parties a challenge of working together for the common good. Too often they have failed.

Unless we see a new energy and commitment we will continue with the cycle of ongoing crises and profound problems will be left to fester.

We need a renewed engagement by the governments. We need a new vision for the economic and social development of the North and the Border region in general. We need a concerted effort to challenge sectarianism, starting with the casual sectarianism of political parties. We need a determined effort to sort out a dysfunctional and deeply cynical approach by the dominant parties.

The peace process was and remains a great victory for constitutional republicans on this island who did everything possible and many things though impossible to get the paramilitaries to put down their guns and end their illegitimate campaign. But the work isn’t over. Much more is required and unless we are willing to commit to this effort we could make an error of genuinely historic proportions.[All emphasis is added]

When Deputy Adams’ was invited to make his own prepared statement the leas Ceann Comhairle all he said in relation to Deputy Martin’s remarks was “tá sé sin an-greannmhar”, or “that’s very funny”.

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  • Granni Trixie

    Well summed up.

  • Zig70

    They were voted in. I blame the voters and more those who didn’t. The political egos that dominate moderate politics means that leadership is choked by self protectionism. That and the fragmentation of liberal thinking where doubt is a strength.

  • Redstar2014

    I didn’t vote because there was no one who reflected my views. That’s does not in any way make me complicit in electing the idiots who did get elected

  • Roy Reilly-Robertson

    A thoughtful piece from Michael Martin that gets many things right and was well worth reading. Deputy Adams simply shows himself to be an out of touch clown with his response.

  • mickfealty

    Well, strictly speaking I’m completely with you (I didn’t vote for any of them for different reasons). But have you considered the possibility that you might just a perfectionist who hates being disappointed by reality? 😉

  • Granni Trixie

    O yes it does. Politics is the art of the possible. By not voting for what in your eyes would be a compromise candidate you are giving over power to others to vote in what is perhaps your least wanted candidate. And ones who keep governing by old (sectarian) ways.

  • Granni Trixie

    The above was a reply to Redstar.

  • Zig70

    Would you vote FF? I’d like to see them skirt the nationalist issue and my bet is they end up on the same side of the fence after they organise here as the subjects of their critique.

  • Redstar2014

    Total nonsense Granni.
    There are no candidates standing here who do not as you put it – keep governing in old sectarian ways- or else total self serving ways. Voting for these imbeciles only encourages them

  • murdockp

    I have always said that the biggest threat to Northern Ireland is the assembly itself.
    I don’t do sectarian politics. I am an Anglo Irish Liberal, I see the benefits that both ROI and UK bring to NI.
    Northern Ireland needs the foundations for economic growth, we need the civil service to back off in a big way and let the economy recover.
    Greece has proven that Nanny State government does not work

  • Gingray

    Twas a great speech from Micheál Martin, and I would be over the moon if he could match the rhetoric with delivery. Fianna Fáil need to stand in Northern Ireland, plain and simple, its something that will benefit both sides of the community ultimately, but initially the nationalist side. They are not my idea of an ideal party, but they are far ahead of Sinn Fein and the Unionist parties, and the SDLP is too fractured unfortunately.

    My worry would be that Martin will not follow through – his statement could be read as either anti dysfunctionalism or anti SF. If its the former, then great, if its the latter, then still great, but lets see some action rather than election posturing.

    BTW, contrary to what Mick has said about the Dáil debates on Northern Ireland, quite a few TDs do more than just go through the motions. Indeed prior to the statement he highlighted above from yesterday, there was the all party motion on what happened at Ballymurphy, although this for some reason largely went unreported on Slugger. And it was interesting to see that Northern Ireland dominated leaders questions on Tuesday.

  • Sharpie

    I think this is another articulate analysis by Micheal Martin, he has some history in this type of insight and consistency too. Unfortunately it coincides with Fianna Fail’s low point in influence. There is something profoundly depressing and disturbing about the whole piece. The huge capital that was created when everyone got engaged during the “process” is now seemingly spent. There is a feeling of attrition and not much hopeful on the horizon. I am particularly pissed off by it because I am old enough to remember the feeling of anger and despair and tiredness that was at large in the 80’s and then the hope of the 90’s and now a renewed despair of the 20teens.

    In the past 40 years it is still only John Hume who stands out as having had the ability and eloquence to sum up a nations feelings and hopes and translate them into a movement. He did what he did from a minority place. I suppose it was easy because the narrative was peace and agreement. We are supposed to have that now.

    Once the process got its momentum – very able people attached on – from Clinton, Blair, Ahern, Mowlem, Mitchell, Trimble, and various internationals from South Africa and Finland. There was a place for local people to shelter while they sought space to explore possibilities – in Glencree, Corrymeela, and various hotels and country houses. Even policy making looked interesting for a while.

    Then stodge. Treacle. Knee deep mud. ill will, mistrust, belligerence, notoriety and ego. I feel like someone afford responsibility took my endorsement, my economic and social contribution and pissed on it.

    The questions left to me now are these:

    1.What is the motivating story that we collectively are striving for and how can that be created or discovered?

    2. Will representative democracy help in Northern Ireland and if so where is it to come from (as neither current parties nor current politicians have the ability)

    3. Where is the new movement being midwifed? What is the kernel of something that is articulate, credible, robust, and durable and where can I sign up?

    4. Are we victims of an unwritten policy of managed dissent where we are hovering along at an acceptable level of violence and dysfunction?

    5. Do the general public have the ability to create a momentum that changes the direction of the current politics or does it have to be led by politicians?

    5. What would make anyone sign up and not be smothered by apathy and fear of failure?

    6. Does anyone care?

  • ifh fi u hi

    Wrong. The root cause is “power sharing”. It won’t work here and it won’t work anywhere else.

  • Skibo

    Did the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP do any better a job when they were the main parties. issue here is we have parties from the two communities who distrust each other. The DUP cannot even break breath to their fellow MLS in the SF party. How would you expect them to work in harmony. I as a nationalist voter see DUP policy as ” whatever SF don’t like we are for” and to a lesser extent the picture is mirrors on the SF side.
    Perhaps it is time for a government and an opposition but there would have to be some sort of lock-in to ensure it did not revert back to the old days of one party rule.
    On the issue of FF condemning parties for not collaborating with others, as a major party in a coalition in the Dail, they never showed much love for their partners.
    If MM is that interested in NI politics why doesn’t he come up with a green paper on Irish Unity, a policy of his own party. He is only interested in sitting outside the system with a forty foot barge pole poking any time he thinks he can get a bit of a rise out of SF!

  • Nevin

    “Issue here is we have parties from the two communities who distrust each other.”

    I don’t see the relevance of ‘trust’. There are two opposing constitutional aspirations and the DUP and SF are the heavyweights in this tug-of-war.

    FF’s association with political sleaze led me to have a closer look at governance here [see NALIL blog]. MM is leader of the main opposition party in the Dáil so his main interest will be to take a pop at other parties there; his reference to Strand 2 is just sectarian/partisan cherry-picking.

    FF was one of the architects of the 1998 Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement so must bear some responsibility for the ensuing shambles.

  • mickfealty

    We don’t do every story Ging. And we don’t need excuses for not doing your favourite ones. I try for a diverse enough talent base that we can pick up all sorts of political interests. If something gets left out that’s how it is.

    As for FF in NI, 2019 is the time for disappointment on that score. Rushing in too early (when your home base is still in bits), would foolhardy and possibly counter productive.

  • Gingray

    Tsk Mick, I don’t believe I was suggesting you needed to cover every story, simply pointing out that the Dáil is quite active in regards Northern Ireland – more than just ‘going through the motions’ as you have suggested.

    In regards Fianna Fáil standing in the North they first organised around 2007 up here. Am sure you will disagree, but I don’t think standing a few candidates 9 years later would be rushing it.

    While I take your point about organising, given that a year is a long time in politics I wonder which has had more success historically ie waiting over a decade to stand across a broad range of seats or starting small in target seats a little earlier to test the water and build momentum.

    As stated above, my worry is that Fianna Fáil are going through the motions to protect their republican flank, but I hope this is wrong.

  • mickfealty

    If you mean, did they get things done in the less than two years they were in power, yes. Not much, but yes. The DUP and SF have a much easier run for the reasons Martin outlines above, and for the fact that unlike the UUP and SDLP they did not have to deal with their alter egos.

  • Mister_Joe

    In other words, we, the public, need to vote wisely. Don’t hold your breath.