Micheál Martin: “the core of nationalism is to secure a unity of people and not just a unity of structures…”

In his recently published book, my old Slugger partner in crime Paul Evans describes the rise in the populism as a  form of anti-utilitarianism in which political gaming is gradually crowding out representative democracy.

Whilst keen not to paint Brexit or the election of Trump as civilisation’s end, he highlights the capacity for hidden interests to manipulate any electorate through dark money and by sending radically different political messages even to people living under the same roof is rising.

The resulting squeezing of a common ground and/or common understanding of shared problems and difficulties was one of several key themes of an end of summer speech from Micheal Martin at the British Irish Association Conference…

Brexit has directly and dramatically destabilised a settlement which was in any event already very fragile.  And one of the worst developments in this atmosphere has been the reckless and short-term approach of many participants.  

Where once a premium was placed on showing leadership through building relations and demonstrating respect, too often we have seen complex issues dealt with through duelling headlines.

Broad-brush historical claims have been made without any serious reflection and there has been a quite dramatic tendency of some to return to the rhetoric of the past.

And…

In just over 200 days the core foundation for UK-Ireland relations for nearly 50 years will be removed through Brexit – and we have not the slightest idea what will replace it.

At the inter-governmental level relations are worse than at any time in at least the last thirty years.  The Taoiseach and Prime Minister appear to have no substantive working relationship and go long periods without talking to each other.  

It is inconceivable that Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, or Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown would have gone seven weeks without talking at any time – let alone during a crisis.

At other levels, many meetings happen but their impact is limited and it took immense pressure to force London to convene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.  It is also worrying that there was no joint press conference afterwards and the Irish ministers had to speak to the media on the street.

And within Northern Ireland, political divisions have risen while public faith in politics has been radically undermined. 

And…

The core genius of the Good Friday Agreement, and the strategy promoted by the constitutional politicians of these islands for many years, was to work to reduce the urgency of labels, and to focus on agreeing ways of working together to govern and reach fundamental decisions.

For those of us who believe that all who share the island of Ireland share a deep community of interest and who believe that a single state covering the island would unleash tremendous social, cultural and economic opportunity, this is as true today as it has ever been.  Within the United Kingdom, it is now dramatically clear that there are limits to the respect which can be shown for different national sentiments.

The abrogation of the Sewell Convention through the rejection of the Scottish Parliament’s established role and the superficial engagement with Northern Ireland have confirmed inherent tensions within that Union.  These will not disappear, and the national sentiment of Irish people is as resilient as ever.

And…

…while nationalisms in other countries have increasingly reverted to a narrow and defensive approach, what distinguishes our nationalist mainstream is how it has increasingly sought to be open, is strongly pro-EU and believes in rejecting inter-communal tension.  An agreed future of guaranteed cooperation and mutual respect is the essence of the Agreement. 

And for democratic nationalists, a return to this spirit has to be our absolute priority.

The victory of constitutionalism in Ireland, and of constitutional republicanism within nationalism, represented a remarkable display of generosity by the Irish people in welcoming into legitimate politics people who had fought violently to subvert democracy.  

This brought with it what can only be viewed as a complacency that the inevitable progress of history would ensure that reconciliation and cooperation would define the future.

And…

people who look at this grave moment and choose to talk about border polls and tectonic plates are not serving nationalism – they are playing a short-term game without thinking through what is going on.

An excellent recent book on Northern Ireland and Brexit has made the point that Brexit is already causing enormous damage.  

Where once Europe provided a space for joint action and a unifying force within Northern Ireland, it has today become an escalating point of division. In fact, Brexit-related discussions have been directly linked to a radicalisation of Europe as a sectarian issue in Northern Ireland.

For true nationalists, the challenge of this moment is not to seek a tactical win but to try to protect as much as possible of the basic framework of cooperation and common action which took so long to build.

We can’t be looking to exploit weaknesses and declare victory, because the core of nationalism is to secure a unity of people and not just a unity of structures.  

If there is one thing which Irish history should teach us, it is that playing a sectarian numbers game has no positive dimension. [Emphasis added]

Or, the perfect example of Evans’ anti-utilitarianism, or “the greatest amount of misery for the greatest number of people”…

We also need to renew the North/South dimension.  The number of occasions where barbs have been exchanged through the media is unprecedented.  The attitude of the DUP to Dublin continues to ignore the will of the people of Northern Ireland concerning North/South relations – but so too the position of the new government is unhelpful.

When the Taoiseach said last December “it’s not my job to deliver the unionists” he made startling statement which none of his predecessors in the past three decades would have made.  

Bertie Ahern would never have said “it’s not my job to deliver the unionists”.  Instead, he and his ministers, and those who followed him, saw developing constructive relations with the unionists as a priority.  

And:

I am fully aware of the destructive and chaotic nature of much of what is going on in London at the moment.  However, from the days of Seán Lemass onwards London and Dublin have understood the importance of having a close and constructive relationship.  

In fact, the release of government papers over the years has shown that strong connections existed even at a time when public perceptions believed the opposite was the case.

We need to have the honesty to admit, that while connections at the level of officials are excellent as always, the state of political cooperation is at very best poor.

I genuinely cannot see how it is constructive for our Minister for Foreign Affairs to take the time to issue a statement condemning a two year old video issued by a Tory backbencher – or for the government to maintain an ongoing public commentary on British politics.

Equally the scale of ignorance of Irish issues demonstrated by senior government members in London is startling.  The behaviour of Theresa Villiers during the referendum in dismissing concerns about Brexit impact on Northern Ireland was a disgrace and caused substantial damage.

Under every possible scenario, we need to maintain a positive working relationship with London.  The drift of recent years and the abrasive public relationship of the last year is very damaging.

Renewing the spirit which achieved historic progress on these islands is the first step, and the second is to understand that we must create new ways of dealing with the unprecedented reality of a post-Brexit Britain.

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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