Renewing the Republic

Micheal-Martin-High-Res-3 In a wide-ranging interview, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin talks to Owen McQuade about his aims for Irish society and the scope for delivering more North/South co-operation.

Republicanism has remained at the centre of Micheál Martin’s politics since his university days. It’s a particularly clear political theme for him one year away from both the 1916 centenary commemorations and the next Irish general election. It’s also one with a very personal resonance.

“I can recall when my first child was born, being in the nursery next to the bedroom in the neonatal hospital,” Martin reflects. “They had babies in the cot at night and it was 12 different cots. And a nun said to me: ‘I think I can tell you where each of those children is going to end up.’ I was annoyed about that. Personally, we should never say that if we have a truly republican society and that’s the challenge.” In a nutshell, true republicanism for him means that no-one is left behind regardless of their upbringing or needs. This encompasses a broad range of policy areas from social justice for the economically disadvantaged, to dedicated care for children with special needs, support for same-sex marriage, and a united Ireland “by consent and by evolution.”

Martin also sees civil liberties as a republican essential: “The importance and the primacy of freedom of speech and of the individual is central to republicanism and I think that’s under threat.” Referring to the anti-austerity movement in the South, he would not tolerate intimidating protests where organisations seek to restrict the right of others to participate.

Martin recalls a protest against social care cuts in Cork, where Sinn Féin personnel “tried to intimidate” Fianna Fáil representatives who had been invited by the unions. Sinn Féin’s leadership disavows intimidation but the activities of some supporters “tell a different tale and I think they need to cut that out.” Martin qualifies his comments by saying: “Not all people in Sinn Féin are doing that. I don’t want to tar everybody with the same brush but there’s an element of that going on.”

On the all-Ireland aspect, Micheál Martin contends that North/South co-operation has been sidelined by the Fine Gael-Labour Government but offers considerable potential for the whole island. Martin is satisfied that cross-border bodies have done “some great work” and highlights InterTradeIreland in particular.

“The real disconnect between businesspeople in the North and businesspeople in the Republic was quite significant,” he recalls. “Now a lot of businesspeople themselves, in fairness to them, set about in chambers of commerce to repair that but InterTradeIreland created good structures [for co-operation].”

As Enterprise Minister between 2004 and 2008, he ensured that northern representatives were invited to join all Enterprise Ireland trade missions. “The enthusiasm has waned” from both the British and Irish governments and fresh thinking is now needed.

“Why isn’t there an all-Ireland Enterprise Ireland?” he suggests. “There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be.” Such an organisation would mentor entrepreneurs, share best practice and ideas, and pool resources for overseas visits and locations.

“To be fair, the Republic has always been prepared to go more than 50 per cent in terms of supporting these initiatives,” Martin comments. He accepts a potential tension between his proposed body and Invest NI, which currently delivers on local enterprise policy in Northern Ireland, but “it’s one common agenda and that’s just an example of the kind of thing we could be doing.”

2016 outlook

Martin finds himself looking across a “very fragmented” political landscape right now not just nationally but also at a European level. “People have lost jobs, people have lost income, people have lost a degree of hope,” he comments. “People are very insecure in their lives right now in terms of what the future holds for them, for their children, for their young people.”

Economic insecurity feeds into the political framework, as evidenced by Sinn Féin effectively replacing Labour in May’s local government elections. Fianna Fáil, though, topped the poll with 25 per cent of the vote compared to 17 per cent at the general election. Amidst that volatility, it remains to be seen whether the centre of politics “firms up between now and the next general election or whether there will be a further leakage and a further fragmentation.”

A deeper change is perhaps happening, it is put to him, with perhaps half of the electorate opting for independents or Sinn Féin. Martin responds by describing an unprecedented ‘four block’ political system: Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the independents each with bases of 20 per cent or more – and Labour sitting on 7-8 per cent.

The two-and-a-half party system “ended in 2011”. He adds: “2011 was a watershed election, in political terms, of the hit we took which has challenged our capacity in terms of renewal and again comeback. By definition, when you’ve no TD in Dublin and when you’re at such low levels in the Oireachtas representation, it creates challenges but I think we’ve risen to those.” Fianna Fáil has recognised the very clear message from the voters and “it’s going to take time to renew and revive the party and make it a relevant force in Irish politics.”

Micheal-Martin-High-Res-11 As the next election is about forming the next Government, Martin expects the result to differ from the current polls. Manifestos will also influence voters’ choices and, as a precursor, he contrasts Fine Gael’s tax cuts for high earners with how Fianna Fáil’s most recent Budget document aspired for a better society.

“It could be the ‘I see your tax cut with my tax cut’ type of election,” Martin predicts, “or it could be an election where some parties like our own say: ‘Hang on, we’re standing back a bit and saying: ‘What kind of country do we want to live in?’”

Going back on the doorsteps over the last 18 months gave the party a greater insight into the public mood but councillors were initially reluctant to canvass. Martin tried to convince them that it wasn’t too bad.

“People are still giving out to us and that’s fair enough,” he comments, “but what I found most interesting on the doorstep is that people are very focused on the future: ‘Is there a future? What is the future for my family?’”

Some of the more saddening stories were of grandparents worrying about their sons and grandsons. Those in the middle generation appeared to be “set up in life” with a house, job and family but are now in negative equity with one or other parent unemployed and worried about whether their son will get to college. Martin notes: “People are far more pragmatic than we give them credit for and they’re less into the politics of it, more into: ‘We want credible solutions to the problems we’re facing.’”

The anecdote brings the conversation back round to Fianna Fáil’s offer to the electorate at the next election. “Fundamentally,” he says, “it will be around the kind of society we want to create, we want people to live in.” Since its inception, Martin contends that the party has always performed well on education policy and equality of opportunity “irrespective of where that child is born”.

A former teacher, he comments: “Part of our vision embraces education at all levels as a great equaliser in society and also the development of the individual as well as collectively for society itself.” Access to healthcare is linked to that issue and should be based primarily on medical need.

Political reform

The failure to reform politics stands out as “one of the great disappointments post-2011”. Martin acknowledges the near-absence of Dáil debates on banking in the 10 years up to the economic crash. “There was a lack of accountability,” he remarks. “By the way, we still lack that accountability in terms of the banking system being accountable to the legislator in some shape or form or the regulator being accountable.”

One of the problems was making the Central Bank independent of government – still a position that is “regarded as something sacred” – and the key question is: “Who guards the guards?” Martin looks back at how the question was asked in financial crises over the last century, including the Wall Street crash. The party wants to set up a powerful Oireachtas committee that would hold regulators to account for their actions.

The core political problem, though, is the executive’s control over the legislature hence his call for a secret ballot for the Oireachtas Speaker (An Ceann Comhairle). This would ensure that, irrespective of the incumbent’s politics, the office would not be seen as “the prize to be given by the Taoiseach of the day and the Government of the day”.

Secondly, the Oireachtas should set its own schedule. The public may not be aware that each day’s Dáil business is announced by the Taoiseach and voted through by government deputies. An independent budgetary office would assess any proposals by deputies which could incur a financial cost and also give a “transparent examination” of the Government’s fiscal proposals.

Fianna Fáil also wants future taoisigh to be free to appoint ministers from life outside elected politics. Martin sees a need for a Minister for Trade who can constantly focus on meeting their targets in Asia and the BRICs without having to fly home for constituency or Dáil business.

Martin explains: “If you take the technology revolution over the last 25 years, I would argue that politically and in the public service, the capacities do not exist to fully translate that revolution into government quickly enough. There are times in a world of rapid change that expertise simply isn’t there and you do need outside thinking as well.”

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