The north-south agenda: An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD

Having successfully sidestepped the ignominy of being the first Fianna Fáil leader to not be Taoiseach. Ciarán Galway sits down with An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD to discuss his ‘shared island’ vision.

From his own perspective, the Taoiseach believes that his government had a positive initial foray into the north-south agenda. A seasoned parliamentarian, Micheál Martin garnered ample experience of the north-south dynamic in each of his previous ministries – education, health, enterprise and foreign affairs – under former taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen.

Now, one of the missions contained within his new tri-party coalition’s Programme for Government is ‘A shared island’. The document commits to “working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future” as underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement and in respect of the principle of consent.

The first of 23 actions listed under the shared island mission (alongside a commitment to “address the painful legacy of the Troubles”) was to establish a unit within the Department of the Taoiseach. It is intended that the Shared Island Unit will explore “the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected”.

“I think the north-south agenda has lost momentum in recent years. I think we need to reignite that. I think we need to, through the Shared Island Unit, have a conversation about how we share the island in a post-Brexit environment, into the future.

“There are some very useful avenues of cooperation that we should be driving forward more effectively. I mean, the Single Energy Market is a very good example. Waterways Ireland was a no-brainer. That’s why I would like to see formative work on the Ulster Canal; we got that into the July Stimulus. We got the greenway from Sligo to Enniskillen into that, in terms of design work. I would just like to get on with it and get stuff done,” Martin says, explaining the rationale for the new unit.


Almost immediately, the Taoiseach worked to convene the first meeting of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in over three years. Previously, he has expressed a “passion” for a creating a shared island and indicated his intention to give it particular priority.

Following the meeting’s conclusion, Martin described it as “warm” and indicated that it had “engaged our ministers” on a wide range of topics. “North-south cooperation is a key priority of our government,” he reiterated.

While First Minister Arlene Foster described the meeting of the NSMC as “worthwhile and productive”, she later criticised comments made by the Taoiseach during an interview with the Irish Independent in which he indicated that he intended to “beef up” the Shared Island Unit. Anticipating that the rise of English nationalism may, at some point, lead the British Government to seek to extricate itself from the North he pondered: “What happens if England gets turned off Northern Ireland? We’ve got to be thinking all this through.”

I think the north-south agenda has lost momentum in recent years. I think we need to reignite that. I think we need to, through the Shared Island Unit, have a conversation about how we share the island in a post-Brexit environment, into the future.

Quote-tweeting her response to the article, the First Minister wrote: “A good neighbourly N/S relationship requires consistency. After a positive NSMC, the Taoiseach’s comments are disappointing. The principle of consent determines NI’s place in the UK. NI will keep moving forward by respecting our diverse identities not dubious theories.”

Covid-19 and Brexit

Meanwhile, describing the north-south jurisdictional alignment in the public health response to Covid-19 as “fair”, except specifically on international travel, the Taoiseach asserts: “You do have two de facto jurisdictions. That can’t be ignored. But we have the Memorandum of Understanding between the CMO in the North and the CMO in the Republic, which is good.”

Simultaneously, Martin feels that the east-west relationship will require a realignment. “Prime Minister Boris Johnson and I spoke about the need for a strategic review of the British-Irish relationship post-Brexit because Europe was facilitative of a strong bond between the British and Irish Governments. We used to meet in Brussels very often on European agenda items, but we became very familiar with ministers on the British Government side, likewise they with us, and civil servants. There’s a real danger of losing a lot of that familiarity.”

Indeed, the Taoiseach highlights “a distinctive European legacy” in Ireland, fostered in some part by the late John Hume, who he describes as “a powerful European”. Paying tribute to the Derry man, Martin states: “He leaves us an island that is much better off because of the work that he, along with others, put into both the peace process and, crucially, the evolution of our understanding of what unity means. It’s about hearts and minds, not territory.”

Turning the potential of a border poll in light of Brexit, Martin describes it as “a kneejerk reaction” and adds: “I just think it creates division, gets people’s backs up unnecessarily, too early and becomes a barrier to progress. Whereas, the genius of the Good Friday Agreement was that it meant that you didn’t have to keep talking about constitutional issues every day.” That being said, the Taoiseach believes that “the north-south element [of the Agreement] hasn’t been delivered”.

General Election 2020

While there are some parliamentary party members within Fianna Fáil who evidently regard Sinn Féin as a more natural fit for coalition partner, Martin’s leadership ensured that the Republican Party rejected any government formation discussions with Mary Lou McDonald’s party in the aftermath of the February 2020 general election. Instead, Fianna Fáil reached agreement with its Civil War nemesis, Fine Gael, and, alongside the Green Party, established an historic coalition.

As Uachtarán Fhianna Fáil, Martin’s has been consistently acerbic in his criticism of Sinn Féin. “The problem with Sinn Féin is that it wants to shove down our throats that its war was correct. It won’t accept that it got a lot wrong. I think [Seamus] Mallon was right, [the recent conflict] was a waste of 30 years, it caused enormous devastation. It shouldn’t have taken so long to get rid of the gun and get into constitutional politics,” he concludes.

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