Micheál Martin correct in diagnosing lack of political focus on Northern Ireland

Opinion: Dublin and London governments are failing to engage with North’s challenges

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin speaking at the annual Easter Rising 1916 Commemoration at Arbour Hill, Dublin, on Sunday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin speaking at the annual Easter Rising 1916 Commemoration at Arbour Hill, Dublin, on Sunday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


Micheál Martin has always taken more interest in the North than the average Fianna Fáil politician.

Long before he became party leader, he was a frequent attender at the annual British-Irish Association conference, where senior figures from London and Dublin come together at an Oxbridge college to address the challenge posed by the North.

Now it is evident from his speech at Arbour Hill on Sunday that Martin believes the British and Irish governments have taken their eyes off the northern political ball, accusing them of “a clear and dangerous lack of commitment”.

And this is hardly surprising. Scrutiny of cabinet papers at Kew in London for the 1970s shows a metropolitan political elite deeply uninterested in being drawn back into the governance of Northern Ireland – having irresponsibly delegated that task to a reluctant Protestant monopoly half a century earlier. That scrutiny also shows every desire to devolve power back to the region, and forget about it, as quickly as possible.

Since devolution was renewed in 2007, following the five-year hiatus precipitated by IRA spying at Stormont, unemployment has nearly doubled. But the First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, were shown the Downing Street door by the prime minister, David Cameron, last month when they pleaded with him to support their one-club, economic-policy demand – based on their superficial reading of the “Celtic Tiger” – to cut corporation tax to the level of the Republic.

Economics vs politics
Things have come a long way since the Tiger years, when a key adviser on the North to several Fianna Fáil taoisigh could claim the buoyant position of the State would allow it to take over responsibility from Britain for subsidising the North’s public services. The director of the Centre for Cross-Border Studies, Andy Pollak – formerly of this newspaper – frequently fulminates about what he sees as the lack of interest in official Ireland in North-South concerns, the economic crisis consuming all political energies.

If the North’s political institutions were working well, this would be a less serious concern. But Martin called them “dysfunctional” and few outside the Stormont bubble would disagree.

This month saw the 15th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement and the associated commentary was notably downbeat and reflective. Hardly surprising: the 2011 Assembly election saw an eight-point slump in turnout and only 11 Bills (most routine) have been passed since. A survey naively commissioned by the Assembly found that northerners were more interested in foreign affairs than in events at Stormont.

Key officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs who negotiated the agreement anticipated that the political centre ground, principally the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, would preside over its implementation. Wishful thinking about the subsequent “moderation” of the DUP and Sinn Féin, who now dominate Stormont, has given way to an averting of the eyes from the inability of the North’s most determined ethnic protagonists to govern effectively in coalition.

Poisoned relations
Last week, executive members admitted they were not getting along, relations having been poisoned by the controversy over the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall, and Robinson and McGuinness were forced to hold a clear-the-air meeting.

Senior civil servants bemoan how their impartial advice is sidelined by the party apparatchiks who act as ministerial special advisers. In a resonant debacle, the DUP and Sinn Féin Stormont special advisers have been unable to agree, after several years of trying, a viable document to replace the policy on reconciliation, A Shared Future , bequeathed by the direct-rule administration.

Martin warned this was creating a “dangerous vacuum”. And the sight of 10,000 people marching through east Belfast at the weekend to mark the centenary of the Ulster Volunteer Force, with the current paramilitary leadership in attendance – never mind the coming together last year of “dissident republican” groupuscules and the leakage of former Provo operatives – should give pause for thought.

It is not within the gift of Stormont to legislate for a more flexible and workable form of power-sharing, less replete with deadlocking vetoes. That requires change to the Westminster legislation enacting the agreement, which would necessitate dialogue between London and Dublin. But inertia reigns.

Dr Robin Wilson is author of The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export? (Manchester University Press)

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