Newton Emerson: Micheál Martin’s Arbour Hill comments are out of step

An election will now be held in which the people of Northern Ireland can only blame themselves for the outcome

Now Martin has dramatically re-engaged northwards, using his Arbour Hill address last week to demand “direct engagement by both the Irish and British governments”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

Now Martin has dramatically re-engaged northwards, using his Arbour Hill address last week to demand “direct engagement by both the Irish and British governments”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

 

In 2012, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin turned his Bodenstown address to the problems of Stormont and the failure of London and Dublin to address them. No doubt his concerns were sincerely held but they triangulated his party nicely between a Sinn Féin snapping at his heels in the polls and a Fine Gael-Labour government. The DUP and Sinn Féin were “putting party interests” ahead of improving social and economic indices, Martin declared – implying Sinn Féin would be useless in a Southern cabinet too. The Taoiseach and his government had dangerously reduced their engagement in Northern affairs, Martin continued – implying a more republican leader was called for. Dublin’s reckless complacency and Sinn Féin’s glorification of past IRA violence risked a crisis in the peace process by encouraging dissidents, Martin concluded – implying he was more republican but only in the less violent way.

This remained Fianna Fáil’s message for the next three years, helped a great deal – at first – by circumstance. Because anyone who predicts a problem at Stormont will be right very soon, Sinn Féin promptly caused a crisis over welfare reform that slowly engulfed Northern Ireland’s entire political system.

The fact that Sinn Féin only did this to position itself within the Southern system was neither here nor there, or for Northern readers, neither there nor here.

Martin’s statesmanlike stance above party interests kept him aloof from any dispute about welfare itself, which was most fortuitous.Yet as the crisis limped on from one all-encompassing set of talks to another, the timeless warning that London and Dublin needed to sort Stormont out began to look a little dated.

It became apparent London was disengaging as an active, positive policy, to force an indigenous deal it felt would be more likely to stick. Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers was specific about this, in word and patient non-deed, while David Cameron referred all demands for “crisis summits” back to a blasé Villiers. At the same time, Stormont parties had top-level access to British treasury and welfare ministers whenever they wanted to discuss practical solutions.

People in Northern Ireland began to enjoy the strangulated spectacle of their elected representatives realising they would have to sort out their own arguments. Some people even began to believe it might work, or at least that it was the only thing that ever had a chance of working.

Faith was tested

Certainly, few believed Stormont would put itself out of work. Faith was tested late last summer as the brinkmanship went right to the edge, with two IRA walkout-linked murders causing unionist walkouts and resignations. Then suddenly it was all resolved in the Sinn Féin-DUP “Fresh Start” agreement, almost as if nothing had happened – and the Fianna Fáil critique fell silent.

Curiously, that critique had been only one part of Fianna Fáil’s Northern engagement. Also from 2012, Fianna Fáil’s Éamon Ó Cuív began appearing North of the Border “observing” dissident trials, expressing concern for dissident prisoners and criticising the PSNI for, among other things, “harassment” of dissident suspects. No doubt his concerns were sincerely held but they triangulated his party nicely between being hard on Sinn Féin and being hard on the alleged causes of Sinn Féin.

In 2013, at a legal event in Derry, Ó Cuív claimed the dissident threat was being “exaggerated” by “vested interests” before pointing the finger at the “security forces” and not, alas, at his own party leader.

The next evening a car bomb partially exploded outside a Belfast shopping centre and Ó Cuív fell silent.

Now Martin has dramatically re-engaged northwards, using his Arbour Hill address last week to demand “direct engagement by both the Irish and British governments to end the stranglehold in Stormont by two parties”, as this is “doing immense damage to public support for the institutions and public engagement in politics”.

Crisis he predicted

No doubt his concerns are sincerely held but they triangulate his party nicely between the crisis he predicted and the solution that came to pass. The “stranglehold” at Stormont arises from “Fresh Start”, the deal London and Dublin stood back from to let the Northern parties figure it out for themselves.

In those negotiations, the UUP withdrew, Alliance took a tactical back seat and the SDLP declined to differentiate itself from Sinn Féin, leaving the DUP and Sinn Féin – as the two largest parties – to reach terms that include the modern Stormont’s first opposition mechanism plus a far more accountable way of sharing out ministries.

An election will now be held in which the people of Northern Ireland can decide who will be the largest parties, all parties can make meaningful coalition choices and nobody can blame anyone for the outcome but themselves.

This is solid, democratic progress. For Fianna Fáil to appear to condemn it is quite extraordinary.

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