Shared Island initiative sparks policy debate in Fianna Fáil

Martin faces down some internal criticism over his perceived approach to unity

Taoiseach Micheál Martin speaking to the media after he gave an address on the Shared Island initiative  at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Julien Behal

Taoiseach Micheál Martin speaking to the media after he gave an address on the Shared Island initiative at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

The Government’s €500 million Shared Island initiative, spearheaded by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, has started a debate within Fianna Fáil over the party’s core policy of a united Ireland.

His promotion of the idea of a shared island has led to internal criticism that reunification is no longer a priority for him.

Mr Martin rejects the criticism, but also argues that thinking on the subject has evolved from rhetoric and positioning.

“I don’t buy that,” he says of the criticism. “People are stirring around that. It’s just endless,” he told The Irish Times.

Asked if a united Ireland no longer formed part of his thinking as an aspiration or an eventual settlement, he said: “To me the Good Friday Agreement was a huge leap forward. I am very much in the Lemass tradition of practical application of one’s vision for the island of Ireland.

“I don’t believe in being put into a box or being put into a corner and being told this is your position, there is no other formula. We have long gone past that.

“The Good Friday Agreement moved us beyond the ritualistic formulas. Who would have thought before Good Friday that you would have the British-Irish dimension, and North-South Ministerial Council and the Executive Council and Assembly? These were massive breakthroughs.

“I deal in the real world of making pragmatic progress on a whole range of fronts.”

He said he saw himself in the tradition of Sean Lemass as a Fianna Fáil leader when it came to the practical application of a vision for the island of Ireland.

“We have made very significant progress on the island not just through rhetoric and repeating the old mantra but by actually doing something about it, and that is what I am doing now.”

He added: “You can tie yourself in knots going back and posing a question in one sentence: is that your position? It’s far more nuanced than that. It’s something that has to be evolved and needs to be worked on.”

Border poll

Mr Martin also said no Border poll would take place in the next five years. Asked would it occur within the next decade, he said: “I’m not going there. All that kind of talk undermines my approach to it. I’m not going to tie anything to deadlines. I want to engage in discussions with people and not to end up with a never-ending divisive approach.

“My view is I would much prefer to hear the views of the younger generation in the Republic and the North on how we can share the island better.”

While there is uncritical support for Shared Island within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, several TDs have privately questioned the Taoiseach’s commitment to Fianna Fáil’s core policy of a united Ireland.

Several have also argued a Border poll should take place within the next decade.

Laois-Offaly TD Barry Cowen has said he strongly supports the Shared Ireland initiative as recommitment to the Belfast Agreement. He added he agreed with former taoiseach Bertie Ahern that there should be a poll on the 30th anniversary of the agreement in 2028.

Mr Cowen said: “Fianna Fáil must and will still abide by our aims to peacefully secure the unity and independence of Ireland as a Republic and carry out the democratic programme of first Dáil.”

Senior figures

Those sentiments have been echoed by other senior figures such as Éamon Ó Cuív and Jim O’Callaghan, who has said the desire and need for reunification is stronger because of the impact of Covid.

Meanwhile, the party’s youngest TD, James O’Connor, says he strongly supports Mr Martin’s Shared Island approach, and also his argument that it is premature to hold a referendum this decade.

Mr O’Connor is of the view that “there is a strong possibility of a united Ireland before 2040”.