Micheál Martin: Fianna Fáil defies O’Toole’s simple caricature

We make no apologies for putting practical solutions ahead of ideological ones

Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil Micheál Martin in his office. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil Micheál Martin in his office. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Fintan O’Toole has been consistent in his call on the Irish people to become ideological along clear left versus right lines. He has even gone as far as to say that he hopes we will all understand that there is now no alternative to adopting primarily ideological politics.

Where problems arise is when this sincere belief leads to a caricature of the beliefs and the records of those who refuse to conform to the simplistic left/right divide.

What we read on Tuesday last from him was a polemic about Fianna Fáil which was dismissive and, disappointingly for someone of O’Toole’s stature and experience, lacked depth.

For example, it is extraordinary how the party’s central role in Ireland’s positive engagement with Europe and the search for a lasting peace on this island are, apparently, not even worth mentioning.

It continues to be remarkable how some commentators believe that accountability should be applied only to people you disagree with

The presentation of Fianna Fáil’s history is one which, at a stroke, seeks to delegitimise the democratic choice of hundreds of thousands of Irish people.

Unfortunately, this forms part of a rising populism in Irish public debate which shows no interest in engaging with or respecting the sincerity of those who disagree with you.

It continues to be remarkable how some commentators believe that accountability should be applied only to people you disagree with.

An honest treatment of Fianna Fáil’s role would point to the entrenchment of the liberal democracy at a time when fascism and communism were destroying other countries, through the enactment of Bunreacht na hÉireann and its limits on the power of the State.

It would also point to the studies of Ireland’s development which have demonstrated critical differences in Fianna Fáil’s policies to those of others.

For example, a recent academic study of Fianna Fáil governments showed a significantly greater emphasis on developing public services and investment.

Expansions in education, public housing, industrial development and many other areas stood in direct contrast to the alternatives.

Unlike the situation in many other countries, at every stage of Fianna Fáil’s history there has been media plurality and prominent opposition.

The idea that this was all a story of “perpetual domination” – attracting support on the basis of expected favours – is nothing more than a way of avoiding a proper engagement with the facts.

Fianna Fáil’s support has been and remains rooted in a democratic republican tradition – one which we are working to build upon in this government.

Our distinct positioning in Irish politics is that we are a centrist party which supports both the development of public services and a strong economic base.

Nearly 80 per cent of the Government’s term is yet to run, but any fair observer will see that Fianna Fáil has had a distinct and positive impact on critical issues

As Seán Lemass so often said, we make no apologies for emphasising practical solutions ahead of ideological ones.

We are an unequivocally Euro-positive party, which has also been the driving force in our politics for peace and reconciliation on this island, culminating in the Belfast Agreement.

The reality is that Ireland is today a European multi-party democracy. Very few countries have a system based on forcing everybody into two ideological camps.

In fact, one of the many lessons of the recent ‘democratic recession’ which has led to the rise of extreme parties is that it is essential to maintain a choice within the centre.

Just over a year ago our party’s membership overwhelmingly voted for joining the current coalition on the basis of an agreed programme and with the first challenge being to manage a constantly evolving pandemic.

Nearly 80 per cent of the Government’s term is yet to run, but any fair observer will see that Fianna Fáil has had a distinct and positive impact on critical issues.

In one of the most difficult environments faced by an Irish government, my colleagues and I have worked tirelessly and effectively to make sure that the Government implements its new programme.

During the pandemic we have seen an ongoing and intense debate on what can and should be done. The cynicism of key parts of the Opposition has been striking, especially the demand that there be ready-made, flawless policies ready for entirely new challenges.

By every independent measure Ireland will come through this pandemic with fewer cases and deaths than our nearest neighbour or Europe as a whole. At the same time, one of the world’s most effective vaccination programmes has been implemented.

The whole-of-government commitment to tackling climate change has meant that there has been unprecedented movement on climate action in the last year. Eamon Ryan has provided critical leadership on this, but he would acknowledge the support which our Ministers have also provided.

While we certainly can’t match the politics of those who promise cheap housing to everyone but object to housing near anyone, we can and are demonstrating a commitment to practical and urgent action

Housing is a critical challenge, but it is one which requires action on many fronts at one time. This is exactly what we are working on in government.

The pandemic meant that more than 10,000 fewer homes have been built, but major action has been put in place to increase social and affordable housing and to limit rent increases.

While we certainly can’t match the politics of those who promise cheap housing to everyone but object to housing near anyone, we can and are demonstrating a commitment to practical and urgent action.

The same can be said in relation to health, where we are implementing an expansion in the specialist health services which are the only way to deliver the level and quality of services people have a right to expect.

As a party whose history has been defined by a commitment to education at every level, helping our schools meet the challenges of today’s world is also a priority for government.

Ireland’s future will in many ways be defined by relations on this island and by the reform of the European Union.

On both of these areas Fianna Fáil has played a key role in shaping the Government’s position.

On Europe we are a leading advocate at European summits for new support programmes for recovery, for European leadership in public-health matters and for equality and the rule of law to be a defining requirement for membership.

On the future of this island, we have dedicated ourselves to restarting the work of true reconciliation on this island – building connections North and South and trying to move debate away from the destructive rhetoric of too many.

Fianna Fáil has a record of positive and enduring achievements which partisans choose to ignore, but which are there nonetheless.

In today’s multi-party democracy, we have a mandate and we have a distinct programme which is and will continue to drive our work in this Government.

Micheál Martin is Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil

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