Sunday 25 September 2016

'At least we stepped up to the plate and helped the formation of a Government'

New Politics is a 'horrible term' - but Martin still thinks it can work, writes Kevin Doyle

Published 12/09/2016 | 02:30

Micheál Martin is scathing about Sinn Féin’s posturing on a border poll. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Micheál Martin is scathing about Sinn Féin’s posturing on a border poll. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Micheál Martin admits that New Politics is a "horrible term" but still believes it can do some good. He believes it would be better defined as "rebalancing the power" between the Government and the rest of the Dáil.

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It stops people "ramming legislation through" and gives backbench TDs "a greater say", argues the Fianna Fáil leader.

But isn't that the problem? Just eight pieces of legislation - including some leftovers from the last Dáil, one to suspend water charges and one to set up a citizens' assembly - passed since the Fine Gael-led Government came to power in May.

"That's what happens when new ministers are appointed. They want to review legislation.

"I would expect in the autumn that we would have a pipeline of legislative proposals," says a diplomatic Mr Martin. But he adds: "It's arguable that the Opposition has been more proactive in proposing bills."

For Fianna Fáil, he sees "pluses and minuses" from the arrangement that sees the party effectively prop up Enda Kenny's administration from the Opposition benches.

However, he believes his TDs have adjusted better to "the new reality".

"At least we stepped up to the plate and facilitated the formation of a government, having failed ourselves to get a government going with the Independents, Greens or Social Democrats.

"There's too much 'we have power but we don't like how we have it' in some circles of Fine Gael. They need to get with it.

"I think that has created some of the instability," he told the Irish Independent.

More instability is likely to brew in the coming months as Taoiseach Enda Kenny comes under increasing pressure to outline his exit strategy.

Unsurprisingly, after winning their election head-to-heads, Mr Martin is in no hurry for the Fine Gael leader to depart.

He says Mr Kenny's retirement "could cause its own tensions", but "ultimately it's a matter for Fine Gael who their leader is".

He declines to declare a preference from three frontrunners for the position, but is prepared to take aim at the three potential successors.

Mr Martin believes Leo Varadkar walked away from Health, Simon Coveney left Agriculture on the floor and Frances Fitzgerald has not engaged with the major issues in Justice.

The Fianna Fáil leader is surprised Mr Varadkar did not retain the Health portfolio.

"I thought Leo Varadkar would go back into Health because he was attacking everybody else, me and previous holders of the office," he says.

And if Simon Coveney becomes the next leader of Fine Gael, then two Cork South Central TDs will be vying to be Taoiseach at the next election. Mr Martin says his constituency rival "left Agriculture at a time when it's on the floor".

Farmers are facing a series of crises, with diary and grain prices plummeting and many complaining they are surviving on income levels that are not sustainable.

Mr Martin had some praise for Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, who he believes "engages with the Opposition".

But Garda morale is "very low" and he would like "more reassurance" that the terrorist threat is being sufficiently monitored in terms of the capacity to deal with a potential incident.

He is more scathing of Sinn Féin, which has long portrayed itself as the only "all-island party" - but Mr Martin says it risks polarising communities.

He describes the 'border poll' idea as a "divisive knee-jerk reaction".

"The way Sinn Féin did it would inflame loyalist and unionist opinion and would actually put back the day of Irish unity," he says.

He argues that Sinn Féin's reaction to the UK referendum was "classic Brexit stuff".

"It's an exact replicate of what happened in the UK. Produce a Brexit strategy and then have no plan B.

"At the moment, there is no evidence that people in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland.

"Brexit could potentially change that into the future but we don't know. If we force attitudes now, they'll go the other way," the Cork TD says.

He adds that his vision of a united Ireland is not one led by a straightforward plebiscite under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

"To me, unity is about people, it's not about territory. It's about having genuine unity of people from different traditions.

"It's not about us saying we have 51pc nationalism versus 49pc. I don't believe in that kind of majority. That's the kind of majoritarianism that led to a failed Northern state. I don't want to replicate that ever. I believe in consensus."

He adds: "There's no point in having substantial division that festers, becoming an issue of discord and conflict potentially. Nobody wants that any more."

Of the upcoming Budget, Mr Martin indicates that his party has no inclination to bring the whole thing crashing down - but he does want a meaningful debate.

"When I came into the Dáil first, you had two weeks debating the Budget and every backbencher was allowed in.

"It was a great platform for a backbencher to give their philosophy, their view of life. Nowadays it's two-and-a-half hours and get out a press release."

And that according to Martin is the real value of New Politics. "At least the balance has shifted."

Irish Independent

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