Saturday 24 August 2019

John Downing: 'Fianna Fáil leader must face up to perils and limits of a 'green jersey always' Brexit strategy'


Green light: Micheál Martin has worked harder than any other Fianna Fáil leader to build a base in Europe. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Green light: Micheál Martin has worked harder than any other Fianna Fáil leader to build a base in Europe. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
John Downing

John Downing

'Green jersey time" is an old maxim among the Irish in Brussels going back to our joining of the then-EEC in January 1973.

The call for EU unity across Irish parties and sectors harks back to the old primary school history books and the treachery of Diarmaid Mac Murchada, the ousted King of Leinster who led Strongbow and his Anglo-Norman pals into Wexford in 1169 just to settle old scores. The Normans stayed, morphed into the English, and his memory has long been excoriated as "Diarmaid na nGall" (Dermot of the Foreigners), the man who gave us 800 years of misery.

As often happens, the real story may be more complex. Some historians argue he had been banished for a failed effort to become High King, rather than the other cited crime of making off with a rival's wife, which was hardly a rarity in 12th century Ireland.

Such tales seem more diverting than the three-year Brexit misery, now threatening to become a Halloween no-deal nightmare. But it is also important to avoid "bad history" in assessing contemporary events.

Fianna Fáil and its leader, Micheál Martin, have rightly opted to don the "green jersey" and show a largely united cross-party front throughout this most challenging time. That approach shows us how the party - and our national politics - have changed since last time Fianna Fáil did two long stints in opposition back in the 1980s.

In that period, Mr Martin's predecessor, one Charlie Haughey, was rightly dubbed "against everything and for nothing". Haughey opposed the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement on the North and the 1986 Single European Act which framed plans for the EU border-free single market, among other things.

But that was in an era when Fianna Fáil were still viewed by themselves and others as the "natural party of government". 'Anybody But Fianna Fáil' coalitions were viewed as temporary things while "the party" re-grouped in opposition. Now coalitions are the norm and the party is a shrunken version of its former self, though it retains a memory of bigger days.

Mr Martin has coped admirably with the continuing internal tensions caused by his decision in May 2016 to prop up the Fine Gael-led hybrid minority coalition with diverse Independent TDs. He has worked harder than any other Fianna Fáil leader to build a base in the European Parliament and they are integrated in the third largest Renew Europe group, which includes colleagues of French President Emmanuel Macron.

He is right in principle to continue the united front on Brexit. But why must it amount to being unthinkingly supportive of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his ministers?

On Tuesday, the Fianna Fáil leader dissociated himself from a foray by one of his frontbenchers, Timmy Dooley, who publicly suggested the Taoiseach "showed a lack of experience and arrogance" in handling Brexit. Mr Dooley's timing was off - it coincided with Boris Johnson's continued failure to contact the Taoiseach.

Mr Martin immediately tweeted that there was no change in his party's Brexit support and the fault effectively lay with the British prime minister. But surely Mr Dooley was entitled to raise these questions.

Surely also, Leo Varadkar does at times come across as arrogant and, as somebody turned 40 and elected party leader and Taoiseach just two years, he is hardly coming down with experience facing into this huge challenge.

It is also undoubtedly true that Mr Varadkar and his ministers have not excelled in explaining to people how the authorities are going to cope with a Brexit which could well end in a calamitous no-deal in 13 weeks' time.

The Taoiseach keeps talking about "conversations" with the European Commission. It does fuel the public's anxiety that this secrecy and reticence around a Brexit no-deal plan may mask the absence of such a plan.

It remains the Opposition's role to raise these and other Brexit questions. Facts are more usually user-friendly. We need answers if we are to maintain our trust in our political leaders. All this can be done without abandoning the main thrust of Fianna Fáil support for the Government on Brexit. We can discount and ignore noise in the British Tory media about "cracks" in the Irish approach.

The politics of the UK are so messed up they are not well placed to make disparaging comments about how Ireland is ordering its affairs.

Up to now Mr Martin seemed happy to allow his Brexit spokeswoman, Lisa Chambers, to play "nasty cop" to his eventual "nice cop". It is quite common in day-to-day politics and it has its place.

The green jersey does not have to mean blind loyalty at all times about everything.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss