By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
Micheál Martin is the Gatsby of Irish politics, defined by his own, and his party’s past. He would claim to believe that the past is behind him but, the past suffuses every political thought he has. It creates his political narrative and holds him in a whirlpool from which he can’t escape. He’s doomed to fail. The sooner he goes the better.
On Sunday he had an opportunity to break out of the current and chart a new course in a speech at the annual Seán Lemass commemoration. Instead, he preached a tired, deadbeat sermon full of same old, same old; barely concealed attacks on his nemesis Sinn Féin, knocking over straw men and Aunt Sallys. It was a typical Martin sermon of vapid, vacuous piosity saying nothing. The Irish Times printed edition correctly ignored it, rather covering reports that several of his TDs intend to vote against Varadkar for taoiseach in November if Martin tries to hang on.
Britain’s Conservative party is in chaos, Britain divided. Brexit has caused incalculable damage to Britain’s prosperity and to its relations with Ireland prompting demands for a referendum here. Nicola Sturgeon has just announced a demand for an independence referendum next year, Plaid Cymru is on the march, the Welsh first minister has said the union is “not sustainable”. Even the Irish Times, has printed an editorial asking whether the dysfunction here ‘would not be better overcome by linking the north more closely with an Ireland in the EU than with a UK out of it’. Hardly a week passes without Fine Gael’s Neale Richmond writing about the need to prepare for a referendum on the border. Alex Kane wrote on Monday again warning unionists to prepare.
Beating alone against the current is Micheál Martin, talking as if he was somewhere in the 1990s, falsely accusing people calling for national unity of being, “the most divisive”. While individuals may do so, no one in any organised party or group advocating a united Ireland does anything other than appeal for diversity and respect for difference. All those organised groups and parties ask for a citizens assembly or all-party committee to lay out how best to accommodate difference. Martin is talking through his hat, or maybe he hit his head on something.
His sermon on Sunday missed an open goal. Rather than lay out a blueprint or show the route to a united Ireland Martin preached – you couldn’t say analysed – about the north and its endemic differences as a spectator, as if it was nothing to do with him. What was most telling was his negativity, as always, attacking however obliquely, republicans.
As usual he was silent on the excesses of loyalist bigotry on display last week. Not a word about the coarse slogans or effigies of women political leaders hanging from a grotesquely offensive bonfire.
Martin’s commentary on the north is entirely wrong. His appeal for reconciliation before developing any political or constitutional structures puts the cart before the horse. Ask anyone involved with conflict societies and they’ll tell you agreed political structures are the way to reconciliation. Would South African whites and its black majority have been reconciled without agreed political development? Are Palestinians and Israelis going to be reconciled before an agreed political structure emerges? Of course not.
Martin’s Sunday sermon was simply more evidence confirming that he intends to do nothing to promote Irish unity, perhaps because it might give Sinn Féin a leg up, perhaps because new structures would inevitably disrupt the cosy wee arrangement in the south, now over, that used to suit Fianna Fáil. Or maybe it’s simply because he’s yesterday’s man.
As the inimitable Tom Collins wrote here last year: “Britain’s misfortune was to have Boris Johnson as prime minister. Ireland’s is to have Micheál Martin.”