Bracing wine of reality continues to blow in FF’s policy on the North

I SUSPECT that some time in the future a couple of eccentric academics or postgraduate students will study the developments which have occurred in Fianna Fáil’s Northern Ireland policy in the last two and a half decades.

They will find a lot of source material in the various speeches given at Fianna Fáil Árd Fheiseanna.

Brian Cowen's speech to last Saturday night's gathering in Killarney should attract their particular attention. Fianna Fáil's Northern Ireland policy has changed significantly over this period.

Although it has been done gradually, and some of the wordsmiths have been the same throughout, the change has not just been one of emphasis but also one of substance.

Like many political parties on these islands, Fianna Fáil has had to shift its position from the realm of myths to that of reality. The painstaking task of building and bedding down a sustainable peace process has required no less.

After some equivocation, the principle of consent is now the central plank of Fianna Fáil policy on Northern Ireland.

In fact, the party has played a part in persuading some others to adopt the same policy. The party unapologetically retains the goal of Irish unity but the priority for the foreseeable future is peace and an agreed political settlement.

I recall watching Charlie Haughey's address to the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis in February 1990.

This was Haughey's famous "Northern Ireland is a failed political entity" speech. He called for the two governments to put the Northern Ireland problem "on a new plan" implicitly over the heads of the Northern Ireland political parties.

In the speech, Haughey spoke of the need to honour and respect the tradition of Northern Ireland Protestants, but his main message was that he looked forward to "some new free and open arrangement in which Irish men and women, on their own without a British presence, but with active British goodwill, will manage the affairs of the whole of Ireland."

In the years that followed, when I attended Árd Fheiseanna in person, I was always struck by how the biggest cheers and ovations during Haughey's speeches were when he had a go at the British or the Unionists.

Haughey was not above cynically shoring up his own standing with the party faithful by clever applause lines and jibes at the old enemy. He famously got a standing ovation when he stood over his attack on Thatcher for the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands war.

When things were good between the governments, he could still manage to gets the troops fired up by calling for Sellafield to be closed it was as if the British arrogance in dumping nuclear material into the Irish sea summed up 700 years of oppression.

Much has been written about the Haughey contribution to the peace process. It is clear he sanctioned the first tentative indirect discussions between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

However, I doubt if politically, philosophically or temperamentally he would have been suited to putting in place the critical stages of the peace process, which was subsequently achieved.

With the change of Fianna Fáil's leadership in 1992, came a dramatic and significant change in party policy.

Albert Reynolds had no ideological baggage on this issue and he had a closer understanding of the Major-led British government. Crucially, Reynolds had a risk-taker's flair and had the confidence to reach out to paramilitaries on both sides.

Reynolds' leadership also marked a toning-down of the rhetoric. There was a subtle but significant shift in party policy. Reynolds sidelined the "unity" objective in favour of the steps necessary to achieve peace. In his Árd Fheis addresses and other speeches, Reynolds talked of peace first and maybe someday unity.

Perhaps most significant was Reynolds' address to the 1993 Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis which was held some weeks before the Downing Street declaration was published.

In this address, he publicly emphasised again what I had seen him passionately communicate at smaller and more private party gathering for months.

Peace, he argued, must come before a political solution. If the violence could end or at least be ceased then the environment could be transformed and an agreed political solution could be developed.

Since 1997, Bertie Ahern has painstakingly laid out the path which supports the changing of Articles Two and Three in the wider context of the achievement of the Good Friday agreement.

On Saturday night he again called on the Northern Ireland parties to take the bold final steps necessary to achieve the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement.

AT this year's Árd Fheis, the task of giving the warm-up speech for the leader again fell to Brian Cowen. It is a role he has played on a number of previous occasions and he has usually delivered colourful political fire and brimstone for the party faithful.

However, this year, Cowen's speech was more considered, more worldly and almost half of it was devoted to Northern Ireland.

Cowen spoke about how, in his travels as foreign affairs minister, he had come across many who looked to our own peace process as providing an example "a ray of hope to those who find themselves in seemingly hopeless situations."

In other parts of the world where peace processes have rolled back into terrible violence, many of those involved looked to Ireland, where the legacies of history are being overcome and where a way is being found "to reconcile different political traditions and opposing political loyalties in ways which upheld their equal legitimacy and gave political expression to the equal validity of both."

The most significant line in Cowen's speech, however, was the following.

"It is time" he said, to find ways to entrust ourselves through a democratic process to a common future rather than continue with a political myth that we can reach our true potential by denying the existence of, or our need for, the other."

I, for one took this to include a subtle call for some of Fianna Fáil's own mythology about Northern Ireland to be decommissioned.

The myth of the imperative of a united Ireland at least in the traditional form it had often been used at Fianna Fáil Árd Fheiseanna needs to give way instead to more immediate demands of an agreed political settlement.

It was a well-crafted address with a subtle message which was targeted at the five thousand party faithful in Killarney, as well as at the wider audience.

The demands of precision timing, which live television imposes, meant that the Northern Ireland section of Cowen's speech was actually delivered at a rapid speed.

The size of the venue and the audience meant that at times it was also delivered at a high volume.

However, the significance of Cowen's call for myth debunking and the significance of the fact that he took this occasion to make that point should not be lost.

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