Rigidly unwilling to compromise, Micheál Martin has failed as a statesman

I AM disgusted with Fianna Fáil. I have always respected Micheál Martin, but his knee-jerk rejection of Fine Gael’s grand coalition offer, last week, left a sick feeling, writes Victoria White.
Rigidly unwilling to compromise, Micheál Martin has failed as a statesman

The sick feeling intensified when Martin indicated that Enda Kenny had not been “sincere” in his offer, that it might have been a ploy to make Fianna Fáil look bad.

If that was the case, it worked. But you don’t impute motives to people unless you have proof. It isn’t fair and it isn’t what a statesman should do, as his country watches and waits.

Martin has achieved something that I never would have thought possible: he has made Enda Kenny sound like a statesman. Poor Enda has never got much back from this column, but I admire him for trying, again and again, to put a government together, despite what he described as the “complex” answer the people gave at the last election.

I don’t buy the “desperate for power” angle and, even if it were true, I don’t care. What’s wrong with having power? With power come responsibilities, and our problem is that most of our political establishment don’t want responsibility. That’s surely rooted in the fact that, even in this centenary year of the Rising, the Irish people don’t like to be governed. They blame the people who govern them, even though they gave them the power in free and open elections.

Political populism in Ireland equates with being against politics. Fianna Fáil had promised to abolish the Seanad, and was promising to radically cut the number of Dáil deputies, when it swept to power in 1932. They have been in power for 60 of the State’s 86 years, but they have managed that trick only because they created the impression that they were being governed, rather than governing.

The classic example has to be Bertie Ahern, a man you might meet down the pub and not even remember that he served a monumental three terms as taoiseach. Bertie was making all the decisions, but was, simultaneously, as clueless as the rest of us. He didn’t know where his own money came from, let alone yours.

The fundamental genius of Fianna Fáil, since Éamon de Valera came into the Dáil on August 11, 1927, and signed the Treaty, but didn’t really mean it, has lain in being an insider and outsider at the same time. But, in truth, our progress as a country, in tandem with Fianna Fáil’s, has only been achieved through a series of bold compromises. De Valera got us, and himself, out of what Noel Whelan calls “the abstentionist rut” when he signed that Treaty.

Eamon de Valera
Eamon de Valera

I have been reading Whelan’s Fianna Fáil: A Biography of the Party (2011) with enormous interest. He records Prof Desmond Williams’s belief that Dev’s signing of the oath was “a great turning-point of Irish parliamentary government”. Dev knew his political opponents would have a field day when he went back on his word, and they duly did: Cumann na nGaedheal called him “Senor de Valera, world famous illusionist and oath-swallower”, while Sinn Féin still say he betrayed us.

But his party was behind him, as was public opinion, and this can be seen in subsequent elections. It was an action that curtailed violence and provided a secure bedrock for our nascent state. You can lazily depict Fianna Fáil’s Ireland as “fascist”, as implied in Joe Mc Nicholas’s Guernica-like depiction of seven Fianna Fáil taoisigh, banned from the Cork School of Music, but the truth is that de Valera’s 1937 Constitution guaranteed a free vote to every man and woman over 21, in elections decided by proportional representation, while, Whelan writes, “the lights of democracy were dimming all over Europe”. You don’t need me to remind you of the huge positives of Fianna Fáil’s early tenure, the 12,000 local social houses built every year between 1932 and 1938 (compared with 2,000 a year under the previous government), the hugely enhanced old-age pension, and unemployment assistance. You don’t need me to remind you of their later successes: Sean Lemass’s opening up of Ireland’s economy and Donogh O’Malley’s guarantee of free secondary education for all.

If you’re a leftie, you’d want to be a serious bigot not to have huge respect for Fianna Fáil’s legacy and a leaning towards government with them, as opposed to sharing it with Fine Gael. But it jumped out at me, from Whelan’s book, that though there had been collaboration between Labour and Fianna Fáil in the early years of the State, this ceased when, in 1970, then-minister Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney came under suspicion for facilitating a shipment of arms to the North.

Charles Haughey
Charles Haughey

Haughey later became taoiseach and he had strengths. But, for me, the great taoiseach was Jack Lynch, because he was not a fundamentalist, but had the bravery to compromise. He asserted that his policy was to “seek unity through agreement in Ireland, between Irishmen”, “a long-term one” that required “goodwill, patience, understanding and, at times, forbearance”. He held that line carefully in an explosive situation in the late 1960s.

Bertie continued that tradition within Fianna Fáil and brought the Good Friday Agreement over the line. I remember the humanity of his comment, on the radio, at the time, that “some people might want the killing to go on, but I don’t”. This position was not always an easy one for him to adopt within his own party, and it was still less so for Lynch.

But just think how far Lemass travelled — he was on the roof of the GPO in 1916 and his brother was murdered, probably by men connected to the Free State Special Branch, yet he said “the old antagonisms have no place in the Ireland of the future”. The compromisers — de Valera, Lynch, Lemass — are Fianna Fáil’s great statesmen. The fundamentalists, who refuse to go back on their word, are not. With his refusal to go into government with Fine Gael, because he has given his word, I fear Micheál Martin might have put himself forever among the lesser Fianna Fáil leaders. He may be building the party back up again, but that is not what his job is meant to be. His job is meant to be building the country up again.

Agreeing to sit on your hands and allow Fine Gael to rule, but refusing to help in any practical way until you’ve saved up to spring an election, might seem like a very clever ploy to the Fianna Fáil faithful.

Me? I think it stinks.

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