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Micheál Martin: ‘I believe in the Wolfe Tone idea of uniting people. That’s hard work’

In an interview on the future of Ireland, the Tánaiste says he’s concerned at the language around unification. ‘We have an awful lot more to do to understand each other’

For the last number of years, many of the people sitting in front of Micheál Martin as taoiseach, or now Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, at Fianna Fáil ardfheiseanna have thought he is not “green” enough on the national question for their liking.

His careful language about Northern Ireland, which has nearly always been more nuanced than that offered by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael, has sometimes confused, but more often has quietly or not so quietly infuriated his own ranks, preferring simpler messaging.

Sitting in his office in Iveagh House on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, the Fianna Fáil leader implicitly accepts, with laughter, that his language differs from Varadkar’s and that he is often too moderate for the tastes of his own rank and file.

“Yes, and I am prepared to live with all of that, because I have been through too much. I was in the government that signed off on the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement. I joined politics because of Northern Ireland. We were consumed by Northern Ireland, from the early ‘70s as teenagers.


“I went through all the slogans. I went through all the ‘I’ll have a united Ireland in my lifetime’ quotes. Jack Lynch [late former taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader] said it. Now people are saying them in 2024. Have we not moved on? To me, it is about the legacy of Wolfe Tone, the real legacy of Wolfe Tone,” he says.

Pointing approvingly to former rugby international Andrew Trimble’s RTÉ documentary last week which looked at issues of identity, he goes on: “I believe in that Wolfe Tone idea of uniting people. That’s hard work, you don’t achieve it by slogans. You don’t achieve it by saying that I am going to have things my way.”

He believes he has convinced his own party doubters about his stand – though frankly that is debatable: “I think my own people are fairly well persuaded by now. I do, yes, deep down. They are enthused by Shared Island,” he tells The Irish Times.

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Shared Island is Martin’s brainchild, and it shows in how often he talks about it.

From 2021 to 2023, nearly €250 million has been allocated by the Government for cross-Border projects or ones completely based in Northern Ireland, such as paying for new buildings in Ulster University’s Derry campus that benefit students from both sides.

More money from the Government will go North in the years ahead, partly to fund the construction of Casement Stadium in Belfast, and the A5 road improvements that will open up not just Tyrone and Derry, but Border counties on the southern side, too.

Shared Island started quietly. So quietly, in fact, that its detractors mocked it for alleged paltry ambition, though the project has convinced the unionists who have engaged with it that it is not “a Trojan Horse” for a united Ireland, and that it can benefit them.

In March 2021, the Orange Order ruled out engagement with Shared Island, describing it as a process masquerading as improving relations between the two parts of the island, yet that, in reality, was all about trying to “talk up” the inevitability of a united Ireland.

However, that opposition has faded. Last summer, Martin visited the order’s “fascinating” Museum of Orange Heritage in East Belfast, where he was given a tour by the order’s grand secretary Mervyn Gibson and deputy grand master Harold Henning.

I believe in the substance of doing things, practical things. I’ve invested enough in it. I mean, I am interested in it. I think it’s a great mission. I think the Good Friday Agreement was fantastic

There, Martin was told the order’s objections over Shared Island had been withdrawn: “They said that they had reservations, but that they had withdrawn them. I saw that as a very good sign, that people were comfortable with it, and with its objectives.

“What I have learned is, as ever, we have an awful lot more to do to understand each other,” says Martin, who is concerned by the language surrounding some of the public debate about unification.

“To be fair, Brexit has cast a long shadow over all of this, and changed the paradigm,” he goes on, explaining that the result of the 2016 referendum damaged relations between Dublin and London and heightened debate about identity issues.

Following Brexit, Sinn Féin seized on the issue, sharpening debate around its demand for a Border poll – one that is provided for in the Belfast Agreement, but only if and when a Northern Ireland secretary judges that such a referendum would pass.

“It is electorally appealing to their base. I’m not sure that the vast majority of people deep down agreed with a Border poll, certainly not in the Republic, but it was almost a carbon copy of the Brexit debate itself.

“There was no homework done. Nobody had worked out what we would do on Day Two if a poll was taken. Juxtaposed against Brexit, it was just putting petrol on the fire, in my view,” he went on.

“Every now and again, they’ll raise it, or Ireland’s Future [a campaign group advocating for a united Ireland] will resurrect it,” he goes on, though he notes that Sinn Féin is careful not to do so during election campaigns.

“During actual elections, the Assembly election, or the Westminster election, all mention of the Border poll was taken off the table by Sinn Féin. Once the elections were over, it was back on again.

“It is a means for Sinn Féin primarily to shore up the base, and keep the base active. That’s my reading of it,” he tells The Irish Times, dismissing Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald’s recent emphasis on unity.

In the wake of Michelle O’Neill becoming Northern Ireland’s First Minister, McDonald said a united Ireland was “within touching distance”, and that such an outcome is “a very exciting thing”.

“That’s just sloganeering, there’s no substance behind that,” he says, though McDonald had “a real political purpose” to undermine Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader, Jeffery Donaldson.

“He had just got the thing over the line, with a lot of opposition internally. I am not so sure it was the ideal comment at the ideal time,” he says.

In the eyes of some in Fianna Fáil, Varadkar has taken the “green” mantle from Martin, even it has come at the price of often infuriating even middle-ground unionism.

So is Varadkar cutting through – particularly with young people in the Republic? “I’m not sure about that. Maybe in the short term, that could be true, but I just don’t have it in me.

“I believe in the substance of doing things, practical things. I’ve invested enough in it. I mean, I am interested in it. I think it’s a great mission. I think the Good Friday Agreement was fantastic.”

Asked about controversies in recent times over people singing the Wolfe Tones’ Celtic Symphony at public events, with its chorus of “Ooh, Ahh, Up The ‘Ra”, Martin accepts there is an issue with explaining the Troubles for a generation that has come up afterwards.

“We were at that, too, in the ‘70s at conferences, singing rebel songs and all that, but we’re back it again, right. The negative reaction that [the Cranberries’] Zombie song got [when it was sung during games at the Rugby World Cup] was extraordinary,” he says.

More needs to be done to get young people from North and South to meet, he adds. “What changed me was a meeting during the 1981 hunger strikes with young unionists during my third or fourth year in college.

Sometimes, I see Sinn Féin look at this as a staging post. If you look at it too much as a staging post, then you don’t do the job properly that you are supposed to be doing now

“They were really virulent in saying that their uncles were getting shot because of a uniform, and ‘You guys think it’s okay’. That changed me,” he says, urging people to read “the great books that are now being written about the North”.

Listing his recent favourites, he mentions Richard O’Rawe’s work on IRA informer Freddie Scappaticci, Stakeknife’s Dirty War, and Face Down: The Disappearance of Thomas Niedermayer by David Blake Knox, while Dirty Linen by The Irish Times’ Martin Doyle is “next on the list” to read.

Such books “tell it how it was”, he says, adding the younger generation needs to know “that the gun doesn’t work”, that the Troubles consumed thousands of victims and also destroyed the lives of those who were involved in violence. “For something that wasn’t 100 miles away [from the 1974 Sunningdale power-sharing agreement]? It [the Troubles] destroyed a lot of lives. We need to have a grown-up conversation. It wasn’t a ‘great’ thing.”

Is there a spirit of generosity within Sinn Féin and the DUP to make the Stormont institutions work? “I think there is capacity to make it work,” he replies. Yes, but is there the necessary desire?

“That I am not clear on. Sometimes, I see Sinn Féin look at this as a staging post. If you look at it too much as a staging post, then you don’t do the job properly that you are supposed to be doing now.”

The DUP, meanwhile, is “riven”. He does point optimistically to the support extended to Donaldson, even though he has faced opposition from much of the party’s often London-based senior figures, such as Sammy Wilson.

However, he accepts that Donaldson would have struggled to get the plan to go back into the Stormont institutions past his key party meeting without older DUP figures, such as Edwin Poots and Gregory Campbell.

“It did, it did [require their input],” he says, adding with emphasis his liking for Poots: “I worked well with him. He is a person I could deal with. He is honourable. I wish him well as Speaker [of the Northern Ireland Assembly]. I think he could be a steadying influence.”

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