The 16th Annual John Hume Lecture

The 16th Annual John Hume Lecture

Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil

The Need for Political Reform in Ireland is not some vague, elitist idea

It is a privilege to have been asked to deliver the annual John Hume Lecture. Twelve years after his retirement he remains by any reasonable measure a true hero. Throughout his career he showed not just bravery, but also determination, originality and an absolute conviction that democracy and human rights must define any modern society. While he led the largest nationalist movement in his community he always spoke up for a generous, outward-looking and inclusive idea of nationalism and republicanism. For him the purpose of public service was to fight divisions, not to erect or defend them. That is why he would so frequently speak of his pride as an Ulsterman, an Irishman and a European. He helped keep hope alive and, with his colleagues, he proved that even at times when “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” the centre can hold.

The centre can hold and it can triumph over the extremes. It is possible to promote respect and cooperation in the face of even the most destructive forces. At moments when despair is at its highest you can remain true to universal values – you can reject and overcome the demand to put group interests over common interests.

What was achieved by the forces of democratic republicanism on this island, with John Hume as one of its vital leaders, is a powerful demonstration of the idea that in periods of great change and even fear we don’t simply have to accept escalation. There is nothing inevitable about the path of greater division and destruction. We can shape our own future. The triumph of constitutional republicanism on this island is an answer to anyone who doubts whether democratic politics can meet great challenges. It is a reminder that what we have overcome is greater than what we now face. This is the spirit in which I want to address the Summer School’s core theme of the challenges before us in the year that we commemorate the most important event in the foundation of our independent state.

By any fair measure this is a defining moment for us and for the international community. I believe it is a moment which demands that we urgently do much more to understand and respond. We are in what can best be termed a new age of uncertainty. This is a period defined by a scale and pace of change never before experienced in peacetime. We have come through a rapid series of developments which are challenging core social, economic and political assumptions.

The complacency of the post-Cold War ‘End of History’ thesis has disappeared and it is far from clear what will replace it. As we have seen in recent days and weeks, dramatic events are unfolding all the time. What is most striking is that, so far, it is the extremes which are setting the terms of the debate. They fully understand the nature of economic insecurity, cultural suspicions and political inertia – and they have set about seeking to ruthlessly exploit them. They are not in the business of tough choices and credible alternatives. They are offering easy solutions – providing targets to blame and pretending that all problems can be overcome if only an identified enemy would get out of the way.

And in the face of this, there has been a mixture of denial and detachment which has fed a sense of alienation from government, politics and the established media. The most common response has been to seek a quick return to business as usual. In fact, crises have been presented as once-off distortions to be overcome rather than signaling substantial change which must be adapted to.

And this is why time after time, at national and international levels, we see events where the accepted wisdom is proven wrong. Quite simply, the gulf between expectations of public opinion and the reality of public opinion has never been larger.
This is not some abstract problem; it goes to the heart of what is today the deepest challenge to democratic societies.

There has been a near complete failure to engage with and understand the ways in which change has impacted on people’s lives and attitudes. This is a detachment which threatens a dangerous escalation in the cycle of distrust, discontent, division and in some cases violence which is being seen in too many places. If we do not find a way of reconnecting with the people we serve and standing against those who seek to exploit the current detachment then we are taking immense risks. If we do nothing, then we know how this will end. This is a movie that has been seen before. There is still time to act but it is not limitless.

I understand that the MacGill Summer School primarily focuses on Irish matters, but we simply must be more aware of the broader context. We have to understand what is happening throughout Europe and that we are not an isolated island when it comes to the profound threats facing European nations.

There is also a tradition of political leaders using this as an occasion for an attempt to grab some easy headlines with an unexpected announcement or some biting comment about opponents. I think the public have long since stopped being impressed by this type of politics. Therefore, I would like to take a different approach. I want to address the issue of public detachment from politics and meeting the threat of extreme views in this state, on the island as a whole and within the European Union. In doing this, I want to stress that there are practical and urgent steps which can be taken.

This year’s general election demonstrated a profound detachment between elite and public discourse in this country. The most dramatic proof of this was the shock of so many at the massive losses by the government parties and the fact that Fianna Fáil gained in terms of both votes and seats. It would be easy to spend a lot of time making fun of just how wrong so many of the predictions and polls were – and I can assure you that there are many hours of entertainment available from reading the long list of predictions of our party’s demise or eclipse. I was only last week reminded of the work of Philip Tetlock who studied a decade’s worth of published political forecasts and found that such expert opinions were statistically only slightly more accurate than random chance. In fact he also found that the more famous the expert was, the more likely he was to be wrong. However enjoyable that is, there is a much more important point to be found in the phenomenon of a national political discourse which was completely out of touch with the reality faced by the public.

The last government ran what was by any fair measure an excellent media operation. It briefed aggressively, leaked positive stories prodigiously and sold good news with a discipline never before seen from a Dublin government. The record shows about a dozen moments in its term which were declared by commentators to mark an imminent recovery in its fortunes. And yet in area after area the public saw through the spin. They saw how services were sliding into crisis and a refusal to plan was allowing entirely avoidable problems develop. They also felt a growing division in society due in part to unfair decisions but also the growth of a two-tiered recovery and employment market which was leaving too many people struggling.

The extent to which the government and so many commentators were caught out by the election debate shows how far out of touch they were. When they did acknowledge a problem, too often they fell into accepting a crude model of what it actually meant in terms of likely voting patterns. In fact there are many examples of simplistic and almost insulting commentary dismissing anyone who was inclined to vote against the Government as forgetting the past, being attracted by bribes or simply not paying attention.

What the conventional wisdom missed is that the recession has had a deep and lasting impact on how Irish people see politics and on their expectations of those they elect to legislate and govern. And let’s be honest – if the bulk of political debate is focused on who’s up and who’s down, or interpreting real or imagined political strategies then of course you are going to miss deeper movements. In Tetlock’s analysis the biggest factor behind failed expert forecasting is that individuals and groups shape the evidence to fit their own experience and expectations rather than approaching evidence with a genuinely open mind.

This is something which reared its head again immediately after the election. The demand was that a government be formed which conformed to the way things had always been done. We had the bizarre situation where it was accepted that broken promises in pursuit of power had done huge damage to faith in politics, and yet there were angry demands that Fianna Fáil should break its promises in the pursuit of power. Fundamentally, there was a failure to understand that we have a new political reality. We have a more diverse public and parliament. After a government with the largest majority in our history, the people rejected the idea that dominant government means good government.

Even more importantly, they demanded that all elected representatives share responsibility for delivering an Oireachtas that is focused on solving problems. This was one of the reasons why certain parties saw a significant fall in their votes during the campaign. It remains the belief of my party that the facts of what went wrong in the past and the reality of public distrust and detachment makes the traditional model of governing and legislating unsustainable. I know that there are those who dream feverishly of the lash of a strong government dominating a subservient parliament. What they have yet to acknowledge, however, is that the evidence all shows that strong government does not equal good government.

And let me remind you that this is not something we began talking about this year – it has been a core part of our programme since we first set out our response to the political and economic failures of the past. It is also something that has been rooted in talking to the people. Wherever I canvassed in the country in the years before the election I found an informed public, paying attention to issues which concerned them but also understanding the need for broader change.

The need for political reform in Ireland is not some abstract elite idea – it is founded on a broadly held demand of the Irish people that we address the clear failures of our system. They want a system that tackles problems before they become crises, which delivers substantive debate and more effective governance.

In 2012, we published a substantive and radical political reform document. I launched it at a press conference accompanied by many colleagues and it was followed by a number of speeches and press releases. Of the over 100 policy initiatives we launched during the last Dáil it was perhaps the one which was most ignored by the media. Yet in spite of that, we found many people throughout the country who believed passionately in the idea of real change in politics. Many of our core proposals are now being implemented as part of a general push to make the Oireachtas more responsive, expert and independent.

There are a series of steps that are not yet in place which are critical to success. The most important of these is a budget office which will independently review the fiscal and economic impact of all proposals. This will help establish the principle that the proposals of every TD will be properly reviewed and it will challenge empty political claims. It will also force government to base policy on a more credible review of costs.

The situation at the moment is still unsettled. The committees, no longer dominated by a quiet majority, will only fully get going in the autumn. The changes to daily procedures are far from bedded down and need to be reviewed. As part of this, there is no doubt that the amount of time for government legislation needs to be increased if we are to properly review the more important measures that will start to appear on the order paper from October onwards.

In addition, the principle that all Deputies should have an opportunity to contribute to the work of the Dáil has not yet been achieved. In large part this is because we have the absurd situation where the greater the mandate your party holds the less opportunity you have to speak. Ad-hoc groupings of a few deputies have a right to be heard – but the grossly disproportionate amount of speaking time allocated to them, at the expense of dramatically larger parties, is certainly not conducive to a parliament that reflects the will of the people.

The legitimate question has been asked as to whether a minority government and diverse parliament can deliver credible decisions on important issues. The easy answer is that the experience from other countries is that of course it can. The more detailed answer is that there is no major national issue where the government’s minority status prevents it bringing forward and securing support for tough action. There are many issues where it cannot prevail, but so far there is no so-called major ‘tough decision’ which has been stymied by its minority status.

The boundaries of a responsible fiscal policy have been agreed. There is no issue as to whether we can have a sustainable budget. However if you look at the immediate national threats – the housing crisis, health services and other essential services under pressure, the need for productive investment, tackling exploitative employment and, of course, the challenge of Brexit – in each of these areas nothing about its status prevents the government showing determination.

“We would be more effective and have better policies if we didn’t have to seek support from others” is not a credible defence. Equally a service charge which has been administered incompetently, raises almost no net revenue, has diverted funding away from vital investment and has no broad public legitimacy has nothing to do with the substance of good government.

We believe there should be a more urgent and ambitious approach to issues by government. There should be a less ideological and divisive approach – and there should be a much greater focus on preventing growing division in our society. However we tried and failed to form a government on three occasions and accepted that an alternative should be tried without abandoning core promises to the people who voted for us. More importantly we have accepted the idea that every person elected to parliament has an obligation to contribute constructively.

Let’s remember that we have this political situation as a result of a public which has shown a wide distrust of politics and has lost its patience with promises of reform to a system which manifestly failed to deliver a sustainable model of good governance. Reform is not an option; it is an absolute requirement if we want to begin to reconnect with the people and show them that their interests are the driving force behind politics.

There are very active voices in our politics who want a more divisive politics. They want us to conform to a radical left/right divide which applies an easy ideological framework for every problem and sees every compromise as a sell-out. They look longingly at the more strident debates of other countries. I don’t believe that there is a successful modern democratic state where this approach is followed. For Ireland to prosper, for us to rebuild levels of political trust and engagement with the public, the path of a more reflective, expert and centre-ground politics is the only credible way forward.

We have to stop looking back at how we did things in the past and fully commit to a new way of doing business which is in tune with the people we serve and capable of addressing the challenges of a more complex and difficult world.

We also face a critical moment in relation to the future of our island as a whole. After the rush of excitement which followed the new dispensation of the Belfast Agreement, the last few years have been defined by drift and disengagement. Growing disillusionment amongst the people of Northern Ireland with politics has been reflected in rapidly declining participation and growing sectarianism.

Last year’s general election saw the return to the mainstream of openly sectarian campaigning. Sinn Féin went as far as to publish a leaflet calling for Catholics to vote for them in order to get one over on the Protestants. Most dangerously, many marginal communities are showing patterns of disillusionment with politics which could provide a breeding ground for new extremism.

Against this background the Brexit vote has added a new risk. It threatens to set back a model of shared development which, in spite of many problems, has achieved a lot and could achieve much more. The introduction of new barriers between both parts of this island would potentially set us back decades. The most urgent thing that is required is an immediate end to the hands-off detachment of recent years. It is a sad reality that our government and our media have tended to ignore Northern Ireland except when there is a crisis. Meeting the challenge of Brexit is a moment to end this and also to begin rebuilding public faith in politics.

No one can seriously question the deep social and economic impact of erecting a hard border on this island. We have a community of interest that spans political beliefs and we must act accordingly. It may very well be that the decision of Northern Ireland to oppose the English-driven anti-EU UK majority is a defining moment in Northern politics. The Remain vote may show people the need to rethink current arrangements. I hope it moves us towards majority support for unification, and if it does we should trigger a reunification referendum. However, at this moment, the only evidence we have is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to maintain open borders and a single market with this jurisdiction, and beyond that with the rest of Europe.

Last week, the government confirmed that it is willing to proceed with an inclusive dialogue on defining and promoting an all-island approach to Brexit. This is an opportunity to reach out to excluded groups, to show that a broader range of interests than those articulated by the dominant political parties can be heard. I have in particular stressed our belief that civil society must be included together with business, unions and professional organisations. But we also have to insist that the core principles of the Belfast Agreement about promoting inclusive governance be honoured in Stormont.

The shutting down of the Civic Forum by the DUP and Sinn Féin was and remains a clear breach of the Agreement. It is part of the efforts of those parties to present themselves as the dominant voices in their communities and it has caused real damage in marginalised areas. More and more people are saying that party and sectional interests are dominating politics to the exclusion of substantive community issues. Even more importantly, efforts to exercise more and more control over the Assembly must be opposed. As I’ve said in the Dáil, we are working to broaden participation and ensure that all representatives have the right and opportunity to participate. The exact opposite has happened in Belfast.

In the last Executive, parties other than the big two were constantly excluded from discussions, had limited access to information and were mainly presented with the outcome of pre-arranged agreements by the DUP and Sinn Féin. Following the Assembly election these parties decided to create an official opposition – a very welcome development. However the response of the DUP and Sinn Féin has been a move to try to claim greater control of when and if the opposition can decide on debates.

Too much time has been wasted and too many problems ignored for this type of behaviour to continue. We are co-guarantors of the Agreements and we have a right to demand that the letter and spirit of these Agreements, which have received the overwhelming support of the Irish people, be implemented.

As we have heard from Ambassador Thebault on several occasions, the connections between Ireland and France are deep and strong. Thursday’s horrific and barbaric tragedy in Nice is the seventh major attack the French people have had to endure in recent years. There is no question where the people of our country stand – we stand in solidarity with France and we stand in solidarity with the great principles of liberty, equality and fraternity which July 14th celebrates. As we look for ways of responding to Nice, and to the Bataclan, and to Charlie Hebdo and to incidents in many parts of Europe, we must never forget what we stand for and we must never allow the terrorists to define our standards.

This is a tense time. There are many calls for extreme reaction. There is a natural urge to find refuge in broad definitions of the enemy. We must take robust action – we cannot fail to adopt reasonable measures to fight new threats. But equally we must never forget what we are defending. Europe is a place once wracked by war and now defined by democracy and peace. It is far from perfect, but we have an immense amount to be proud of.

As we seek to find a way forward we should remember that this is not the first time that the dark forces we face today have been present. In the forty years before the First World War there was a constant threat of terrorism. Every major state saw assassinations of senior leaders. France was particularly badly hit – with even its National Assembly bombed. The very term ‘terrorism’ was coined because it was understood that the objective was to force societies into broad conflict through fear. Joseph Conrad wrote about this in 1907 in his book The Secret Agent. He told of a tiny group who wanted to use terror to force the state to become extreme and start a conflict which could threaten it. We saw that here ourselves during the campaign of the Provisional movement. They specifically attacked civilian and economic targets in a strategy of trying to radicalise the situation and increase the strength of reaction.

Radical Islamic terrorists want Europe to stop being Europe. They want us to become repressive, divided and radicalised. In response we must recommit ourselves to the values of inclusive democracy. I am of course not comparing anti-EU groups to terrorists. But let us not be in doubt that many of the extreme anti-EU voices in European politics threaten not just the existence of the EU but they threaten core European values. England is not an extreme country, but there was a dark and unsavoury side to the anti-EU advocacy which helped deliver the England-based majority for the UK to leave the EU. We saw the classic scapegoating of “another” or a “them” who could be blamed for all discontents. Their campaign was based on the idea that ‘if only “we” took back power and “they” were kept out we could rediscover a glorious past’. I have no doubt that this is where you will always end up if you indulge divisive rhetoric and allow it to become part of the mainstream.

The Tory party, once a force for international cooperation, encouraged the scapegoating of Europe, which became a scapegoating of immigrants and ended up with a referendum which threatens fifty years of progress in Europe. If you look at the strength of the French National Front, Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria and many others throughout Europe there is an inescapable conclusion – if you indulge the extremes you strengthen them.

The idea that the EU is the source of social division and insecurities in our societies is absurd. It doesn’t stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. In fact it is the direct originator of most of the contrary forces. It has been the loudest and most effective advocate of promoting job security, training for high-skills jobs, consumer protections and equality. It is easy for national politicians to point to it, and to its many obvious flaws, and say that Europe must get its act together. But blaming Europe and ignoring its achievements has become a direct threat to our national and collective interests.

What we must do now is to get through the Brexit issue through a relentless focus and an inclusive process. We must not appease aggressive behaviour on Europe’s borders which has seen countries invaded and partitioned in the name of a new imperialism. Beyond this we have to adopt a new approach where we show respect and take responsibility. Most of all we must reject the false definitions of Europe’s enemies. We must not co-opt their rhetoric of division and fear – we must fight it by showing tolerance at home and abroad.

You don’t need to know much history to see the parallels of this moment with what happened in the last century. There is no doubt that our democratic institutions are stronger than they were then, but the growing detachment from politics and falling trust in law-bound international cooperation is a very deep threat.

In the past Ireland was not afraid to speak loudly to warn against impending threats. Very early in Eamon de Valera’s time in government he presided over the League of Nations and delivered a speech which retains great resonance to this day. He told the assembled leaders “if the League is to prosper, or even survive, it must retain the support and confidence of the public.” He called for it to reform its work in light of the needs and views of the public and made a remarkably correct prediction:

“Friends and enemies of the League alike feel that the testing time has come; and they are watching to see if that test will reveal a weakness presaging ultimate dissolution, or a strength that will be the assurance of a renewal”

You could almost replace the words ‘the League’ with ‘the Union’ and have a sentiment fully appropriate for today.

Unfortunately, de Valera and others were not listened to then or even four years later when he spoke angrily against international aggression and asked
“Will it be said, when the array of tombs which stretch from end to end of Europe have been multiplied, that there had been plenty of time.., but that the statesmen waited too long and the soldiers took control?”

Today as in those days, Ireland is in no position to order others to act. What we can be is a consistent voice for action. We can insist that the values of democracy and cooperation be respected. We can work to renew the process of reconciliation and growth on this island. We can finish the work of reforming our politics to regain the trust and confidence of the people we serve.

There is no doubt how important historically this moment is. The challenges for us are more complex than ever before. But history teaches us that the cost of failing to meet these challenges is profound.

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