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Speech by Micheál Martin (FF), at the Merriman Summer School, (14 August 2013)

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Text: Micheál Martin ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Speech by Micheál Martin, then leader of Fianna Fáil, at the Merriman Summer School, Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, (14 August 2013)


"I would like to thank Cumann Merriman for the honour of being asked to deliver the opening address to the 2013 Summer School.  For 46 years this has been a place for serious reflection and enjoyment of Irish culture.

The commemoration of Brian Merriman has always been a strong statement in itself.  Cúirt an Mheán Oíche is a work which still challenges and attracts us because it is subversive of stereotypes.

In the over 200 years since Merriman died, poets striving to reflect and illuminate the culture of this island have again and again been attracted to this poem as a reproach to more modern and simplistic ideas of Irish identity and culture.

The authenticity of its voice was established not because it was lauded in elite salons and journals, but because it survived so long in the oral tradition of this area.  It is a constant reminder that to understand anything about Irish culture you must acknowledge its diversity and you must challenge established narratives.

The theme which underpins the programme for this year’s Summer School fits very much within this approach.

Fifteen years ago the people of this island gave their overwhelming support to a new political settlement.  For the first time in our history there was a near unanimous acceptance of our community of interests and the idea that mutual respect must be the foundation on which we build our future.

The scale of progress secured in the Good Friday Agreement and the referendums is a shining chapter in our history and as close to a moment of common action as there has ever been.  It was a moment of hope and anticipation which remains an inspiration.

It was not just the moment which marked the end of the Troubles – it set out a blueprint for strengthening relations within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between these islands.

The Agreement was, however, never intended as a conclusion.  It was, in Seamus Mallon’s always relevant words “a new dispensation” as it gave this generation an opportunity to permanently overcome divisions and to work together for a shared prosperity and social progress.

The achievements of the Agreement, as well as those of the additional agreements which were required to get all parties to commit fully, are undeniable and recognised throughout the world.

We should never forget this and we should also never let this, lull us into complacency.

There was nothing inevitable about the success of the peace process and there is nothing inevitable about its longer-term course.

Today the harsh reality is that we have reached a defining moment.  Rising sectarian tensions are of course a major concern - but they are only one part of what is an increasing challenge to the entire process of reconciliation and development.

This challenge is faced within each of the three strands of the Agreement.

Institutions are in place.  Meetings happen on schedule.  Speeches about how well everyone is getting on, are delivered all the time.  Yet there is absolutely no urgency or ambition.

The process is becoming ever more concentrated on the elites, distracted by their partisan concerns and leading to a marked increase in public disillusionment.

The focus has been on managing rather than developing institutions.  Opportunities to address shared problems are being missed – and in some areas we are seeing a slow but undeniable retreat from the policy of deeper cooperation.

This has had an inevitable and growing impact on public attitudes.

Today the majority within Northern Ireland do not feel that their say in how they are governed has increased and they believe that the Assembly has achieved little.

In the South, levels of interest in Northern matters have fallen significantly and the media, politicians and wider public pay attention only when things are going wrong.

Fundamentally, a public discourse once solely focused on conflict has not evolved a new approach. There are only a handful of journalists who pay any attention to the wider cultural, social and economic dimensions of relations within Northern Ireland and between North and South.

It is as if issues relating to the North have been put away in a file marked “history” – to be dusted off only when communal tensions flare up again.

We are failing to take advantage of the many and obvious opportunities which peace and a legitimate constitutional blueprint have brought.  The failure to take all of these opportunities, to build deep understanding of other communities, to aggressively target development, to work to bring the concerns of marginalised groups and areas onto a shared agenda – each of these poses a long-term threat to what has been achieved.

No one who knows anything about our history should think for a moment that there is nothing to be worried about.

The Irish-British dimension of the peace process has long been the most developed. The two states have worked together as members of the European Union for four decades.  There is always a positive engagement between our parliaments and governments.

The partnership first demonstrated by Albert Reynolds and John Major which continued up to very recently has seen the premiers taking joint personal leadership of the process.

None of the advances of the last 20 years could have been achieved without this dynamic.  People often over-hype the role or need of individual leadership, but in the case of relations between and within these islands there is no doubt that leadership at national level has been vital.

This is, of course, not to overlook the exceptional leadership provided by others, particularly the Hume/Mallon duo which is so badly missed.

Over the last two years I have delivered a series of speeches calling for action on the growing dysfunction of institutions ever-more beholden to narrow party interests.

In particular I have addressed what I think is the dangerous vacuum being created within Northern Ireland.  That critique stands.

In fact it has been borne out yet again during a summer where the two largest parties continue to pick and choose whether they will accept the legitimacy of the system they are supposed to guarantee.

This evening I would like to take the theme for this week’s Summer School and to point to what I believe are the challenges and opportunities in terms of the North/South dimension.  As I have said, I believe that leadership matters and is now desperately needed.

While relations between Dublin and London remain good, how they have developed in the last year in particular gives a great cause for concern.

In fact I believe it demonstrates a dangerous complacency which is undermining progress in all three strands of the process.

The most striking example was the recent announcement of what was titled the “New Economic Pact” for Northern Ireland.  The First Minister and Deputy First Minister travelled to London where they announced the initiative with Prime Minister Cameron in Downing Street.

It was presented as the definitive strategy for the development of Northern Ireland’s economy. The ‘Pact’ is welcome and it includes many important commitments – but what it also does is exclude any North/South dimension whatsoever.

Even though the Irish Government had explicitly addressed common development as a goal in the 2007 National Development Plan – and maintained most of the proposals even in the toughest of times – the ‘Pact’ does not include even a single mention of the Border Region or cross-border cooperation.

The only mention of the South comes in a point saying that efforts are to be made to get tourists to go North.

I can think of no comparable example in the last 15 years where there were no North/South or East/West discussions before such an announcement or where the Dublin or London governments ignored a clear opportunity for shared action.

It should be noted that this is not about The DUP and Conservative Party imposing more traditional unionist approach – Sinn Féin was a full participant.

When I challenged the Taoiseach about this in the Dáil his reply was that everything is going fine – which he said was proven because there were more ministerial meetings in the last year than at any time previously.

The existence of the structures is now more important than the substance of what they are doing. This moving away from the spirit and practice of enhanced cooperation is reflected in area after area and is having a wider influence.

To use the theme for this Summer School, we are beginning to see our societies drift apart.

This is absolutely not inevitable and it can be reversed.  The community of interests between people on this island are still there, whether or not they are being addressed.

And there remain many reasons for hope – the most important being that the public still fundamentally accepts the core principles of the peace process.  There are hundreds of individual examples of people and groups working to promote cooperation and understanding.

In the South there is a widespread acceptance of the idea that closer economic, social and cultural cooperation would be to the benefit of both sides.  In the North the situation is more complicated but there is still a solid majority in favour of increased cooperation.

While this has not been measured for a few years, a majority also accepts the idea that the Dublin government has a legitimate interest in Northern affairs.

More importantly, when people are asked what they think their political leaders should be focusing on, a strong majority cite improving inter-communal relations and tackling unemployment.

It is the lack of action on these points which feeds disillusionment and division.  On these and other areas of concern the potential for sustained cross-border cooperation has barely begun to be addressed.

Within the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement, formal cross-border bodies with implementation powers were included as a mechanism for delivering practical action.

Because of the levels of suspicion at the time, and in particular splits within the unionist representatives which made them nervous of signing up to anything which could be presented as a sell-out, the list of agreed cross-border bodies was extremely limited.  What was involved was confidence building.

Since then no one can doubt that the protections built into the Agreement are robust.  There is no slippery slope by which communities will wake up and find themselves living in a different state without the consent of the majority.  Cross-border bodies have proven that they are not about constitutional slight-of-hand; they are about securing economic development and social progress for all communities on this island.

A review which should have begun in 2011 is still at the very first stage.  Terms of reference for a review of only one element have been agreed, with others delayed.  No side has published ambitious proposals and the position of the governments appears to be to give the whole process no priority.

If things continue like this there is effectively no way that the potential for cross-border cooperation can be realised.

It is my party’s intention to publish a list of the areas where we believe new and expanded bodies are not only justified they are badly needed.

Combined with more informal official cooperation and the full implementation of outstanding aspects of the Agreement, I have no doubt that a reinvigorated North/South dimension would do most to promote development and show practical results for communities.

I will outline some of the ways this might work, including some specific projects which could deliver meaningful progress.  These are focused on the public’s priorities of job creation and improving inter-communal relations.


Economic Development
Border Region

The need for jobs and growth is a dominating concern both North and South.  Through most of the last century the border and violence played a significant role in causing economic problems.  Today the border region remains the most disadvantaged on this island.

Solving the wider economic problems of the island will not address this by itself – some form of systematic action is required if generations of underdevelopment and disadvantage are to be overcome.

The recent scrapping of North/South infrastructural projects is the worst thing that could be happening.

The communities on both sides of the border are looking for the new links to be created.  They want to develop their interdependence in a positive way.  We have gone from communities asking for greater barriers to them campaigning for improved links.  Yet in project after project the governments are failing to take up the opportunity.

The proposed Narrow Water Bridge between Louth and Down is an example of this.  The communities and their councils have not just been campaigning for the bridge; they have worked to help it overcome many obstacles.

Substantial EU funding has been secured.  It would have a uniformly positive economic and social impact but it is being let fail for the want of a relatively small amount of extra public funding.

This is worse than a shame it is a disgrace.

What would we have given 30 years ago for all communities North and South to be united in calling for new links?  Are we really so complacent that we think we don’t need to embrace the spirit of joint development seen in this and other projects?

The piece-meal and inconsistent approach to planning the economic development of the border region has to stop and the most effective way of doing this would be to establish a Border Development Zone.

Integrated planning of transport and economic infrastructure such as gas pipe lines and broadband networks makes much more sense when you plan for the region as a whole.  Bringing gas from Derry to Donegal and from Fermanagh  to Sligo would improve the efficiency of the network, delivering lower utility bills and a more secure energy supply for industry.

Within this overall planning both administrations should give a commitment to a specific level of medium and long-term funding.  I have no doubt that both the European Union and the expanding European Investment Bank would give such an initiative priority access to their funding.

A Border Economic Zone is exactly the type of thing which our societies North and South want. It would have universal approval and show a real cooperation dividend.

I would like to acknowledge the work being done on this area by the Centre for Cross-Border Studies and by Andy Pollak and Padraic White in particular.


 Broader Economic Actions

Intertrade Ireland is doing much good work helping businesses with essential information – what it isn’t, is central to the development plans of either administration.  It is too small and its focus is too narrow.

Its revised structure should have at its core enough funding that it can go beyond encouraging businesses to trade and actually enable them to do so.  In addition there should be one all island body to support indigenous Irish companies in exporting oversees.  The activities of Enterprise Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland in this context should be merged into one body.  Much cooperation exists already between both on trade missions for example.  This establishment of one signal body on the island would benefit Ireland significantly.

To be frank the FDI side is more problematic in effecting a merger into one body but it is to be noted that First Minister Peter Robinson has been consistently loud in his praise of IDA Ireland.

Because of the importance of the agriculture and food sector to both North and South it remains an opportunity for further development.  One aspect of this is food safety, which is an essential foundation for sustaining the confidence which the sector requires to be able to grow.

The current cross-border body has only part responsibility for the general promotion of the idea of food safety.  What it doesn’t have is real powers of oversight and action.

These remain with separate authorities.  The impact of this can be seen in the recent horsemeat controversy which directly damaged the sector North and South but the responses were not coordinated and only partially successful.

A single, all-island, food safety authority would be a direct benefit to a sector which already has deep North/South connections.



Education is another area where there is enormous potential for increased cooperation.

There are 1.3 million people on this island who were not born when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.  Many more were too young to understand what was going on.  Almost no schoolchild North or South has any experience of pre-Agreement Ireland.

They are not growing up with the same experiences and preconceptions that we had from watching or experiencing the full force of the violence and discrimination of previous decades.

They are already living in a different Ireland.

There is a very real opportunity to break cycles of distrust and ignorance but this will not happen by accident – a sustained programme of enabling greater understanding is essential.

There are many excellent examples of projects which have proven what can be achieved with more systematic action.

I have visited a wide range of North/South education initiatives from primary schools, through adult education up to advanced research.  Everywhere I found a real openness to cooperation, and a belief that a whole-island approach brings real benefits.

It is not widely recognised that the colleges which train teachers North and South have taken a leadership in showing the way forward.

In the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENs) every college or university which plays a role in initial or continuing education of teachers has come together to find and develop areas of mutual interest.

Across even the most diverse education systems in the world there are common challenges and opportunities.  Sharing information and seeking best practice across borders is the only way that education systems can respond to the needs of evolving modern societies.

SCoTENs provides a forum for this type of sharing and it is having a very positive impact particularly in the area of special needs education.  This is a wonderful seed which can, and should be allowed to grow.

I believe the time has come to agree a means for formal North/South action at a number of levels of the education system.  The most important of these is in relation to curriculum supports.  Without having to try to fully align school and exam systems – something which I would welcome but accept is not realistic for some time – there is a lot which can be done to promote understanding.

If you take the English curriculum for example, there is an obvious opportunity which threatens no one.  Pupils sitting school exams both North and South next year already have a number of common areas of study. 

For example Seamus Heaney is due to be studied both North and South. Agreeing a common list of his works between the schools would open up great possibilities.

For the Leaving Certificate students will, amongst other poems, discuss Heaney’s ‘A Constable Calls’.  It is a short and accessible poem which is nonetheless deeply challenging.  When he recalls the ambiguities and fears of an RUC officer’s entirely routine visit to his family to record crop data his words provide a safe place for young adults to reflect on many aspects of Ireland past and present.

Leaving Certificate students next year will also read Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.  This is exactly the sort of work which can grab the imagination and confront stereotypes at the same time.

In the wider study of history there are wide differences in what is studied in schools North and South.  It’s very difficult to build an understanding of different historical traditions if there is no shared historical literacy.  It would be a great step forward if we could agree a range of common topics in Irish history which would be on the curriculum both North and South.

This of course would be irrelevant if the deeply damaging and wrong idea of downgrading the role of history in the southern curriculum goes ahead.

What would it say about our country, about our approach to identity, if we allowed a situation where the teaching of history would end at 12 for more and more of our children?

I will come to the point of how to approach remembrance of different traditions, but I should say at this point that the words of Gerry Kelly on Sunday showed why we need to take action.

In defending the commemoration in Tyrone he said “there is a double narrative of our history” and implied that an almost ‘separate but equal’ approach to history is required.  How can there ever be understanding between traditions if this attitude prevails?

There is already some action on curriculum support.  An Forás Teanga is playing a larger role in terms of support for the teaching of Irish North and South.  This is welcome and it should be seen as a start.

In English and History, as well as many other subjects, a formal North/South curriculum support body would not dictate to schools how something should be taught.

It would not impose a single interpretation on the past.  What it would do is at least ensure that pupils North and South can comprehend each other because they have considered the same themes.

Agreeing common items for the different curriculums would also open up the possibility for cooperation on joint projects within the context of daily school life rather than as an ‘add on’.

I know that there is a constant search for new ways of exploring topics and materials which help teachers in their classroom work.

In the period 1997-99 we agreed in government that part of developing greater confidence between North and South, and protecting diversity within the South, was to make sure that minority communities could protect the institutions which they rely on for their very existence.

In the Department of Education I put in place a programme to secure the viability of small schools by giving them extra teachers.  A very high proportion of the schools which have benefitted from this were protestant schools in the border region – which also benefitted from additional capital investment.

The recent decision to refer to smaller schools as inefficient and to seek to move schools to a minimum size meriting four teacher is wrong on every level and it could do profound damage to the long-term goal of valuing diversity in our border counties and throughout our country.

There is also a clear need and opportunity for more systematic cooperation between our third-level institutions.  Because of the general standardisation of award levels throughout Europe, many practical barriers to cooperation have been overcome.  In many subjects it is now fully accepted that the best work can only be undertaken if you work across institutional boundaries.

The recent trend towards formalising connections between universities and Institutes in this jurisdiction is currently due to proceed without any North/South dimension.  This is very much to be regretted.  There are many institutions whose natural hinterland in terms of both students and academic cooperation is on the other side of the Border.

The time has come to address this issue in a formal way.  A cross-border body which facilitated the mutual recognition of qualifications and transfers between institutions would be to the benefit of everyone.  It would not add significant extra costs but it would reverse the drifting apart of institutions which would only get stronger if they worked together.

In terms of both education and economic development it is also time to establish a formal all-island approach to advanced research.  Few areas are as ready for the cross-border dimension as this is because of the international context within which every institution works.  The largest research fund in Europe, the Framework Programme, actually requires collaboration between systems.

In only a decade and a half Ireland has radically changed its position in scientific research – becoming a world-destination for major R&D projects and is now ranked by the prestigious magazine Nature as one of the five most dynamic up-and-coming places in the world for research.

The foundation for this has been funding based on the principle of supporting the best people and their teams to collaborate.

One example of this is in data analysis and next generation web software, where the universities collaborate on what is one of the most important research centres of its type.

In the field of energy research there is already a North/South partnership working very well, and a joint funding initiative between both administrations and the National Science Foundation in the United States is supporting significant research in medical sciences.

A new formal North/South research programme is needed to move beyond the small scale work which has taken place to date. This does not require major changes in infrastructure, it threatens no one’s identity or constitutional position – it just helps both North and South to achieve sustainable development in a practical way.



A very practical example of how North/South cooperation can deliver immediate benefits to both communities can be seen in the area of health.  For some time we have been developing formal cooperation in the area of radiotherapy – with joint planning already delivering better treatment and better outcomes for patients.

It is the spirit of inter-reliance and cooperation which showed itself last month.  When Letterkenny hospital experienced flash-flooding Altnagelvin in Derry immediately offered its services and helped hundreds of patients.

We should now build on this spirit through a more formal border-region planning of health services.


An Incomplete Agreement

The review of cross-border institutions must not be allowed to be wasted on a narrow and incremental approach.  I have no doubt that people North and South are well ahead of their leaders in understanding and embracing the all-island dimension as an enabler of progress.

I must also say that the continued failure to fully operate all parts of the Agreement is no longer acceptable.  It reveals a selective approach which undermines essential confidence.

In 2007 it was agreed to review the working of the Civic Forum set out in Section 56 of the Agreement.  To review the Forum was reasonable; to leave it in suspension for six years is inexcusable.

It has once again demonstrated the eagerness of those who have taken hold of the reins of power to exclude any competitors.  The First Minister and Deputy First Minister actually stated in public, that they were meeting community groups, and this made up for the failure to reconvene the Forum.

As we can see on the streets, it is exactly the groups who should be involved in the Forum who are most likely to feel they are excluded from public discourse in the North.

I welcome the SDLP’s initiative on this and hope that the passage of their resolution calling for the restoration of the Civic Forum will lead not just to its reestablishment but the start of a new effort to empower communities and the diverse organisations which serve them.


The Challenge of Remembrance – A North/South Approach

Remembering the past and asserting its relevance to the present remains the great single flashpoint in Northern society.  The control of demonstrations is sadly essential, but we need a new agenda to help build a more respectful approach to remembrance.

No one is demanding that communities abandon their attachment to traditions they value, so a different strategy is required.

I don’t think its good enough to say, as Gerry Kelly did this weekend, that there are two narratives and they should just be let get on with their business.

The biggest reason I believe that a shared effort of building a new respect can work is that it has already worked in the South.  When a Belfast Catholic can establish a tradition of bringing the Orange Order to Áras an Uachtaráin surely anything is possible?

I attend many commemorations both in my official role as a party leader and on a personal basis.  These commemorations nearly always involve events on which there is no unified view on this island.

In the past twenty years the speeches at these commemorations have changed dramatically.  Even if the attendees are all from one side of a historical argument the tradition has developed of using these events to signal points of unity rather than division – to explain how the concept of victory and defeat have little relevance to today.

When former Taoiseach Brian Cowen formally invited the British monarch to undertake a state visit we all knew it would be historic, but the scale of the symbolism involved was more powerful than anyone could have expected.

Accompanied by a president of a free Irish Republic who spent much of her life living under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth bowed her head in respectful commemoration of those who fought for Irish freedom.

They then went and marked the sacrifice of the Irish who died wearing the uniform of the United Kingdom.  This took place at a memorial which had once been left almost derelict by a state which had its own simple narrative of Irish history which had no place for diversity.

For things to change in the North they require greater generosity and restraint.  They require leaders to be willing to move the agenda on and to be consistent in respecting institutions which are trying to serve the whole community.

You can’t say you support the police if you attack them every time they pick-up one of yours.  Equally you can’t be selective in your demands for transparency about the past.

I have no doubt that there is a wide and growing gap between the bulk of the population of this island and leaders who act as if there is nothing more to be achieved.

People understand the logic of peace and reconciliation and are largely getting on with it insofar as they can.  What is missing is a determination and focus from our leaders to take the process forward rather than allow it to be overtaken by forces fed by neglect and a sense of disillusionment.

The great historical opportunity to build a lasting and constructive cooperation between all of the traditions who share this island is still there.  This generation has achieved more than it could have imagined possible even a few years ago.

This said we cannot deny a sense of drift where we risk once again becoming strangers to each other – seeing each through stereotypes and an ignorance of just how many common interests we share.

Yes, North and South we have two societies which are growing apart – but there is nothing inevitable about this.  There are many, many areas where our community of interests is clear and the opportunities for action are at hand.

Economic development, education, health and research are just a few of the practical areas where a significantly enhanced North/South dimension would benefit all and threaten none.

There is a broad public consensus around seeing no political danger from promoting development and improved relations.

What is missing is leadership."




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