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“FF has always been centre-left and for equality of opportunity”: John Gormley interviewed Micheál Martin about the past and the future

I interviewed Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin in Leinster House and he was unfailingly cheerful and warm throughout though under time pressure.

Before the 2011 General Election Martin told Village, “I am a constitutional republican and believe strongly that economic growth and social progress are closely linked. I believe the old left/right ideological divide has no real relevance for the 21st century”. He said his political philosophy was very similar to that of the revolutionary generation of Fianna Fáil,which understood the need for radical change. He said he believed in equality of opportunity, part of which is the necessity for social supports which enable this. However, “I don’t believe that there is a single example of a society which combines respect for human rights and high standards of living with enforced equality of outcomes”.

He claimed, “Fianna Fáil has always represented ordinary people. The organisation is made up of ordinary people who work in their communities and take nothing from politics except a sense of making a contribution”.

As to the original Fianna Fáil, having studied them, Martin says he’d slot them overwhelmingly as left of centre. He has a master’s in history from UCC. Occasionally he asks questions before answering them, recalling his background as researcher and briefly as history teacher, in PBC Cork.

His thesis, elements of which he intermittently scrupulously recalls, was about how political parties evolved in Ireland from 1918 to 1932. He is passionate about the lessons of the period, particularly for Fianna Fáil. He claims,
“When it was set up in 1926, Fianna Fáil in a sense represented the dispossessed, the outliers, the people who didn’t get involved in the mainstream after the Treaty and yet they picked themselves up. They did bring on a business element in the late 1920s. Once they accepted the Treaty and once they accepted the political norms they opened up to new potential support. Most particularly to what we call the ‘Irish Ireland’ business community, meaning people who believe in Irish industry, who believe in protectionism; believe in growing our own industry. The likes of Dowdalls margarine manufacturers moved to Fianna Fáil.

The Cumann na nGaedheal Party was split between protectionists and free traders. Patrick Hogan the Minister of Agriculture was a classic free-trader but JJ Walsh, for example, actually defects from Cumann na nGaedheal and decides not to run in the general election of 1932 saying, ‘I’m no longer running for this free trade party’. Cork seems to have been a hotbed of protectionism.

They produced their own newspaper, the Tribune. People like Professors Stockley and O Rahilly (who later became the president of UCC and drafted the Free State constitution) were writing articles ideologically promoting self reliance for Irish industry and they’re getting brassed off with Cumann na nGaedheal by the end of the 1920s. O’Rahilly actually stood for Cumann na nGaedheal and briefly in a kind of a George Lee like moment, he gets elected a TD. I came beautifully across his correspondence. He says ‘I’m wasting my time here. Cosgrave doesn’t understand how bright I am. And I have no intention of remaining on here as a negligible automaton’. And he resigns.

Lemass demonstrated a capacity to change. His mind was elastic. He could understand shifting trends in the world in his times. So he was a protectionist in the 1930s who became a believer in removing tariffs and barriers. He got the bit about how Ireland needed to become an open economy to export its produce.

However, there is no doubt that modern governments are far more constrained and restrained than previously because of global free trade; and the work of Piketty and others is important in demonstrating the growing gulf between the corporations and the wealthy and what they’re earning, and the middle-class and lower-income groups. Because the middle class is shrinking in developed societies. That in itself is posing a threat to democracy.

Governments have to intervene more. I spoke to the former head of the ESRI recently before she’d left office, informally. She was making a point to me that one of the biggest political issues of the next decade would be the degree to which governments can intervene in the market on incomes policy. To be young today and to go into the labour market today as a young person is not pretty in terms of certainty, security, capacity to borrow money. The market is certainly controlling that to a degree that’s very, very worrying. Even in the state sector now, there is no certainty for a young teacher who could be ten years waiting for any security. Primary teaching is different but even their rates of pay are lower than people who are working with them in the staff. Morale in the Garda is shocking. They had to reverse the cuts to new recruits in nursing because they couldn’t get the nurses. They’ve all gone abroad. And then there’s the whole zero-hours contract issue. And the whole regional pull to the east coast and to Dublin which is very lopsided. I think the resolution is not easy and I think there has to be engagement between governments and corporations. Essentially what’s happened in the last 20 years, is that the West shifted an awful lot of manufacturing to Asia. It did help lift a lot of Asians out of poverty but their levels, their conditions, are reminiscent of 19th century industrialised Europe”.

So how does all this position Fianna Fáil politically?

“Now, I would put 2016 Fianna Fáil in the centre of the political spectrum. Somewhat left in terms of – what do I mean by that? I think you have to be careful of these labels.

But it’s certainly centre in the sense that Lemass (his hero) and the whole industrial thing was always a feature of the party and probably became stronger in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Lemass didn’t mind whether it was state development or private development. So Fianna Fáil never had an ideological problem with the state intervening here and there. But equally the idea of development and enterprise and equality of opportunity and people getting on on merit were key hallmarks. So I would say somewhat left of centre in the sense that we’re strong on the idea of intervention in health. We believe in a public health system – taxation-based, publicly-funded. Fine Gael tried to privatise it only that they got confused over the model. We believe in education. I think the defining feature of Fianna Fáil from the outset, it’s education. The idea of people getting on, and education being the gateway to that equality of opportunity idea. I think Donagh O’Malley with free second-level education ushered in a whole new era and I think even latterly which we don’t get credit for is the whole idea of school completion. Currently the rate is 90%. I remember when I was in education in 1997, we were looking at 78% completion rate at second level. I won’t rest until it’s up to 100%.

When my first child was born, a nun came into the nursery, there were 12 kids in there. And she said, ‘I can tell you where each one of those childrenwill end up’. And that kind of annoyed me. When I was a teacher one young child came in to me, 13 years of age, who broke my heart and he was very bright. And he just said, ‘I’m gone sir, I got a job’. That was in the early 1980s. This guy could have achieved anything.

Fine Gael don’t get the idea of protecting communities – all the social solidarity community infrastructure that we did put in place over 20 years, dealing with disadvantage and drugs.

I didn’t grow up in farms though I grew up in rural Ireland.. A bit like Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke. You know that great book where it documents growing up in the 1960s in Ireland.
Aspiring working class is how I describe it. Your parents are working hard. Father is a bus driver; they want you to get an education. They didn’t get it themselves. I think they kind of connected into Fianna Fáil as the party that would get us on in life. I don’t mean it in a personal sense but by striking the right values and the right chord. The only caveat: I don’t know whether there’s some bit of Catholic social thinking in that too. The whole idea of decency in society no matter where you are and that we all come from the mud cabin at some stage. So let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

The discretionary-medical-card issue two years ago was an interesting insight into that kind of thinking. Because when I was on the doorsteps (a favoured locus for Martin) people who never had a medical card and who were quite well off were angry at the injustice of people losing theirs. So Fianna Fáil are to the left of Fine Gael”.

So he can say for certain that he wouldn’t serve as Tánaiste if there was a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil government: “That’s not going to happen.

As to Labour I think it has lost its soul and that it’s lost its base. To me it’s a very middle-class party that I don’t see in the housing estates any more. That’s a big challenge for the modern Labour movement.

The reduction in rent allowance encapsulates how astray Labour have gone – a free market, laissez-faire approach. All of our budgets when we were in the government during the crisis were progressive according to the ESRI, whereas all the budgets now are regressive.

We’re more on the ground. You can call it left of centre or more left than Labour. I think we’re more connected now. I was canvassing on Saturday and I went into a house where a man had a leg amputated. A local authority house. Now if you live in the local authority house with a severe disability or illness you cannot get your house adapted. There are around fifty cases in Cork alone. There’s no funding to adapt your house. Local authorities have no budget. It’s a form of apartheid. You’d ask, ‘Where is the Labour Party on this?’. And they have the Minister for the environment”.

I ask him what history will say about the difference between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. He dwells a little and then says, “Fianna Fáil via the Good Friday Agreement brought about the triumph of Constitutional Republicanism over physical force and a united Ireland without consent. We’re far more open and democratic”. He believes that ‘people In Sinn Fein are “afraid to to speak out and that there are dangers in anonymity or uniformity. The Belfast command still rules”.

Since he won’t go into Government with Fine Gael or Sinn Féin, is he calculating that Fianna
Fáil may have to go back into opposition again?

He’s cautious about opinion polls. “Until two weeks before the local elections here
Fianna Fáil were in second or third place though they came first in the end. I think all eleven opinion polls in Britain failed to spot the ascendancy of the Tories and in the US they were predicting Trump would win Iowa. The polling industry is in crisis in America. Response rates are down to 10% – so they’re not getting representative samples”.

There is a stereotypical view probably dating from the Garret FitzGerald period that Fianna
Fáil are a more ethical party than Fine Gael. Would Martin go as far as to say that maybe Fianna Fáil are more ethical than Fine Gael at this stage?

“Well I am always worried about being on the high moral quick sand. We had people who did
wrong and let the party down. I’m not going to mention names. I looked to people like Paddy
Hillery – the great revolutionary educationist – and Jack Lynch. What I find wrong about the
debate, is that the exclusive narrative is that it is Fianna Fáil. I was interviewed by Vincent Browne who said we are the most corrupt party but I think Sinn Fein are the most corrupt party, with their lie, cover-ups and murders. It depends on what prism you look through things. I didn’t witness any corrupt acts from 1997 onwards. Moriarty was an indictment of Fine Gael and they didn’t learn lessons from that. I am actually taken back by some of the behaviour from this government”.

I wonder if he thinks Fine Gael are too close to Michael Lowry and to Denis O’Brien. “Well I don’t know how close they are to Lowry and to Denis O’Brien, any more. What worried me about Siteserv was that Michael Noonan was very, very shifty and didn’t volunteer a lot of information. It turned out civil servants had major concerns. That subsequently came out of the freedom of information from Catherine Murphy”.

On reform of the legal profession he’s not very radical. “I think one of the most important things is numbers actually. Some of the professions have very restrictive access. I think law has to change by the way. There are a lot more people doing law today that what would have done 20 years ago. That brings competition. I wasn’t convinced of the idea of the joint practice. I like the idea of the barrister being a sole trader. The problem is that the law simply isn’t accessible to a lot of people – unless you’re rich or you can get legal aid”.

He’s wary of getting involved in the judiciary row but “it’s been said to me” that there’s an element of politics. “I do think that there needs to be reform in that area and I think to be fair the last government actually appointed very good people irrespective of their political background”. He considers the judiciary important for society.

He’s currently reading Flanagan’s ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. “My late uncle was a prisoner at the fall of Singapore. This book captures the absolute misery of life in the camps.

The other book I read recently was Robert Kennedy’s account of John F Kennedy’s handling of
the Cuban crisis. I bought that a long time ago in Washington and in terms of principles of
leadership and the moral question of leadership, The army was saying go in, bomb innocent
Cubans! Be wary of advice and never be afraid not to take advice, to go against the advice. It’s a must-read for any political leader”.

I suggest that Fine Gael, being close to a media tycoon who controls radio stations and newspapers, has a distinct advantage in the election.

“Yes, I think the dice are loaded in favour of Fine Gael. And I think most objective analysts would concur with that. I worry we’re reverting to the herd-like adoption of mantras that were discredited by the bust, and that there is a lack of interrogation of issues and real analysis of alternative viewpoints”.