A NEW REPORT, produced to coincide with Ireland’s current presidency of the EU and the country’s 40th year of membership, has been released today.
Containing interviews with Micheál Martin, Lucinda Creighton, Peter Sutherland and Pat Cox, the report – Forty Years A-Growing – An Overview of Irish-EU Relations – by Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute, was produced with the aim of grasping the “specificity and subtleties of the Irish debate on Europe, both historically and in its most recent developments.”
In his interview, the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, talks about having to start again and doing away with the Galway tent.
EU membership and the Irish people
Remembering the then-leader of Fianna Fáil, Jack Lynch, who his father had played football with, Martin said that he viewed Ireland’s joining of Europe as “opening up opportunities for the country” with hopes of moving from an “isolationist past to a future that would be more integrated with Europe”.
The Treaty of Nice and dealing with Lisbon
On Ireland’s initial rejection of the Nice Treaty, Martin remains unsure as to whether this was down to “domestic complacency” or “people’s growing unease with the European project”. Followed soon after by the initial failure to pass the Lisbon Treaty, Martin, at this point the Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that it was essential to ensure that a “very neutral statement” was made by the Council of Europe that would acknowledge “the voice of the Irish people and call for reflection.”
Careful to ensure that Europe did not talk down to Ireland, Martin said that “foreign intervention at a high profile level” in an attempt to sway the decision of voters was counter productive.
Ireland’s corporation tax
“The low corporation tax rate we are absolutely wedded to,” said Martin. While the current rate of 12.5 per cent is quite recent, the Fianna Fáil leader said that the original policy, which had been “aimed at attracting foreign investment”, is decades old.
“They [European leaders] don’t like it [our corporation tax], but most of them understand where we are coming from,” he said, adding:
U2 have their facilities in Holland because of the tax regime there, so it is not a one-way street at all…
“Fianna Fáil is, historically, the party of military neutrality,” Martin affirmed, mentioning that the party’s founder, Éamon De Valera, had refused to participate in World War II.
In the years since, Martin said that others had since adopted what had been a Fianna Fáil policy which, in the ’70s and ’80s, broadened to become Ireland’s foreign policy.
This neutrality, Martin believes, has allowed Ireland to take positions “on the merits and morals of a given situation as opposed to being sucked into big power geopolitics.”
But it is a difficult tightrope to walk, when Afghanistan happens, or Iraq.
On the issue of America’s use of Shannon airport, Martin, referring back to World War II, said that things were ‘complicated’ even then, with Ireland “on the side of Britain”.
“That kind of pragmatism has followed through, in particular because our relationship with America is very strong,” he said.
Speaking of “ridiculous arguments” that a loss of Ireland’s neutrality would result in “tanks on O’Connell Street”, Martin picked out the topic of conscription, in particular, as being a “very potent negative campaigning issue.”
The pro-European side sometimes scoffed at that. But when we did the research afterwards, we realized that people really believed it. And I was amazed, when knocking on doors, that people would ask me if there will be a European Army, and if their sons will be forced to join.
What is Fianna Fáil’s position on abortion?
“My party supports the right to life,” Martin said, with the caveat that they would only agree to it being introduced under strict control “for the rare circumstances where the life of the mother is at risk. We are not the only ones; most parties are in that position.”
On the pro-life movement, Martin said that while the church may also hold a similar view, they “don’t politically agitate to the same extent” as the “lay civil society movement” who he said were “very well networked” and effective campaigners.
There is no point in denying that societal views towards abortion are changing.
Europe and the citizen
Martin sees one of the big challenges in Europe as successfully addressing the “disconnection between the citizen and Europe.”
Popular consent with Europe will be lost, he believes, if there is not constant engagement with the people on European matters.
Despite the Fiscal Treaty passing, Martin believes that people saw ‘yes’ as the lesser of the two evils, and that Irish people are not confident about Europe:
The overriding sentiment of the Irish people is not one of great confidence in Europe at the moment: they went along the proposed treaty because it is in their self-interest and they have no other choice.
Believing that the “handling of the financial crisis at European level has been quite poor,” Martin said that recognising a Greek default on day one would have been better for all concerned, before adding:
And from the perspective of the Irish, the idea of not facilitating a contribution from bondholders at the very beginning was wrong. Imposing all the losses on citizens is not acceptable.
Fianna Fáil’s blanket guarantee to the banks
“They [the government of the time] feared that there would be a run on Irish banks,” Martin said.
Saying that the banks hid the fact that they were insolvent, Martin said that the initial guarantee was based on the banks only having a liquidity problem.
Yet, despite all the criticism about the Fianna Fáil government’s bank guarantee, to the present day there are bank guarantees going on in Europe.
So the Irish policy, whether you agree or disagree with it, was in line with the broader European position.
Describing Ireland as “doing quite well when the euro was introduced”, the euro led to a further growth in exports.
But it was like pouring petrol on a fire because it also opened the tap for a lot of cheap money to come into the country, on top of the economic growth we were already experiencing at the time.
We liberalized the banking sector: German banks came in, and other foreign banks, and they all lent on property, not on industry or high technology companies, and thus contributed to creating the bubble.
Can Ireland exit the Troika-funded programme?
While the Ireland of the 1980s grew its way out of recession – helped by an expanding export economy – Martin is unsure as to whether exports will be as effective this time around. “In other words, we are locked into the wider European future,” he said.
Despite the “awful hammering” that Martin says his party received in the last general election, he said that the current government – although they won’t admit it – have “ridden on the piggy back” of the “draconian budgets” which Fianna Fáil implemented before losing power.
What about the rise of Sinn Féin?
Believing that “populist parties in general” have seen growth, Martin believes that the position of Sinn Féin is “to be against everything: oppose every cut, oppose every tax and just mop up the votes basically.”
Now the degree to which Sinn Féin will try and mainstream itself is open to interpretation.
The honest truth is that voters don’t have a great trust in politics, irrespective of what political party you look at. My party has to adapt to that, and start again basically.
No more Galway tent
“That went four years ago, we drew the lessons from what happened,” Martin said.
“People don’t like the idea that you can buy influence, and rightly so,” adding:
We now have one national draw – it is fifty euros a ticket – and we have a national collection, people still do church gate collections in Ireland. These are the two big fundraisers for the party now, which means that 90% of all our fundraising is below one hundred euros.
What is the Fianna Fáil’s agenda in Europe?
“Fianna Fáil is fundamentally a pro-European party,” Martin said. Recalling when Éamon Ó Cuív went against their party in relation to the Fiscal Treaty debate, Martin said that he reaffirmed the party’s commitment to Europe: “He had to resign as deputy leader.”
In-full: The interview with Micheál Martin >