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Boris Johnson in Downing Street 'quite rightly raises enormous fears', says Micheál Martin

Martin said the last time Johnson was in Ireland, he didn’t show the ‘slightest level of understanding’ about the the Good Friday Agreement.

Martin said Boris has a lot of work to do to catch up on his knowledge of Northern Ireland issues.
Martin said Boris has a lot of work to do to catch up on his knowledge of Northern Ireland issues.
Image: Rollingnews.ie

THE ACCESSION OF Boris Johnson to Downing Street “quite rightly raises enormous fears”, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told an audience in Glenties, Donegal this evening. 

Speaking at the MacGill Summer School, he said his election as the new Tory leader, and the new UK prime minister raises fears for the future of relations between the governments and also London’s policy towards Northern Ireland.

“I wish Boris Johnson well in his capacity as British prime minister. Tomorrow, we assume he will be,” he said. 

Martin said that when Johnson visited Ireland, he did not show the level of knowledge one would expect from someone in his position.

Boris’ trip to Dublin

“Anyone in Dublin who met him during his time as Foreign Secretary will tell you the many ways in which he failed to show the slightest level of understanding about the operations of the Good Friday Agreement or the deep problems raised by Brexit.

“It is clear that he is single-minded in his ambition, but I don’t think anyone can credibly say that he has thought-through how to promote prosperity and reconciliation in Northern Ireland,” said Martin. 

He added: 

And to be honest no one really seems to know what his beliefs are in relation to Brexit other than wanting to raise the flag of victory at Halloween.
Three months ago he voted for the Withdrawal Agreement.  Now he says it must be buried forever. He is apparently about to install a staff which is on the fundamentalist wing of the issue and full of people who have been at best indifferent to the impact of Brexit on this island.

borris 781_90529513 Borris Johnson and Tánaiste Simon Coveney in Dublin in 2017. Source: Sam Boal

When asked if Johnson has lot of work to do catching up on Northern Ireland issues, Martin replied: 

I think he has.

“When we met last year there was a sense that he was glossing over the realities of the potential negative of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement, on relationships North and South that had developed over 20 odd years. So, he seemed to push them to one side as if they weren’t an issue,” said the Fianna Fáil leader. 

“He has consistently, in my view, understated the impact of Brexit on North/South relations and on the island of Ireland.

“So I think he needs to bring himself up to date very quickly in terms of what is required actually to sustain the sets of relationships on this island.

He said the Good Friday Agreement has three sets of relationships – the British/Irish relationship, the North/South and the relationship between both communities in the North.

“It took a lot of work to get there and I think he perhaps to date, maybe for reasons that suit his purpose in terms of Brexit, but I think he’s understated the impact of Brexit potentially on that agreement, but more importantly on the sets of relationships that underpin that agreement.”

boris 46_90562191

Martin said Johnson appears to have skills to adapt, and he hopes this is the case with his succession into the top job.

“People would say he was an effective mayor of London. But to get elected as mayor of London, which actually for a conservative was a difficult proposition, but that he skillfully managed to do that, and then he moved to a liberal, environmentally conscious, conservative middle ground that enabled him to win that election.

Even when he was President of the Oxford Union, Martin said Johnson again moved to the centre ground.

Holding on to hope 

“I’m giving that as a potential hopeful sign, when he sees the realities of what’s before him, in terms of the engagement with the European Union, the realities of Brexit – there is no percentage in it for the UK in terms of a no-deal Brexit, or indeed for anybody, and that his own self interest and the interests of his party and government will be bound up in arriving at a common sense appraisal of the challenge that Brexit presents to him.”

In addition, Martin said that the potential narrowing majority in Westminster could bring forward the prospect of a UK general election.

“That in itself may have an impact on the timetable around Brexit,” he added.

“We need to spend now until October 31st focused on ensuring that we can arrive at a situation that doesn’t damage the economic livelihoods of people on this island, or across Europe, or indeed within the UK,” said Martin.

However, Martin said “in spite of all of this, and the trepidation rightly felt by people who want to protect the achievements of the peace settlement, we must find a way to work with Boris Johnson”. 

Varadkar needs to meet Boris within weeks

He said that over the next few weeks the Taoiseach and UK Prime Minister will meet to discuss Brexit. Though nothing is on the schedule just yet, government sources state that the Taoiseach to engage earlier rather than later with Johnson.

“Both leaders should be reminded that this is not just a game of one upmanship –that Brexit is far too serious to play domestic politics with,” Martin said this evening. 

“It would be a good start if there was an end to the new habit of carrying out every disagreement in public and for both the Taoiseach and the new Prime Minister to do more than focus on the fight at hand,” he added.

He said Johnson “has boxed himself into a corner. But I think the defining feature of his career to date has been either through self interest or in terms of analysing the set of circumstances facing him, he has managed to adapt and change course”. 

Bad relations with the UK

Speaking about an issue he has touched on before, Martin said the deteriorating relationship between the two countries is very concerning.

He said “deep and permanent contact and cooperation post Brexit” must be maintained.

“This can’t just be holding a few more meetings of existing bodies – we need a permanent secretariat and formal engagement across all of the issues which we formerly dealt with in the EU.

“There is too much at stake for our two islands – not just economically but socially and politically as well,” he said, adding: 

We cannot and should not let the progress of the past 21 years be thrown away. 
This is not dealing with reality. The risks are real and getting closer by the day. It’s not ‘Project Fear’ its project harsh reality.

Martin also used his speech to state, yet again, that it is a “scandal” that the Northern Ireland institutions are not up and running.

“For years, in every single piece of published research, the people of Northern Ireland have said they want a focus on the practical problems they face in relation to finding good jobs, a health service under pressure and entrenched disadvantage – yet even when they were operating the devolved institutions were seen as focusing on a different agenda.

He said there “needs to be a new agenda, focused on practical problems – with the need for a new economic model for Northern Ireland by far the most important… We need to abandon the constant fight to manage decline and replace it with initiatives which recognise the unique economic problems faced by Northern Ireland and the Border region as a whole”. 

Marriage equality in Northern Ireland 

When asked if the issue of marriage equality isn’t a practical issue to some, Martin said the focus “has to be on the practical issues apart from the constitutional issues”.

“This whole idea that Brexit happened, Sinn Fein came forward with the idea of a border poll and everything has to be about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland when in fact, in many respects the people of Northern Ireland have moved on and want real focus on bread and butter issues, on their health service, on education issues…”. 

In his view, had the institutions in the North not collapsed, marriage equality would already be on the statute books in Northern Ireland. 

“Marriage equality, yes I think there is a majority in Northern Ireland for marriage equality. The recent developments in Westminster, I think will bring that closer. In fact, I think if the assembly was brought back there is every chance you would have marriage equality,” he said, adding that he does not think the petition of concern would have been used to block the passage of marriage equality. 

“I sense having spoken to unionists is that if there had been an Assembly over the last two years we might have seen marriage equality come onto the statute books in the North independent of Westminster. That is a view that would be disputed by Sinn Féin and others, but actually I am not so sure the petitions of concern would have been evoked as was feared because I think there is a certain element in unionism that believe they have to move on these particular issues.”

He said with Westminster now taking the lead on the issue, he believes there will be progress.

Martin said people in the North are “fed up of the non-show of the politicians in the Assembly and the Executive”.

“It was palpable and obviously the background of Lyra McKee’s murder was there as well. I think it is a scandal that the executive isn’t up and running when Northern Ireland is facing the threat that it is and I simply can’t comprehend it.

Martin was due to be speaking on a panel with Northern Ireland’s Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill, but she cancelled her appearance tonight.

“I am disappointed. My understanding is that Michelle O’Neill won’t be here this evening, this is the second year in a row that I was billed, and I was to be sharing a platform with Michelle O’Neill and for some reason, the Northern Ireland Sinn Fein leader is pulled again and these are issues id like to discuss and engage on on a public platform and that is disappointing,” he said. 

The Fianna Fáil leader also addressed the possible imminent threat of a no-deal Brexit. 

If a no-deal situation is avoided, enormous challenges about the future of relations and progress on this island remains, said Martin.

“Today is a day where we all have every right to be worried about what will happen next – but equally we have an obligation to focus on those things which we know must be done.

“If we return to the spirit which delivered the peace settlement; if we can develop a political agenda which reflect the reality of today’s society in Northern Ireland; if we can restore basic working relations between the political leaders of our governments. If we can do these things, then we can get through this dangerous period and return to progress. 

“And let us never forget – the challenges we faced in the past were even more serious,” concluded Martin.

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