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Micheál Martin: 'Fianna Fáil will reflect on committee's call for terminations up to 12 weeks'

The Cork TD discusses how the abortion issue will be difficult for his party and how Fianna Fáil hasn’t ruled out running candidates in the north.

Fianna Fail Ard Fheis Micheal Martin Laura Hutton Laura Hutton

FIANNA FÁIL LEADER Micheál Martin has said he will reflect on the Oireachtas committee’s call for terminations to be available for up to 12 weeks of a woman’s pregnancy.

Sitting down for a pre-Christmas interview with, only a couple of weeks after the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar got an 11-point poll lead over Martin’s party, the Cork TD not only discusses how the imminent referendum will be difficult for all political organisations, but reveals how his party could be running candidates in the north one day and why he doesn’t believe Ireland is prepared for a terrorist attack.

With the final report from the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment now in everyone’s hands, most politicians have said they will use the Christmas break to reflect on the issues it raises.

Martin has supported the loosening of restrictions on terminations in cases of rape, fatal foetal abnormalities and incest, but stopped short of endorsing the recommendation to allow abortion for up to 12 weeks “with no restriction as to reason”.

“That is one issue that people would want to reflect more on. We will all reflect on that over the Christmas period,” he said.

Martin admitted that abortion is a challenging issue for his party, acknowledging that a large cohort in his party are pro-life.

Life of the unborn

At the party’s Ard Fheis this year, a significant majority supported a motion calling for the party to oppose “any attempt to diminish the constitutional rights of the unborn”.

“We have to work our way through it. We have 20,000 members in the party. There will be different perspectives, there would be quite a large number of those who are pro-life, I can say that to you. There are others who have different views. There would be an urban and rural issue,” said Martin, adding that he is going to read through all the committee’s submissions over the Christmas break.

While Martin admits the issue isn’t an easy one for Fianna Fáil, he believes every political party is in the same situation.

“There will clearly be challenges within the party, as there will be with all parties. You see [people in] Sinn Féin were saying one thing for a year, and then took its position. And Fine Gael will have challenges. They have people with different positions, though I think it is interesting they are also following the line of freedom of conscience.”

The Cork TD will also allow his own parliamentary party a free vote on the issue.

“There will be freedom of conscience to those within the parliamentary party. I think that has been an important dynamic in this. I think people are freer to articulate their views as parliamentarians on an issue of conscience, which is different to how this has been historically dealt with in the past.
It is difficult for the parliamentary party, yes. I think it is different now to how it was historically dealt with where there was a uniformed position in regard to people’s deeply held personal views.
“In 2013, under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act I met every TD just to get their views. It was very clear to me the views transcend the normal party political discourse if you like. I thought the freedom of conscience was the best one to do.”

Whatever happens, he said the Referendum Commission must be given enough time to prepare for the vote. “In a debate as important as this, and as fundamental as this, I think no one should be open to the allegation that this has been railroaded or rushed,” he added.

Fianna Fail Ard Fheis Leader of Fianna Fail, Micheal Martin, poses for a photograph during some downtime at the Party’s Ard Fheis at the RDS, Dublin Laura Hutton Laura Hutton

While the referendum will be seen as a major challenge for politicians in 2018, the biggest crisis of 2017 was the Frances Fitzgerald email debacle. 

During that fraught week, which brought the country to the brink of an election, there were rumours that Martin couldn’t even get Varadkar to return his phone call.

Fine Gael need to show respect 

Martin acknowledges that there were communication problems, but points the finger squarely at government benches.

I think the government needs to show more respect. I think what happened with the justice issues was there was a lack of respect to the Dáil, there was too dismissive an attitude taken far too early to Alan Kelly and the issues being raised.
I think the lack of respect – when the opposition raises issues they should be treated with seriousness and respect and when we were raising this issue for almost two or three weeks there was almost an arrogant dismissal of what are you raising these issues for, whereas if you go back and look at the answers that Alan Kelly got they are actually screaming out that someone is hiding something.

How the crisis was allowed to develop and escalate is a question the Fianna Fáil leader still asks. On the Friday he met with the Taoiseach before a general election was avoided the situation was very “serious”, he explained.

“I think the political tenet was not as sharp as it should have been. I think when we first indicated there was an issue with the confidence and supply I think there should have been immediate engagement. That didn’t happen on that occasion, but I think lessons have been learned by that. I think the situation was misjudged, that’s all,” said Martin.

Not a ‘needy’ politician 

However, he maintains Fine Gael need to be reminded that it is in a minority government, relying on Fianna Fáil support – but he claims he allows Varadkar to get on with his work.

“In terms of the relationship with the two taoisigh, I have given them space. I give them space. I am not ringing everyday, I am not pestering. I am not saying I want this or that. I am not a needy politician in that sense. They are not reminded every week that ‘you depend on us – you better do this’.

“I am a respectful politician. We made a fundamental decision to facilitate a government. Sometimes, some of our members don’t feel that is reciprocated,” said Martin.

Dail returns PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Martin admits that Kenny operated in a different fashion.

“When Enda Kenny got communications [from Martin] on key issues, he got them. And he took them on board. Water charges being a classic one. During the formation of government, I said to him this has to be dealt with. His ministers were resisting and resisting and that was the first sign to me after the election that Fine Gael was in turmoil and there was dissent due to the loss of seats.

“So they were using that water issue to undermine Enda Kenny, in my view. He got the realpolitik,” he said.

Looking ahead to 2018, there has been talk that there will be a general election.

Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil

One thing Fianna Fáil has been keen to reiterate is that it will not go into power with Sinn Féin, regardless of who is leading the party.

There was a kerfuffle in the party earlier this year when it was reported in The Irish Times that some Fianna Fáil TDs were open to the idea – but Martin quickly stamped out any further discussion.

“Yes. It’s still a no. We don’t see a big change in the changing of the guard. We believe the shadowy forces still have a huge central control of Sinn Féin,” Martin explained.

When asked if he would have to see a major restructure of the party before considering going in with them, Martin replied:

Absolutely. I think the party is not democratic in how it works. I think they have huge issues in different constituencies for a variety of issues. It was only two and a bit years ago that the PSNI said the Army Council still control the direction of Sinn Féin, which worries me.

What about five years down the line? “I deal with one election at a time,” he replied.

Martin said he believes the collapse of the National Executive in Northern Ireland was a power play by Sinn Féin to push the border poll.

christmas 679_90531143 Sam Boal Sam Boal

“I think that is the kind of unilateral stuff that happens in Sinn Féin that should make anyone cautious. We have nearly a year without the National Executive when the north is facing its greater threat via Brexit. I find that inexcusable and unacceptable. So there is no change, we are not going into government with Sinn Féin.”

Candidates in the north 

Although, Martin is hoping to have something in common with the party soon. If he has his way, it will not be the only party to have members both north and south. The Fianna Fáil leader is considering running candidates in the north in the future.

“That is an ongoing issue in the party,” he said, adding that the party is still rebuilding following the devastating 2011 election.

Martin said he is not ruling out the prospect. “Step by step,” he said, adding:

We have a close relationship with the SDLP. A lot of our members on the border have been campaigning for the SDLP for a long time now.

Describing the 2011 election as a “near death experience politically” he said he still wants to restore the party, and lead a new chapter.

“It was very difficult, it was very fragile, it could have gone either way at that stage. We are not there yet, that’s my point, we’ve come to the next chapter. I see the next election as further recovery and renewal, and a further new generation. But yes we want to go into government after the next election and be the lead party in the next government but all that will depend on the electorate,” he said.

While running candidates in the north could be an option for the party in the future – what about a united Ireland? The Tánaiste Simon Coveney was recently criticised for talking about a united Ireland during an Oireachtas committee, something Martin said was an “ill-judged” move in his view.

I am passionately committed to the Good Friday Agreement which provides a pathway to Irish unity in the context of the principle of consent. That is there. However, on the outset of Brexit, Sinn Féin said, ‘Bingo we have an opportunity to drive home the unity question’. That was a huge mistake in my view.
We are a party committed to a united Ireland but it is an issue within the context of the Good Friday Agreement – the three sets of relationships, British Irish north south and the two communities.
To mix it up deliberately and premeditated with Brexit is designed to antagonise unionism, no question about that, and it spooked unionism and it changed the discussion from being about bread and butter, and farmers and the agri-food industry to one about back into identity politics and I think that has been a factor in facilitating people getting back into the trenches. Brexit is such as serious threat to all of us.

The atmosphere and relationship between politics in the north and south has been damaged due to Brexit, said Martin.

“I was quite worried about the language and tone. It did remind me of previous times. Are we heading down a route here that we need to pull back on?”

Read: Dáil votes for Ireland to join Pesco EU military defence pact>

‘You’re talking about going to war’: TDs concerned EU defence deal could lead to Ireland joining a European army>

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