Micheál Martin - opportunism and cynicism of the worst kind

Micheál Martin is using events in the North as part of his strategy to revive Fianna Fáil’s electoral fortunes in the South. By Eoin Ó Broin.

The award for opportunist of the week must surely go to Micheál Martin. His opinion piece in last Wednesday’s Irish News was a timely reminder of Fianna Fáil’s cynical approach to both the peace process and to politics.

For weeks Belfast city centre has been brought to a standstill by illegal loyalist blockades. Night after night the same protestors have returned to their own neighbourhoods and engaged in running battles with the PSNI, causing real disruption to their own communities.

In more recent nights these riots have turned into organised attacks on nationalist homes in the Short Strand.

The situation is very serious. If it continues, many fear that someone will be killed.

So what is Micheál Martin’s response to this escalating crisis?  Does his article give the impression of a political leader trying to understand the causes of the problem in order to play a constructive role in helping resolve it? Unfortunately not.

His article is nothing more than a transparent attack on Sinn Féin. Micheál Martin is not motivated by a desire to make people’s quality of life better. He is cynically using events in the North as part of his strategy to revive Fianna Fáil’s electoral fortunes in the South.

Of course we shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. Playing party politics with the peace process was commonplace in the final years of the Ahern/Cowen administration. Indeed such cynicism is what Fianna Fáil does best, alongside corruption and economic collapse.

But Micheál Martin’s intervention is worse than this. His ill-informed and deliberate misrepresentation of the causes of loyalist violence in recent weeks runs the risk of legitimising that violence. In doing so he is undermining the attempts of many political and community players, including Sinn Féin, to bring the violence to an end.

The decision of Belfast City Council to implement a policy of flying the Union Jack on designated days is uncontroversial. It is the current practice in Stormont and across many local councils, including those controlled by Unionists.

So why has the Belfast decision provoked weeks of violence and disruption? The answer lies in a number of separate but interrelated dynamics within the broad unionist/loyalist community.

The first dynamic is an attempt by the DUP to win back the East Belfast Westminster seat lost by party leader Peter Robinson in 2010 to Naomi Long of the Alliance Party.

Despite supporting the policy of designated days in other councils, the DUP sought to exploit the potential of the Belfast City Hall decision for electoral gain. They did this by distributing 40,000 leaflets across East Belfast portraying the change of policy as an attack on unionist culture.

The result was significant. Not only was an otherwise uncontentious issue transformed into a controversy; the politics of the leaflet also called into question the Belfast Agreement and the benefits it has brought to people from all communities.

To say that the DUP were playing with fire would be an understatement.

The second dynamic is an attempt by the Ulster Volunteer Force to flex its muscle in advance of the conclusion of the ongoing supergrass trial. Many senior UVF figures are concerned at the impact of the trial. They want to send a signal to both the PSNI and to politicians in all parties that there will be consequences if its leadership ends up in jail.

And so, the UVF are actively involved in the illegal blockades, riots and attacks on nationalist homes. They are also encouraging others, including former members of the UDA, to push the loyalist campaign beyond anything resembling peaceful protest.

The third dynamic is the very real level of political alienation felt by a section of the protestant working class. High levels of social and economic deprivation combined with the failure of unionism and loyalism to provide any real political or community leadership has left this section of the community increasingly cut off from the political process.

This failure has left a vacuum that in recent weeks has been filled by an even more virulent and sectarian strain of loyalism, represented by disparate figures such as Willie Frazer in the newly formed Ulster People’s Forum.

The genuine frustration felt by many working class protestants at their social, economic and political exclusion is once again being redirected away from the causes of their alienation and deprivation. Instead nationalist demands for social, economic and cultural equality are being blamed. Inevitably this leads to loyalist attacks on nationalist homes.

The irony is that that the Ulster People’s Forum offers working class protestants even less meaningful political leadership than the DUP, the UUP or the PUP. It is nothing more than a sectarian dead end.

The combination of these three independent but intertwined dynamics has produced a downward spiral of sectarian violence on the streets of Belfast.

Alliance Party, SDLP and Sinn Féin politicians and offices have been targeted for intimidation and attack. The people of the Short Strand are once again under siege and living in fear. Communities in East Belfast and elsewhere are living with the disruption of nightly rioting. The PSNI are being stretched to the limit and scarce resources diverted away from much needed community policing. Local businesses are losing significant volumes of trade and jobs are at risk of being lost.

And what does Micheál Martin have to say about this? Is he calling for an end to the illegal loyalist protests, intimidation of politicians, and attacks on the people of the Short Strand? Is he demanding that politicians from all parties stand together in defense of the democratic process in Belfast City Hall and the Belfast Agreement commitment to parity of esteem? Is he sitting down and listening to communities on the ground at the centre of the violence in order to better understand what is actually going on?

No he is not. Rather he is seeking to use a very real crisis to attack Sinn Féin and the power-sharing institutions in Stormont. His motivation has nothing to do with ending the loyalist violence and all to do responding to the political rise of Sinn Féin in the South.

In doing so he is feeding the very dynamics that lie at the heart of the violence, and making things worse. He is guilty of opportunism and cynicism of the very worst kind.

But then what else would you expect from a man who sat in government with Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen for 14 years as they steered southern Irish society into a social and economic crisis of unprecedented proportions.

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