Shared Island Unit 'won't increase momentum towards a border poll' says Micheál Martin
It's been a turbulent few months for Taoiseach Micheál Martin but the Fianna Fáil leader tells Political Correspondent John Manley that he remains focused on his government's priorities, including dealing with Brexit and planning for a shared Ireland
MICHEÁL Martin describes his relationship with Boris Johnson as "good... on a personal level".
He was somewhat taken aback therefore when little over three weeks after the pair met at Hillsborough Castle in mid-August the British government unveiled its controversial UK Internal Market Bill.
There was "no heads up", the taoiseach says via Zoom from Government Buildings in Dublin, a move that led to a "very forthright conversation".
"They’ve been left in no doubt in terms of our anger and annoyance about it," he says of the legislation that by Secretary of State Brandon Lewis's own admission will breach international law.
"It fundamentally eroded trust and when you erode trust that damages a relationship."
There’s now an obligation on the British government to restore trust, he says, so the Republic and the EU can be confident they'll adhere to any future agreements.
While the Dublin government is set to produce a budget based on a no deal Brexit, the Fianna Fáil leader remains optimistic that a deal can be struck.
"It’s challenging but I believe the mood has changed a bit for the better," he says.
The implications of failing to reach agreement aren't lost on the taoiseach:
"Given the enormity of Covid-19 and its severe impact on our respective economies, I think it would make sense that we get a comprehensive trading agreement between the EU and UK that was devoid of tariffs and quotas.
"We don’t need a second shock to the economic systems of the UK, Ireland and the EU, so I would hope common sense will prevail."
The "very strong" Stateside cross-party response may have given the British a reality check.
"Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, President Trump's envoy Mick Mulvaney... all of them are consistent – the prospects of trade agreement would recede if there's any undermining of the Good Friday Agreement," he says.
The taoiseach wants to see a "sensible" free trade agreement that can pave the way for a “new paradigm for British-Irish relations”.
This east-west relationship will be complementary to its north-south counterpart, which he hopes can be enhanced through his office's new Shared Island Unit.
Details of the unit's composition are vague though Mr Martin says "it's already been stacked up". He declines, however, to reveal when we might see its first outworkings.
"Reconciliation is at the heart of this unit," he says.
"It's about trying to get a conversation going, notwithstanding people’s perspective on constitutional issues."
He encourages unionists to engage with the unit, insisting "they have nothing to fear from it".
"I think their perspectives are important in terms of our deliberations and our perspectives on things – there’s lots of common ground here."
The unit will commission research around health, education, energy and other areas.
"I would like to see a development of a new momentum around the north-south bodies and the north-south agenda," the taoiseach says.
"The idea is to develop the conversation in a structured way – and not just the voices that are currently there."
Part of the enhanced relationship would "put flesh on the bones around infrastructure" – projects such as the A5, Narrow Water Bridge, Ulster Canal and various cross-border greenways.
"The Shared Island Unit is the first significant initiative in quite a while to work on a pragmatic basis that respects people’s constitutional positions on both sides," Mr Martin says.
"We want to try and a develop a shared agenda on how we can share this island together on a whole range of issues."
One thing the unit categorically is not, it seems, is preparation for constitutional change.
"It’s not going to increase momentum towards a border poll," he says of the unit, before restating his opposition to a referendum on Irish unity in the short or medium term, arguing it would be "volatile and divisive".
When asked if he envisages a border poll within his political lifetime, the taoiseach turns the question around: “What is my political lifetime?”
"I prefer to go the route I’m going here," he says.
"I think an awful lot of work has to be done in terms of understanding the people on this island."
The Fianna Fáil leader characterises a united Ireland as being "about relationships".
"It’s people understanding each other and getting on better with each other in the normal activities of daily life – and we’re some distance from that and we need to work on that."
The taoiseach acknowledges that the UK leaving the EU has altered the political landscape: "I do understand Brexit is a significant thing and I think Brexit over time will influence people’s attitudes and mindsets – I do accept that but at the same time let that play out somewhat."
He also believes a majority of people in the south "would aspire to a united Ireland" but adds "referendums can be funny – they can go in all sorts of directions".
In regards to relations with other parties, specifically Sinn Féin and the SDLP, the taoiseach remains critical of the former, arguing the south's main opposition party is a "very controlling party, very propagandistic party" and "almost exclusively electorally focused".
He insists the party's partnership with the SDLP, two years old next January, is very much alive, despite being hindered by Covid-19 and the drawn out efforts to form a government in the Republic.
He describes the cross-border link as an "effective partnership", adding that Fianna Fáil members are "very enthused" and proud to be involved "with that noble, non-violent tradition".