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Irish deputy PM advises South Africa that ego and coalitions don’t mix

Irish deputy PM advises South Africa that ego and coalitions don’t mix
Irish Deputy Prime Minister Micheál Martin. (Photo: Valeria Mongelli / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Micheál Martin has experience in making coalitions work. Asked about South Africa’s precarious partnerships, he advised politicians to put their egos aside and put the government before their parties.

Ireland’s Tainaiste, or deputy prime minister, Micheál Martin, has advised South Africa’s politicians to set aside their egos and personalities and be patient and adaptable if they are forced to go into a coalition after next year’s uncertain national general elections.

Martin, who is also foreign minister, gave the inaugural lecture at the Charlotte Maxeke-Mary Robinson Irish Studies Chair at the University of Western Cape in Cape Town on Monday.

Martin knows something about coalition government as he is part of a three-party coalition governing Ireland. He was asked by Melanie Verwoerd, a former South African ambassador to his country, what advice he could give to South Africans ahead of next year’s general elections where many pundits predict the governing ANC will lose its simple majority, making a coalition government unavoidable.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The ANC at 40% in 2024 could bring chaos to an already unsteady democracy

He said his party Fianna Fail had been the largest party in Ireland for decades and had been the sole governing party from 1932 to 1948, again from the 50s until 1973 and thereafter for most of the period from 1977 until 1989. It had been a core principle of the party not to go into coalitions, but in 1989 it abandoned the principle and entered into its first coalition. 

“In my view, adaptability and pragmatism are very important. And also I believe once an election happens there has to be a government. I do not believe in elections every two years.

“We had a period in the 1980s when we had three elections in eighteen months. That didn’t work.”

Clear policy programme

Martin said a clear policy programme was key to holding coalitions together. Patience was also important.

“The simple issue is you have to put government before party. And it will work out for your party eventually if you do that.”

Martin said if one went into every issue asking what this would mean for my party, “the coalition won’t last. You have to be very broad-minded.”

And he said the largest party in a coalition had to be extra conscious of not forcing its policies on the others.

“So consensus building in coalition governments is important.”

He said Fianna Fail had made mistakes and come unstuck in the beginning by trying to ram things through.

“The bottom line is that if you don’t have the numbers and the minor parties are unhappy with certain policies, they can walk away. 

“It doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your core principles. It just means being more patient, more consensus-building, take more time, work things through and discuss things.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eight reasons why SA metro coalitions are imploding

Often the policy gaps between coalition parties were not wide enough to break the coalition if they were thoroughly discussed.

“The key ingredient is having a programme for government before you start.”

He said the present government in Ireland comprised the Green Party, Fianna Fáil, and  Fine Gael, the latter two being centre parties, one more left and one more right. But the three parties had worked out their programme for government in some detail and were sticking to it.

Martin said his coalition had broken new ground because the two larger parties had agreed that as leader of Fianna Fail, he would be “Taoiseach” (prime minister) for the first two-and-a-half years and then the leader of Fine Gael Leo Varadkar would become prime minister for the next two-and-a-half years, as he was now.

“And it’s worked,” he said – though to the amazement of many leaders he spoke to from other European countries. He said many suspected that something would happen when he had to transfer the prime ministership to Varadkar in December.

“But we said, ‘No, we’ve agreed to this.’ We’re mature. We’re grown up. And everything is policy focused. And we can reduce egos and personalities. Politics should never be about personalities and egos, by the way.

“You need humility and you need policy, of course.”

Whether South Africa’s notoriously egoistic and headstrong politicians will take such advice seems a bit uncertain.

The main theme of Martin’s lecture was reconciliation and he admitted that it was one of the most difficult principles to maintain, including upholding the spirit of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended most of the chronic violence in Northern Ireland through a power-sharing deal among Ireland, the UK and Northern Ireland.

SA-Irish peace processes

Martin noted that South Africans and Irish had played important roles in each other’s peace processes, dating back to Jan Smuts helping to broker the truce that ended Ireland’s war of independence. Then Ireland had been prominent in the anti-apartheid struggle. In the 1990s Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer, his National Party counterpart in the democratic negotiations, had given valuable insight into the Irish negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

He recalled that when the main Irish protagonists came to South Africa in 1996 for talks mediated under Ramaphosa and Meyer’s leadership, the South Africans had gone to great lengths to ensure the two Irish sides never met by accident en route to the negotiation venue, such as at the airport.

They even had separate bars at the negotiation venue and when it was discovered that one bar was smaller than the other it had to be rebuilt, Martin said, laughing.

Ramaphosa had later been involved in monitoring the decommissioning of arms after the agreement.

Ireland continued to support South Africa after its liberation. Martin noted that Dublin had not reduced its development aid to SA or other African countries by a cent despite taking on 90,000 refugees from Ukraine, which constituted 1.8% of Ireland’s population.

Colonial mementoes

University of Western Cape history professor Ciraj Rassool asked Martin how important it had been to Irish dignity that Trinity College had finally just returned 13 human skulls taken by its scientists from the Irish island of Inishbofin in 1890.

Martin confessed that he was inclined to view such episodes more as a historian than as an Irish nationalist.

“I’m not a great believer in eliminating the past because it informs the present,” he said, referring to efforts to tear down monuments and other mementoes of Ireland’s colonial past. 

The danger of doing that was that it shut the door to the past, he said. He noted that Ireland was now celebrating 100 years of independence and a new generation of historians was examining the history of independence objectively, in a spirit of reconciliation.

Martin said although the wholesale pillaging of artefacts needed to be redressed, the main point in general was the ease of access to historical Irish artefacts now kept in Britain. It was not always necessary that they be shipped back to Ireland.

He recounted with amusement the authorities of University College Cork who had taken down and buried a statue of Queen Victoria in the 1920s. It was only in the 1990s that wiser minds disinterred it and displayed it in a glass case. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Peter Doble says:

    Contrary to popular myth the Irish are exceptionally intelligent people which probably accounts for the fact that they have one of the the most spectacular and safest countries and amazing cultures in the whole world. They also have the finest centres of learning. Mr Martin’s views are typically frank and erudite born from a troubled history and as he rightly states – we only learn from history, its successes and mistakes, not attempt to erase it.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      They also suffered from 700 years under the jackboot of the English monarchy but came out of it with an attitude of ‘forgive but don’t forget’ which might be one of the most useful examples for this benighted country.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    If only! But I am afraid that Mr. Martin’s intelligent advice will fall on deaf ears among the governing class.

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