The Turners Cross boy who became Taoiseach: A profile of Micheál Martin's life in politics

The Turners Cross boy who became Taoiseach: A profile of Micheál Martin's life in politics
A young Micheál Martin pictured on a school holiday in Corca Dhaoibhne on the Dingle Peninsula in 1974, which he went on with classmates from Coláiste Chríost Rí. 

OVER the course of his three-decade career in national politics, Micheál Martin has proven himself to be a master of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

By somehow becoming Taoiseach after Fianna Fáil’s disappointing general election in February, he’s proven that point once again.

To say that his path to the head of the cabinet table was long or arduous would be an understatement, and Mr Martin will bring with him both experience and baggage unprecedented among his current contemporaries.

During his 31 years in Leinster House - covering close to a third of the history of Dáil Éireann itself - he’s served under Charles Haughey and Albert Reynolds, marked the Rainbow Coalition from opposition, played a role in the rise of the Celtic Tiger under Bertie Ahern and its collapse under Brian Cowen, rebuilt his party through the aftermath of the Great Recession and will now lead the country into a world dramatically changed by Covid-19.

And while he has already built a legacy - for good or bad, depending on who you ask - his two-and-a-half years as Taoiseach will no doubt define his place in Irish history, while fulfilling an ambition that stretches back further than many TDs can even remember, and well before some were even born.

Micheal Martin and wife Mary.Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Micheal Martin and wife Mary.Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Mr Martin, who will turn 60 this August, first got involved in politics in the early 1980s while attending UCC; he was of the first generation of his family to go to university, and as the son of a bus driver he often reminds people of his working-class roots.

Not long after qualifying as a teacher, he dove headfirst into politics in 1987, running as a sweeper on a packed Fianna Fáil ticket that netted two seats for the party.

Though he didn’t fare badly, he wasn’t one of those elected, but his response was an early marker of the political prowess that has allowed him to chart a path all the way to the Taoiseach’s office.

As a newcomer with no real political background or family links, he was facing an uphill battle with Cork city’s Fianna Fáil party dominated by big figures on both sides of the Lee.

But within a few years, he had made the local organisation all but his own, putting him in prime position ahead of a second Dáil run.

1989 was a big year for him, marking both his marriage to college sweetheart Mary O’Shea and his success in a snap Dáil election, almost doubling his first preference vote and finishing ahead of the two TDs he helped get elected two years earlier.

Micheal Martin TD pictured with fishmonger Pat O'Connell in the English Market
Micheal Martin TD pictured with fishmonger Pat O'Connell in the English Market

Like most rookie politicians, his first few years as an elected politician were unremarkable, though a stint as Lord Mayor of Cork City in 1992 — back when someone could be both a TD and a councillor simultaneously — broke up the monotony of the backbenches and committees.

But as the older generation of Fianna Fáil gave way to the young bucks with Charles Haughey and Albert Reynolds resigning in quick succession, Mr Martin took a prominent place in the emerging leadership under Bertie Ahern.

An appointment to Mr Ahern’s first front bench in 1994 was followed by a key cabinet appointment when Fianna Fáil returned to power in 1997.

As Minister for Education from 1997 to 2000, Mr Martin was well regarded by people across the sector. With the economy booming, he was able to secure hundreds of millions from the exchequer for investments in everything from computers in schools to research in universities.

When the time came for a reshuffle at the turn of the millennium, however, Mr Martin was landed in the most difficult government portfolio; Health.

Micheál Martin with his son Micheál AodhPicture: Denis Minihane.
Micheál Martin with his son Micheál AodhPicture: Denis Minihane.

His immediate predecessor, Brian Cowen, had famously compared the department to Angola, full of administrative ‘landmines’ that could go off without warning.

And with both men emerging as potential leaders of Fianna Fáil, Mr Ahern was boosting close ally Mr Cowen’s career with an appointment to foreign affairs and putting a hurdle in front of Mr Martin with health.

The plan worked in one sense, with Mr Cowen becoming the heir apparent and eventually succeeding Mr Ahern, but, at the same time, it laid the foundations for Mr Martin’s eventual rise to the top.

Mr Martin has a reputation for taking his time when coming to any decision, often coming across as someone who would rather commission reports than take action, as many have remarked about the current programme for government.

However, when he has reached an idea, he has shown himself to be both skilled and stubborn enough to make it reality.

Fianna Fail Leader Micheál Martin, casts his vote during the 2016 General Election with family members son Micheál Aodh, wife Mary, and daughter Aoibhel at St. Anthony's Boys Primary School in Ballinlough
Fianna Fail Leader Micheál Martin, casts his vote during the 2016 General Election with family members son Micheál Aodh, wife Mary, and daughter Aoibhel at St. Anthony's Boys Primary School in Ballinlough

When discussing his legacy the policy he and his party are most eager to bring up is the smoking ban, which he introduced in 2004.

Given the forces at play, it’s impressive that he managed to push such a radical intervention in public health through in just over a year after announcing it.

He had done his research, built on the growing scientific evidence of the cancer-causing effect of second-hand smoke and a research trip to New York, where a ban was already in place.

Despite powerful lobby groups from all sides, he convinced the government to accept his proposal without watering it down, finding allies in the hospitality workers’ unions and other political parties, and making Ireland the first country in the world to ban smoking in indoor public spaces.

Around the same time, Mr Martin took on an even bigger challenge; the dismantling of the old health boards and the establishment of the Health Service Executive, though a reshuffle after the 2004 local and European elections saw him moved off the project and into the enterprise and employment portfolio.

With the jobs market running wild all on its own, Mr Martin flew under the radar for a few years.

When Mr Ahern stepped off the stage and Mr Cowen ascended to the Taoiseach’s office in 2008, Mr Martin was promoted to foreign affairs — a blessing and a curse.

Like Mr Cowen’s own appointment to the position years earlier, it was an acknowledgement of Mr Martin’s high status in the party.

Micheál Martin, leader of the FF party and his daughter Aoibhe at the All-Ireland hurling final between Cork and Clare at Croke Park, Sept. 8, 2013. /Pic: Brian Lougheed
Micheál Martin, leader of the FF party and his daughter Aoibhe at the All-Ireland hurling final between Cork and Clare at Croke Park, Sept. 8, 2013. /Pic: Brian Lougheed

But by sending him abroad, Mr Cowen took his biggest rival more or less out of the national picture, stalling any ambitions he might have on the top job as the party tried to adapt as the real fruits of Celtic Tiger-era Fianna Fáil came to bear after Mr Ahern’s resignation.

But, again, Mr Martin made hay with what he was given.

The Department of Foreign Affairs is certainly prestigious, but rarely exciting in a country of Ireland’s scale. During Mr Martin’s tenure, the biggest issue was the Lisbon Treaty, and one on which he came out on top.

Mr Cowen took the brunt of the blame for the failure of the first referendum, running a botched campaign just weeks after taking over the leadership, while Mr Martin won credit for winning the second referendum by a 2:1 margin after polling the public’s major issues with the document and securing opt-outs from Brussels.

By early 2011, Mr Cowen’s handling of the financial crash had put his leadership in tatters and his old rival was the one to finally force the issue to a vote.

Rather than being set back by foreign affairs, Mr Martin had instead been somewhat insulated from the war at home.

Where the likes of Brian Lenihan, Mary Coughlan, Mary Hanafin, and Noel Dempsey had become synonymous with the aftermath of the crash and the eventual arrival of the Troika, Mr Martin had been off centre stage for almost three years.

Mr Cowen was soon ousted as leader, though he remained Taoiseach, and Mr Martin won the election to replace him.

The circumstances were obviously far from ideal, however, with unprecedented public anger over both the crash itself and the government’s response to it.

At the time, many people wrote Fianna Fáil off, predicting that it would be decimated in the 2011 election and fade into oblivion soon after.

Mr Martin saw it another way.

His early strategy was simple but effective; get through the election and let Mr Cowen take the fall then swiftly move on to rebuilding and rebranding from opposition.

The late Paddy Martin, father of Micheál Martin with a photograph when he was a young man in the army in 1940 
The late Paddy Martin, father of Micheál Martin with a photograph when he was a young man in the army in 1940 

Though he shared and still shares collective responsibility for the excesses of the Celtic Tiger era, he was able to make a quick recovery with many of the old diehard Fianna Fáil voters, though the party has continued to struggle with voters beyond its traditionally loyal demographics.

What support he did win back was hard-won, with Mr Martin beginning with an apology for the failures of the previous government, then stopped talking and started listening.

He toured the country meeting members and voters to hear their concerns so that he could rebuild the party in a way that suited them.

It’s a connection with the party that he maintains to this day, canvassing tirelessly throughout his decade of leadership.

He says that he wouldn’t feel himself if he wasn’t knocking on doors, and his weekly routine as leader has usually included a night or two canvassing in a constituency around Dublin along with a stop off somewhere for a meet and greet on the way home from to Cork every weekend.

In the years that followed the disastrous 2011 election, he retooled the party and tried to better reflect public attitudes. There were major policy changes, moving away from the laissez-faire platform of his immediate predecessors and embracing a more social democratic position that reflected his own values, more historical iterations of Fianna Fáil, reflecting the mood of the general public.

To some extent, his leadership has modernised the party as he embraced issues that that would once have been anathema to Fianna Fáil, supporting the legalisation of same-sex and access to abortion.

Micheal Martin introduced the smoking ban
Micheal Martin introduced the smoking ban

The rebranding effort worked remarkably well in the early years.

With some major botches in government like water charges and Sinn Féin still a niche opposition group at the time, many voters fled back to the familiar embrace of Fianna Fáil, made easier by the fresh coat of paint Mr Martin had put on the party.

Just over three years after becoming leader, he had made Fianna Fáil the largest party in government again, with the 2014 local elections putting the political world on notice: Fianna Fáil was going nowhere without a fight.

In the 2016 election, just five years after its collapse, Fianna Fáil more than doubled its Dáil seats, falling just shy of Fine Gael.

Though Mr Martin made a credible attempt to form a government, it was clear that the numbers weren’t there for him, or anyone for that matter.

Instead, he made a gamble: confidence and supply.

Though facilitating a Fine Gael-led minority government went against everything Fianna Fáil stood for, he believed that doing so could prove that it was a party of principles ready to put the state before itself, counteracting the shadows of the Celtic Tiger that had kept many voters away.

Along with that, he could prove his party’s new bona fides by forcing Fianna Fáil policies onto the government’s agenda, focusing on key issues like a 2:1 spending increase to tax cut ratio in the budgets and the refunding of the National Treatment Purchase Fund to reduce hospital waiting lists.

But in February this year, the results were in and the gamble hadn’t paid off.

Rather than winning credit for any policy victories, Fianna Fáil was instead blamed for facilitating Fine Gael’s disastrous management of issues like housing and healthcare.

Micheal Martin feeling the heat at a Nemo Rangers match.
Micheal Martin feeling the heat at a Nemo Rangers match.

The election did see Fianna Fáil become the largest party in the Dáil again — something no one would have predicted after its collapse a decade ago — but it was by a technicality, with Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl returned automatically and then being re-elected to the chair, leaving Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin tied at 37 seats and Sinn Féin 50,000 first preference votes ahead.

In a normal election, with a result like that, any other party leader would likely have fallen on their sword and resigned before the first meeting of the Dáil.

As always, Mr Martin had other ideas.

Though the politics was difficult, the numbers were there for a government made up of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party.

With the sudden emergence of Covid-19, government formation slipped into the background allowing the three parties to take time to hammer out their differences before finally reaching a deal four months later.

And that deal will give Micheál Martin two-and-a-half years in the Taoiseach’s office.

Once again, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The circumstances are far from ideal.

His term will be short — depending on the exact dates he could fall behind John Bruton as the shortest-serving Taoiseach ever — but it’s still two-and-a-half years longer than most people get to spend at the head of government.

He’ll also be heading an uncomfortable alliance — both between coalition partners and within his own party, which has struggled with the deal and whose faith in Mr Martin is beginning to fade.

On top of that, every decision of this government will be made in the context of a global pandemic and the economic turmoil that’s followed.

So will his party be able to deliver on the considerable promises it made in nine years of opposition? Will a trio of parties that struggled to deal with the last economic crisis be able to deal with this one? Will Covid-19 be an opportunity for radical change in public services and the economy or will it constrict any real reform?

Only time will tell, but what’s clear is that, 31 years into his Dáil career, Micheál Martin’s legacy is a long way from being settled yet.

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