Nice, bright and driven but has he the mettle?

 

He's no pussycat. He's a formidable opponent and you misjudge him if you think he's just the smiling boy. So says a former political adversary of the Minister for Education and Science, Micheal Martin. "He's a clever politician - very much the tough politico, very calculating and leaves nothing to chance," this source says. "Just look at where he's got. Cork is a tough constituency and in Fianna Fail it's even tougher, yet he has emerged unquestionably as the leader of Fianna Fail in Cork, and nobody's even pretending to oppose him."

Martin's rise to power has been meteoric. He was first elected to the Dail for Cork South Central in 1989 and was appointed Minister for Education when Fianna Fail came to power in 1997. As Opposition spokesman on education, he cut a relatively unimpressive figure - in public at least. Behind the scenes, though, he was beavering away, taking stock and consulting the movers and shakers of the education sector. The cognoscenti were delighted when his ministerial appointment was announced.

Since then, he's barely put a foot wrong and is one of the few ministers for education to enjoy widespread support in the teacher unions and in the third-level sector. His current appeal to the High Court on the league tables issue has united partners in education behind him.

"I'd give him nine-and-a-half out of ten - on the basis that I'd never give anyone full marks," comments a university president. "He's one of the finest Ministers for Education we've ever had - he's certainly in the same league as Donogh O'Malley. The best thing about him is that he is genuinely interested in education. He's not a politician in the narrow sense, watching where he's going to end up in the party."

Born in Cork in 1960, Martin is the son of bus driver Paddy Martin, a former international boxer, who played football and hurling with Jack Lynch and was one of the founders of the National Busmen's Union.

Martin has inherited his father's love of sport. A former GAA youth coach in Cork, he is an avid supporter of the local teams, but is equally at home following the Rugby World Cup and is also a Chelsea supporter. According to friends, he likes nothing more than to relax with a pint of Murphy's in his local - The Orchard - in Cork's Ballinlough after a match.

A past pupil of Colaiste Chriost Ri, Cork, Martin is a graduate of UCC where he also did an HDip and achieved first-class honours in his MA in political history. Expect to see the publication of the fruits of his MA thesis - Republicanism in Cork in the 1920s - in the coming months.

It was at UCC that he met his wife, Mary O'Shea, who now lectures in public administration there. She, too, is regarded as a highly political animal. When she graduated from UCC, she became Fianna Fail's national youth organiser. In recent years she has taken a back seat, running the family home and rearing their two children - Micheal Aodh, aged five years, and three-year-old Aoibhe.

Earlier this year, the Martins suffered a tragic bereavement when their six-week-old son, Ruairi, died. The Minister retreated from public life for a time. In the Martin household, Sunday is family day. Martin makes up for his absences in Dublin by talking to his children by phone at least twice a day. He remains close to his parents and enjoys the support of his four siblings, including his twin brother Paudi, and Sean, a Cork city councillor.

Most people who meet Martin are disarmed by his charm and friendliness. One elder party stalwart recalls his delight when as a new Minister, Martin proceeded to pour and hand around cups of tea to a visiting delegation. Sources close to him deny that he is a workaholic - but he does put in extremely long hours. If he has a fault, says a fellow minister, it is that he's a driver and can be impatient if people don't come up with the goods. He expects everyone to work as hard and be as up to speed as he is.

Rumours that he lacks good backbench connections are untrue. "His standing is very high in the party. He is approachable and very accessible - much more so than some other ministers," this minister observes. The fact that he avoids Leinster House cabals is an asset. "You can't do your work if you spend your time with cabals in the bar."

His standing with the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, too, is said to be good. He has managed to bring in huge amounts of extra cash to education. During his time in office, he has secured £300 million for school capital projects, £55 million for IT 2000 - a computers-in-schools initiative - and upwards of £300 million for third-level technology investments and research and development.

In the 1999 Budget, £57 million over two years was allocated to educational initiatives to tackle disadvantage. He's been lucky, of course - he's been in the right place at a time when the Exchequer is awash with money. Educators accept the argument, but counter that his heart is "in the right place".

"He shows a good understanding of how things work," comments a teachers' union official. "If he has a downside, it's that he's very conscious of good publicity. IT 2000 was announced three or four times." Sources close to him, however, deny that he is publicity driven. "He doesn't obsess about the press - only occasionally does he get upset about criticism." Regarded as affable and relaxed by his staff in Education, his big struggles may be yet to come. The issues of teacher pay and accountability are looming large. How he handles these could well be make or break.

With only the Education portfolio under his belt, he's untried and untested in other areas. How would he do? "There's an energy about him," says a third-level academic. "He does his homework well and goes the extra mile to understand. I think that attitude would prevail in any other portfolio."

And future leader of Fianna Fail/Taoiseach? "A lot depends on how the Government ends," says a political opponent. "If it's the sleaze factor, then Fianna Fail will be desperate to get someone like Martin. He has no Haughey connections, he's nice, he's decent and he listens to people."