Micheál Martin, the ‘next taoiseach’ since 1998

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Some say he is a ditherer, others a ruthless operator. We will soon find out who is right

A year or so into his tenure as education minister in Bertie Ahern’s first government, Micheál Martin was featured on the front cover of Magill magazine. The photo of Martin was topped with a halo around his head: the headline blared: “The next taoiseach?”

At the following cabinet meeting, his colleagues ribbed him mercilessly. One chortled as he warned him: “You’re f**ked now, boy.”

At the next reshuffle, Bertie Ahern – not a man to tolerate upstart rivals – made Martin minister for health. He laboured in the department of health for nearly five years; by the time he emerged, the halo was gone and he was no longer "the next taoiseach". Now they called him "the former future leader".

A decade after Ahern put a stop to his gallop, following the financial collapse and the EU/IMF bailout and with Fianna Fáil facing an inevitable reckoning at the hands of a furious electorate, the party leadership finally came to Micheál Martin. A few weeks later, the party suffered its worst general election result in history, losing nearly three quarters of its Dáil seats. The late Noel Whelan, historian of Fianna Fáil, wrote that the party might well simply cease to exist.


Now, another decade on, Martin is poised to lead the party back to government, and occupy the taoiseach's office. It hinges on the votes of party members; the Greens especially. But whatever happens, and whatever your view on Fianna Fáil's potential return to power, it has been a remarkable political resurrection.

A TD for more than 30 years, minister in four departments and party leader for a decade; as with most of the men who have become taoiseach – the present incumbent excepted – Martin has served a long apprenticeship for the role he now seeks.

If he is successful next weekend, though, his tenure will be a short one: under the programme for government, he is due to leave the office in December 2022 to make way for a Fine Gael taoiseach. So what sort of taoiseach might he be, apart from a short-lived one?

One who shies away from hard choices, say his detractors. Someone who would rather commission a review or ask for a report than make a difficult decision. A ditherer. A hand-wringer. Fine Gael has always enjoyed needling him over the 145 reports it says he commissioned as minister for health.

Some of his party critics, though, cast him more as a ruthless operator, careless about the party, focused only on power for himself; willing to make any sacrifice of principle, man or material to become taoiseach.

Both criticisms can hardly be true.

A fair consideration of the record would show that Martin has a decent record of achievement as a minister. Even his detractors admit he was an effective and far-sighted education minister; the tributes when he left the department from education stakeholders and commentators – quarters not usually given to praising ministers – were gushing.

Martin did commission a lot of reports when he was minister for health, but some of those reports led to lasting improvements in the health services. It’s often thrown at him that he set up the HSE, but no government since has abolished it (Fine Gael thought about it, then changed its mind). And, of course, he introduced the smoking ban.

His 'rap-sheet' is dominated by his collective responsibility for the mistakes of the Ahern-Cowen governments that put the country in danger of a housing and banking crash

He prioritised research and innovation as enterprise minister (a recurring theme since his education days), though the period seems to have served as a sort of political convalescence for Martin after his time in health (Leo Varadkar did much the same in the department of social protection), and he threw himself into the department of foreign affairs after he was appointed by Brian Cowen. Martin loved Iveagh House; everybody does.

Martin’s own political instincts are old-style social democratic; though he is squarely in his party’s tradition of arch-pragmatism. He also nurses a deep antipathy for Sinn Féin, a feeling that is returned in spades.

He is particularly critical of what he sees as Sinn Féin’s efforts to whitewash the IRA’s campaign of violence as a struggle for human rights. The needle between Martin and Mary Lou McDonald is a staple of parliamentary life in Leinster House.

His “rap-sheet” is dominated by his membership and collective responsibility for the mistakes of the Bertie Ahern-Brian Cowen governments that put the country in danger of a housing and banking crash, then mismanaged it when the worst happened.

He apologised for Fianna Fáil’s mistakes when he became leader and promised that lessons had been learned: but he never went into much detail about those lessons beyond “we spent too much and taxed too little”.

Nobody involved in that period wants too much scrutiny about it. But the mea culpa – such as it was – was vital in helping Martin start the long, improbable climb back from pariah status for Fianna Fáil after 2011.

On that long road back, Martin has had a frequently difficult relationship with his parliamentary party. This is partly because he has led them in directions many members have found uncongenial but it’s also because he has never been clubbable, never really been one of the lads.

One Fianna Fáil TD told the present writer several years ago that he didn’t like Martin; didn’t trust him. He didn’t like the way his breakfast was constructed. “I see him there [in the Dáil self-service restaurant] every morning having his breakfast. Muesli. Fruit,” the TD, a former cabinet minister, spat with contempt. “I love a nice big fry . . . soft runny eggs, I love ‘em,” the TD said.

His suspicions about Martin – a bit of an altar boy – were shared by many of his colleagues.

Martin’s sometimes scratchy relations with his colleagues took on a new dimension after he became leader. Over a period of years, he increasingly defined himself to voters not through conflict with the government, but through conflict with his own party.

There was a series of rows from the start. Martin resolved not to run a candidate for the presidency in 2011, the first national election Fianna Fáil had sat out since its foundation. He decided that his TDs should not vote against fiscal measures in the Dáil – this during the years of austerity, remember – that the party had proposed when in government, leading to Fianna Fáil TDs abstaining on a series of Fine Gael-Labour budgets.

Like most of the rest of his party, Martin had previously professed anti-abortion views but said they had changed with passage of time

In 2012, he insisted on supporting the government in its bid to ratify the European Fiscal Treaty in a referendum, leading to the definitive break with Éamon Ó Cuív, who wanted to oppose the treaty. Ó Cuív was fired as deputy leader.

Martin backed same-sex marriage long before Enda Kenny did, when many of his party were deeply uncomfortable with the idea.

In 2017, he made an even bigger lurch in a liberal direction, supporting the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and the liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion laws. Like most of the rest of his party, Martin had previously professed anti-abortion views but said they had changed with passage of time, as had much of the country.

Martin decreed a free vote on the issue, and watched as the majority of his parliamentary party opposed the referendum. More than a few of Martin’s TDs believed that his conversion to the pro-choice position was motivated, at least in part, by political opportunism.

There has been a recurring view in some quarters that Fianna Fáil should seek to be the voice of the 38 per cent of people who voted against marriage equality and the 34 per cent of the people who voted against abortion and who, the argument goes, had no party to represent them. It was in direct conflict with Martin’s own instincts – but also with his analysis of where Fianna Fáil’s destiny lay. And if there was an effort by social conservatives to make Fianna Fáil their party, it was as unsuccessful as the rest of their campaigns in recent years.

Martin has sought to bring his party to where the voters are, rather than bringing the voters to where his party is.

Martin’s vindication by the results of the two referendums may have strengthened his position within his own party, but it did not increase his popularity among his TDs. To a remarkable degree – even by the standards of politics – they are willing to criticise him in private, some with a considerable degree of vituperation.

The Martins are a close unit, who have been struck by repeated tragedy. In 2010 their-seven year-old daughter died from a heart condition; a decade earlier, a son died in infancy

One of their chief complaints is that Martin doesn't listen to his TDs, preferring the counsel of a tight-knit group of advisers. This is largely true; he is hugely reliant on his chief of staff Deirdre Gillane, a former nurse and trade union official who has been on his staff for nearly two decades.

Gillane, a straight talker who is highly regarded across the political spectrum, wields more authority in Fianna Fáil than anyone except her boss. She is also, insiders say, one of the few people who can tell Martin that he is talking rubbish.

Pat McParland, his chief spokesman, is also extremely influential, while Martin relies on general secretary Sean Dorgan on party matters. Dorgan also runs an extensive information-gathering network which gives Martin an accurate picture of the views of the organisation – especially when they do not coincide with the views of his TDs.

Another influential voice is Peter MacDonagh, his former special adviser in the department of education, who now lives in Prague. MacDonagh is his speechwriter and also offers advice on policy and politics, and travelled to Ireland to assist in the general election campaign. All are fiercely loyal to Martin.

His wife Mary is a former party official; politics is the family business. The Martins are a close unit, who have been struck by repeated tragedy. In 2010 their seven year-old daughter Leana died from a heart condition, while a decade earlier, a son died in infancy.

They have three other children, the eldest of whom plays in goal for Martin’s club Nemo Rangers, and has also played for Cork.

Arguably, Micheál Martin’s greatest political innovation was the confidence and supply agreement of 2016-2020. Martin was convinced it would demonstrate that Fianna Fáil could be trusted again – the core element in his resurrection strategy – to provide stable and sensible government.

But like most politicians and observers, Martin misjudged the strength of the mood for change in 2020, and his efforts to tack in the face of the gale by presenting himself as a candidate of change ultimately fell flat. At one meeting of the Fine Gael campaign team, one of those present asked: “Is there anyone in Irish politics who looks less like change than Micheál Martin?”

Electorally, confidence and supply turned into a millstone around Fianna Fail’s neck.

"A lot of Cork hopes are riding on Micheál," wrote Olivia O'Leary in her acutely observed collection of essays, Politicians and Other Animals. "Taoiseach, President, Pope, there's nothing they don't wish for him. Because they know that, just like Jack Lynch, Micheál cares. Just look at that concerned frown always creasing his forehead; that worried air of a good child afraid to disappoint. 'Ah sure God help us, poor Micheál,' they sigh."

Martin is so Cork, it seems almost superfluous to mention it. He carries the stereotypical sense of superiority with an understated ease, with the customary exception of when it comes to the discussion of sporting matters. The accent is less noticeable nowadays perhaps – except when he is riled, when it goes what his staff call “the full Turner’s Cross”. He is so obviously, thoroughly, unmistakably a Corkman, it is inconceivable to imagine him as anything else.

If he makes it to the seat once occupied by Jack Lynch, it will be a hard old station. An unprecedented combination with Fine Gael, complicated by the Greens, bound together by obligation, not enthusiasm. An ongoing pandemic. A spiralling budget deficit. An uncertain international environment. Brexit looming.

Poor Micheál.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times