Fintan O’Toole: Young Micheál Martin had courage to face dark truths

In 1999 the then minister for education made brave choices. Does he still have it in him?

Micheál Martin: Maybe he’s been worn down in the two decades since. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

Micheál Martin: Maybe he’s been worn down in the two decades since. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

In 1999 the young Micheál Martin was serving in his first cabinet position, as minister for education in Bertie Ahern’s government. In April and May of that year, RTÉ broadcast what remains the most consequential journalistic investigation in contemporary Ireland, Mary Raftery’s brilliant and terrible three-part documentary on the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of children in the industrial school system, States of Fear.

This was a literal moment of truth, a point of no return for holy Catholic Ireland. The age of false innocence was over. As the survivors in Raftery’s film told their own stories, another story, that of church and State, gradually unravelled. The whole idea of what Ireland was, and is, was shifting before our eyes.  

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