Micheal Martin has taken risks in rebuilding the party since the disastrous 2011 election — such as propping up Fine Gael in government and backing abortion — but if the gamble backfires, he will be the first leader of his party not to become Taoiseach, writes Elaine Loughlin
Micheál Martin has been in the public spotlight for 30 years, but very few people can say they truly know him.
The Fianna Fáil leader is a health-conscious sports fan, who has a vegetable stir-fry named after him in the Dáil canteen, but he lets very few people into his inner circle.
Despite this, his party is happy to trust him, even when members are opposed to his plans or views.
“His judgment is really good: if you listen to him on the Eighth [Amendment], he was way ahead of us all. He was in tune with the people; a lot of us weren’t, to be honest.
“His judgment has been pretty good. There is a trust factor,” one Fianna Fáil TD said.
In recent times, Martin, a TD for Cork South-Central, has stuck his neck out and made some brave political decisions. These include his surprise Dáil speech backing repeal of the Eighth Amendment to allow abortion, and his extension of the government confidence-and-supply agreement with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, late last year. But his party have stood by him, albeit grudgingly in some instances.
Unlike his main rival, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, Martin is known as a ferocious canvasser. He has a unique ability to connect with people on the doors. It’s a trait that many in the party cite when asked about him.
“He comes alive on the doors, and people in the party see that and know that. He has gone through multiple general elections and knows how consuming they are,” said one senior member.
Martin also gauges the mood by casually canvassing his own parliamentary party. He takes part in a “long-run consultation process,” said one Fianna Fáil insider. This involves Martin chatting often to each member of the party, over many months and in an informal fashion, before deciding on what move to make next.
He never allows himself to rush into decisions and this has been especially evident with the tactics employed against the Fine Gael-led government.
Martin, often against strong lobbying and criticisms from some of his more vocal TDs, has taken the view that leaving Varadkar in place, as more controversies mount up for the Government, is the best way to damage the Taoiseach and, if recent polls are anything to go by, his strategy is paying off.
After the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, last May, which caused a painful split in the Fianna Fáil party, Martin held individual meetings with every one of his TDs and senators to hear their opinions and discuss the fallout from what was a bruising campaign.
But many members were surprised that they had spoken in these individual meetings about everything apart from the referendum.
One senior source said Martin was, in fact, using these one-on-ones to get the view of the party on the confidence-and-supply deal ahead of the budget.
Remarking on his decision to extend the agreement with Fine Gael for another year, one TD said:
“It’s amazing how those people have come back and recognised it wasn’t right.
“People can say it was lucky. I’d say it probably was a gamble with him, but it was a gamble that paid off.”
Another senior party source said members are now “settled on the fact that recovery was always going to take a couple of steps”.
“He said, back in 2011, this route is going to take some time.
“If you look at our Ard Fheiseanna, if you look at the vibe from our candidates around the country, if you look at our membership, they do trust him.”
But despite his ability to bring people with him, many in the party say he rarely socialises with his political colleagues and has only a handful of close allies in Fianna Fáil, such as chef de cabinet, Deirdre Gillane, deputy general secretary, Pat McPartland, and general secretary, Sean Dorgan.
He also has a close group of non-political friends, whom he has known for most of his life, people he has known since school and college and who protect him.
“He is very good at compartmentalising his life. He has his private life, which is very private, immensely private,” one Fianna Fáil member said.
Some put this down to the the loss of two of his children, but others say it is simply his personality.
In a rare interview about his private life, Mr Martin spoke about his son, Ruairi, a victim of a cot death.
“It was a terrible moment in our lives,” Martin said of himself and his wife, Mary. You just have to “pick yourself up” after a loss, he said.
The family was again hit by grief in late 2010, when his seven-year-old daughter, Leana, died from a cardiac condition that had developed suddenly.
“We lost the light of our lives. She was a beautiful girl and we loved her very much,” he told Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show, four years later.
Martin said that it was still “quite devastating and is very difficult to talk about”.
But he said his surviving children, Micheal Aodh, Aoibhe, and Cillian, gave their parents strength and a reason to get up in the mornings.
Leana’s death, when Martin was Minister for Foreign Affairs, came at a difficult time politically, right before a very tough general election, as the country was still engulfed in economic turmoil. “You try to carve out space for the private self and you have the public self,” he said during the Tubridy interview.
Ask any Fianna Fáil TD about their leader and they might cite the fact that he enjoys a herbal tea and salad, but will meticulously pick the yellow out of his boiled eggs to avoid the extra cholesterol.
He never samples the alluring dessert cabinet in the canteen and TDs are often seen scarpering in comical fashion to hide their Leinster House grills or fish and chips from him, for fear of a judging eye.
He once told a journalist that his cure for a very rare hangover, perhaps after Fianna Fáil Christmas drinks, would be a banana.
Party members might also refer to his devotion to both football and hurling and to his local Nemo Rangers GAA club (his son Micheal Aodh currently plays on the team).
Martin appreciates the simple things in life: the family holiday in Courtmacsherry, in West Cork, each year, for example. But it is clear he also thoroughly enjoys his position as leader of Fianna Fáil, which he has held for eight years.
But having brought the party back from the decimation of the 2011 election, Martin now faces what could be make or break for him.
Having made incremental gains in each local and national election since then, the next general election will be key for Fianna Fáil. They must reclaim lost territory in Dublin and retain seats won in 2016. But a lot will also be on the line for Martin and his leadership.
A general election, whether that be in the coming weeks or as far away as this time next year, will likely throw up a similar configuration to the current Dáil, give or take a few seats.
Fianna Fáil would never tolerate another confidence-and-supply agreement, so their leader will have the task of cobbling together an alternative government arrangement, ideally with him in charge.
Otherwise, he will become the first leader of the Soldiers of Destiny never to have been named Taoiseach.
Fianna Fáil is confident of securing seats in every constituency across the country in the next general election.
The party is putting massive energy into at least doubling their Dáil seats in the capital after successful local elections last month.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, senior party sources have revealed that Fianna Fáil is targeting around six additional seats in Dublin and are confident they could gain around four more in constituencies around the country. This would bring their total Dáil representation to around 55.
Fianna Fáil was wiped out in Dublin after the 2011 election and were left without a single TD in the capital after the death of their only seat holder, Brian Lenihan Jr. They gained six Dublin seats in the 2016 elections.
However, senior party sources are now confident they will regain lost seats across Dublin and some constituencies, such as Fingal may even bring in a second TD.
The party performed well in areas such as the north inner city, in Ballymun and in the west of the city in suburbs such as Tallaght and Firhouse in last month’s local elections which were described as “important strategic developments”.
“We have to make significant recovery in Dublin still,” said a party source, “and we believe that in the local elections that have just gone we have made steady progress, we have made encouraging progress, we have a stronger foundation in Dublin now.
Along with a developed strategy to target specific seats in the next general election, party members are also buoyed up by a more positive attitude they received on the doors when canvassing in the European and local elections.
One TD said: “I know people who were really opposed to us who have softened their stance. They say: ‘You were bad and you made mistakes but you were able to try and bring things around in some way.’ I get a lot of that now from people who were really angry at us.
Unlike Fine Gael, who will see a number of sitting-TDs retire, Fianna Fáil at this stage say all of their current 45 representatives will be contesting the next General Election.
“Since 2016 we believe we have improved our national party vote, we believe we have improved marginally our Dublin vote so we would be hoping to be in a position to retain each of those 45 seats,” a senior source said.
Other constituencies where gains can be made include Wexford, where European candidate Malcolm Byrne is expected to be added to the ticket. The party also believes it can secure three seats in Carlow-Kilkenny, where they will be hoping senator Jennifer Murnane-O’Connor will be able to join Bobby Aylward and John McGuinness in the Dáil.
Fianna Fáil sources say they can take extra seats in Longford where councillor Joe Flaherty who topped the poll in the recent local elections has been selected alongside sitting TD Robert Troy.
Sights are also been set on two out of the four seats in Limerick city where veteran TD Willie O’Dea will share the ticket with Cllr James Collins who was has been elected chairman of the Limerick metropolitan district.
Indeed, the party have now secured 20 cathaoirligh, mayor and lord mayor positions on local and city councils.
Fianna Fáil received 26.9% of the first preference votes, the highest of any party and also secured the most council positions and now have 279 seats local seats — a gain of 12 on the 2011 elections.
It is from this crop of local representatives that they see a way of clawing back their Dáil representation in Dublin. Among the strong contenders is Dublin’s lord mayor Paul McAuliffe.
He will be hoping to take out sitting Fine Gael TD Noel Rock in Dublin North West.
Also primed for Dáil seats in the next elections are Mary Fitzpatrick in Dublin Central and Senator Catherine Ardagh in Dublin South-Central, while in Dun Laoghaire the party say either Mary Hanafn and Cormac Devlin will be elected.
“At a minimum you are seeking to have a seat in each constituency,” a party source said.