Daniel McConnell: Micheál Martin, tolerated but not loved, on course to become Taoiseach

Micheál Martin, the eighth leader of Fianna Fáil, is finally on course to be elected Taoiseach.
Daniel McConnell: Micheál Martin, tolerated but not loved, on course to become Taoiseach
Taoiseach-in-waiting Micheál Martin

Micheál Martin, the eighth leader of Fianna Fáil, is finally on course to be elected Taoiseach.

On foot of the historic votes by the three parties to approve going into government, the veteran former minister and leader of nine years'

standing looks set to avoid being the first Fianna Fáil leader not to occupy the highest office in the land.

More importantly, he is one step away from becoming the first Taoiseach from Cork in 41 years since the retirement of Jack Lynch in December 1979.

It is somewhat remarkable that he is to achieve his goal despite a highly disappointing General Election result in February when his party lost seats (from 44 to 38) and current record low ratings in the national opinion polls.

His elevation to the position of Taoiseach represents a triumph of his dogged determination to stay the course through many, many difficult times.

A tolerated rather than a beloved leader of his reduced party, Martin has, since 2011, been his party’s best political asset.

Aged 59, Martin, the son of a bus driver, was the first of his family to go to college in University College Cork where his politics developed.

He too was a devotee of Lynch and has recalled being brought as a boy to large public rallies held by the political idol on Patrick Street in Cork and being captivated by the numbers in attendance.

He qualified as a teacher but was not long in getting involved in politics, getting elected to Cork Corporation in 1985.

A TD for the constituency of Cork South-Central since 1989, Martin was appointed to Bertie Ahern’s front bench in 1995 as spokesman on education and the Gaeltacht.

When Fianna Fáil seized power under Ahern in 1997 when it ousted the Rainbow Government, Martin was appointed Minister for Education — a post which has lingered long in his thinking.

It was during this time in Education that Martin was joined by Peter MacDonagh, who was to become a key advisor to the future leader.

A grand-nephew of the 1916 leader Thomas MacDonagh, he was heavily involved in Fianna Fáil's 2020 election strategy but back in 2002 he was credited with coining the party’s best-ever election slogan of 'A lot done, more to do'.

Cheekily referred to in party circles as the 'Child of Prague' because he is based in the Czech city, McDonagh returns periodically for elections and is likely to be a key advisor in government.

Martin served three years in Education before being moved into Health which he held until 2004.

During that time, the HSE was controversially created but without the abolition or the redundancies of the former health boards.

The failures made in those early days have blighted the existence of the HSE ever since.

He too was accused of being indecisive as a minister, ordering too many reports.

It emerged in 2004 that more than €30m was spent by Martin on 115 reports while he was at the Department of Health.

Martin was accused of wasting millions in taxpayers' money after the figures were confirmed by the Health Minister, Ms Harney.

Monaghan Fine Gael TD, Seymour Crawford, said money had clearly been wasted because many of the reports were never been acted upon.

During his time in Health, he began working with Deirdre Gillane who he would later appoint as his chief advisor and chef de cabinet who is likely to become his Chief of Staff in Government.

Without question, his shining achievement when in health was the introduction of the smoking ban in workplaces.

Dogged, diligent, and assertive

Following poor local and European elections in 2004, Ahern shuffled his Cabinet and Martin left Health to become minister for Enterprise. When Brian Cowen replaced Ahern as Fianna Fáil president and Taoiseach, Martin was moved to Foreign Affairs.

A dogged, diligent, and assertive minister, Martin eschewed the ‘Dáil bar’ scene on Wednesday nights which meant he was not involved in any cliques.

Martin, Brian Cowen and Mary Harney in 2008
Martin, Brian Cowen and Mary Harney in 2008

“It is not that he is a loner, but he is socially awkward at times. The bar would not be his comfort zone. He would swing by when told he had to but he didn’t enjoy it. More often than not he was still up in his office working. He would be that dedicated — or boring — depending on what way you look at it,” one source says.

Former ministerial colleagues describe him as a “thoroughly decent man".

“Very hard-working and would take the job very seriously. But he is old-school in his belief in public service and seeking to do right,” says one former minister.

However, Martin's cautious nature did bring him in for criticism at times.

“Indecisive, that is Micheál’s biggest problem, he can’t make a decision and won’t make a decision and he analyses everything to the point of almost having to bring in a consultant to analyse his analysis,” former minister Pat Carey said of Martin in 2016.

But his mettle was shown when he stood against Brian Cowen in early 2011 following the arrival of the IMF-ECB-EU Troika into the country.

In keeping with his style, Martin agonised over the decision to challenge Cowen but sought to do so without the traditional bitterness of previous heaves.

The fact he also decided to stand just a few months after the tragic death of his daughter Léana only added to the sense of drama of his actions.

“I went privately to meet Brian, and I put that view to him that a change was required,” he said.

It was to be a rare thing in politics: a courteous, acrimony-free party split.

Over the Christmas of 2010, deeply unhappy ‘moderate’ ministers and backbenchers approached Martin and implored him to take action.

Martin made his move but initially failed as Cowen survived the confidence vote. Martin duly resigned as minister.

But 72 hours later, Cowen himself resigned after a botched attempt to reshuffle the Cabinet which the Green Party refused to stomach so close to the pending election.

Martin, having made the first move, was now firm favourite to replace Cowen and duly did so — seeing off Lenihan, Mary Hanafin and Eamon Ó Cuív.

Elected leader, Martin’s first task was to pick up the pieces after the Armageddon election of February 2011 which saw them drop from 76 seats to just 19.

Shellshocked, the party’s viability as a force in Irish politics was called into question.

Martin, as leader of the opposition, set about the job of rebuilding his battered party.

Since becoming leader, he has surrounded himself with a core team of advisors which has led to friction with some of his TDs.

Led by Gillane, the team Martin most relies upon on are McDonagh; and Pat McPartland, his communications director in Dublin. In Cork, his office operation is led by councillor Mary Rose Desmond along with Susan and Valerie who deal with his constituency representations.

“Micheál could have stepped off the stage at the UN and be on the way to the airport but would be consumed with local constituency matters. He always minded the back yard,” tells a source.

Internal criticism

It is fair to say Martin has endured many difficult days in opposition.

He has faced persistent internal criticism over the party’s identity, direction, and positioning on many key issues between 2011 and 2016.

Persistently poor poll ratings gave Martin’s internal critics fuel to heap misery on his shoulders.

In 2012, Martin effectively sacked his deputy leader, Eamon Ó Cuív ,after the Galway West TD openly defied the party’s support for the fiscal treaty referendum.

Other internal critics such as John McGuinness, Marc MacSharry and Mark Daly have caused repeated headaches for Martin during the long tough years in opposition.

In the background too, has been a less than easy relationship with his Cork South-Central colleague and rival, Michael McGrath.

Even his one-time ally, Kelleher, defied his boss’ clear wishes that no sitting TDs contest the European elections and put his name forward and successfully won the seat.

Better than expected election results in the local elections in 2014 and the General Election in 2016 eased the pressure on Martin despite remaining out of power. But he never appeared to be in full control of his party.

The decision to enter and continue with the controversial Confidence and Supply deal, which saw Fianna Fáil keep a minority Fine Gael government in power between 2016 and 2020, brought Martin and his top TDs into conflict with their colleagues who were deeply uneasy with it.

Martin’s finest moment in Opposition was the stance he took on the Eighth Amendment in 2018, when he backed plans to liberalise the country’s abortion laws.

Despite deep angst and a majority opposition to the proposal in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, Martin’s position was vindicated by the large margin of victory in the public vote.

Martin went into the 2020 election hopeful he would end up being Taoiseach given the clear unpopularity of the Fine Gael-led government. Having been expected to win up to 60 seats, the return of 38 was highly disappointing.

But the fractured political landscape thrown up by the electorate prevented anyone else from capitalising on his weakness and allowed Martin to play the long game.

Such patience now appears to have worked and Martin is now just one step away from the promised land of the Taoiseach’s office.

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