Having successfully sidestepped the ignominy of being the first Fianna Fáil leader to not be Taoiseach — an unpalatable precedent — the man who was tipped as a future chief as far back as 1998 has finally made it. Ciarán Galway sits down with An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD in his Government Buildings office to discuss priorities, leadership and ambitions.
Parallel to Paul Henry’s ‘In the West of Ireland’, a sketch of Seán Lemass watches thoughtfully from the wall behind Micheál Martin’s desk. Both hung during Varadkar’s tenure, the Henry since Enda Kenny’s time. A sizeable replica of the National Famine Monument, 300km away at Murrisk, County Mayo, sits in one window. Meanwhile, in a neighbouring room, the portraits of Civil War ideologues Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera rest on the floor, patiently awaiting their coequal return to the office next door. To paraphrase Karl Marx, the tradition of all dead generations weighs heavy on the brains of the living.
An adjacent door opens, and Martin enters his office. His mood is amicable, and his quips land with an easy confidence, though his eyes express a cunning which belies the placid smile.
The 15th Taoiseach is a Dáil veteran of 31 years and follows in the footsteps of Cork compatriot and Fianna Fáil icon, the late Jack Lynch who was the first and, until now, the last to ascend to the office from the Rebel County. Martin has represented the constituency of Cork South Central in the Dáil since 1989. He is a seasoned parliamentarian who garnered ample ministerial experience under former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, including in the education, health and foreign affairs portfolios.
Following Cowen’s January 2011 resignation as party leader, while remaining Taoiseach, Martin announced his intention to stand for Uachtarán Fhianna Fáil. It was a bloodless coup in which he saw off fellow contenders Brian Lenihan, Mary Hanafin and Éamon Ó Cuiv to succeed Cowen and become the eighth leader of his party. Martin then marched the Soldiers of Destiny through the disastrous 2011 general election and into the decade beyond.
The new Taoiseach’s first month was frenetic. The Covid-19 pandemic cast its shadow over the first weeks of his tenure. The omnipresence of the crisis inevitably dictated the new Government’s most immediate priorities. Identifying the need to engineer an economic recovery as a significant challenge, Martin states: “We are very much conscious of the need for a vaccine to emerge. We have to work within the European context and work with the European Central Bank in making sure that member states have the capacity to borrow at reasonable rates. That is happening. I think what we did in the July Stimulus was really give a timeline out to the end of March, where businesses can look with some degree of certainty.”
Simultaneously, Martin’s perspicuous policy priorities are in housing, health and climate change, and he describes them as “the overarching themes of what this government is about”. Given the current context, the legislative programme in the first month of the new Government’s term was significant. “In July, we passed 11 pieces of legislation. I have never seen such a productive legislative output in the Dáil,” he emphasises.
However, the Taoiseach is realistic about the socioeconomic fallout already impacting the State. “Look, people are still suffering, there’s 16 per cent unemployment, people are really worried about their future and our obligation as a government is to try to underpin as many businesses as we can, to keep them viable,” he says.
“They have rates relief, restart grants, tax relief on losses set against last year’s outcomes. So, there is quite a comprehensive series of measures there that should keep the majority of businesses intact. That said then, we’re trying to open up new areas in retrofitting, in the development of rural Ireland and biodiversity measures which would create new employment and new opportunities. There is €200 million going into labour activation measures and also into third-level [education] to try to make sure that young people have opportunities.”
Asked if he could guarantee that there would be no return to austerity measures, as came to define the era which followed the previous recession, Martin evades the question somewhat. “We have borrowed already and we’re looking at borrowing €30 billion, which is just unprecedented, and we will be borrowing in 2021 as well. A lot will depend on the prevalence of the virus and how long the virus is with us. That’s why I mentioned the European context, because the European context is key to enabling us to borrow on an ongoing basis,” he responds.
‘The change mandate’
As government formation talks concluded in late June 2020, Sinn Féin, now the lead opposition party, claimed that the new coalition Government could not represent ‘the change mandate’ delivered by February’s general election. It’s an assertion that the Taoiseach rejects outright.
“I find that to be an extraordinary claim. If you stand back, this is a parliamentary democracy; everyone elected to the Dáil has a voice. That doesn’t give us a divine right to government. I mean, there are many occasions in the past where Fianna Fáil had over 40 per cent of the vote and didn’t get into government. Why? Because other parties coalesced against Fianna Fáil and formed a government. That was fair enough. That was parliamentary democracy in operation.
“I think Sinn Féin have created that narrative in a propagandistic way, which doesn’t hold any water because with the three parties that make up the Government, over 50 per cent of the electorate voted for them,” Martin accentuates.
“We’re very coherent on the policies. It’s very clear.
The Programme for Government creates the pathway…”
Elaborating, he suggests that the Government’s core policy platform “would represent significant change to how we do policy in Ireland”. In housing, the Taoiseach defines this in terms of access to social and affordable housing, alongside a reduction in homelessness. In health, he stresses the importance of Sláintecare as the agreed template for change. Finally, he emphasises the energy that he believes the Green Party has brought to the Government’s climate change agenda.
However, prior to the summer recess, a degree of incoherence within the coalition Government, or at very least in its communication, became increasingly conspicuous. Rather than the substantive issues of the public health response to Covid-19, reopening schools and building social and affordable housing, media attentions were diverted by a ministerial sacking, rows over an aide-de-camp and ministerial cars, ministerial pay rises, PUP recipients and international travel, as well as the apparent à la carte approach of some Green Party deputies to governance.
“Well, we did focus on substantive issues. I mean, I’d really argue with this narrative. Okay, on the politics of it, commentary goes on and I think commentary spends too much time on party politics and the political issues to the detriment of the substantive,” Martin retorts.
Among other actions, the Taoiseach lists the creation of the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science as “a political priority”, the July Jobs Stimulus, the Roadmap for Reopening Schools, the European Summit and the North South Ministerial Meeting as evidence for the coalition’s focus on governance.
“There’s always a lot of noise around government. There’s a lot of noise around the politics of government. Who makes up the Government, what somebody says, what somebody does; that’s natural; it’s normal. As Taoiseach, I’m keeping the focus on the substance.
“That creates its own issues and yeah, we can manage communications better, we can do all of that. I take that point. But it was a very frenetic month. There was a real proactivity. We had lots of Cabinet subcommittees. It stretched people in the system to the outer limits. From morning to night, we were at it. A lot of good work was done,” Martin insists.
In relation to coalition discipline and the perceived absence of a unity of purpose, the Taoiseach maintains that “good systems” are in place. “Whatever it looks like from the outside-in, the three leaders meet quite regularly. We have a Cabinet Coordination Committee whereby if there are any issues that are causing difficulty, or could potentially cause difficulty at a Cabinet level, we head them off and deal with them.
“We’re very coherent on the policies. It’s very clear. The Programme for Government creates the pathway… That creates the unity of purpose, because anything outside of that needs to be agreed but what we can’t disagree on is what we’ve said and what we’ve put into the Programme for Government and the need to get that done,” he adds.
During the final Dáil sitting before the summer recess, then Green Party Whip, Neasa Hourigan TD and Green Minister of State for Community Development and Charities, Joe O’Brien TD voted against and abstained from, respectively, government legislation to limit the extension of the emergency rent freeze and eviction ban to those impacted by Covid-19.
Despite a turbulent start, Martin believes that the Government can still survive a full term. “Eamon Ryan is quite positive about the Greens’ commitment to government and indeed, his parliamentary party’s commitment to government. We took a long while negotiating this government and therein lies the source of stability; the fact that a lot of time was put into the various aspects of the Programme for Government. That will sustain the Government. There’s a lot to be doing. There’s a lot that we’ve agreed on doing. We should concentrate on getting that done.
“I’ve been through previous governments where there were challenges like that. To be fair, I think Eamon Ryan got the balance right. I think the Greens have a different approach to these issues. It’s quite an extraordinary renaissance for the Green Party and so it’s going to take getting used to being in government for quite a number of TDs. I don’t mean that in any patronising way, it’s just a fact,” he charitably suggests.
Civil War politics
Simultaneously, when Fianna Fáil formally entered coalition government with Fine Gael for the first time, it triggered a wave of commentary proclaiming that the Civil War had finally ‘ended’, something which amuses Martin. Drawing from his own MA thesis research, subsequently published as Freedom to Choose: Cork and Party Politics in Ireland 1918–1932, Martin reflects: “There is a myth about Civil War politics. My contention is that the Civil War ended in the late 1920s.
“The only way [Fianna Fáil] could grow is if it moved on from the Civil War. If it stuck itself in the Civil War narrative, it was gone. I think it’s a misunderstood thing about how the parties evolved. If you want my honest answer, the whole raison d’être of Fianna Fáil was to move away from and beyond the Civil War,” he explains.
“To be the Taoiseach of the country in that context — and I’ve a deep sense of history — is a great honour and a privilege and I’ll work every day that I have to do my best to deliver for the people…”
During the general election campaign, Martin told the Irish Sun: “Leo is obsessed with power and holding office.” Since government formation talks concluded, one frequent criticism of the new Taoiseach has been his inability to cast off Tánaiste Varadkar’s shadow.
“I don’t accept that. That’s just commentary. That’s chit chat. It doesn’t really phase me one way or the other. I keep the focus as Taoiseach. My job is to maintain cohesion within government. There are three separate parties. It’s the first of this type of government in a long, long time. The real challenge for me, as Taoiseach, is to get government to behave with cohesion but also to get things done,” he states.
Ascending to the Office of Taoiseach and achieving what has been a long-term ambition for the man who has, to some degree, revived the fortunes of Fianna Fáil since its nadir in 2011, cannot be anything short of personally satisfying. Martin, however, eschews this suggestion.
“I didn’t really get too phased by it. In one way, it sounds strange. I am passionate about parliamentary democracy. I think it’s something we should hold dear in this country. Authoritarianism is on the rise across the world. To be the Taoiseach of the country in that context — and I’ve a deep sense of history — is a great honour and a privilege and I’ll work every day that I have to do my best to deliver for the people in respect of the challenges that we face,” he affirms.
Martin’s legislative ambitions for the autumn include a Marine Planning and Development Management Bill, “to unleash the economic potential of the oceans”, a Climate Action Bill and a Land and Development Agency Bill. “What you’ll see with me as Taoiseach is determination to coordinate, push, deliver and get things done. That’s the role of the office,” he states.
However, from his time spent in several ministerial portfolios, Martin has been characterised as hesitant or even a ‘ditherer’. It’s a label he rejects as “nonsense”. “The smoking ban didn’t happen because of some fella dithering around the place. Every government department that I was in, I just took decisions, made them, and got things done. Two-and-a-half years in education; we dramatically changed the education world from special needs education to research. The legislative output was probably the most significant, and I hate having to say it myself, but it’s the truth. It stems from an opposition stroke way back, but it’s very lazy commentary and I have no time for it,” he counters.
On establishing Fianna Fáil’s identity in this coalition, the Taoiseach insists that it is already happening in the areas of housing and education, which he regards as “the key social challenges of our age”.
“Education was always a great touchstone for [Fianna Fáil], going way back to the foundation and particularly the work of Donogh O’Malley in creating free second-level education, which is how I developed in life. I got access to free second-level education in the early 1970s in Cork. Our parents never went to second-level school,” he explains.
An Taoiseach’s political origins were humble. He is not steeped in Fianna Fáil aristocracy. Martin’s father, Paddy, was a bus driver and a union man. On becoming party leader, Martin stated: “My family’s values were those of republican nationalism and community involvement.” This, he obviously felt, aligned with Fianna Fáil’s ideology.
“We are a pro-enterprise party but a party that has a social philosophy in terms of access to the key things that enable people to get on in life. Education, health, and housing. Historically, as a party, Fianna Fáil built some of the biggest housing estates in the country. I want to recreate that esprit de corps within the party right now in government and that’s how you do it.
“The party has to be careful, and all parties should be. Government isn’t about always trying to put yourself in the limelight. People will respond to good policy, initiatives and substance. They always do. You don’t have to broadcast it from the rooftops, people see it.”
Within his first month, the Taoiseach also worked to convene the first meeting of the North South Ministerial Council in over three years. Previously, Martin has expressed a “passion” for a creating a shared island and indicated his intention to give it particular priority.
“I think the north-south agenda has lost momentum in recent years. I think we need to reignite that. I think we need to, through the Shared Island Unit, have a conversation about how we share the island in a post-Brexit environment, into the future.
“There are some very useful avenues of cooperation that we should be driving forward more effectively. I mean, the Single Energy Market is a very good example. Waterways Ireland was a no-brainer. That’s why I would like to see formative work on the Ulster Canal; we got that into the July Stimulus. We got the greenway from Sligo to Enniskillen into that, in terms of design work. I would just like to get on with it and get stuff done,” he says, explaining the rationale for the new unit.
Describing the north-south jurisdictional alignment in the public health response to Covid-19 as “fair”, except on international travel, the Taoiseach asserts: “You do have two de facto jurisdictions. That can’t be ignored. But we have the Memorandum of Understanding between the CMO in the North and the CMO in the Republic, which is good.”
Meanwhile, Martin feels that the British-Irish relationship will require a post-Brexit realignment. “Prime Minister Boris Johnson and I spoke about the need for a strategic review of the British-Irish relationship post-Brexit because Europe was facilitative of a strong bond between the British and Irish governments. We used to meet in Brussels very often on European agenda items, but we became very familiar with ministers on the British Government side, likewise they with us, and civil servants. There’s a real danger of losing a lot of that familiarity.”
While he has medium-term ambitions for housing, health and climate change, Martin’s two-and-a-half years as Taoiseach will be skewed by Covid-19 and its associated economic fallout. “The key immediate objective of the next year-and-a-half is to get through Covid,” he says, adding: “but also to recover the economy and move into new areas in terms of the climate agenda and creating new economic opportunities there.”
Concluding, Martin predicts that the Covid-19 crisis will herald “a stronger public service commitment” and praises the response of the public service which he feels has excelled under pressure.
“The public service has held the country together in terms of the various phases of Covid. It really underlines the importance of a strong, well-resourced public service. I’ve always been a strong believer in a high-quality public service being an underpinning factor in a democracy,” he says.