Catherine Martin: RTÉ’s biggest champion in Cabinet is now at war with broadcaster’s leadership

Minister’s move to effectively sack RTÉ chair Siún Ní Raghallaigh on television escalated political aspect of crisis

Catherine Martin Wk1

Tourism. Culture. Arts. Gaeltacht. Sports. Media. It is quite a chunk of national life that Catherine Martin is responsible for, rivalled only by fellow Green Minister Roderic O’Gorman’s brief of children, equality, disability, integration and youth.

And as O’Gorman (with the scars on his back to prove it) could have told his colleague, with that impossibly broad fiefdom – riven with powerful State agencies, each with its own stakeholders, loyalties, rivalries and expectations – something was always going to blow up on her. The question would be: how would she handle it?

The most common answer, according to conversations with several senior sources across Government, in Cabinet and outside it, in her party and outside it, is: not well.

“How could it possibly be said she has handled this well?” asked one senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.


“A major semi-State has massive corporate governance failures and a rolling financial crisis. Can you really say she has done a good job of overseeing that? It’s not her job to manage RTÉ. But it is her job to oversee it and set the direction for it.”

It has become a familiar refrain around Government circles, often echoed in the media, since the RTÉ crisis first exploded last year. Martin, her critics have said, hasn’t ever really got to grips with the RTÉ polycrisis. Usually, her response has been to come out and say other people should do stuff. She has been remarkably incurious about some aspects of the RTÉ story – not least the question of whether departing executives were paid exit settlements last year, which has occasioned the recent drastic escalation. Why is she only getting exercised about it now? Because it was reported in the media. But if it’s so important – important enough to effectively sack the chair of the board over – shouldn’t the Minister have been asking questions before now?

Martin’s defenders say she has been careful to avoid trying to micromanage RTÉ, and that is not her role. Instead, she has sought outside, expert reports to inquire into what happened in the past, and to chart the way for the future. She has sought to drive the accountability and reform process, while ensuring she maintains an appropriate distance and not trying to manage it herself.

It’s a generous assessment, not shared by all that many of her colleagues. Although a couple of Cabinet Ministers were sympathetic, others were less so.

“Your job as a Minister when there’s a crisis is to shut it down and keep Government away from it,” says one. “She has done the opposite.”

Several senior sources agreed that Martin’s move to effectively sack the chair on live television has escalated the political aspect of the RTÉ crisis and effectively moved herself – and by extension the Government – from bystander status into the centre stage. And they are not very happy about that.

The latest twist in the RTÉ saga, explained

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“We all rallied around her, as we had to do,” said one Cabinet colleague.

Another senior source said: “We’re all backing her even though we think she made a mess of it and the whole thing is her fault.” This is a harsh judgment to be sure, but it is not, among many of the people who spoke to The Irish Times this week, an entirely uncommon one.

Her account to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Media about the circumstances that led to Siún Ní Raghallaigh’s resignation was consistent, but not wholly convincing. According to her evidence, Martin was annoyed with the RTÉ chair, wanted to meet her, sent her a letter, ignored her threat of resignation, didn’t anticipate being asked if she had confidence in the chair, alerted RTÉ that she would answer questions on the issue, tried to avoid saying she had no confidence in her but then had to admit she didn’t have confidence. “Unbelievable,” said one Green staffer.

Personally, Martin is widely liked across Government, a pleasant person and, insiders say, a decent colleague. “Decent and diligent,” is one colleague’s assessment. But she is not regarded as a heavyweight of the Government, and does not, two sources say, contribute widely to Cabinet discussions.

What she has been very successful at, however, is looking after the large number of stakeholders in her area, particularly in the arts part of her brief. As deputy leader of the Greens – a status untroubled by her madcap leadership challenge to Eamon Ryan in the middle of the negotiations on putting the Government together back in the summer of 2020 – her requests command a certain priority in the Department of Public Expenditure that makes some colleagues jealous. “Oh, the Greens have to be looked after,” grumbles one Minister from the bigger parties.

Not surprisingly, the view from within the arts sector is rather different. Some recall being summoned to a glitzy presentation in the National Gallery on Merrion Square in 2017, where Leo Varadkar and then minister for finance Paschal Donohoe promised to double State expenditure on arts, culture and sport within seven years. The new taoiseach’s promise was part of his Fine Gael minority government’s Creative Ireland programme, which acknowledged that despite the international success of its artists, Ireland still lagged far behind the EU average when it came to supporting their work. Progress towards that target was already well behind schedule by Budget 2020. But then Covid struck, shutting down all live cultural events for the best part of a year. The crisis funds allocated to workers in the arts and live entertainment sectors presented an opportunity that Martin seized to implement a range of major policy initiatives: the Arts Council saw its annual allocation increase from €75 million in 2019 to €134 million in 2024. Funding was announced for initiatives at local level across the country. Many of these grants and schemes were not very expensive, and there were a lot of them. Hardly a week went by without a press release from Martin’s department, hailing the disbursement of some not very large amount of money to an individual entity or sector – which often makes a huge difference to the recipients in question. Thus Martin built a constituency of loyal supporters and advocates, because they see she has advocated for them, and delivered where it counts – with money. Her department’s overall budget has grown by a third since 2020.

“She’s a shop steward for her sector,” sniffs a fellow Minister, perhaps with a tinge of envy. “She’s reasonably successful at that.”

The assessment is not overly generous – in fact, Martin has been very successful at it. Earlier this week, Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole described her as the best arts minister since Michael D Higgins – praise indeed coming from O’Toole.

Martin’s political effect is rather less flamboyant than Higgins’s. Not a particularly dynamic public speaker, in private she can be diffident and not given to small talk. Her rather dogged, deliberate style may have helped her to navigate last week’s committee grilling and emerge relatively unscathed. But there is no doubting her commitment to the arts. Her most eye-catching initiative is the pilot Basic Income for the Arts (BIA), which provides a payment of €325 a week to 2,000 artists and creative arts worker across the State. The project has attracted international attention and praise.

The BIA originated with the Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce set up by Martin during lockdown. One person familiar with that process says the Minister was “very hands-off, and we weren’t unhappy about that”, but that she was “absolutely determined” that it should happen. When the BIA was launched with some fanfare in April 2022, both Micheál Martin and Varadkar were on hand to pay homage to Martin’s tenacity in seeing it through.

Under Martin’s watch, the arm’s length principle, which maintains a cordon sanitaire between culture funding and political decision-making, has worked very well as far as those in the arts are concerned. And the sector has received a massive financial boost. None of this is true of RTÉ – in fact, quite the opposite. The arm’s length relationship with the board has blown up in Martin’s face and the broadcaster remains mired in financial crisis. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that the most politically contentious part of Martin’s brief (which until the last election came under the remit of the Department of Communications) should be the most troublesome. Relations between successive governments and RTÉ have more often been fraught than not. But the scale of the current implosion is still startling.

Like every other media organisation, RTÉ’s traditional business model is crumbling. The question of what to do about that has been the subject of procrastination by several successive governments. With the licence fee effectively frozen for years and fewer people paying it, the broadcaster has been lobbying unsuccessfully for more than a decade for a new system. “If you look at all that’s happened, it all comes back to the funding model,” says one veteran RTÉ insider, who blames government pressure from 2016 onwards on RTÉ to grow its commercial revenues for the disastrous missteps over barter accounts and ill-conceived musicals.

They have a point, but so too do the senior figures in Government who long before the current crisis were reported to be unimpressed by the quality of senior management in Montrose. Despite waves of restructurings, redundancies and strategy overhauls, people in the independent production sector still complain that the broadcaster is over-staffed in comparison with competitors in the private sector. Others argue RTÉ has done a bad job of developing and promoting new talent, which is borne out by the undeniable staleness of its TV and radio schedules. Even the much-vaunted news and current affairs departments, despite being frequently touted as evidence of RTÉ's public service mission, rarely break a story outside of the RTÉ Investigates unit. Meanwhile, up until recently RTÉ only deemed it necessary to have correspondents in three foreign capitals (two additional posts were added last year with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs). If, as John Bowman’s history of the broadcaster suggests, RTÉ is Ireland’s mirror and window to itself and to the world, it’s a painfully narrow and incomplete one. And that’s before considering the abandonment of old-fashioned linear broadcasting by younger audiences who prefer streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify. The question of what a future media landscape looks like, and what the role of RTÉ should be within that, goes well beyond the current woes.

RTÉ was in a mess long before Martin became a Minister. But her chances of securing the real money that she wants for it – exchequer funding to replace the licence fee income of some €190 million a year – have not been helped by the difficulties of the last week. Though RTÉ's biggest champion in the Cabinet, she is now at war with the broadcaster’s leadership.

Opposition to writing RTÉ a very large cheque – by no mean as popular with Ministers as they would have you believe – and undertaking to do so every year remains strong at the top of Government and especially in the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure.

She has already been rebuffed once in that endeavour. To succeed at the second attempt, she will require co-operation in RTÉ and allies in Government. Neither is much in evidence at the moment. Meanwhile, public attention continues to wane from the peak of last summer, when the country’s most famous TV personality was in the spotlight. Now that it has devolved into a confusing story about squabbles among insiders, it will be of limited interest to those outside the media bubble. Martin still has work to do: she must come up quickly with a credible replacement for Ní Raghallaigh; she must attempt to rebuild her damaged relationship with the RTÉ board and she will have to deal with the two expert reports that are due to land on her desk very soon. On Wednesday, she told the Dáil that public trust in RTÉ needed to be restored before a new funding model could be implemented, and that she was “more determined than ever” to see this happen. But her performance on Prime Time – and the storm it kicked off – has made her crusade to remake RTÉ's funding model along more generous lines before the next election even more difficult than it already was.

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