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Micheál Martin: ‘I suspect far right are seeking to plant their ideas ... and penetrate groups in our parliament’

FF leader closes door on eventful stint as Taoiseach amid war in Europe, housing and cost-of-living crisis

Even as a baby Micheál Martin was slow to climb to a higher level, preferring to remain horizontal in his cot long after his twin brother, Pádraig, had conquered the sitting position. “Apparently, it took me a long time to sit up in the cot. I always claim I was absorbing life,” says the politician.

It took him a long time too to sit in the Taoiseach’s chair.

Having languished for almost a decade as leader of the Opposition amid predictions that he might be the first Fianna Fáil leader never to become Taoiseach, he eventually landed the top job in June 2020 in the throes of a pandemic that brought much of the world to a standstill.

Then he lost two consecutive ministers for agriculture, Barry Cowen and Dara Calleary, within the first two months and seemed cursed when he succumbed to Covid-19 and isolation the night before his year-long-postponed diary date to present the shamrock to a US president in the White House on St Patrick’s Day.


Compounding everything, war erupted in Europe, accelerating inflation and a crisis in accommodation for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion. Murphy’s Law seemed to stalk Martin. Whatever could go wrong would go wrong, and did.

In the early 1980s when he still had a shock of dark hair and a vivacious college girlfriend called Mary O’Shea, a close friend of one of my sisters, our family used to tease the Turners Cross student teacher about being the Taoiseach some day. It was only half a joke, though he remembers it differently, declaring he never had such ambitions.

“Cork people love to slag,” he says. “That’s why you don’t get notions.”

Less than 48 hours after vacating the Taoiseach’s office to make way for his Fine Gael rival Leo Varadkar in a history-making rotation last weekend, Martin is getting acquainted with his new and less salubrious Tánaiste’s office in Government Buildings. Despite a glowing Christmas tree in one corner and a floral china tea set on his desk, it is a soulless room with bare walls painted the shade of Oliver Twist’s porridge. Among the first deliveries to the office was “a lovely note” from the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, “saying we had the pleasure of meeting recently and ‘looking forward to working with you into the future’, obviously in the context of British-Irish relations and the North.”

Two nights before the job-share switch, Martin attended his last leaders’ dinner at an EU summit in Brussels.

“It was a lovely farewell. They all individually came up to me. They knew about the [rotating Taoiseach] system. They were all curious about it and querying it.”

He says Brexit has made the European Union more united and names, among the friends he has made in its capitals, Latvia’s Krisjanis Karin, Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Estonia’s “fearless” Kaja Kallas, Portugal’s Antonio Costa – “a lovely man”.

He lists, too, Sanna Marin, the 37-year-old Finnish prime minister recently embroiled in controversy when a video of her dancing with friends at a party went viral on the internet. “I just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about,” Martin says. “We all reassured her.”

He has left behind portraits hanging on either side of the fireplace in the Taoiseach’s office of Fianna Fáil founder Éamon de Valera and Fine Gael icon Michael Collins and has yet to put up paintings in his new surroundings.

However, there is one picture that he does intend to hang in his new surroundings, and that is a portrait he owns of a young Dev betraying a hint of a smile, “something you don’t often see”.

If the Shared Island Unit is ever perceived as a Trojan horse for a united Ireland that would be very damaging to it

As the leader of a party spawned by violent opposition to the 1921 Anglo Irish Treaty but who has frequently expressed revulsion at IRA atrocities during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, he skirts the question when asked if he would have sided with Dev or Collins in the Civil War, had he been alive then. “History is complex”, he says, offering his own family’s contrasting destinies in exposition. “It shows this idea that history is one continuous narrative is false.”

His father Paddy, an Irish Army recruit who later became a bus driver and helped found the National Busmen’s Union, was “a Jack Lynch man” wedded to Fianna Fáil but his three brothers all joined the British Army and became, variously, a self-declared communist, a British Labour Party supporter, and a lifelong member of the Conservative Party.

By contrast, his mother’s father was an Old IRA member who acted as Seán Hogan’s sentry in the Galtee mountains after the Soloheadbeg ambusher was sprang from captivity in a standoff that left two policemen dead in 1919. Martin says his mother, Lana – “a gentle woman” – used to tell him he inherited his political DNA from her own “firebrand” mother. As part of a Cumann na mBan cell in what was then known as Cork’s Mental Asylum, she assisted Seán Moylan’s escape during the War of Independence by feigning to be a nurse escorting a patient out the back door of the hospital.

Her grandson, who says Northern Ireland was the reason he became a politician, has not only left portraits of the State’s founding fathers behind in the Taoiseach’s office. He has left his brainchild, the Shared Island Unit, there too, even though his new ministerial portfolio of Foreign Affairs encompasses the Cabinet remit for Northern Ireland. The unit has allocated more than €190 million for cross-Border schemes but Martin says: “If it’s ever perceived as a Trojan horse for a united Ireland that would be very damaging to it.

“Every memo I brought to Government [as Taoiseach] on the Shared Island was with the Minister for Foreign Affairs. If it became located in the Department of Foreign Affairs, very quickly it would become a bilateral estimates process every year and suddenly morph into the capital programme for [the department]. Whereas, by having it in the Department of the Taoiseach, you’re saying this is a key Government initiative to build bridges. It gives it a status and a whole of Government commitment because every department is involved.”

I would have a flash of panic and I’d call out: ‘Léana, Léana are you still there? And her lovely little hands would touch me on the back

Former Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has been sharing his wisdom about Northern politics with Martin, signalling a thaw in the men’s relationship. It turned to ice when Martin initiated a process to expel his predecessor from Fianna Fáil on foot of the Mahon tribunal’s conclusions in 2012 that Ahern had failed to truthfully account for money he lodged to his bank account while finance minister in the 1990s. Martin has said he is agreeable to Ahern’s readmission to the party but the other man has not applied yet. Asked if they are friends now, Martin says: “Certainly relationships have improved a lot.” He says he wants Ahern, the Irish government’s signatory in 1998, to be formally involved in preparations to mark next April’s 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.

“We get on quite well. We’ll meet at a match or he’ll leave a message for me to give him a ring, invariably about the North. Before I went to meet Boris on one occasion he would have rung to say I think this is where they are. The North is his big interest. He’s involved in a group in the North with people from the loyalist community and unionism – former politicians. So he has a good sense of where loyalism is at.”

There has been some conjecture that a prodigal Ahern might be Fianna Fáil’s candidate in the 2025 presidential election but Martin says: “It’s a long way off and I‘m very conscious that one must respect President Higgins. I’m not even sure that Bertie would want to be president.”

If not Ahern, what about himself for Áras an Uachtaráin?

“I haven’t considered that at all.”

What about becoming president of the European Commission?

“That’s a matter for the bigger [EU] groups. I love Europe but part of me would like to do other things in life, you know.”

Such as?

“Enjoy life.” He says he would like to try writing a novel. He studied English at UCC and reads fiction. His current paperback squeeze is Anne Enright’s “The Gathering”. More recently, he has found himself “attracted to the whole biodiversity space”.

“I walk a lot. I often say to Mary ‘I’d love to get a field somewhere and let it grow wild and make my contribution to nature’.”

I can see far-right ideologues are going to try and penetrate groups in our parliament and get certain ideas across and we have to be vigilant about that

He first laid eyes on his college sweetheart when she and two woman friends joined the Fianna Fáil cumann in UCC. Martin recalls: “We were all intrigued”. Mary became cumann secretary and later worked full-time as the party’s national youth director in Dublin. The couple married in 1990 and had five children. Until he broke his silence in an interview with parenting columnist Jen Hogan in this newspaper last year, Martin had made it a standard condition of media interviews that he would not discuss the deaths of his third-born child, Ruairí, in his cot at five weeks old, and his charismatic youngest daughter, Léana, from a heart condition in 2010, shortly before her eighth birthday.

In his eulogy at her funeral mass, he recalled Léana’s last summer at the family’s holiday home in Courtmacsherry, West Cork and how he would take her out on the bike along the seaside roads. Sometimes, he told the congregation, “I would forget that Léana was in the back seat behind me and I would have a flash of panic and I’d call out: ‘Léana, Léana are you still there? And her lovely little hands would touch me on the back.”

“A lot of parents who had lost children wrote to me after [the interview] and thanked me,” he says. “Sometimes you think you’re the only person who thinks this. It resonated with them and their experiences.”

He found himself speaking about Léana and Ruairí again last September in a pre-recorded television interview with Joe Duffy, though he had not planned to, and visibly struggled not to break down on camera.

“I found it very hard. Afterwards, I just didn’t tell them at home. I actually watched it on my own. I couldn’t watch it with them. I went upstairs,” he says. “I’m always very worried about how the others might react because it’s their life too. I got some interesting correspondence again which is basically about sharing grief and sharing your thoughts. It is the case that it does help other people and I have to be conscious of that.”

Martin (62) says he has never been offered a bribe or threatened with harm because of his political work but that “politics is getting harder”, mainly because of social media. He alludes to “anti-vaxxers” and the contagion of conspiracy theories during the pandemic but what deeply worried him was the contribution in the Dáil last weekend by Mattie McGrath, a former Fianna Fáiler and now a Rural Independents Group TD. The Tipperary politician said Klaus Schwab, the head of the World Economic Forum, was pursuing a policy called the Great Reset, which McGrath likened to “Mussolini’s very definition of fascism”.

Why do people sometimes think I’m a priest or potential priest?

“I thought it was a very telling moment on Saturday,” Martin says.” It was the first time ever on the floor of the house and people were taken aback by it. He had a script. Someone is advising the rural group. I suspect there are those on the far right who are seeking to plant their ideas. I can see far-right ideologues are going to try and penetrate groups in our parliament and get certain ideas across and we have to be vigilant about that.”

Martin agrees that Varadkar’s remarks about him at last month’s Fine Gael Ardfheis were flattering; an illustration of how historical enmities have receded since the once-unthinkable Coalition was formed. During the last Government, the current Taoiseach had likened Martin to a priest, perpetuating a pious image depicted more than 10 years ago by impressionist Mario Rosenstock in a comedy sketch.

“Why do people sometimes think I’m a priest or potential priest?” wonders the famously clean-living Martin.

Well, does he have any bad habits?

“Of course, I do. Everyone does. No, you can’t ask ... ‚” he laughs. “Some of my own colleagues in the previous parliamentary party might have [thought him priestly] because I was having my salads and that but now everyone’s having salads.”

And then just when one’s imagination is rampantly entertaining his potential bad habits, he goes and says this, when asked what presents he hopes to get for Christmas.

“I like a jumper and a few books and I’ll get green tea. They all know green tea won’t go to waste.”

His simple Santa list belies a steeliness instilled by 33 years in the Dáil and 16 years in Cabinet. Ahern was not the only big Fianna Fáil figure to fall foul of it. Martin sacked Barry Cowen, the brother of another former Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach, from the Cabinet in 2020. Though an investigation has reportedly found that, contrary to an allegation made at the time of his dismissal, he did not try to evade a garda checkpoint when stopped for drink-driving, Martin says the question of an apology does not arise.

“My issue at the time was that I asked him to go into the Dáil [and make a statement] because I’d gone in twice and he had gone in the first time and I knew this wasn’t going away. The opposition kept coming and coming. I asked Barry would he go in and he was resolute he wouldn’t.

Firing a colleague is “very hard”, he says. “I was very down [that night].”

As he says goodbye, a bundle of recyclable carrier bags pokes out from behind the Christmas tree where they were earlier stashed out of sight for photographs to accompany the interview. He brings the bags up from his constituency filled with provisions for his meals every week. One is emblazoned the name of a Cork yoghurt company.

You can take the man out of Cork but you can’t make him eat Dublin coddle.

Justine McCarthy

Justine McCarthy

Justine McCarthy is an Irish Times contributor, writing a weekly opinion column