Tales of life, love, lust, death, regret, politics and power
Micheal Martin's performance in last week's TV debate has rattled his competitors. Barry Egan gets up close and personal with the Fianna Fail leader and his wife Mary over an intimate dinner in Cork
Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30
Saturday night in Barry's Bar in Douglas in Cork. Dinner with the future Taoiseach and his wife? Or the last supper with the only Fianna Fail leader not to be Taoiseach?
I ask Micheal and Mary Martin have they ever gone out for dinner with the current Taoiseach and his wife. Mary shakes her head. "No. But I would have known Fionnuala. She worked in Fianna Fail with me. I worked in head office and she worked in the press office at the same time. Sean Haughey's wife, Orla, was there as well. Fionnuala would have started going out with Enda."
Micheal, curious: "And did you know that Fionnuala was going out with Enda at that time?"
Mary: "Ah, yeah. I remember, actually, around the time she got married, she had gone to RTE then. She got a job in RTE as communications officer or something. I suppose she was going to the next stage with Enda, really, so working in GIS for Charlie Haughey wasn't exactly..." she laughs.
"I caught her eye inside in the church for PJ [Mara]'s funeral. I would have known all of them. I knew Enda back then. We would have all been in the Dail bar. It was great fun."
The packed bar in Douglas is just as fun now with these two live wires. Indeed, as the packed bar perhaps attested, Ireland is in economic recovery. I ask my dining companions, shouldn't the Irish people stick with those who, arguably, brought that recovery about - Enda Kenny and his government?
Micheal looks at me like I have two heads.
"Enda Kenny hasn't fixed and is not responsible for the recovery. I would argue that the last Fianna Fail government put the building blocks in place in terms of the budgets that Brian Lenihan brought in and with the four-year plan that he laid out."
Mary, getting emotional, suddenly says: "I'll be political here...
"The kids who have their discretionary medical cards taken off them," she begins. "If there was one thing I used to scream about, it was that. So I am afraid to say, Enda Kenny as far as I am concerned is... some of those decisions they made were disgraceful. That was probably the worst thing they did. I remember we had somebody and we had to tell their mother, as if the letter wasn't harsh enough, to say she was going to die from her health."
Mary is now in tears.
She turns to her husband: "You know I get upset over this one."
It is not difficult to understand Mary's tears or the reasons why she would be so upset over this subject. In late 2010, she and Micheal's seven-year-old daughter Leana died tragically from a cardiac condition that had developed suddenly. (Their son, Ruairi, died in infancy years before). It was the only proviso for this interview: that they would not discuss Leana's death.
"It was scandalous," adds Mary, crying her eyes out, referring to the woman who, she says, had her dying child's medical card taken off her.
"I think Irish Water was the biggest farce," Mary continues. "It has cost the country money to set up Irish Water. Like Fine Gael talk about these great things they did, but I have to say of all the things that happened in the last five years. . ."
Micheal: "I think the problem for the government was that they made too many promises before the election, and in order to fulfil those promises they did all sorts of things; like the discretionary medical card instead of two or three bigger things. Brian Lenihan did some very unpopular things. But he always said to me, 'I am not going to do the 1,000 cuts'. The 1,000 cuts hits an awful lot of people."
I met Martin before Christmas in his office in the Dail for a 45-minute coffee. He was vetting me, checking to see whether he would trust me not to stick a metaphorical hatchet in his back in Cork. Tonight, he is brimming over with bonhomie - tales about life, love, lust, death, politics and sport tripping lyrically off his tongue. He recalls hanging out with a fellow Corkonian in Manchester.
"When Micheal, my son, was young, a few of us went over to see Man United play in Old Trafford. Roy Keane got us into the players' lounge. The young kids, Micheal and his pals, got autographs from Ronaldo. They were in seventh heaven. I was taking the photographs.
"The following morning Roy said his family had gone to Cork and he came to the hotel. The kids were delighted. We had a two-hour chat about everything. Then he said: 'How are you getting to the airport?' I said, 'We'll get a taxi'. Roy said, 'You will not, I'll drive you.' The two kids were in Roy's Audi before you could blink!"
That is more of an endorsement than anything: Roy Keane likes Micheal Martin.
Mary: "I suppose, you see, in the end, Roy is Cork as well. Like I always remember, there was no debate in most houses in Cork about Saipan (when Roy stormed off home before the World Cup in 2002): Roy was right."
Micheal: "Oh Jaysus, yeah. There was no debate in Cork about that."
So he wasn't a traitor?
Micheal: "No, no, I wouldn't tolerate that. It is a Republic after all."
What makes him angry, Mary?
"When we lose a match," she laughs.
Joking aside, the FF main man says that the recent spate of gangland killings in Dublin is what makes his blood boil. "The whole area of crime has just followed the same pattern as all these other issues. The government flat-out refuses to acknowledge an issue even exists until it turns into a full-scale crisis; and then the priority is managing the PR with a few grand gestures.
"It was clear to us for at least three years that a major crime problem was emerging. The crazy decision to close garda stations across the country and to hold off on recruiting new gardai has created a terrible sense of vulnerability in communities.
"Then, the Regency Hotel killing and the image on the front of the Irish Independent with these two killers dressed as gardai carrying heavy weaponry sent very real shockwaves through the country. I'm still not sure the government actually gets the profound effect of what has happened this week. Real support and increased resources for the gardai, not high-profile gestures, is the only way that these thugs can be stopped and some sense of security restored to communities.
"Seeing these gangsters behave as if they are above the law, showing total and utter contempt for the gardai and the Irish people makes me very angry."
Michael orders a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc for himself and his wife and a glass of red for me. "How many glasses?" asks the waiter."How many what?" replies the FF leader. "Glasses?" "Three." "Three?" Micheal, who has a certain charm - and I wouldn't be too surprised to see him as Taoiseach at the end of the month - laughs that it was almost turning into a Dave Allen sketch there. He says he used to be good mimic at school. "But latterly, in life, not so good. You might recall at the last general election I tried to take off a Chinese accent? With mixed results!"
Why did Mario Rosenstock have you dressed as an altar boy in his sketch on Vincent Browne's show?
"The altar boy thing? When I got into politics, journalists would say, I don't know how this developed, 'Oh, the altar boy Micheal' kind of thing."
Was your husband an altar boy type, Mary?
"No, he wasn't!" Mary laughs turning to her husband, "At one stage, I think, Magill magazine had a picture of you making your Holy Communion! So there was a bit of that image. But I don't think it's true." "I'm not an altar boy, certainly not!" Micheal laughs.
So, how did this non-altar boy woo you, Mary?
"Well - he was a couple of years older than me!" laughs Mary. "He was doing his H.Dip in college when we met in the Fianna Fail cumann. We had been great friends through the cumann but we weren't going out together."
Micheal: "I think she probably did think we were friends. I had different ideas, to a certain extent. And after the first kiss, sure, Mary said, 'And we were such great friends!'"
Mary: "I was the classic 18-year-old. You could be blowing a good friendship by just getting off with somebody!"
What was it like to get off with Micheal Martin?
"He was just a mere student then with a bit of a part-time job!" she roars with laughter.
How Mary and Micheal finally became an item was when they were "at somebody's 18th birthday" recalls Micheal. We were yapping and we had a few jars and we were on the dance floor. And we went for it."
Micheal: "Mary's friends were very worried because she had an exam in two weeks' time. They were saying: 'This was not the right time for her to be falling in love'. But Mary was very cautious that first night. I was pledging undying love already. We didn't stop really after that."
As the main courses arrive (salmon for him and chicken curry for her) Micheal, as is his wont, steers the conversation away from snogging and love to Northern Ireland.
Michael tells a slightly folksy story about him as a young man with four other students from Cork deciding to go on a fact-finding mission to the North."It was the time of the H Blocks," says Mary. "So he would have been 21."
"One of the first guys we met was Andy Tyrie, leader of the UDA. So our contact in Cork got panicky. He thought we could have been bushwhacked. But in fairness to the UDA, they sent someone to the train station that we recognised."
Most 21-year-olds now would be going off to Spain for a rock festival cum piss-up on the beach - not going up to Belfast on a fact-finding mission on The Troubles. Were you always so idealistic?
"Unfortunately, that is fair comment," laughs Micheal. "I was very much into it. My sister-in-law made a famous comment once. We were at a dance... "
"You weren't," Mary corrects. "You were inside in the pub in The Well. [She was a nurse and she started going out with his twin brother]. And she said to Paudie: 'Who's that mad man in the corner talking about medieval history?'" They both laugh at the memory.
Why in August, 2013, did he leave Bertie Ahern's name off a list about those who did great work for peace in the North at the Merriman Summer School (Albert Reynolds, John Major, John Hume, Seamus Mallon and Brian Cowen were named, but not Ahern.)
"I think that was unfair of the speech," he claims now. "The speech was never meant to be a litany of who's who. We used the Albert thing to highlight the need for proper dialogue between two prime ministers. People portrayed it that we were snubbing Bertie, which we weren't. I have always, in other interviews, given absolute credit to Bertie Ahern on the Northern peace process.
"I saw at first hand that the man had a deep commitment to the North and resolving it, and I think it came from his father. He would often say about his father being in the War of Independence and being a friend of Tom Barry. So he had a real sense. You can't take from him what he achieved."
When you are about to be on a television debate with, say, Gerry Adams - do you and Mary role play the night before at home? Mary, laughs: "No! Forget it. I don't role play as Gerry! Gerry on the trampoline! Forget it!"
Do you believe Adams when he said he wasn't in the IRA?
"Of course he was in the IRA," says Micheal. "He's not telling the truth on that at all. It is overwhelming. Why was he taken out of internment to go and see Whitelaw?
"To go back to Sinn Fein and the North, I met the Quinn family. Paul Quinn was murdered in Monaghan. You just have to meet the mother and she says to you: 'They broke every bone in his body'. They know who did that. They know that there was maybe 20-odd people in the barn. They know it was forensically cleaned and no-one will come forward. And Sinn Fein at the time said, 'Oh, he was involved in petty crime'. That hurt the family hard. That hurts them to this day. Even Gerry said he understood it was something to do with petty criminality.
"Meeting Mairia Cahill and she telling me that whole story," Micheal continues.
I ask Mary, as a woman, how did she feel about the way Mairia Cahill was treated by Gerry Adams.
"Look," she says, "as far as I am concerned, what he had done, to do with his niece, it didn't take until Mairia Cahill. Talk to anyone. You don't have to know the details of it but if someone is part of covering up anything to do with sex abuse, I don't think any of us would stand over it. You look at it and you say: 'If that was one of mine...'
"I have to say, the Mairia Cahill thing, when it did come, it didn't surprise me at all. If it had been a Fianna Fail or a Fine Gael leader, they would not have survived. There is not a leader of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Labour who would have survived. There is no doubt that there is a reluctance to support some Sinn Fein candidates because of the Gerry factor."
Can you understand why people are wary of Fianna Fail?
"Of course I can understand it," says Micheal. "My job is to reconnect with people and we have been doing that for the last five years, to re-engage. It is going to take time. I've never gone into negative politics and knocking people."
What about the negative politics of the FF poster of Enda Kenny recently?
"The poster thing? Harmless. It was actually a good photograph of Enda! But the key point there, and the criticism is legitimate in politics, we were highlighting the inaction on trolleys in emergency departments and we were highlighting the failed policies of Fine Gael on health. That's legitimate, By the way, it only lasted an hour but it got more publicity than anything we've done in five years."
I ask Mary if it is difficult to read harsh things about Micheal in the press? He is the leader of Fianna Fail but he is your husband.
"Ah, yeah, sure of course it upsets you," Mary says. "You wouldn't be human if it didn't upset you. If you were to rewind the clock, and ask 'Would I go into all of this?' You kind of say: 'Sometimes.' The media are, not just with him, anyone in public life, so vicious. Then you just say: 'Oh, just put a helmet on and try to ignore it all'. You have to try to switch off. When we started out, we would never have had a sense of what we were going into. None. Even though I worked in Fianna Fail head office. I was leaving head office, having got another job, on the day he was elected to the Dail. We wouldn't have had a sense then."
Micheal: "You didn't want me to run for that election in 1989 because we had just put a deposit on the house. Mary thought: 'You're not going to win it. Concentrate on getting the house sorted'."
Mary: "He had lost the 1987 election. Charlie Haughey came back from Japan and said, 'I'm having an election'."
What was it like at the 2011 election when FF got a terrible hiding?
Mary: "Sure, we knew it was coming. The writing was on the wall. You knew it really, a long time out from that, in the previous local elections. You could see it all coming."
I ask Mary what was Micheal like to live with during that gloomy time. Was he coming home with a black cloud over him each night?
"He's not that kind of person. I would say he is a glass half-full merchant," Mary says sipping her full glass of Sav Blanc. "No matter what is going on, or how terrible it is, he comes home, always a bit optimistic. Don't you?"
"I come home always a bit optimistic," Micheal replies, "and then Mary and the three kids would say to me: 'Well, actually, Dad - you could have done that better.' The young fella (15) rang me the other day to say: 'You had the ball in front of the net, an open goal'. It was about Sinn Fein."
What would be a failure in this election for you?
"What would be a failure? That's a good way of putting it now. I said when I took over that I wanted to ensure that in addition to the TDs we have that we would have a newer generation of politician and that we would have critical mass after this general election."
Numbers? "I am not going to get into figures and numbers but we will do well. We will be a force to be reckoned with after the election. I would like to see a new generation elected as well. I want new people in. That's what ultimately guarantees the future."
Do you worry that if you don't get a certain amount of seats in the election, you will be put under pressure as leader of Fianna Fail?
"As Mary said to you earlier, I am the glass half full merchant. I don't actually weigh too much on the negatives and the potential negatives."
But you imagine the headlines when one ambitious FF member pipes up and says something like 'Martin must go'?
"But I've had that for the last five years. Experience does help you."
It sounds like House of Cards. Did you watch that series in your house?
"Of course we watched it," laughs Mary. "Remember, I worked in Fianna Fail. I was there a long time ago."
So are you the power behind the throne, Mary?
"No. Not at all," Mary says. "There was a time I used to have a lot more involvement."
"Mary would instinctively know the issues," says Micheal. "I think she tries to put a protective arm around the kids: 'This could happen, that could happen,' because of her experience of politics. I tend to be more, 'Don't worry about that', because experience makes you calmer. Some of my advisors will laugh when I say experience makes you calmer!"
Do you take any of the blame for what happened to the country in the recession?
"We spent too much. We brought the taxation base down too low. Then, when the crisis came, the country was not in a strong enough position to deal with some of it. We take fault and blame for some of that. Equally, we did some good things as well. Charlie McCreevy is often attacked, but the pension reserve fund was a good thing, the one per cent saving of GNP. We should do that again in the future. We should put money aside for a rainy day."
What were you saying to your husband during the boom, Mary?
"You know the one that kills me, when I saw the Jury's site in Dublin being sold and the only way it could make the cost of the site at €450m was for every one of those apartments to be more than a million each. It never would have made sense.
"I often would have said that to you," Mary says, turning to her husband. "'Why are people not screaming?' I think if there was one thing where you should have shouted and shouted it was that, because there were not 450 people in Dublin who could pay a million for an apartment. We should have all said it as a country: 'The place is gone nuts!'"
I ask Micheal did he know the story of his father Paddy's hard life growing up? His father's parents died within a year of each other when he was 15.
"My mother told me that story," Micheal says. "He went into the Army at 14. He told a lie. We saw his records. His weight was so light that he had to. Then the sister kept the family together. The younger sister went to the orphanage in Cobh; two went to England to fight in World War II; one became a prisoner of war and they thought he was dead. They got a telegram saying 'missing in action'. He survived Changi prison, which is probably the most notorious prisoner-of-war camp. He came out just eight stone... Terrible cruelty," he says.
"My father's mother, her first husband was killed in World War I. Her second husband died of a heart attack early in life. So Maura, the eldest sister, kept them together. They were afraid of 'The Cruelty Man' in Cork - these voluntary inspectors who went around saying kids shouldn't be brought up in this family. The Cruelty Man would pluck them from their home and put into the industrial schools.
"So the older sister was dodging this and trying to hold things together. She was a brilliant woman, my auntie Maura. So when my dad came out of the Army, he lived with Maura and her family. They would say my father was their second father in a way because he looked after them."
The two-hour dinner in Douglas with An Taoiseach-in-waiting/first FF leader not to be Taoiseach, and his wife is drawing to a lively conclusion. (For the record, Micheal has almost ruined the entire meal by telling me his favourite singer is Joe Dolan. Mary adds to her spouse's growing uncool by saying that he used to wear "brown suits a lot" until she intervened.) So, how did he ask you to marry him? Was it a long ard fheis-type speech?
"Oh no," hoots Mary. "Sure we were going out with each other for nine years."
Nine years? Did your mother ever ask you, is that fella ever going to ask you to marry him at all? "I was working in Dublin in Fianna Fail. He was a teacher in Cork. So we had a long commute. I had an apartment in Dublin, in Sussex Road, over by the Burlington. He was at home with his parents in Cork."
Micheal: "A mammy's boy!"
Mary: "He didn't move out until we got married. They were different times. We met in 1981, got engaged in 1989."
How did you ask Mary to marry you?
"I asked Mr O'Shea. I went out to the house in Midleton and said: 'Tony, do you want to go for a walk?'
"He said, 'Well, it's pouring rain! But I will, so'."
Micheal: "We got married in 1990. That was quite interesting. I was elected as a TD. We had the wedding booked. There was all sorts of ructions going on in the Dail. Vincent Brady, who had a warped view of what was good news and bad news, said to me: 'I have good news for you. You are on the front page of the Examiner. Fine Gael have stopped you from having your honeymoon'. There was a lot going in the Dail with broadcasting bills, etc. So we went on honeymoon in Ireland for four days."
"We had to come back from the Aran Islands after four days when the Dail collapsed," says Mary laughing.