Monday 22 January 2018

Micheál hauls his party back from the edge of the abyss

Even Martin’s most loyal admirers did not dare to dream of this success, says Ralph Riegel

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is congratulated by his wife Mary at the election count at City Hall in Cork. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA wire
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is congratulated by his wife Mary at the election count at City Hall in Cork. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA wire
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

In the wake of his successful 2004 introduction of the smoking ban while health minister, Micheál Martin (56) was snidely nicknamed 'The Dauphin' by some within Fine Gael.

Almost from the day he was first elected to the Dáil, Fine Gael had viewed him out as a rival never to be underestimated.

Yet even Martin's greatest admirers wouldn't have dared to dream about the level of resurgence he has overseen within Fianna Fáil.

From being annihilated at the polls in General Election 2011, Fianna Fáil has bounced back to more than double their number of Dáil deputies at General Election 2016.

Mr Martin, speaking in Cork City Hall as he celebrated being re-elected on the first count, said it had been "a great campaign and an absolutely incredible election" for the party.

The party's director of elections, Billy Kelleher, confirmed that the party will nominate Mr Martin as Taoiseach - in itself a remarkable feat, given how close the 'Soldiers of Destiny' had come to political oblivion just five short years ago.

It represents a remarkable turnaround for the former teacher and ógra Fianna Fáil chairman who, in the dark days of 2011, was repeatedly questioned about whether Fianna Fáil had a future.

There were also mutterings that the party would never recover its former standing under a man who had served at Cabinet under both Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen.

From 1987 until 2010, Mr Martin had held various senior Cabinet posts, including health, education, enterprise and foreign affairs.

He had, his critics argued, been too closely associated with the Ahern and Cowen administrations.

Some within the parliamentary party openly suggested whether John McGuinness or Eamon O'Cuiv might represent other leadership options.

Others felt that Mr Martin's own Cork South Central running mate, Michael McGrath TD, would represent a clean break with the past.

But Mr Martin held his nerve, insisted on a root-and-branch overhaul of party structures and wasn't afraid to take tough, unpopular decisions when it came to selecting candidates for General Election 2016.

Mr Martin, who was born in Turner's Cross and still resides a couple of hundred metres from his birthplace, also never hid his annoyance at suggestions that he could go down in history as the first Fianna Fáil leader never to have served as Taoiseach.

Speaking last Friday as he voted at St Anthony's national school in Cork, Mr Martin said he had devoted the past five years to re-energising the party, and listening to voters.

"It has been a long conversation. We tried to listen to people. We paid attention to what they were saying. Maybe I am old fashioned but I think calling to people's doors and getting that kind of personal feedback is very important," he said.

"It certainly helped me in responding to issues during question time in the Dáil."

But it is outside of politics that Mr Martin enjoys arguably his greatest advantage and appeal.

The Fianna Fáil leader can justifiably claim that his interests are generally reflective of those of ordinary Irish people.

He is a devoted family man and goes on summer holidays with his wife Mary and children to Courtmacsherry in West Cork, just like his parents used to in the 1960s and 70s.

Mr Martin is also an ardent fan of Cork GAA and the Nemo Rangers GAA Club he grew up supporting as a boy.

Mr Martin also tries to take in as many Cork GAA matches as he can.

A fluent Irish speaker, he is also involved in various cultural organisations.

He studied at University College Cork and he published his masters thesis in 2009.

Appropriately enough, it dealt with the history of party politics in Ireland.

Irish Independent

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