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'Fianna Fail is the party of the working classes' - Micheal Martin

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin talks to Niamh Horan about the wilderness years, fighting back and coping with tragedy

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POLITICAL FIGHTER: Micheal Martin’s boxer father was his hero and introduced him to current affairs. Photo: Mark Condren

POLITICAL FIGHTER: Micheal Martin’s boxer father was his hero and introduced him to current affairs. Photo: Mark Condren

POLITICAL FIGHTER: Micheal Martin’s boxer father was his hero and introduced him to current affairs. Photo: Mark Condren

God comes down from heaven tomorrow and puts a big staff to Micheal Martin's neck.

"Micheal," he booms, "you have two choices. If you don't answer in 10 seconds I'll strike you dead. Go into government with Fine Gael or Sinn Fein?"

Micheal laughs off the question: "There will be other choices."

I tell him not to question God.

"Look, I have made it clear. We want to form a new government with centre ground parties, which I think we'll have enough seats to do. People want a new government. They are fed up of Fine Gael. They are nine years there."

But then there comes a flicker of insight into how he might sway - if it comes down to it: "I have very strong issues with Sinn Fein. There are issues I have with Sinn Fein which I don't have with Fine Gael - in terms of their past and their endorsement of the IRA."

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GETTING THE VOTE OUT: Fianna Fail party leader Micheal Martin with his wife Mary, daughter Aoibhe and son Micheal Aodh. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

GETTING THE VOTE OUT: Fianna Fail party leader Micheal Martin with his wife Mary, daughter Aoibhe and son Micheal Aodh. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

So you have more in common with Fine Gael?

"I have more issues with Sinn Fein that go more fundamentally to a moral question."

His contempt for Sinn Fein's past runs deep. He recalls sitting down with a mother who spoke of her son's murder at the hands of the IRA. "They broke every bone in his body," she told him.

When the pressure came to bring his killers to justice, Mr Martin says Sinn Fein fired up "the propaganda machine" and alleged the victim was involved in crime - even though the man had unwittingly become involved in a row with the son of an IRA man, which ultimately sealed his fate.

"To this day, that mother has never received an apology and it was SF that put that [rumour] out. It offends her to this day and causes her tremendous grief that her son's name was stained." It's one example of many he gives of Sinn Fein and the influence of their "shadowy council".

He says outright that he would not trust the party to run the Department of Justice or the Garda.

So with that alliance not an option, would he go into confidence and supply with Fine Gael if Fine Gael were in opposition?

"I haven't ruled that out."

Would you go into confidence and supply with Fine Gael if Fianna Fail were once again in opposition?

"We don't see that arising."

Would you rule it out?

"I will put it to you this way: in 2016 we did facilitate a functioning government. Other parties have to play their part after the next election, which didn't happen the last time and we want to go into government with those parties - they have indicated that they want to go into government as well."

Would you go into a grand coalition with Fine Gael?

"No."

So if you don't want to go into government with Fine Gael or Sinn Fein - and if you don't get the numbers for the alternative, will you go for a second election?

"No. That is scaremongering by Fine Gael. It is not going to arise. A second election will not arise. And the numbers will be there to form an alternative government."

On the idea of a rotating Taoiseach, he says: "It is not a sustainable option at this stage."

One striking criticism of Fianna Fail by Irish voters is that it is too similar to Fine Gael. I expect Mr Martin to hit back with more policy spiel but instead he drills down to the party's essence. The difference, he says, is a matter of class.

"Many people in Fianna Fail, and my own background, come from a different milieu. I came from a working-class background. My father was a bus driver. My parents never had an education. But the one passion they had in life was for us to have a second-level education."

After former Fianna Fail Education Minister Donogh O'Malley brought in free education in the 1960s, Micheal and his siblings were the first in the family to make it to third-level college

"To me, that sums up Fianna Fail," he says, "The working-class person who wants to aspire and get on in life. To create opportunities - no matter what your background.

"I don't think Fine Gael come from that milieu. They come from a more privileged background and they never really had that feel for working-class people."

In what is perhaps his strongest attack on Fine Gael to date, he says: "Fine Gael have a huge sense of entitlement and they believe that they have a divine right to rule." He also said they have "a sense of privilege".

Do they look down on people from a different class?

"They don't get it, is how I would put it. One of the reasons we haven't had significant more council housing is because they didn't want to build them, whereas Fianna Fail did. To get people out of the tenements."

"Fine Gael don't have a feel for [council house projects] or how they can be developed… I think there was a rule in the last couple of years to move away from council houses... It is more instinctively a party who looks after the wealthier classes. That's been the case since its very foundation."

He says as education minister he wanted "to ensure children born in disadvantaged backgrounds were given the same opportunity as every one else". And he feels "that is the fundamental difference" of the passion within Fianna Fail.

Sitting upstairs in Dublin's Westbury Hotel, he is a long way from the man whose party was wiped out in the 2011 General Election.

To regroup he would walk for miles through "every road" and "every inch" of west Cork's meadows. His favourite spot was Dunworley Beach.

Today it is still his go-to escape: "I just let it all out and think about everything," he says. "Rapid thoughts come to you and it changes your perspective and you get away from the bubble, the constant phone-calls and emails."

On what kept him going through the political wilderness, he says: "It was in my DNA."

His father, Paddy, lost both parents by the age of 15. Paddy's three-year-old sister was sent to an orphanage, his brother ended up a prisoner of war. To survive, Paddy faked his age and joined the IrishAarmy, emerging a professional boxer. He worked as a bus driver to support his family.

"There is something in that gene that is kind of resilient… I reflect on what has been a long nine years," says Mr Martin. "We are not quitters. I am just not a quitter and there is stubbornness in the family and in the genes. I just kept at it."

He says his father was his hero and the person who introduced him to politics and current affairs.

Although nicknamed the ''champ'', he was a "gentle giant" and never raised his fists outside the ring.

In the middle of the night he would wake a young Micheal to watch fights between Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. He would talk him through every punch.

At the weekends, he would take his son out to the garden and teach him the ropes "avoiding the punch, the jabbing, the jabbing, scoring the points as opposed to the knockouts," says Mr Martin.

"There are similarities in terms of how you would dance around the political ring."

It was when Micheal looked out for the count on the political canvas in 2012 that Paddy passed away.

After the funeral, a bus driver approached him and shared a story of his father's days as an inspector: "He advised new bus drivers: the one thing you must never do is leave a child on the side of the road - if they don't have their fare, bring the child home... interesting," says Mr Martin, reflecting on his father's impoverished childhood.

During his most challenging times, Mr Martin would think back on his father and "how he came through all of that". But the Fianna Fail leader hasn't been spared his own personal battles.

Although he has never publicly spoken about it, he and his wife Mary have lost two children. In late 2010, their seven-year-old daughter Leana died tragically from a cardiac condition that developed suddenly. Their son, Ruairi, died in infancy years before. Although he usually arrives relaxed with no media handler, it has been a proviso in previous interviews that he would not discuss their deaths.

When we meet it is solely to discuss politics so I broach the subject with care. "I have never talked about Leana," he says. There is a moment's pause. He is loathe to discuss it and I wonder if his words might help someone else.

Then he says: "Grief will always be with you but you have to get up off the floor.

"You have to engage again with people and with the world around you. You have to continue on to celebrate what you had. The wonders of what you had..."

He trails off.

"It was a terrible period in our lives."

I share a story about a man who lost his child and told me the best advice he received - which seemed beyond comprehension at the time but which saved him in the long run - was to return to work.

Mr Martin takes a quiet moment to reflect. "I said it to Charlie O'Connor when his son passed away. [Charlie O'Connor, a Fianna Fail TD, lost his son when he was just 35.] I went out to Charlie and said: 'Look, get back into work, get back into routine get back into life.' There is no magic wand, there is no magic wand, you just carry on."

To lose one child is tragic, but two is merciless. Can he take any meaning to get sense of what happened?

"No. For Mary and I, for both of us and the family, these were two very, very traumatic events. Two big blows. We both got up - I think our children helped us through. Micheal and Aoibhe [their first two children] after Ruairi, and all three [including Cillian]after Leana, but these are huge blows. Other families go through similar traumas and I think what it teaches you is that life can be very, very cruel at times. That is the one meaning I take from what happened."

Did he ever feel like throwing in the towel because of it?

"Look, you go through, look I don't want to [go into it] and I have never discussed this in the context of politics, so look... during that period you have to work things through. And I made a judgment call to continue on and I think one always reflects on that but I think it was the right thing to do."

Next weekend will decide whether or not he finally fulfils his ambition and becomes Taoiseach after more than 30 years in politics and four ministerial jobs in foreign affairs, enterprise, health and education.

With record homelessness and a housing crisis now the country's most pressing issue, does he believe every citizen deserves a roof over their head - either rented or owned - as a fundamental human right?

"Yes. In terms of how we organise society, yes we have to put a roof over people's heads, give them access to health care, and access to education and opportunity from the earliest age - no matter what their background."

We will have 500,000 more people living in Dublin in the next 15-20 years - where are they all going to live?

"I think we have to rebalance Ireland. We have to have more regional development, we have to bring industry [to the country]. In rural Ireland we have agriculture and rural industries like forestation but we need more than that.

"In Mayo you have Allergan who manufacture Botox, Coca-Cola in Ballina and Wexford, Lilly in Kinsale - that all happened before. So I would set up a specialist unit in the IDA to grow jobs in towns around the country because the balance of growth in Ireland is uneven at the moment.

"It is causing huge issues in the capital, rents are gone through the roof and I don't think it's sustainable. I think there is going to have to be highrise in many incidents, there has to be highrise in the Docklands in particular. That has to happen."

It is happening in your home city of Cork but Dublin City Council seem to be against it in the Docklands - will that change if you become leader? "It has to change."

If Sinn Fein get into power, he says, jobs, enterprise, economic progress and employment "will be destroyed if they get their way".

He adds: "It will be killed off by excessive taxation. Think about it: 16 new taxes [amounting to €4bn] - it will destroy Irish business and drive out investment. It will cause real damage to the economy."

Whatever party is elected next weekend, the world's leading economists are saying it is a matter of when - not if - a global crash will unfold. Is he prepared for that as Taoiseach and has he learned hard lessons from the past? Especially given the fact that Fianna Fail were in power in the run up to the 2008 crash? If it comes to it, he says "we will amend and adapt to protect the country". He will ensure not to "narrow our tax base too much" as a precautionary measure, and, on a personal level, he says he has learned "always be prepared to stand out from the herd and listen to the contrary voice".

Is he aware he could be taking on a cursed legacy with a crash befalling the next Taoiseach? "One cannot be fatalistic about life like that," he replies.

A couple of quick fire questions, then. Ireland has the fifth largest number of billionaires relative to its population of any country in the world. Does anyone deserve to be a billionaire? "I have no opposition to the idea of a person growing and developing a really great idea that changes the world and being rewarded for that. But they should pay their dues to society."

What keeps you up at night? "Worrying about the kids and their well-being and that they are OK."

Should politicians be judged on personal morality issues? No.

The last book you read?

"A book on Donald Trump..."

The Art of the Deal?

"No! Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward."

Have you ever read Machiavelli's The Prince?

"Yes... which is totally misunderstood by the way. Everyone thinks it's about this evil, cunning person plotting but actually it is one of the first books in terms of statecraft and that's what it really is in terms of how you manage the difficulties that will come your way in political life."

What did you take from it?

"The sense of balancing different competing [interests], planning and being strategic."

His clean lifestyle is legendary. He hasn't had chips in 20 years. He eats half a grapefruit and drinks green tea for breakfast, salads twice a day, follows mostly a plant-based diet but loves black pudding and a fry-up on bank holidays.

What's your guilty pleasure?

"A pint of Murphy's."

The last time you were drunk?

"New Year's Eve."

Ever smoked?

"When I was young - a fella tried it with me and I didn't inhale," he laughs uproariously. Would it matter if his Minister for Health was obese or a smoker?

"No, I am not into the PC thing at all - the world has become too PC on these issues." Does he think anything is off bounds if he is Taoiseach? "I think family should be above scrutiny."

On his wife Mary, he says: "I've been very lucky." Not just as a wife but as an honest adviser.

"Mary won't spare you - she will tell you the truth straight up - there is no hiding place."

Mr Martin says his family are "out every day knocking on doors". From their marriage he has learned that love "is enduring. It is not a flash in the pan. Love is something that is sustained and endures through everything".

OK, so let's say he fulfils his ambition. He becomes the next Taoiseach. But it means seeing 20pc less of his family. Does he do it? "I think the family are with me on this so I would take the job. We are going for it and it is a collective decision."

Win, lose or draw, he won't bow out of politics. So why all the sacrifice? What would he like his legacy to be? "That every child has every opportunity to realise their potential."

Sunday Independent


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