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GAA, green tea and the 'Child of Prague' - what really drives Micheál Martin on?

The Fianna Fáil leader has harboured a 30-year ambition to be Taoiseach. He has suffered personal tragedies and survived the near obliteration of his party. But can the son of a boxing champion knock out Leo? Kim Bielenberg reports

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Ambition: 'I didn’t go into politics to be a backbencher for life,' says Micheál Martin. 'And in that respect, I intend going as far as I possibly can in politics'

Ambition: 'I didn’t go into politics to be a backbencher for life,' says Micheál Martin. 'And in that respect, I intend going as far as I possibly can in politics'

PA

Martin with Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney in 1999

Martin with Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney in 1999

At the annual New Year’s Day swim at Courtmacsherry in 2009

At the annual New Year’s Day swim at Courtmacsherry in 2009

Micheál Martin during the introduction of the Smoking Ban in 2004

Micheál Martin during the introduction of the Smoking Ban in 2004

Family first: Micheál Martin casts his vote during the 2016 General Election with son Micheál Aodh, wife Mary, and daughter Aoibhe in Ballinlough, Cork

Family first: Micheál Martin casts his vote during the 2016 General Election with son Micheál Aodh, wife Mary, and daughter Aoibhe in Ballinlough, Cork

PA

It was while Martin was first in health that he first worked with Deirdre Gillane, a policy adviser who has been by his side for most of his career since

It was while Martin was first in health that he first worked with Deirdre Gillane, a policy adviser who has been by his side for most of his career since

Martin with Brian Cowen in 2000

Martin with Brian Cowen in 2000

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Ambition: 'I didn’t go into politics to be a backbencher for life,' says Micheál Martin. 'And in that respect, I intend going as far as I possibly can in politics'

Micheál Martin has not just wanted to be Taoiseach since he took over as leader of Fianna Fáil nine years ago after emerging from the wreckage of a calamitous government.

According to his friends, he has carefully nurtured the ambition for well over three decades.

When he was a young aspiring politician in Cork in his twenties, he used to talk privately about becoming the "next Jack Lynch".

As a friend put it: "He would say it half-jokingly, but you knew he was serious."

Lynch, who served in the top job for nine years and was known in Cork as the "real Taoiseach", was Martin's role model from the start - outwardly mild-mannered and polite, but with the steeliness and resilience required to make it to the top.

Micheál's father Paddy, a bus driver and amateur boxer of some distinction known as "the champ", canvassed for Lynch.

And Micheál joined his local Fianna Fáil cumann as a teenager. He has said that he developed his love of public speaking doing mock radio broadcasts in school, and trying to motivate other players in GAA dressing rooms at his club Nemo Rangers.

In public, as a rookie TD, Martin signalled his ambition from the start, declaring in an interview: "I didn't go into politics to be a backbencher for life and in that respect, I intend going as far as I possibly can in politics - I take each step as it comes."

He added in the same interview: "I'm not going to be disappointed easily - I expect setbacks. I expect to lose on occasions but I'm there for the long haul."

He has certainly been in there for the long haul.

After serving for 13 years as a minister, suffering personal tragedies, and surviving the near obliteration of his party, Martin is now as close as he has ever been to entering the gates of Government Buildings as Taoiseach.

Early polls in the election campaign show him ahead of his young rival Leo Varadkar, but Martin knows that it is still all to play for - and this election, his third as leader, is almost certainly his last chance.

One former government advisor who served with him says: "He'll be very careful to avoid complacency for the rest of the campaign, because he knows that would demotivate party workers, from canvassers on the ground up to head office."

In the first leader's debate on Wednesday, there were no knockout blows delivered on either side. Many pundits believe that Varadkar just shaded it with a convincing performance of somewhat contrived humility.

Sure-footed

But at other times in the campaign, Martin has looked more sure-footed.

As far as Varadkar was concerned, the prelude to the campaign was disastrous with the botched plans to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Fine Gael did not mean to celebrate the Black and Tans, but they gave their opponents the ammunition to portray it that way.

And homelessness was front and centre on the first day of the campaign, when a man was injured as his tent was moved along the Grand Canal.

From the start of his leadership of Fianna Fáil, Martin has known that the revival of his party might be a decade-long project if it was ever to happen at all.

Perhaps one of his greatest talents was to avoid the manure that was flying in the direction of his party after he finished his long stint at the heart of government during the Celtic Tiger period of spectacular boom and bust.

One of the telling lines about Martin came from Varadkar (or one of his speech-writers) when he said of the FF leader three years ago: "He became a TD during the Haughey era, he became a Minister during the Ahern era, and he became an expert during the Cowen era. And he's spent the last seven years learning to be the new kid on the block."

There is a new generation of voters who have no memory of the fact that Fianna Fáil almost became a byword for economic calamity, incompetence, and political graft by the time Martin took over.

It could so easily never have happened for the Corkman, who used to be sneeringly referred to as "the dauphin". He was Bertie Ahern's heir apparent for a time, but then saw himself eclipsed by Brian Cowen.

By the late 2000s he was referred to as the "former future leader of Fianna Fáil".

By the end of 2010, with Cowen's government stumbling from one disaster to the next, Micheál Martin had suffered such a year of personal trauma beyond the world of politics that some local observers wondered whether he might give up his political career.

In October of that year, his much-loved daughter Léana died at the age of seven. In a most moving tribute at the funeral, Martin recalled family holidays in Courtmacsherry in West Cork, and cycling to Timoleague to feed the ducks with Leana on the back of the bike holding Brennan's bread.

Leana, who died of a cardiac complaint, was his youngest daughter. Martin and his wife Mary O'Shea have three grown-up children - Micheál Aodh, who is an accomplished Gaelic footballer, Aoibhe, who works in finance, and Cillian is a first year student.

The tragedy in 2010 was not the first time the couple lost a child with a boy Ruairi having died in infancy.

Mary O'Shea is seen by some in the party as the "real driving force" behind Martin's meticulously-oiled political machine.

One leading FF luminary said: "Mary would be the last stop in his decision-making process and is well respected in Fianna Fáil."

The couple met in UCC where they were students. According to Fianna Fáil lore, a local party official prevailed upon Martin to ask Mary out. She initially turned him down, but changed her mind a month later.

As Micheál trained to be a teacher, Mary became Fianna Fáil's National Youth Organiser.

A friend from that time, when Martin was making his baby steps in politics, said: "What struck me when I met them was his passion for the job and ambition - and it also struck me that Mary was equally ambitious for him."

Terry Shannon, a city councillor and staunch campaigner for Martin in Cork, says: "I don't think there was ever a question Micheál giving up in 2010."

'Ditherer-in-chief'

His critics have long accused him of indecision as a minister and brand him the "ditherer-in-chief". He is said to have commissioned over 100 reports when he was Minister for Health from 2000 to 2004, and also had a fondness for bringing together "working groups".

But at certain points in his career, he has shown singular decisiveness.

Reluctantly wielding the dagger in 2011, he moved to oust Brian Cowen, when other ministers stepped back from the fray.

Martin had shown a similar streak of political ambition near the start of his career when the leader Bertie Ahern discussed the possibility of him becoming an opposition spokesman.

When there was no firm job offer, Martin rang him back later and told the Fianna Fáil leader he could "do a good job in education''. Within three years, at the age of 36, he was Minister for Education.

Referring to this later, he said, "A dumb priest never got a parish.''

Early on, he developed a reputation for craving publicity.

John Walshe, the former Irish Independent Education editor who later became a government advisor to Ruairi Quinn, recalled how Martin was doing the annual rounds of the teachers' conferences at Easter as his party's education spokesperson in the mid-1990s.

Having driven for hours, he had just arrived in a Cork hotel where he spotted Walshe in the foyer.

He literally rushed over to him saying. "John, John, I want to issue a very important statement immediately, I'm really very concerned at the situation and all that's happening. The Minister has to deal with it urgently."

The reporter responded: "Fine, Micheál, give me a statement but what are you so concerned about?"

According to Walshe, Martin looked at him blankly and then sheepishly, as he clearly could not remember what had been a matter of extreme national urgency just two minutes earlier.

In his book A New Partnership in Education, Walshe wrote that Martin proved to be an energetic minister and performed much better in office than he had in opposition. He introduced innovations in areas of technology, educational disadvantage, early childhood education, and gave a boost to third-level research.

It was during this time in Education that Martin was joined by a young advisor, Peter MacDonagh, a somewhat mysterious figure who has worked on and off for Martin and Fianna Fáil for two decades.

MacDonagh, who is a grand-nephew of the 1916 leader Thomas MacDonagh, is heavily involved in Fianna Fáil's 2020 election strategy.

The Rathgar intellectual is known in party circles as the "Child of Prague", or simply as "the infant", because he is based in the Czech city, returning periodically for elections.

Bertie Ahern credited the backroom handler with the "A Lot Done - More To Do" strategy that almost won Fianna Fáil a majority in 2002.

The Cambridge graduate, who has studied closely American and British elections, is said to be behind Martin's strategy of emphasising improved public services rather than lower taxes.

Fianna Fáilers say MacDonagh focuses on the broad strategy of the election, by trying to gauge the mood of the public, rather than focusing the daily nitty gritty of politics.

Simple promises

Martin's approach has been to keep policy pledges simple and short of detail, and to avoid too many promises.

"It's a 'less is more' approach," said one FF insider. "He doesn't want to leave too many hostages to fortune."

Martin may have learned from bitter experience that a key political skill is to manage expectations.

In 2002, as Minister for Heath, he promised to abolish hospital waiting lists within two years. By the end of his tenure in Health, he might have reduced waiting times marginally, but he was never likely to meet his target.

During the Virgin Media debate, the Taoiseach alluded to a controversial issue that involved Martin as Minister for Health. But he didn't flesh out the details.

After he left office in the department, a scandal emerged in 2005 about 315,000 elderly medical card patients who had been illegally charged for their nursing home care.

While these charges had been levied during a period that started long before Martin became minister, the Secretary-General of the Department claimed he had alerted the minister by sending him a file on the issue and briefing him.

Martin claims he never got the file, and denied that he had been briefed about the charges issue.

The Travers Report found no evidence to indicate that Martin or other ministers had been fully briefed on concerns surrounding nursing home charges but did say that "there were undoubtedly... some lapses of judgement on the part of ministers over the years".

His headline measure in Health was to ban smoking in pubs and other workplaces, and he faced down criticisms of the vintners' lobby, which was considered influential in Fianna Fáil.

Although he enjoys the occasional pint in his local Orchard Bar, Martin has long been renowned for his clean-living ways.

His enthusiasm for a nutritious dietary regime has been said to border on the obsessive, and he has been known to berate political acquaintances about what they are eating.

Much to the chagrin of his cookie-loving colleagues, the salad and green tea enthusiast banned biscuits from cabinet meetings when he was Health minister, insisting that only fresh fruit be served. He is also said to abhor fried breakfasts.

It was while he was in Health that he first worked with Deirdre Gillane, a policy advisor who has been by his side for most of his career since.

Gillane, a straight-talking former official in Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation who is Fianna Fáil's Chef de Cabinet, is centrally involved in the election campaign. She also took on an important role in handling negotiations over the confidence and supply arrangement with Fine Gael.

Confidence votes

After the agreement was signed in 2016 and later renewed, Martin was criticised in his party for not opposing the government in budgetary and confidence votes.

Less than two years ago, party stalwarts such as TD John McGuinness were worried that the deal was damaging the party. They feared that Martin might become the first FF leader not to become Taoiseach.

But Martin and his team now feel vindicated in their strategy of rebuilding trust in the party and waiting until the shine came off the young Taoiseach. Bookmakers Paddy Power have installed Martin as odds-on favourite to be Taoiseach.

If he emerges victorious in two weeks' time and puts together a deal with other parties and independents to form a government, he will finally realise his ambition to be the next Jack Lynch. But don't expect open-top buses and bonfires by the banks of the Lee. He has already ruled out that prospect: "Those days are gone. Politics and triumphalism don't go hand in hand any more."

Indo Review


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