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Wednesday 21 March 2018

Micheál and Michael: soldiers of detox who revived Fianna Fáil

Since the economic crash, Micheál Martin and his constituency rival Michael McGrath have turned around the fortunes of Fianna Fáil. Both aspire to be Taoiseach. Kim Bielenberg reports in the second part of our series on ­political odd couples

Celebration: Michael McGrath and Micheál Martin are elected on the first count at City Hall, Cork, in February 2016, with McGrath polling more votes than his leader. Photo: Tony Gavin
Celebration: Michael McGrath and Micheál Martin are elected on the first count at City Hall, Cork, in February 2016, with McGrath polling more votes than his leader. Photo: Tony Gavin
Michael McGrath
Micheál Martin as Minister for Health during his smoke-free at work legislation in 2004
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

If there is a general election this year, the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin knows it will be a fight to the political death for himself personally.

He either wins the election by having his party gain more seats than Fine Gael, and becomes Taoiseach, or he faces the prospect of political oblivion.

It is seen as unlikely that he could continue as leader, having lost three general elections, in a party that still sees itself as the natural party of government.

"The last thing he wants is to go down history as the first Fianna Fáil leader never to become Taoiseach," says PJ Coogan, the morning presenter on Cork station 96FM, who has known Martin for many years.

If Martin slips up, there will be another Corkman waiting in the wings. Michael McGrath, who shares the same constituency, also has strong aspirations to be Taoiseach, and is seen as Martin's most likely successor.

The fate of each of these Cork politicians is bound up inextricably with that of the other.

With the two senior figures in Fianna Fáil breathing down each other's necks in the Cork South Central constituency, it would hardly be surprising if there were occasional tensions between them.

McGrath himself has insisted that the pair have a "cordial workmanlike relationship", but others observe that their personal relationship does not exude warmth.

"Their relationship is purely professional - I wouldn't say that they send each other birthday cards," says PJ Coogan.

It must have rankled with the Fianna Fáil leader that his younger running mate McGrath won more votes and topped the poll in the last general election.

Although Martin revived his party in the election across the country by more than doubling the number of seats to 44, coming first in his own constituency would have been seen as a badge of honour. "McGrath topped the poll to the chagrin of the Micheál Martin camp, and that was certainly not in the script," says Coogan. "The younger man may have been seen to act above his station. In Fianna Fáil in Cork South Central you are either in the Martin or McGrath camps and there is no real in between."

There are many similarities between the two politicians. In the age of such uncouth leaders as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, both have impeccable manners.

You won't hear either politician talk of "lying Leo" or "crooked Mary Lou". McGrath, in particular, nearly always prefer to play the ball, rather than the man, and at times as Fianna Fáil finance spokesman, he seemed to form a mutual admiration society with the previous finance minister Michael Noonan.

He once described his opposite number Noonan as the "right man for the job", while Noonan said McGrath was a young man with a bright future.

This week, McGrath was welcoming the fact that the economy is "performing quite well", an odd sort of approach for an opposition politician.

At the same time, as a former accountant, McGrath can be forensic and straight to the point in questioning his opposite number, and is prone to giving bankers sharp rebukes.

He is renowned for his grasp of detail and is a good debater. A Fianna Fáil colleague said: "You don't need a fact checker with McGrath, because you can pretty well rely on him to be 100pc accurate."


On the downside, McGrath has no experience as a minister. He rose to prominence when his party had been cast into the electoral wilderness in disgrace in 2011 following the economic collapse. While he has won plaudits for his meticulous style in the Dáil, and has an unrivalled local political machine, has he really made a profound political impact beyond the beltway, across the country?

His lack of experience has an upside in that he cannot be linked with the Fianna Fáilures, the ministers who steered the ship of State on to the rocks, and so he is largely unblemished.

McGrath's only real embarrassment as a politician came in 2013 when his Facebook page "liked" an image of a scantily-clad woman described as a "MILF of the day". McGrath immediately deactivated his Facebook page and said his account had been hacked. He said: "It's certainly a case of getting burned online."

Both Martin and McGrath come from similar, traditional working-class backgrounds. Micheál grew up in the Turner's Cross area of Cork as the son of the bus driver and champion amateur boxer, Paddy Martin.

Michael McGrath's father, Jack, was a manual worker, who had to give up work early because of illness, and died when Michael was just 18. He grew up in Passage West.

Both politicians built up their own political base, starting out as councillors, rather than relying on family connections. Both have brothers who are active in local politics, and both go to great lengths to maintain their community involvement.

"Being involved in his community back in Cork keeps Micheál Martin grounded," says his friend, city councillor Terry Shannon. "He doesn't get away with any airs and graces. If he is ever Taoiseach, he will still be down walking his dog around the parish."

According to Shannon, he might still get a phone call from a constituent telling him: "Micheál, you made a balls of that, boy."

Micheál Martin likes to emphasise that he was the first in his family ever to go to university. He studied arts at UCC and trained to be a teacher. McGrath attended the same university as a commerce student , and later also worked in the college as an accountant.

Martin's wife Mary is seen by some in the party as the "real driving force" behind Martin's political machine. Terry Shannon says: "Mary would be very astute politically, and wouldn't be shy of telling him if he was getting things wrong."

Family tragedies

The couple met in UCC when 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.

The family has suffered two major tragedies Their five-week-old son, Ruairí, died from a cot death in 1999, and in October 2010 their beloved seven-year-old daughter, Leana, died in Great Ormond Street Hospital, London from a heart condition.

Micheál's eldest son is the goalkeeper with his local GAA club, Nemo Rangers, and the Fianna Fáil leader, a passionate GAA fan, is seen regularly at matches. He has a grown-up daughter, Aoibhe, and a teenage son, Cillian.

Observers in the Dáil noted recently that Michael McGrath was taking a keen interest in VAT rates on clothes and shoes when children pass the age of 10.

It is entirely understandable if this issue preoccupies McGrath. He is the father of seven children, an accomplishment that is rare enough nowadays.

McGrath and his wife Sarah O'Brien met when they were both training to be accountants. He once explained how the romance developed: "We fell in love over an audit file."

He has admitted that it is a difficult task juggling home life with the duties of public office.

"You do pay a huge price in politics - you are missing out on a lot if you have a young family. When I am back, I do try to ringfence as much time as I possibly can to be with Sarah and the kids."

By the autumn of 2010, with Martin suffering a family bereavement and the Fianna Fáil government stumbling from one disaster to another in the depths of recession, some observers wondered whether he might give up his political career.

But in early 2011, with the Taoiseach Brian Cowen and other ministers quitting politics completely, Martin stepped forward as leader, just as his party reached the lowest ebb in its history.

Terry Shannon went campaigning with Micheál around the country during the election of that year, and said it was a profoundly difficult experience.

"People were roaring abuse at us - it was horrific," says the party activist. "It was traumatic and embarrassing.

"Micheál could have walked away at that time, like many others did, but he clawed the party back."

Both politicians have enjoyed success in trying to detoxify the Fianna Fáil brand, no small task when the country was bankrupt. They have studiously tried to distance the party from the world of dodgy builders, big business, political strokes and planning tribunals.

In the midst of an accommodation crisis, they prefer to highlight their party's heritage as the movement that brought public housing to the masses early on in its history, rather than the organisation that inflated a property bubble.

One Cork party stalwart says: "Fianna Fáil still sees itself as the real Labour party - the party of people who have their dinner in the middle of the day, while Fine Gaelers dress up for dinner in the evening. In Cork, they are still the merchant princes."

But the two aspiring Taoisigh from Cork cannot rely completely on political amnesia to win back power for their party.

When the next election comes, Varadkar will highlight Martin's role in Fianna Fáil's past calamities as the ditherer-in-chief serving as a senior minister in four departments, including a stint in health when he became architect of the HSE.

Varadkar said of Martin recently: "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."

Some of the most damning criticisms of Martin have come from his own side, and the most common jibe levelled at him is his alleged indecisiveness.

In an interview for the book Hell at the Gates, the former Fianna Fáil minister Pat Carey said of Martin's last term in government: "He can't make a decision, and won't make a decision, and he analyses everything to the point of almost having to bring in a consultant to analyse his analysis."

While there are many similarities between Michael and Micheál, there are also notable differences between them politically.

Theresa Reidy, a political scientist at UCC, says Michael McGrath takes a conservative approach on social issues, such as abortion and church patronage of schools, while his leader is more middle-of-the-road.

The coming months could highlight divisions within Fianna Fáil on the abortion issue, and between Michael and Micheál.

By Thursday of this week, the Fianna Fáil leader had not taken a firm stance on abortion, but he has indicated recently that he supports easing restrictions in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest. McGrath has also been vague, but his position is expected to veer more towards pro-life than pro-choice. In 2013, he voted against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, which allowed abortion in cases where a mother's life was in danger, including through suicide.

"Fianna Fáil members and voters are more conservative than their leader on this issue," says Theresa Reidy, "so the party will see that there is nothing to be gained from the referendum."

Martin's ability to take a bold decision will be put to the test in the coming months, as he has to gauge what is the right time to take down the Government.

"Usually elections are for the Government to lose, rather than for the opposition to win - and that is to Martin's advantage," says Theresa Reidy.

Fine Gael may be ahead in the polls, but there are plenty of potential banana skins in the path of Leo Varadkar, including the housing crisis and Brexit.

A friend of Martin from Cork says: "In the recent Frances Fitzgerald controversy he showed his political experience and out-manoeuvred Leo Varadkar.

"He wouldn't still be there at the top in Fianna Fáil, seven years after their electoral disaster, if he wasn't a determined and shrewd politician. One thing I have learned is that you should never underestimate him - and I would never write him off."


FF's Odd Couple: at a glance

Michael McGrath

Michael McGrath

Born: August 23, 1976.

Family: One of five children, and he now has seven of his own with wife Sarah O'Brien

Education: St Peter's Community School in Passage West, Commerce degree at UCC.

Life before politics: Accountant at RED FM in Cork and in UCC.

Political CV: Elected to Cork County Council in 2004, and as a TD in 2007. After the death of Brian Lenihan Jr, he became party spokesperson on Finance.

What he says: "While I'm absolutely committed to Fianna Fáil and what it stands for, party politics doesn't define me and on any issue I'll call it as I see it."

Likes: Tireless community work. Once stood in for Santa when he failed to turn up at a local school.

Micheál Martin

Micheál Martin as Minister for Health during his smoke-free at work legislation in 2004

Born: August 16, 1960.

Family: Married to Mary O'Shea and father of Micheál A, Aoibhe and Cillian. Son of the late Paddy and Eileen Martin, and the third in a family of five. He has a twin brother, Pádraig.

Education: Coláiste Chríost Rí, Turner's Cross. Arts degree in UCC.

Life before politics: Teacher at Presentation College for five years.

Political CV: Elected to Cork City Council in 1985 and to the Dáil in 1989. Served as Minister for Education, Health, Enterprise, and Foreign Affairs. Elected leader of Fianna Fáil on January 26, 2011. Introduced the smoking ban.

What he says: "[Varadkar] has appointed no expert to advise on health, or housing, or Brexit or any other of the most urgent problems - but he has an entire team to shoot videos to sell his image."

Likes: Green tea (with two bags) and Nemo Rangers GAA club, where his son Micheál Aodh is goalkeeper.

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