Taoiseach buoyed by week-long trip to New York that shows life is returning to normal, but faces back into many challenges at home
Even when he was not being quizzed by the travelling Irish press corps about awkward domestic matters such as whether he would meet Katherine Zappone or if he would subject ministers to polygraph tests to crack down on leaks, Micheál Martin could not escape some of the more challenging issues facing the Coalition back home.
The mica protests came to midtown Manhattan on Wednesday when Donegal natives Jarlath Doherty and Caroline Doherty (no relation) turned up at Fitzpatrick’s Hotel where the Taoiseach stayed for the five nights he was in the US.
“There was green tea in abundance, Fitzpatrick’s weren’t used to that,” remarked one of Martin’s travelling party — a nod to the Taoiseach’s predilection for the herbal brew.
Jarlath had connected with the mica redress campaign on Facebook which had put a call out for anyone in New York who could take up the issue directly with Micheál Martin while he was there. “We’ve been running around New York this morning,” Jarlath later told the Sunday Independent while sitting in the bar of the hotel on Lexington Avenue, having decided to take a chance he might be there.
Caroline said her brother Liam Doherty, who is a Sinn Féin councillor, had contacted her to see if she could do anything to raise the issue during the high-profile visit.
Upon their arrival at the hotel, a quick chat with the Taoiseach’s entourage was successful in securing a brief meeting to make their case and a photo opportunity with Martin.
“Ireland has a very privileged role, which we should all be proud of, on the [UN] Security Council, but security starts in your own house and there are 10,000 people that don’t even have psychological safety and security in their own home,” Jarlath said afterwards.
Caroline, who told me earlier in the week that if the mica redress issue wasn’t resolved “there is going to be a big shake-up in Ireland at the next election”, showed up again outside the Rockefeller Center on Friday morning along with at least one other mica campaigner.
Upstairs, the Taoiseach had been given a walking tour of NBC Studios, but plans for him to speak to the media on the sidewalk outside the iconic building were abandoned as it became apparent that a small demonstration might ensue.
Instead Irish officials brought journalists back inside, with the Taoiseach appearing before the cameras in the marble-floored lobby just inside from the famous Rockefeller Plaza — much to the chagrin of building security, who are deeply sensitive about any and all photography.
Only one photo opportunity was allowed during the tour itself, in the studio that plays host to Late Night with Seth Meyers. Martin was quite taken by both that studio and the one where Jimmy Fallon (who of course has Irish heritage) hosts The Tonight Show. “Don’t tell Ryan Tubridy!” he joked.
He also visited the studio that plays host to Saturday Night Live, where he told his tour guides within earshot of the hovering Irish media that the live entertainment and events sector has “been one area that lost the most throughout the pandemic”, saying it had been “devastated” by public health restrictions.
Speaking later to Irish journalists for the last time before he departed on Friday night, Martin hailed the overall success of his trip as a chance to “reconnect” with the Irish community in the US post-pandemic.
His week was bookended by an address to the United Nations General Assembly, which was largely a box-ticking exercise outlining Ireland’s foreign policy priorities. Martin was more direct when it came to the issue of climate change, saying it “threatens our very existence on this shared and endangered planet”, while he noted the world had been caught off-guard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But by his own admission, the high point of his week was when he made history by becoming the first Taoiseach to ever chair a meeting of the UN Security Council.
He used it to push for a resolution that would bind the council to considering climate change’s impact on global security. Irish officials at the UN have been diligently working on this matter for several months now, having taken up the baton after a failed attempt by Germany last year. They have encountered sharp resistance from China, India and Russia. The latter was particularly strident in its opposition at Thursday’s meeting with Dmitry A Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy permanent representative to the UN, describing the initiative as a “completely unnecessary political component to an already complicated and sensitive discussion”.
The fact Russia sent Polyanskiy, a deputy to the actual Russian ambassador to the UN, told you everything you need to know about its attitude to the Irish proposition Martin had earlier articulated. Rather amusingly Polyanskiy’s Twitter biography states that he “hates lies and fake news”, but he is a “dog lover”.
“Russia was Russia,” shrugged one senior Irish government source afterwards, while admitting it would be challenging to get a resolution passed by the end of the year. In sharp contrast to Russia, the United States sent its Secretary of State Antony Blinken who articulated the Biden administration’s commitment to the climate action agenda in his contribution to the council meeting. This also stands in contrast to the previous White House regime with Donald Trump’s UN officials blocking last year’s efforts by Germany.
The Irish side saw the presence of Blinken as significant. He told the Taoiseach that his wife, Evan Ryan, herself a White House cabinet secretary, has Irish heritage with her people hailing from Galway.
The importance of the Irish connections of some of the key power brokers in the US is often hammed up and occasionally overstated by the Irish side, but it is nonetheless a softer part of Irish diplomacy that can occasionally yield tangible results. The Biden administration, we are repeatedly told, is in lockstep with Ireland over issues like the Northern Ireland protocol — even if it wasn’t directly raised by Biden with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he was in the Oval Office last week.
Martin’s week began with a meeting with the recently installed New York Governor Kathy Hochul in a dour office block in midtown. She is “essentially a Kerrywoman”, Martin declared to the Irish press corps after the pair posed for pictures with GAA jerseys, the Taoiseach ensuring he held aloft a New York GAA jersey and not the knock-off Kerry shirt that Governor Hochul had brought along.
A busy schedule of meetings and engagements meant Martin had little time for his favoured pastime of walking at great pace around city streets in order to get his 10,000 steps in. Only on the first night did he get a walk in with the rest of his evenings being taken up with dinners and engagements.
On Wednesday he met the Irish-born chief executive of Northwell Health, Michael J Dowling, who has written a book, Leading Through a Pandemic, on how his own hospital group navigated the Covid-19 pandemic. The Limerick man shared insights on how they removed regulations to get much-needed ventilators and converted halls into ICUs as New York grappled with a devastating first wave in spring 2020. Dowling also “does a lot more discreetly for Ireland”, one Government source said, sponsoring hurling scholarships at University College Cork for over a decade. Martin said on Friday that meetings with Irish-based companies through the IDA are expected to yield “some results in terms of jobs in Ireland” in the coming period.
The Sunday Independent understands the Taoiseach visited the offices of Peloton, the at-home fitness company, that is weighing up plans to take office space in Cork that would accommodate 700 workers. The company has yet to sign off on plans for the move, but the Taoiseach’s officials were hopeful after the meeting that the company will press ahead with plans for a call centre in Martin’s native city as it goes to market across the EU.
Even the more relaxed visit to NBC on Friday saw some serious discussions on the potential for NBC to invest further in Ireland, but the media giant wants the cap on the Section 481 tax credit, which incentivises film and TV, animation and creative documentary production in Ireland, increased from its current limit of €70m.
Martin said he was “heartened” by the discussion and did not rule out examining further measures. “We have to look at any additional measures we can take to sort of make it even more attractive for the film industry on an enduring sustainable basis to invest in Ireland and create an industry of scale,” he said.
This was the Taoiseach’s first trip outside of Europe since he took office over a year ago, because of the pandemic. While legacy is something he is loath to talk about, there was one intriguing moment outside the Irish Arts Center on Tuesday.
After taking part in a rather bizarre “building dedication” to the as-yet unopened cultural space that included revealing a 105-year-old piece of brick attached to a wooden plaque, Martin told the bemused travelling journalists how he, as Foreign Affairs Minister a decade ago, had been involved in the first Irish contribution to the multi-million dollar investment in the centre. “It’s been a long time in the making over the last decade or so. It’s now coming to a conclusion,” he said.
While some of his internal critics might argue the same should apply to his leadership, the Taoiseach has no truck with any of that. He returns home this weekend buoyed by a trip that was evidence of how, slowly but surely, life is returning to normal post-Covid. This was further underlined by the US’s decision to lift a travel ban on arrivals from many European countries that had been in place since March 2020.
With 14 months left in office, Martin will hope to squeeze at least one more trip Stateside in between confronting the many challenges that lie ahead for him and his Government.