This coming Tuesday marks the 10-year anniversary of Micheál Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil.
The long-serving Cork South Central TD landed the job on January 26, 2011, when Fianna Fáil was in free-fall and facing into a general election which would be the worst in the party’s history.
The public had turned on it after the collapse of the economy following the implosion of the property market and banking sector.
There wasn’t many in the party who wanted the job and even if they did take it, it was unclear if they would even be returned to the Dáil after the election. Brian Lenihan made some moves about going for the leadership but ultimately it fell to Martin.
The Fianna Fáil TD led his party to the expected slaughter of the 2011 General Election after which he and just 19 other colleagues returned to the Dáil. Over the next decade, Martin rebuilt the party election by election. Last January’s vote was supposed to be his crowning achievement, but the momentum he built over the previous years hit a major roadbump in the shape of Sinn Féin.
Despite the election upset, Martin still has his feat firmly under the desk in the Taoiseach’s office having done the once unthinkable in ending the so-called civil war divide in Irish politics and joining forces with the arch enemy Fine Gael to form a government. With a little help from the Green Party, Martin is now seven months into overseeing a majority coalition.
Sitting between framed paintings of Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins, Martin is in a reflective mood about his achievements and failings.
He is reluctant to distinguish between national and party politics. “With me you can’t do that,” he says. “It’s not about ending up here (the Taoiseach’s office), it’s about having an impact on polices and on the country itself,” he adds. Martin says he tried to show leadership in opposition by supporting Government, especially during Brexit talks and most noticeably by propping up Fine Gael under the confidence and supply deal.
He also dragged Fianna Fáil kicking and screaming into the 21st century by supporting marriage equality and 8th amendment referendums.
“The simpler and easier thing to do is attack the government in opposition, but I tried to strike a different note,” he says.
He concedes he has regrets about the most recent general election. The most notable being the decision to take part in the first televised election debate between himself and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar which excluded Sinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald. Although he claims he was not responsible for McDonald’s exclusion.
“I think what happened is that first debate, which we didn’t engineer, was just Leo and myself debating each, and I think that didn’t play well with the public and created a narrative for the subsequent two weeks,” he says.
Martin also blames a “ridiculous” opinion poll in the Sunday Times which had Fianna Fáil soaring ahead of the competition. “We were never that high and it created a narrative that we were the ones to get,” he says.
Interestingly, after years of ruling out Sinn Féin as a government partner, Martin now says he expects Fianna Fáil’s stance on the main opposition party to “evolve” in the coming years and says he won’t “pre-empt” the next election.
“Our stance will evolve. It’s early days yet and it’s the first year in this government and my focus is not on the next election right now,” he says.
“I haven’t changed my stance in terms of my view is that their policies are anathema to ours. They may change over time, we’ll see. At the moment I see them doubling down on the issues that I think are problematic,” he adds.
Martin also reaffirms his ambition to lead Fianna Fáil into the next general election and insists it is important he remains in situ during the transition of power between himself and Leo Varadkar in December 2022.
“Parallel to that is that Fianna Fáil headquarters are already looking towards the next local elections and looking at potential new people coming so that work continues and I haven’t lost my appetite for that,” he says. Martin also admits Fianna Fáil has been behind their rivals when it comes to campaigning on social media but says he does not want to get involved in the “dark arts” of online electioneering.
“It’s more than just putting up posts, it’s the groups that get formed, it’s the various movements that are kind of under the radar for quite a while and then once the election happened, they emerge as a political movement,” he says.
He has serious concerns about the power of social media bosses and points to the recent suspension of former US president Donald Trump’s accounts on Twitter and Facebook.
“Look at what happened recently in America where two people decided whether the president of America, like him or not, would have a platform or not,” he says. “It’s a powerful position for two unelected people to be in. I’m not so sure they want to be in that position, to be fair to them, but you have to think about it,” he says.
One of his bugbears with modern politics is the lack of new talent from across society running in elections. He wants to see people from tech and financial services companies running for elections. He says it is disappointing that employers are actively discouraging employees from getting involved in politics.
“If you were a person coming out of college and you say to your employer ‘I’d like to pursue an interest in politics’, you’d probably be shunned,” he says. Controversial former Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern gave Martin his first taste of high office when he appointed him as Education Minister in 1997.
He remained in Ahern’s Cabinets right up until the Dublin TD’s resignation in 2008. Four years later, following the damning findings of the Mahon Tribunal into political corruption, Martin tabled a motion to expel his mentor from Fianna Fáil.
Ahern jumped before he could be pushed and has officially remained outside the party ever since and he has not been shy about offering his critique on Martin’s leadership, which at one stage he described as “brutal”.
However, there has been a coming together between the two men in recent months over their mutual interest in Northern Ireland and specifically Martin’s Shared Island Initiative.
Ahern has been advising Martin on how to progress the project and is even working behind the scenes to get the unionist communities on board with the plan to find more commonality between the North and South.
Martin was pleasantly surprised when he learned Ahern tuned into the online launch of Shared Island Dialogues.
“He’s offered his advice to me and I have spoken to him and I will talk to him again because he maintains a continued interest in the area and works behind the scenes to advance the overall agenda,” Martin says. But does he envisage welcoming Ahern back into the party?
“We haven’t discussed that and I don’t think it’s a burning issue for him, but in the fullness of time, I get a sense people do appreciate what contribution he made to the country in respect to the peace process.”