The Taoiseach didn’t get to where he is today without separating friendships from the politics, writes Fionnán Sheahan
The circus is back in town. Fianna Fáil has returned in style. Only a week into the party's first taste of power in almost a decade and already there is disgruntlement, disaffection and disillusion. Allied to the anger, outrage and upset are allegations of heaves, conspiracies and botched strokes.
The skulduggery within the party showed how politics was so boring for the past decade.
The selection of ministers has left a dozen Fianna Fáil TDs disappointed at being left out.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin's rise in politics has been marked by an uncanny ability to dodge the blame. But this time the fingers are only pointing in one direction amid growing uproar in Fianna Fáil.
Never mind the sweeter-than-light image, the new Taoiseach has a long-standing tradition at local, national and party level of casting aside people who invested in him.
Dara Calleary and the rest are the latest in a line of figures to fall foul of the ruthless altarboy from Cork.
It's not personal, it's just business. Fianna Fáil TDs are realising Martin will let nothing stand in the way of his ambition.
THE SCREECH OF JOY
Up in the visitors' gallery of the Dáil Chamber, there was a nervous giddiness among the small group of family and friends of the youngest member of the Fianna Fáil frontbench. Micheál Martin was by no means a certainty to be included in Bertie Ahern's new Cabinet on June 26, 1997.
Martin was a big deal in Cork. Fianna Fáil had won six of the 10 seats in the second city 20 days earlier. But Joe Walsh was the big beast in Cork Fianna Fáil. Martin, the party's education spokesman, at 36, might have to wait his turn.
When his name was called out last by the new Taoiseach, a family member, believed to be his wife Mary, let out a screech of joy and relief from the visitors' gallery. The group was quickly shushed by ushers. The incident stood out for observers as it was unusual.
Martin had arrived on the big stage. In the following weeks, the Martin gang had a celebration party at the home of a supporter, Deirdre Forde. There was drink taken and rebel songs sung.
Along with fellow Martin aides, Humphrey Murphy and Dermot O'Mahony, Forde would soon become known as part of the minister's entourage. The trio were appointed to the governing body of UCC and Forde became a councillor on Cork County Council two years later. Martin had handed his seat on Cork City Council to his brother, Séan, joining his sidekick, Terry Shannon. The base was well covered.
When Martin was health minister, Forde was appointed to the Nursing Board. Come the local elections in 2004, a new force arrived on the pitch as young buck Michael McGrath came in with almost 4,000 votes - second only nationally to a fella called Varadkar up in Dublin.
Due to constituency boundary changes, either McGrath or Forde would be the general election candidate alongside Martin in 2007.
"Micheál dropped Deirdre like a hot potato for McGrath. He probably had to or was told to, but she had worked for Micheál," a local source said.
Come the next local elections in 2009, Martin's twin brother, Padraig, was lined up to run in Forde's patch. She got the hint and joined Fine Gael. Martin's brother flopped. Forde was elected handsomely. The alliance ended.
BOOT, B*****K, BITE
Martin was reared on the cut and thrust of politics in his constituency of Cork South-Central. In an early campaign, he included a photo of him in his UCC graduation gown on a leaflet to portray the 'local boy come good'. But it was a dirty game with no saints. There was a celebrated local rivalry between Martin and fellow TDs Batt O'Keeffe and John Dennehy. Dennehy famously branded the party strategy on candidate cooperation as "boot, b*****k and bite".
"The role of the local director of elections in the constituency was akin to the bishop on All-Ireland final day: throw in the ball, and get off the pitch," a party activist reflects.
Come the 2002 general election, Martin was a heavyhitter in Ahern's government as health minister. He was expected to deliver three seats.
His personal duels saw him miss the big picture. A failure to manage the vote saw Dennehy nearly lose out as Martin romped. As an epic count and recounts continued for the week, Fianna Fáil's national director of elections, the late PJ Mara, fumed in the corridors of Leinster House about "f***ing Micheál Martin" possibly costing the party a seat.
Martin was among the ministers who stepped up come the next general election as Ahern went missing amid damning revelations about his personal finances at the Mahon Tribunal.
"He was very cold, very hard to read. According to those close to him, he has no loyalty.
"He was happy to support Bertie through the Tribunal days, he accepted ministers had to do it, but he was complaining that others weren't doing the same," an adviser to Ahern recalls. Once Ahern was gone as Taoiseach, though, all bets were off. When the Mahon Tribunal reported in March 2012, Martin was quick to distance himself from Ahern, who had repeatedly promoted him across 14 years as Fianna Fáil leader and 11 years as Taoiseach. He proposed to expel Ahern as a member of Fianna Fáil. Ahern ultimately jumped before he was pushed, but not without a lot of internal rancour. Young supporters of Martin's who put the boot into Ahern, like future TD Lisa Chambers, were colourfully nicknamed "child soldiers with loaded Uzis" by Noel Ahern, 'De Brudder' of the former Taoiseach. In the intervening years, while relations are cordial between Ahern and Martin when they bump into each other, Fianna Fáil has not deferred to its former Taoiseach's expertise.
Ironically, his views on Brexit and the EU are respected in Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney used his networking abilities extensively during the recent UN Security Council campaign.
OLD TIES SEVERED
Bertie Ahern is not the only former close associate to find himself abandoned by Martin. Former MEP Brian Crowley was mooted to be seeking a run for the Presidential election in 2011. Martin was having none of it, ruling the party out of contesting the election, but not before he sounded out the late broadcaster Gay Byrne about running.
Crowley was again successfully elected in the 2014 European elections, but left the ALDE liberal grouping the party is aligned to in the European Parliament and effectively became an Independent.
The claims Martin and Crowley were close is put down by some to those outside Cork thinking everyone from the Rebel County is tied at the hip.
"They were initially close when Micheál was minister for education. Probably that Cork thing. They were always looking for another Jack Lynch," a party source said.
Former Fianna Fáil minister Mary Hanafin was another who was seen to be dumped on by Martin. Although she was regarded as a friend of the party leader when they were in Cabinet together, Martin and his party headquarters first backed, but then tried to block, her run in the local elections in 2014. Hanafin managed to submit the nomination papers herself to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and the party's efforts to withdraw her name were foiled. She was successfully elected to the council twice. However, Martin didn't give her any backing for a European election run in Dublin.
Whatever about Calleary who is in Cabinet, the exclusion of Cork North-West TD Michael Moynihan is seen as a sign Martin doesn't recognise loyalty to the leader.
"He took the hits on the constituencies committee. It was all cover for the leader to drop candidates or tell people what they didn't want to hear. Moynihan was his number one follower. There is a bond of friendship or loyalty between them - or there was," a former party official says.
THE STEELY LONER
After a relatively mundane decade in power, Fine Gael figures are watching the Fianna Fáil activity with their mouths agape at the carry-on.
"Everyone was talking about the Greens. The biggest Achilles heel now is Fianna Fáil. I would be very concerned about the longevity of a government with not just with internal, but outright rebellion.
"If I was the CEO of Fianna Fáil Inc, I would be putting out a profit warning," a Fine Gael minister said.
Fianna Fáil's own ministers are left in no doubt now about Martin. The treatment of Dara Calleary confirmed the party leader does not consult with any TDs on decisions. The cutting adrift of Jim O'Callaghan is also a mystery. Mara's description of Charlie Haughey's dictatorial style - 'Uno duce, una voce' - springs to mind a little.
"It is utterly bizarre. You pick a guy to be your deputy leader and then you don't pick him in your Cabinet. The optics of it are really bad. Did he offend Micheál Martin in some way? Nobody knows how this man's mind works," a minister says.
Martin has had to put up with griping about his leadership style for the best part of his nine years in the job. He has reached the pinnacle now, but the fall will be hard when it all comes to an end.
"Once he's out of that Taoiseach's role, he's had his day. He's delusional if he thinks he's going to lead us into the next election. He'll find some bolthole in Europe," the minister adds.
Certainly in the past six weeks, as there was uncertainty over the coalition deal getting off the ground, there was a lot of chatter within the party about Martin's future
One TD, who was not a leadership contender, is said to have been sounding people out about replacing Martin in that 'no deal' eventuality.
"There were people sitting back letting the talks process take its course. If the Greens thing went awry, then it was into a completely different realm," a party TD says.
A former TD who has been talking to the party faithful this past week is more bleak in his outlook for Martin, with rebellion in the air.
"Micheál Martin won't be there in 12 months' time. He'll be taken out by the party. The new TDs are not conditioned to the fight. The older TDs have no say in the party and they are treated like schoolchildren. It's unreal," the former TD said.
Across local and national, party and non-party, those who have come into contact with Martin say there is a steely streak beneath the Taoiseach's wholesome image.
"What are we surprised at here? He didn't get to where he is today without upsetting people. Micheál Martin only cares about Micheál Martin. Smell the coffee, this is going on for decades: 'Project Micheál'. There was only one motivation recently, not to be the only leader of Fianna Fail not to become Taoiseach," a political figure in Cork says.
A former Cabinet colleague reckons his outlook has changed during his time as Fianna Fáil leader and that Martin never really had a cabal around him in Leinster House.
"I think he's more ruthless now. I think he hardened in the years in opposition because the opportunity to become Taoiseach was drifting away from him, so he had to make decisions. He was definitely softer in tone and more empathetic when he was in government."
A former adviser who has observed Fianna Fáil leaders closely for the last quarter century accepts there's "a bit of steel there" and that he can be deliberately aloof.
"He was always a bit of a loner. Bertie was a networker without being close to many. Cowen was clubbable and would be down having pints. You'd rarely see Micheál with any of the other TDs. He wouldn't have too many friends in the parliamentary party," the official says.
A long-time associate sums up Martin's view on personal loyalties versus political pragmatism: "He said it to me and he meant it: 'That's friendship. This is politics'."
There's a theory doing the rounds in Fine Gael that Leo Varadkar may not be intending to lead the party into the next general election. Suspicious minds believe the newly appointed Tánaiste is paving the way for his exit in the latter half of his tenure in the Taoiseach's Office once Micheál Martin hands over the keys.
The newly appointed Education Minister is facing criticism from the Opposition following one of her first moves as minister being the approval of a grant for a school in her constituency.