Micheal Martin — from teacher to Taoiseach

Micheal Martin, Ireland’s new Prime Minister (Taoiseach), who was sworn in to office on June 27, is the architect of Fianna Fail’s (FF) spectacular revival after the party’s poll drubbing a decade ago. The 59- year-old Premier heads Dublin’s unprecedented coalition between FF and its traditional rival Fine Gael (FG) following the February election. Having propped up a minority FG government in the last four years, Mr. Martin will now serve as Prime Minister until December 2022, after which his predecessor and FG chief Leo Varadkar will assume charge for the remainder of the five-year term. As head of the centrist party, Mr. Martin has been an outspoken supporter of same sex marriages and revocation of the abortion ban in the Catholic nation. As Health Minister in 2004, he promulgated a ban on smoking in the workplace.

The current electoral arithmetic wherein, FF secured 38 seats compared to FG’s 35, forced the two centre-right parties to stitch up a triangular coalition with the Greens to establish a parliamentary majority. This move to share power with FG that was voted out in February in the wake of popular disenchantment after a severe housing crisis has raised awkward questions. The left-wing Sinn Fein, having secured the largest share of the popular vote, resents being kept out of power by the two main parties because of its one-time links to the militant Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The rise

In a political career spanning over three decades, the one-time teacher was first elected to the Dail Eireann (the lower house of Ireland’s Parliament) in 1989. Mr. Martin built his reputation as a Minister over the years, in charge of education, enterprises, health and foreign affairs portfolios. Although his 2004 no-smoking ban was resisted by the tobacco lobby, it received strong backing from the Bertie Ahern Cabinet.

When he was Foreign Minister in 2011, Mr. Martin challenged then Prime Minister Brian Cowen for the party leadership. His contention that FF’’s survival was at stake due to the austerity measures imposed under the €85 billion EU and IMF bailout backfired when Mr. Cowen won a confidence vote in the parliamentary party. An isolated Mr. Martin, who tendered resignation, eventually went on to clinch the leadership in a four-cornered race. The tenuous victory also meant that he had to pick up the pieces following the party’s decimation in that year’s election, losing 51 out of its 71 parliamentary seats.

Under Mr. Martin’s stewardship, FF has veered to a broadly social democratic political line. The so-called confidence and supply agreement that underpinned its support to the minority FG government in 2016 advocated more public spending and fewer taxes. Mr. Martin’s restrained approach also came in for praise during delicate negotiations over the border question arising from Brexit. The integrity of the open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland after Britain’s exit from the EU is paramount to protect peace across the island.

Firm positions

Notable was Mr. Martin’s bold backing for same sex marriages in the 2015 referendum. He was equally forthright in his support to repeal the ban on abortion in the 2018 plebiscite. He had stood firm despite some 30 FF legislators campaigning for its retention. Given this progressive backdrop, the presence of just a few women Ministers in Mr. Martin’s Cabinet is being ascribed to the party’s failure to field more female candidates from electable seats.

The new government’s foremost challenge is to build on the effective steps already in place to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Shaping a rescue out of the housing and health care crises that proved the previous government’s undoing would be critical to regain public trust. A particularly ticklish issue for Mr. Martin is to determine, alongside London and Brussels, the status of Northern Ireland, which is supposed to be brought within the EU jurisdiction, while simultaneously respecting the U.K.’s constitutional sovereignty.

Even as the new coalition gets down to business, questions are being raised as to whether an alliance made largely of the same parties can effect real change. A glimpse of a picture will begin to emerge over the coming months.

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