As the Taoiseach prepared to leave the top job in Irish politics, he spoke to Southern Star editor Siobhán Cronin about the major challenges of the past two-and-a-half years, his love of West Cork, and why he fears Sinn Féin’s policies
IT was a fitting day to meet the Taoiseach in his rather plush office at Government Buildings.
The previous day the infamous list of 52 Irish politicians ‘banned’ from Russia had been published and that morning’s Irish Times noted: ‘As for proud son of Cork, Micheál Martin, it’s taken well over a century but Russia has finally returned the compliment to Ireland all those years after the Skibbereen Eagle printed those famous lines about keeping its eye on the Tzar.’
He had a good chuckle when he read that line, he admitted.
And that very morning the Eagle – now incorporated into The Southern Star, of course, as our masthead confirms – was turning its own eye on Deputy Martin himself.
And it took place under the watchful eye of another Corkman, and another Michael – Collins, of course – whose portrait adorns the left alcove above the fireplace in the Kildare Street office.
The former teacher from Turner’s Cross, who said one of the highlights of his time as Taoiseach was delivering the oration at Beal na Bláth on the centenary of Collins’ death last August, will vacate the office next week, two-and-a-half years since taking on the role.
So, what will he miss?
‘Well, I’m glad to see the back of those endless meetings in the Sycamore room here, where we were discussing Covid and coming out to say what have we decided now, what are we restricting today … “when are you going to make your announcement?” … I am glad to see the back of all that!’
But he admits that, overall, it was a ‘wonderful honour’ to serve as Taoiseach and there even seems to be a certain air of achievement when he talks about the triple challenges of Covid, Ireland’s response to the war in Ukraine and tackling the current energy crisis.
Whatever about the constant rhetoric regarding the housing crisis and cost of living pressures, the Taoiseach fully believes his government has done a lot to ease those pressures, despite many who may vehemently disagree.
‘I think we are dealing with the energy crisis as best we can, and it’s not easy, but I think our Budget and our cost of living package has been the correct, balanced, proportionate response. It’s a combination of trying to reduce pressure on people by reducing cost of public services and health and education and childcare, but also then giving payments to people – both universal payments like child benefit and the energy credit, and then social protection payments which are flowing through the winter. But also then cutting back on energy consumption and urging people to try and be more energy efficient, in the household and in business. A combination of all those things should enable us to get the through this winter.’
He says that after December 17th, he will remain focussed, in his role as Tánaiste, on keeping the government ‘solid’ and concentrating on the domestic challenges of housing, climate, health, education and childcare.
But one of the main items on his agenda when he took on the role of Fianna Fáil leader in 2011 was to revamp an ailing party, and they had a turbulent few years in the polls after that. Does he believe the party’s fortunes are finally changing? ‘I think we’ve done well since the last election. The Ard Fheis was a powerful manifestation of a good spirit within the party … and what pleases me going around the country is that members are genuinely happy with Fianna Fáil’s performance in government.’
Of course, the past few years have also seen discomfort in some FF ranks with the Taoiseach himself. ‘I don’t like talking about myself, but I get a very positive feedback. There were a few naysayers in advance of the Ard Fheis trying to spin it, but the numbers spoke for themselves. And the Cairde Fáil dinner, two weeks after, had the largest crowd in a decade – well over 1,000 in the Burlington.’
Listing a series of meetings, conferences and the upcoming conventions for local and European elections, there is a sense that the Corkman wants to imbue the party with the same energy and enthusiasm he is so famous for himself.
A half hour without an appointment is a half hour wasted in his schedule, an advisor had earlier told me, outlining how his boss was famous for his long working days, whether at home or abroad.
Switching to local politics, the Taoiseach is well versed in the make-up of Cork South West and defended the decision to run two party candidates in the last general election, a controversial move which saw sitting TD Margaret Murphy O’Mahony losing out to newbie Christopher O’Sullivan.
‘We were close enough [to two seats],’ he tells me, ‘I think Margaret was unlucky on that occasion. What we are witnessing is a more fragmented system,’ he adds, referencing the dominance of coalitions across Europe, and the fact that the PR system lends itself to rainbow groupings.
‘We’re in a very competitive position,’ he says, but admits that the party’s wish to entice more women into the arena is being challenged by the toxicity of social media. ‘You’ve got to try and immunise oneself from a lot of what gets said. There is no doubt that certain parties troll and their members ... you can almost time it … an avalanche of counter tweets.’ He admits that he doesn’t spend much time on the platforms himself, but does ‘observe trends’ to see ‘who is doing this, are they bots? Why is this person so full of hate and what is the agenda? There are a lot of dark forces at work.’
He says the party will bring in expertise to help candidates cope with trolling, and adds that he believes the ‘increase in salary for local councillors’ is welcome, to encourage people to commit to politics. ‘If you are a county councillor in West Cork, that is a big terrain. And some businesses don’t facilitate young people to go into politics and that is a worry.’
And he says the abolition of town councils was an ‘awful mistake’. For example, in Clonakilty, it had a very significant impact on ‘turning the town around’ and the same with Kinsale and Skibbereen, he says. He is also very keen on the idea of the directly-elected mayor, saying the plebiscite in Cork ‘went wrong for the city – but I think we can revisit that.’
Micheál has been very vocal on his dislike of Sinn Féin’s politics, but there is a very real possibility of them being in the mix next time around. He’s not so sure. ‘It’s wide open as to what combination will form the next government. I have two issues with Sinn Féin – their studied attempt to try and rewrite history is unacceptable – and the degree to which they ignore the atrocities that their movement committed in the past and try and justify them – I think that is very dangerous and toxic for a younger generation, that somehow the idea that what happened in Northern Ireland over 30 years was a just war. It wasn’t.’
But what of young voters today, who don’t care about the Troubles, and care about housing and health? ‘I care about housing too, but I think those issues are morally important to the country. And whether people agree with me or not, that is a different point. And that doesn’t stop me from saying it!’ he laughs.
He says the other key issue with Sinn Féin is their policies, because they ‘chop and change’, adding that the party is a ‘populist’ and ‘anti-European’ party and many of their plans are not costed.
‘And they were very mute on the Russian invasion of Crimea … and that refusal to call out Russia back then is one of the reasons why Russia was emboldened to do other things, and I blame other countries across Europe on that as well.’
And he says he thinks many of their tax policies would damage small business owners and farmers, in particular. ‘I am not clear that Sinn Féin understands the Irish entrepreneurial economy,’ he states.
And on that subject of farmers, he agrees that agriculture has been focussed on climate change for far longer than the national narrative would imply.
But he says that the context of the issue is that there has been enormous growth in farming in the last 10-15 years. ‘My worry is that climate change is going to affect food production systems. We saw it this summer – I was in West Cork for August and it was very dry. Over time, that is going to change food production, and this autumn has been very worrying. I spoke to someone this morning and said thanks be to god it’s cold – and I never thought I would say that!’ he smiles again.
And he notes that West Cork, is particular, is exposed to the changing weather patterns. ‘Coastal erosion is a reality for West Cork. Sea levels will rise. The County Council need to be looking at how we will be protecting certain vulnerable coastlines. I agree farming has done fantastic work, we just have to continue doing that. Farming is a very professional industry, there is lots of innovation going on, but equally we are going to have to look at alternative income streams around biodiversity restoration, farming can do a lot on that. The latest Acres scheme is important.’
The Taoiseach denies suggestions that the national herd will be culled. ‘It isn’t happening, I think it actually went up 1% last year. But there is a limit to what the soil can take, too, and we have to clean our waterways. I also think we have to watch the food security … our system is efficient carbon-wise, we just have to make it more efficient. I am going to be honest with farmers, too, we have to keep going on the carbon efficiency, because what is happening on the climate now is frightening.’
It will be no secret to Courtmacsherry readers that the Taoiseach says West Cork is where he goes to ‘de-stress’ – though he has no immediate plans to retire down here anytime soon.
‘I am too young yet to be planning longer sojourns!’ he tells me, a nod to my implication that leaving the top job next week is some kind of retirement.
‘And I haven’t had as much time there now in the last two-and-a-half years as I normally would, but it’s part of the country that I love very much.’ He refers to walking in Barryroe, which is close to his heart.
‘I think Foróige did it in 2000 – the Fuschia walk, the first part of the Millennium Walk – the farmers are very good there, I observe agriculture as I walk through that particular walk. I walk the headlands of Butlerstown, I walk through what we call Turkey Head but it’s Lehenagh, all the way down to Ring. I did the marathon this year from Courtmac to Ring, spectacular countryside, different types of farming and very efficient people with a very good co-op in Barryroe, which is replicated in Carbery, and so on. There’s a very strong business ethic in West Cork.’
He points out that his wife Mary’s grandfather was the principal in Lislevane and her grandmother was principal of Timoleague and she had granduncles who were principals in Courtmacsherry – ‘the Sheehys from Ring’.
‘My mother-in-law Mary Sheehy – she was O’Shea when she got married – she identified every house in Courtmac and she did a wonderful album for The Gathering recreating the history of Courtmac, a beautiful piece on houses that are long since gone, but identifying every family that was in the house, in different houses along the street.’
But dating Mary wasn’t his first introduction to Courtmac, or indeed West Cork. When he was 13 or 14 his father would rent a house in Rathbarry for two or three weeks in the summer. His dad used to draw sugar beet after the war down to West Cork so he knew the area well.
‘Red Strand would have been our beach, and every year I go back there for nostalgic trips.’ When bus driver Paddy Martin retired, he got a bungalow by Galley Head and spent ‘twenty-odd very happy years there’, explained his son.
‘He played for St Nick’s GAA. He had great friendships with Clonakilty footballers of his generation, too, and was a great friend of the late Mick Finn. So before I ever met Mary, we were on the Red Strand side. I love going back. I’d go for a swim in Red Strand and walk all the way around Lisavaird and back to Rathbarry. I did that walk again this year and called into O’Donovan’s in Rathbarry and had an ice-cream with them, because they would remember my mother and father. We have a deep affection for West Cork.’
And, noting that he has never moved from his full-time residence in Ballinlough since getting into politics, he adds: ‘Attachment to place is more important to me than anything else. We’ve very good neighbours.’
Part of the location’s attraction is no doubt the fact his city home is in the hub of Cork sport – being alongside Cork Constitution rugby grounds, and Páirc Uí Rinn, and just a short walk from Páirc Uí Chaoimh. It’s not too far from his beloved Nemo Rangers in Turner’s Cross, either, where his son Micheál Aodh is a star player. And of course there’s a sporting angle to how his own parents met, he explains.
‘She met him on a train coming home from the Munster hurling final. She thought they were very rowdy. She mistook him for being on something else at the time … but he was a tee-totaller! This man called Paddy Gilly – he was a bus driver with my father – asked her “would you go out with that fella over there?” and she did, and the rest is history! He was a boxer as well as a gaelic footballer, so he was a big sporting personality of his time.’
It was hard to escape sport in his home in Turner’s Cross, he says. ‘Two doors up, Dan Coughlan was involved in Cork Celtic at the time and he would hand down the soccer magazine Shoot! to me and I became very interested in English soccer – my team is Man United – but we used to watch Cork Celtic train on cold winter nights. And Nemo was our social outlet. It was a very charmed upbringing.’
Looking back on the past two-plus years, he feels it’s been a ‘watershed government’ on climate change, but adds that it will take time for that to come through. ‘The legislative changes – the turning of the tanker in the middle of the ocean, as it were – that has happened. The issue now is delivery and speed of delivery and offshore wind and stuff like that. But a clear policy shift – and a systems change – has happened.’
He adds that, on biodiversity, the government has now ‘fundamentally anchored’ the National Parks and Wildlife Service. ‘They are going to have their own agency within government. They have doubled their budget and are going to be increasing park rangers and will become a very significant force in the story of Irish biodiversity. And that is very close to my heart.’
But he is also proud of the Shared Island Initiative, which he has spear-headed. ‘The basic premise being, how can we share the island together and put to one side the Constitutional prejudices people may have.’
He explains that it involves a three-strand approach. The project-based strand sees €1bn – over the next ten years – being set aside to fund projects like the Ulster Canal, Narrow Water Bridge [Co Louth], research, biodiversity, climate, and more, all on an all-island basis. ‘There is also the dialogue strand – with up to 3,000 people engaged in dialogue – on themes from climate to farming to biodiversity to tourism, economy and culture, women’s issues and then, thirdly, research. This is the first time the government has ever commissioned real comprehensive research on the two systems.
‘The ESRI and Nesc (the economic and social council) have been doing research on the education systems in both jurisdictions, and also looking at things like primary care contracts. It’s very important that we understand fully what is going on in both areas, he says.,‘I am very pleased with that, it’s very significant. It’s a pragmatic way of doing things.’
But he’s very insistent I add one more thing to what he sees as his list of achievements as Taoiseach. ‘You have to put this in because one of the big highlights of being Taoiseach was to give the speech at Béal na Bláth. That was an extraordinary event – the crowds that were there that day. And it was so hot – like a cauldron. But I’d pay very strong tribute to Helen Collins [Michael Collins’ grandniece] who took the initiative one fine day in Woodfield when we were taking out the diaries. She just announced that she would like nothing better than to have the Taoiseach address at Béal na Bláth! No better woman – now, she may not have consulted widely! But on the day it was a wonderful event because of her initiative and the Collins family. I was very well treated and very well received by the committee.
‘I think what the whole Decade of Centenaries has done – I think we can be pleased with ourselves as a country that we are not going back into who was right and who was wrong. But rather a new generation of scholars and new works are coming forward in history that are just helping people and giving people insights into the realities of what it was like during the period, and why people took certain actions that they took – the milieu, the background. And we should let our souls rest, so to speak, but never fail to try and understand and gain insights – and I think that’s what the academic conferences and all of that has done.’
Before I leave, talk returns to West Cork, of course. And, as a final gesture, he gives us a tiny hint of what might well become his retirement project in the years ahead. ‘When I walk in West Cork I have my mobile phone and I am always photographing butterflies or … anything, if I get a chance. I have thousands of photographs of West Cork – thousands of them.’
Sounds like he is collecting pictures for a future book? ‘I might sometime, I might,’ he smiles widely again. ‘The thought has crossed my mind. I’m not sure anybody would be interested in it. And there are some nice ones of Mary O’Neill’s pub in Butlerstown!’
I remind him of the photo the Star ran on page one the week he became Taoiseach, with a pint waiting for him on Mary’s counter. ‘I remember that well. I had that pint!’ he beams.
It’s easy to imagine that he probably spent a fair bit of the last two-and-a-half years dreaming of that quiet corner stool in his favourite ‘de-stress’ zone.