Ireland's 'PM in waiting' finally gets his turn

Ireland's new PM Micheal Martin spent nearly a decade leading his party back to relevance after the country's recession (AFP Photo/PAUL FAITH) (AFP/File)
·4 min read

Dublin (AFP) - A veteran of the opposition who managed to rehabilitate his Fianna Fail party after Ireland's ruinous recession, Micheal Martin has long been considered the likely next leader of the Republic.

His centre-right party tumbled from power in 2011, punished by voters for leading the nation into the post-"Celtic Tiger" slump.

But with a new economic boom and memories of the recession fading, former foreign minister Martin has renovated the image of his party as a voice for pragmatic change.

In February's election he led Fianna Fail to become the country's largest party -- albeit by the slimmest of margins -- securing him first turn as Taoiseach (prime minister) in the rotating schedule of a new coalition government.

"More than two decades after he was described as 'the next Taoiseach', Micheal Martin is finally poised to lead his back-from-the-dead party into government," wrote Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy.

- Early training -

Martin hails from Cork, Ireland's second city on the southeast coast. Born on August 1, 1960, his father was a former prisoner of war, Irish international boxer and bus driver.

Martin attributes his resilience to his father, who would wake his son late at night to watch fights between Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, talking him through every punch.

Weekend boxing practice, avoiding punches, jabbing and scoring points, was perfect preparation for his future life, he said in an interview with the Sunday Independent.

"There are similarities in terms of how you would dance around the political ring," he said.

After graduating from University College Cork, he briefly worked as a teacher and was first elected to Ireland's Dail Eireann lower house of parliament in 1989.

During Fianna Fail's run in power from 1997 to 2011, he served variously as minister for education, health, and enterprise, before taking the foreign affairs brief.

His landmark achievement was 2004's smoking ban, which made Ireland the world's first nation to impose a blanket ban on workplace smoking.

A father of five, the years were also touched by tragedy when Martin's seven-year-old daughter Leana died from a heart condition in 2010. She was the second of his children to pass away.

- Boom and bust -

In May 2008, Martin became the minister for foreign affairs under then-prime minister Brian Cowen.

Within weeks, he oversaw the agreement of a landmark international convention banning cluster munitions, after 12 days of talks in Dublin.

He was then charged with the campaign to convince the public to back the Treaty of Lisbon on EU reform ahead of a referendum in 2008.

It was rejected by 53 percent of the public. The Irish Independent newspaper called it the "biggest political crisis in decades".

The referendum was re-held and passed with 67 percent of the vote the following year.

But it was a bellwether for the public's resentment of the government as the country plunged into recession.

The "Celtic Tiger" boom years from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s saw Ireland economically transformed from one of Europe's poorest countries.

But when the global financial crisis took hold in 2008, the Irish property bubble burst, toppling much of the economy with it as badly-exposed banks began to falter.

In 2010, Cowen was forced to seek a hefty international bailout and impose harsh austerity measures as Ireland entered a new period of emigration and unemployment.

- Landing punches -

Cowen's leadership imploded in January 2011, with heavyweight Martin quitting the government. The crisis triggered an early general election the next month.

Martin took over the party leadership, but the Fine Gael opposition, led by Enda Kenny, routed them at the polls.

Fianna Fail took only 20 out of 166 Dail seats -- the worst defeat of a sitting government in the country's history.

Martin -- down but not out -- set about the task of reviving the party, hammering the new government on failings in healthcare, housing and homelessness.

"He apologised for Fianna Fail's mistakes when he became leader and promised that lessons had been learned: but he never went into much detail about those lessons beyond 'we spent too much and taxed too little'," wrote Leahy.

"The mea culpa -- such as it was -- was vital in helping Martin start the long, improbable climb back from pariah status for Fianna Fail after 2011."

In the 2016 election, Fianna Fail more than doubled its number of deputies and became kingmakers, striking a confidence and supply agreement with old rivals Fine Gael.

In February the party lost seats but became the country's largest parliamentary bloc as the electorate delivered a fractured result, finally offering Martin his chance to take office.