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EXCLUSIVE: Micheál Martin Interview | Universities “Under Significant Pressure”

Micheál Martin has been a TD for Cork South-Central since 1989. He is the current leader of Fianna Fáil and is currently in talks to form a Government with Fine Gael and The Green Party. The College Tribune’s Neil Stokes was very grateful for the opportunity to speak with him on a wide range of matters including education, government formation, climate change, housing and his lengthy political career. 

 

Neil Stokes (NS): You grew up the third child in a family of 5 in Cork. Tell us about your upbringing and any lessons it taught you.

Micheál Martin (MM): I come from a normal working-class background.  Like most other people in my community at that time, my parents never had the chance to get an education so the overriding passion they had in life was for all of us to be educated. That had an influence on my decision to become a teacher and then to enter politics. Indeed, education has been a passion of mine throughput my entire life and one of my consistent policy interests.

 

NS: Tell us about your time as a student in UCC – what sort of student were you and what activities did you engage in?

MM: I loved my time at UCC and completed both my primary degree and my masters at UCC.  I studied English, Irish and Archaeology.

It was also where I first developed a keen interest in politics. UCC fostered and encouraged students to involve themselves and speak openly – no opinion was wrong. I was a member of the Donogh O’Malley UCC Cumann and subsequently became its Chairman. I was elected to the Students Union Officer Board as Internal Communications Officer. I was also a keen fan of the Philosophical Debating Society. My experience in UCC helped to foster my political thinking, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland.

Most importantly, it was where I met my wife!

 

NS: What are your plans to help the struggling third level education sector? 

MM: Ireland’s third-level education sector is under significant pressure, and the Cassells report has shown that the third-level sector will need over €1 billion in additional funding over the next decade. 

Fianna Fáil have set out a roadmap to improve access to third-level education and to help the institutions themselves so that we can improve our rankings internationally. 

We need a new focus and national direction on third level and research policy. Both must become a national priority and will underpin economic recovery. We also want to provide an additional €100m per annum for higher education.

 

NS: What is it that drew you to Fianna Fáil and what values do you wish to promote as leader today?

MM: Coming from Jack Lynch’s city and county you couldn’t help but look up to and be influenced by him. He was also a longstanding friend of my father, with whom he played football so you could certainly say he drew me towards Fianna Fáil. There was another family influence in that my maternal grandparents were founding members of the party.

But one of the key attractions for me was that Fianna Fáil was the Party that was most focussed on creating opportunities, no matter what your background was. Our Education Minister Donogh O’Malley brought in free education in the 60s, and that really transformed the opportunities available to my family and a whole generation. 

 

NS: What are your Climate Action priorities?

MM: The next Government needs to set Ireland on a new green path. Prior to the General Election we set out a number of steps which we would take from creating less waste, nurturing biodiversity and increasing the number of electric cars on the road. Responding to the threat and reality of climate change is our generational responsibility and we must commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 7%. It is on all of us to acknowledge and react to the climate change crisis. 

 

NS: What is the achievement you are most proud of from your career in politics?

MM: There are a few things, but the smoking ban does stand out to me. The opposition to it was huge, even my own Party colleagues were iffy to it. I was told it couldn’t be done. But on 29th of March 2004 we introduced a ban on tobacco smoking in all Irish workplaces, including pubs and restaurants and we ensured it was strictly enforced. Thousands of lives have been saved as a result. I’m also proud of my role in transforming Special Needs Education provision in the country. My initiatives on transforming the third level research sector has also been important.

 

NS: Flipping the coin then, do you have any regrets from your political career and, if so, what is your biggest one?

MM: I think over the years I’ve made it quite clear that I regret not speaking out against the consistent opinion more often. As Leader I have tried to foster an environment within the party where people feel free to speak their mind and offer different perspectives. 

 

NS: Taken on the basis of the last two election results, Ireland appears to have entered an era of new politics. You have emphasised the need to form a stable government on both occasions. Why do you believe this is so important?

MM: We certainly have entered a new era of politics. Gone are the days of the two and a half party system. We now have multiple political parties and groupings. In this sense, Ireland is now very clearly in the mould of politics on the European mainland. No clear or obvious majority emanated from the 2016 or 2020 General Elections, yet we still had the fall-out of major world events to deal with. 

It is my belief that in the aftermath of an election there is an obligation on TDs to work towards the creation of a new Government. Through the confidence and supply arrangement we facilitated the formation of a minority Government based on policy commitments. The key one was a switch from regressive to progressive budgets. In addition, the onset of Brexit meant we had to put the country’s interests before party interests in order to maintain political stability and consensus.

Now we are once again faced with a major challenge in dealing with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The next Government will have to make some difficult and challenging decisions in the interests of the people. A strong, stable and working majority will be needed – one that can stay the course and ensure a fair recovery. It is crucial that Fianna Fáil’s values and outlook are at the centre of that Government.

 

NS: As potentially the next Taoiseach, what are the key areas that you would like to deliver on before leaving Office?

MM: Before the COVID-19 pandemic health and housing and climate change were the three biggest issues, that has not changed. Tackling the housing crisis is an economic, social and moral imperative. We need to build social and affordable houses and we need to make home ownership a reality for all those who had given up hope of ever owning their own home. In terms of health, the Sláintecare report provides a pathway towards better delivery of health services. I am determined to provide a renewed focus on education and research, and I want to make sure we can transform the experience of families with special needs children. I also understand the great need to put Ireland on a pathway of climate action. 

 

NS: There has been criticism from some quarters that the agreed Programme for Government is unrealistic and cannot be fulfilled on financial grounds. What do you say to those accusations? 

MM: No Programme for Government has been agreed yet. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have set out a framework document which has been presented to the other parties for consideration. Negotiations towards agreeing a Programme for Government are now underway. The COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing. We know there will be huge economic ramifications, but we will work within the parameters of what we have, to ensure that any Programme for Government is strong, implementable and focused on a fair recovery from the fallout of COVID-19. 

 

NS: Having spent a great deal of time in Northern Ireland, you must be acutely aware of the difficulties it will face post-Brexit. What are your priorities in this regard?

MM: The UK is our nearest neighbour; historically our largest trading partner and crucially is also co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. Our histories are interwoven, and we share strong economic, political, social and cultural bonds. As a consequence, Ireland stands to be affected by Brexit more than any other EU member state. First and foremost, we must ensure that the Good Friday Agreement and all its associated rights are recognised in full in the final agreement. We must protect our businesses and SMEs, north and south – particularly those along the border. We must ensure our farmers can continue in their seamless trade and we must maintain and enhance our East-West relations.  Stronger North South cooperation is required, and I would like to pursue new opportunities on North-South infrastructure and new North-South bodies.

 

NS: Fortifying Ireland’s place within the EU and strengthening relationships with other Member States is surely something that is also important for Ireland?

MM: Along with maintaining our vital East-West relations we will work to place Ireland at the heart of Europe. We have been and will continue to be strong advocates for the European Union and Ireland’s place in it. Solidarity within the European Union is going to be absolutely critical as we all work our way through this pandemic, and I am determined that Ireland will make the case strongly for a bold and imaginative response to Covid-19 from the EU.

 

NS: You spoke a lot in the recent election campaign about preserving Ireland’s strong “enterprise economy.” How do you plan on rebooting it following the huge downturn in economic activity that is to come?

MM: Covid-19 basically shut down large sectors of our economy.  Our hospitality industry has been decimated and our SMEs are struggling. As a country we’re going to need to make a truly massive effort to get the economy going again. 

There are 248,344 SMEs active in Ireland responsible for employing just under one million people. We need to support them to open their doors and re-employ people once the economy gets moving again. We need to do this in a way that is fair. 

During the election campaign I said that we needed to rebalance Ireland. We have to have more regional development; we have to bring industry to the areas outside of Dublin. 

As a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, we have huge numbers of people that have now experienced working from home. In the post-pandemic world, I believe we need to harness the potential of this and get much greater numbers of people working from home all over the country. The potential of this to help regenerate towns and villages and rebalance the economy is obvious.

The European Union and the ECB will play a crucial role in underpinning the restoration of the Irish economy through monetary policy and other supports.

 

NS: Are you optimistic that a strong recovery is possible and that you can deliver on your key policies including health and housing? 

MM: We know this COVID-19 pandemic will have huge financial ramifications. We need a strong, stable Government if a strong and fair recovery is to be possible. As you know we are currently in negotiations with Fine Gael and the Green Party and that is what we are working on, a strong recovery which addresses the major issues of health and housing. In the early 1980s, political instability was a factor in prolonging a near decade long recession, so political stability is inextricably bound up with economic recovery.  I am confident that strong recovery is possible and that we can deliver on our key priorities of health, housing, education and climate change.

 

NS: And finally, outside of politics how do you like to spend your downtime?

MM: Downtime can be hard to come-by but my primary interest outside of work and family is sport. GAA, soccer, rugby – I love them all. With the restrictions required by the pandemic, obviously all of that is on ice, so I find myself doing a lot more walking and reading.

 

Neil Stokes – Reporter

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