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Belfast Live
Belfast Live

Micheal Martin steps aside as Irish premier

Micheal Martin, Ireland's shortest-serving taoiseach, was seen as a cautious, steady pair of hands at a turbulent time for Ireland.

The Cork South-Central TD led the country through the worst of the coronavirus pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, and supported Ukraine following Russia's brutal invasion.

But the housing crisis continues to plague the three-party coalition government, with the severe shortage of affordable housing now causing problems for recruitment in healthcare and education.

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There are few political roles that Mr Martin, who is leader of Fianna Fail, has not held. He has served as a councillor and Cork mayor and, since first entering Dail Eireann in 1989, has led the opposition and held several ministerial roles.

This includes the foreign affairs, enterprise, health and education portfolios. That experience may have prepared him for his regular addresses to the country during the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic, when several harsh lockdowns were imposed across Ireland in order to keep the number of people in hospital as low as possible.

It has also led to speculation that he may ultimately be headed for a role on the European or global stage - possibly as Ireland's EU commissioner.

Seen as a temperate Taoiseach compared with his predecessor Leo Varadkar, Mr Martin also brought his diplomacy to tense exchanges of words over what to do with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

He also backed fast-tracking Ukraine's application to join the European Union, a rare move for a non-eastern European country, and made a statement providing for 70,000 Ukrainian refugees.

But Mr Martin's coalition Government had a fractious beginning for his party - losing two Fianna Fail agriculture ministers in its first two months.

Barry Cowen was forced to step aside after "a disagreement" with Mr Martin over a driving discretion, while his party deputy Dara Calleary resigned from the same role a month later, after attending a large golfing gathering as Covid cases in Ireland ramped up.

Despite a number of awkward moments with Fine Gael leader Mr Varadkar, who pipped Mr Martin at the post in announcing government decisions several times, the Fianna Fail leader was seen to have kept his cool while backbenchers' tempers flared.

But his decision for Fianna Fail to take on the health and housing ministries has also lined his party up for the lion's share of public fury and frustration with the Government.

Mr Martin has remained adamant that his Government's plan is the only way to address Ireland's housing crisis - through government incentives for developers to build, support and taxes to encourage the use of vacant properties, and grants to help make high rents and house prices more affordable for people.

Despite this, Ireland has seen homeless figures hit record numbers for four months in a row, now at 11,397 including 3,480 children.

The cost of buying a house and rent have continued to increase, and recent CSO figures show that residential building activity declined by 16% between July and September.

Mr Martin's choice to appoint Stephen Donnelly, a recent Fianna Fail member, was also seen as controversial as it appeared to overlook party stalwarts.

That, and Mr Martin's change of stance on abortion in 2018 - choosing to back liberalising Ireland's abortion laws in a move that shocked parts of Fianna Fail - showed he is not afraid to defy his party.

He was later vindicated after the Irish public voted overwhelmingly to ease restrictions on the termination of pregnancies in the 2018 Eighth Amendment referendum.

Several murmurs of heaves against Mr Martin over the years have fizzled out, partly due to a confluence of crises and the lack of an obvious candidate to succeed the veteran Fianna Fail-er.

Having become leader of Fianna Fail at a time of crisis for the party, Micheal Martin leaves high office pledging to return his focus to his party's future - preparing to enlist more women and younger people in preparation for the local elections in 2024.

The party has fallen from garnering 24% of first-preference votes in the 2020 general election, which won them 38 seats in Dail Eireann, to teetering around the mid-teens in the most recent polling.

He has repeatedly said that he will lead the party into the next general election, and dismissed poll numbers as underestimating support for his party.

If this is the case, he will need to decide whether Fianna Fail will consider going into government with the main opposition party Sinn Fein; a general election is due to be held before April 2025.

"I wish him and his the very best for the future, whatever that might bring," Mary Lou McDonald said to Mr Martin in the Irish parliament during his last bout of Leaders' Questions as taoiseach.

In the same debate, the confrontational independent TD Verona Murphy described Mr Martin as "courteous and balanced, generally speaking", and said she does not doubt his commitment to public service or sincerity - a summary of how he has been viewed during his time in office.


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