This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the formation of this historic coalition between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
Engulfed by the Covid-19 pandemic and battling the fallout from Brexit, it has been a year of tumult and precious little positive news.
Early ministerial sackings and resignations at a time of national crisis and episodes of internal bickering have given way to a more benign and productive period.
Political Editor, DANIEL McCONNELL, talks to the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, about the greatest challenges faced by the three-way coalition.
A year like no other
SIX months ago, with the country in the teeth of the third wave of Covid-19, I interviewed Taoiseach Micheál Martin in his office in Government Buildings.
We were in the depths of winter, schools were closed, and hospitals were under severe pressure. Daily case numbers and deaths were higher than they had ever been during the first wave.
He was visibly stressed; the toll of all he and his Government were facing was clear in his face.
“That month of January was the most difficult. The numbers were very high, people were dying. It was a very difficult month. We were particularly concerned about the ICU beds and the strain on the ICU system and on the hospitals,” he says as we return to his office this week to mark the one-year anniversary of him becoming Taoiseach.
He is in much better form. The vaccine rollout has given him and his party a much-needed bounce.
Photographer Moya Nolan, who took pictures of him in January and again this week, says it was like chalk and cheese in terms of his demeanour.
In January, we were talking lockdown and deaths, now we are talking opening up, a return to international travel, and a move to café culture by way of outdoor dining.
As we begin the interview, I ask him for his feelings on his first year in power.
“It’s been a very challenging year, but I think the Government has worked well together in dealing with the pandemic,” he says.
“It’s been a hectic year. It’s been non-stop. The pandemic has dominated the entire year.
“In Ireland overall, when you look at mortality figures related to other countries and severe illness and case numbers as well as the vaccination problem, Ireland has managed relatively well. But we’re still not out of the woods.”
The greatest negative impact the pandemic has had in terms of the Government’s priorities, Martin says, is in housing.
The lockdown last year, he says, reduced the intended output from 25,000 to 20,000 and the shutdown earlier this year is scheduled to have an even deeper impact, reducing output from 25,000 to 18,000.
That’s a shortfall of 12,000 homes from the Government’s target, and a long way off the 33,000 homes a year the ESRI says are needed.
“The lockdown in the first three months has hit us. So we lose thousands of houses again. It could be 18,000 to 20,000. They are saying 18,000 at the moment, hopefully we can pick that up,” he says.
An ongoing issue since the Government formed has been the sometimes-turbulent relationship between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, with the actions of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar constantly in the news.
The Tánaiste repeatedly stands accused of being a “Mé Féiner” and has sought to pre-announce Government decisions for his own benefit.
I ask the Taoiseach how he has dealt with Mr Varadkar’s effusiveness.
I quote to him a line from another minister, who said dealing with Leo must be like dealing with your annoying teenage brother.
His response is most telling.
“My role is to… sometimes counting to 10 is important in leadership, and understanding where people are coming from and why certain things happen,” he says pointedly.
“All of us can get things wrong, from time to time, overstep it or announce something early on.”
I ask him about Mr Varadkar’s speech the previous week on his vision for a united Ireland. Again, his response is telling.
“I do think we need to focus on the here and now,” he says.
Asked directly does he respect Leo Varadkar, he responds clearly: “I do.”
He does say there have been tensions with chief medical officer Tony Holohan and the Government’s public health advisors. The Taoiseach says the public health advice has and does “annoy people”.
“There’s always going to be some tensions between independent public health advice and government because government will always want to hear good news,” he says.
“Public health advice normally does annoy people — don’t smoke, don’t drink. That’s the nature of public health advice.”
“There’s all that tension between public health advice and personal liberties. But in the context of a community or a society, one has to be conscious of the risks to health and to life,” he says.
Where did Nphet get it wrong, I ask.
“Look, there were issues around masks for example. I would have thought masks would have been brought in much earlier. I had discussions with Tony and Ronan [Glynn, deputy chief medical officer] about this and they would have argued, culturally, it was more of an Asian thing,” he says.
However, he rejects the political charge from some that he and his ministers have outsourced the running of the country to Nphet.
“I don’t accept that at all,” he says.
Overall, Mr Martin says, the advice from Nphet “has been solid” and they have called the pandemic “about right”.
While getting more than 1m children back to school last September represented a high point, one of the low points of the Government’s tenure was the refusal of teachers to enter the classroom in January.
Despite lengthy talks, Education Minister Norma Foley was twice scuppered in her bid to keep schools open in January.
Looking back, Mr Martin says the Government got it wrong and the teachers were right to refuse to go in.
He says that while the Government’s position was to return to school, in retrospect it was the wrong approach.
“The numbers were so high that we probably should have moderated that,” he says. “It was pretty upsetting to close down schools again.”
In retrospect, it wasn’t the unions but the wider teacher body who feared the numbers were too high, he says.
The Taoiseach says he was critical of the unions’ position, but that there was a genuine concern at the time that was legitimate.
One of the most damaging legacies of Covid-19 has been the decimation of town centres and retail.
Mr Martin says the “scarring impact” of the pandemic will take some time to fix itself.
So what will our main streets look like after all of this?
“It will take a bit more time to see the scarring impact of the pandemic on certain categories of business, particularly in retail, hospitality, travel and tourism.”
He says streetscapes will change, but the change was already underway before Covid hit. However, the pandemic has certainly accelerated that change.
He notes in cities such as Cork and Dublin, the changes to a more cafe-style culture have happened very quickly and this is hugely positive.
“The umbrella poles outside restaurants are embedded into the concrete; they are not going anywhere.”
I note that the cafe-style culture he speaks of was the very kind of thing his party blocked 20 years ago when Michael McDowell proposed it.
He says there has been a massive investment in terms of public transport, cycleways, and walking routes, all of which have helped transform public spaces.
Having hosted Edwin Poots only a couple of weeks ago, I ask him about his view of what happened.
“In the first instance, the ousting of Arlene Foster created a lot of division within the DUP and created a really serious divide,” he says.
The Taoiseach says he found Mr Poots “very direct” and that he would stick to an obligation he had made.
He says Mr Poots was “the most effective cross-border operator” for quite some time.
The Taoiseach says he and other political leaders need to “settle this down” and work with Jeffrey Donaldson and that his overarching priority is to prevent a collapse of the Assembly and to “make politics work” in the North.
“I think that all political parties need to ensure that politics works for the people,” he says.
Since becoming Taoiseach, Mr Martin has been the subject of intense and stinging criticism from within his own party.
On a weekly basis, he faces noisy opposition and complaints from his own TDs and senators.
When asked about the charge levelled at him by some that he is an “analogue solution to a digital problem”, he describes it as “utter rubbish”.
He says he gets on very well with the vast majority of the parliamentary party, which he says has always been “hot and heavy” in terms of the internal politics.
He says he is “one phone call away” from his TDs and senators and, while the party’s communications strategy could improve, he is a “very accessible” Taoiseach to the media.
“I am very accessible. I always had been, yeah. I worked with all of the TDs and senators and their own individual campaigns, unlike any other party leader before me.”
While many of his own TDs have called on him to relinquish the leadership at the time of the transition of power in December 2022, he says he has no regrets in seeking the tough ministries in health and housing.
“Why get into politics if you are not prepared to tackle the tough issues?”
He also says that, if the Government is to be meaningful and deliver on its commitments, it must run for the full five-year term.
He insists, despite those internal calls for him to go, that he will be Tánaiste to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar once the transition occurs.
He may have to say that, but a few more months like the one he has just had and he may be too strong to remove.