Nov 25, 2017

The Green Party’s Great Hope

Catherine Martin, the Green Party's Deputy Leader, talks about her party's electoral fortunes and what she thinks of Leo Varadkar.

Guy Boggan for The University Times
Dominic McGrathEditor

Political compasses don’t often include an axis for “hope”. Political scientists might be missing a trick. Because, after an hour sitting down with Catherine Martin, the Deputy Leader of the Green Party, I’m starting to think “hope” is as much a political label as “progressive”, “conservative” or “liberal”.

It’s certainly just as powerful as any ideology or belief. How else to explain the resurrection of Ireland’s Green Party? In 2011, the party had fallen from a staff of 40 to one part-time employee. The election had been a disaster for the Greens.

No matter the progress the party pointed towards, the legislative successes or the cabinet-level victories, voters associated it with Fianna Fáil and the botched attempt to salvage the country’s economy. When the election came, the party lost all its seats.


And this is when the cards began to fall in Catherine Martin’s favour. For it was a political career that started with failure that would produce one of the most remarkable rises in modern Irish politics.

On the day of her election to the Deputy Leader of the Green Party, Martin was a political nobody. It was June 2011, only a few months after the general election. Eamon Ryan, the former Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the party’s new leader, was already a recognisable name in Irish politics. Charismatic, sincere and endearingly optimistic, he was a regular in the media. On the Late Late Show in 2009, he’d told host Pat Kenny that green solutions were the solution to the economic crisis. He even used that “hope” word, offering an optimism that’s painful to look back on from 2017.

In comparison, Martin had only been in the party since 2007. She wasn’t yet a councillor and was still plying her trade as a teacher in Dundrum when she was elected deputy leader. Only a few months before her election, she had been out walking the streets canvassing for Ryan ahead of the general election. Now, she was his most senior party colleague, having fought off two more experienced, male politicians.

In the space of 10 years, Martin has won a council seat, defied the odds to become a TD and become one of the most coherent and recognisable voices for green politics in Ireland

Martin recalls now: “The day after I was elected deputy leader, the first meeting where we sat down, he rang and said we need to meet. I said actually, I have no babysitter, the children are home, they’re young. He said ‘I’ll come over to you’. We met in my kitchen, with my children with me. And that was me, thinking, ‘I’ve picked the right party. I’m glad I’m deputy leader of this party’.”

And so began the rebuilding process. And Martin left nothing to chance. In December 2011, she organised a 30th anniversary gig for the Green Party in Vicar St. From across Ireland, she brought together some of the country’s best musicians, driving out to Sligo to convince Steve Wickham of the Waterboys to play. There might not have been much to celebrate but, Martin says, “I could see the potential there and I could see we could rebuild”.

Today, the Green Party is in much better shape. It has two TDs and a senator. In her conference speech earlier in the year, there was something triumphant about Martin as she addressed the members of the party she’d help rebuild.

And why not? In the space of 10 years, Martin has won a council seat, defied the odds to become a TD and become one of the most coherent and recognisable voices for green politics in Ireland.

Only a day before I interview her, she’d been elected Chair of the first Oireachtas Women’s Caucus, a cross-party grouping of current and former female politicians. Our interview is pushed back an hour later due to the volley of media requests following her election.

It’s no surprise that the Oireachtas needs such a body and Martin isn’t the first to bemoan the lack of women in Irish politics – the country currently has 35 female TDs out of 158. What is impressive, however, is how Martin spearheaded the new caucus herself. If the support was cross party, it was her idea alone.

During the summer, when the group launched its constitution, the most remarkable thing was Martin standing on the steps of Leinster House, surrounded by some of Ireland’s most experienced politicians: Francis Fitzgerald, Katherine Zappone, Jan O’Sullivan.

Martin at a rally in June to protest Trump’s decision to pull the US from the Paris climate agreement.

Dominic McGrath for The University Times

In the world of politics, where so often seniority and experience go hand in hand, it’s important to remember: they were all there because of Martin.

“I think this caucus is a fine example of new politics working”, Martin says. “I received cross-party nominations, I received cross-party votes. It’s working. I met someone today who said: ‘I’d like to go for Deputy Chair.’ That to me is an indication that there’ll be another person going for Deputy Chair.”

We’re not an opposition party, we’re not in politics to be in opposition. We’re not afraid of going into government

So what does the caucus do now?

“For me, something I’d love us to aim to, because of the centenary of women’s suffrage, is to do something historic and move a piece of legislation.” Violence against women and the pension gap are two areas Martin suggests the group might target.

Talking to Martin, two things stand out. She is at once an archetypal politician, replete with stories of knocking on doors and telling me there’s no place quite like Ireland, while at the other end she is fiercely forward looking, rattling off the value of green politics for the future of the planet.

Take, for example, her story of how she first got into politics: “Our first child, Turlough, was born in April 2007. About 10 weeks later, we joined the Green Party. There was just this change, this shift, where I held my baby in my hand and [thought] ‘I need to protect you’. And then there was a greater thing: ‘What can I do to protect you?’ And I was like: ‘What about all the children?’”

It’s folksy, friendly: there’s no sense that Martin is about to take to a barricade or tie herself to the gates of a nuclear power plant.

She’s insistent – adamant even – that party politics eluded her until the birth of her first son. She might have listened to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, might even have lived in California for years, but none of it politicised her. “I was probably a hippie, in that I was a musician”, she says, but that’s as far as it went.

In Maynooth University, she didn’t care a jot for student politics, she tells me. Her interest in politics – she was an “avid” follower of current affairs growing up – kept her content until 2007.

At one point, she scorns my suggestion that she might have wanted to leave Carrickmacross for Dublin. “No, I wasn’t the stony, grey soil”, she laughs, referencing the Patrick Kavanagh poem.

This is the part that confuses me about Martin. For all her green bona fides, there’s little of the radical about her. She’s a parliamentarian, first and foremost, who trod the well-worn path from councillor to TD.

Yet, at the same time, there’s a determination that sets her apart. “Motivation” is a word she uses with the frequency of a life-coach. “I feel like I have to be that voice, I owe it to the next generation to do that. So, that’s what really motivates me. My children motivate me, every time I see them”, she tells me.

If this sounds trite, no one should underestimate how much work it took Martin to win her election. She was a political nobody, in a Dublin Rathdown constituency rammed with big names and large-party operations.

Her victory was one of the biggest upsets of election day. Relying largely on transfers, Martin came out of nowhere to deprive the former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter a seat. She remembers the frustrations of a campaign run on a shoestring budget. “Sometimes on prime radio or TV, they didn’t even mention I was running when they were doing Dublin-Rathdown. They actually mentioned people who weren’t running and I was left out. And when you have no money to do advertisements or campaigns, you’re waiting for that”, she says.

Enough is enough. The only losers in this charade are the people

There is more than a touch of pride to Martin as she recounts defeating her opponents. “I said it to one person, when we were elected, what I spent, compared notes and they said ‘you couldn’t have done it on that’.”

The pride explains her frustration when, after entering the Dáil, parties failed to form a government. In a maiden speech that caught national attention, she raged against Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s inability to form a government.

“This shameful, 47 days and counting is impeding us from doing the urgent work we were elected to do. In case any party has forgotten, perhaps it is important to remind ourselves of the obvious. No one party won the general election. But unfortunately, it seems as if the people have lost”, she told the Dáil. “Enough is enough. The only losers in this charade are the people. It behoves political parties to act in the best interests of the people of Ireland, not themselves or their parties.”

“My press officer said afterwards: ‘Next time you’re planning on doing something like that, give us a heads up.’ To me, I didn’t think this was going to be an amazing maiden speech. To me, it was just: ‘I need to say something.’ And I couldn’t believe it when the phone started hopping afterwards.”

She even received a text from a Fine Gael TD, telling her “I felt like standing up and applauding”.

Martin at a rally in June to protest Trump’s decision to pull the US from the Paris climate agreement.

Dominic McGrath for The University Times

Martin says she has no qualms about going into government, but only if the price is right. “We’re not an opposition party, we’re not in politics to be in opposition. We’re not afraid of going into government. But we won’t sell out.”

The talk is familiar. Most small parties say they’re ready for government. But Martin seems to mean it. And while she’s never been in government herself, you get the sense she’d make a good minister. From pinning down Charlie Flanagan and Frances Fitzgerald to get funding for longer maternity leave for the mothers of premature babies, to raining hellfire on the government for its controversial Heritage Bill, she’d be a great addition to any cabinet table.

We vote with the government if we think it’s right

It’s a scenario that isn’t unlikely. With the party aiming for six TDs at the next election, the Green Party might end up being the kingmakers for any coalition government.

So if the election was tomorrow, who would you go into government with?

“We wouldn’t rule anything out”, she tells me. I try again.

Are there parties whose policies you could support today?

“You can see on weekly votes, a lot of the time we are in broad agreement with each other. So I’d say, that’s open. That’s not to be ruled out at all, as you can see in the voting trends every week, that’s there. But likewise, we vote with the government if we think it’s right”, Martin says.

And this is perhaps why, in Ireland, the Green Party will never be the darlings of young progressives as it is in the UK: there seems to be a certain shamefacedness in being lumped in with the Dáil’s left-wing parties.

Even if over the last few months, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has often attacked the left at every opportunity, Martin is unsure if those attacks are also meant for the Green Party. “I think he’s working under whatever the €5 million [for the Taoiseach’s Communications Unit] is telling him to say and honestly it’s told to go hard on the left. It’s quite obvious in leader’s questions that that’s the advice been given to the Taoiseach. Is he being hard on them? I don’t know.”

For Martin herself, she suggests she might be a centrist: “Maybe when you do examine our policies we’re going centre-left. But, I just don’t like labels. And again, I’d say to you: compare votes. And sometimes you say ‘they’re definitely far-left, now they’re centre-left, now it depends on policy. But I’m not a person for labels. I don’t like being pigeonholed.”

Whatever she is, Martin is moving in the right direction. She won’t rule out going for the party leadership one day, and it’s hard to imagine it’s not a role that lies ahead when Eamon Ryan steps aside.

One thing is clear: 10 years in politics hasn’t dimmed Martin’s anger. And as long as that remains, expect to keep seeing her on the streets of Rathdown and Dundrum, trying to change the world one doorstep at a time.

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