Born and raised in the Turner's Cross area of Cork, Martin was the son of Paddy Martin (1923–2012), a former soldier in the Defence Forces, CIÉ employee and Irish international boxer, and Eileen "Lana" Corbett (1929–2010). He was the third child in a family of five. Martin's eldest brother Seán and his twin brother Pádraig subsequently became involved in local politics in Cork. His two younger sisters, Eileen and Máiréad, have remained apolitical. Martin attended Coláiste Chríost Rí before studying arts at University College Cork.
It was during his time at university that Martin became involved in politics. He was a prominent member of the cumann of Ógra Fianna Fáil, the youth wing of the party before later serving as national chairman of Ógra. After graduating with a BA degree, Martin later completed an MA in political history. Subsequently, he completed a higher diploma in education and began a career as a history teacher in Presentation Brothers College.
In 2009 he published his MA thesis as a book: Freedom to Choose: Cork and Party Politics in Ireland 1918–1932.
Martin's time as a teacher was short-lived; he left after just one year to become a full-time politician when he secured election to Cork Corporation as a Fianna Fáil candidate in 1985. It was from this local base that he decided to embark on a career in national politics a little under two years later. Martin was one of four candidates who secured the Fianna Fáil nomination to run in the Cork South–Central constituency in the 1987 general election, however, of the four he polled the fewest first-preference votes and failed to be elected. He became a member of the Fianna Fáil national executive in 1988.
In 1989 Taoiseach Charles Haughey called a snap election, and Martin was once again added to the Fianna Fáil ticket in Cork South–Central. On that occasion he obtained the most first-preference votes of any Fianna Fáil candidate, and secured election to Dáil Éireann. He has been re-elected at each subsequent election.
In his first few years as a TD Martin served on a number of Oireachtas committees, including those dealing with crime, finance and the Irish language. He served as Lord Mayor of Cork in 1992. Two years later, in December 1994, Bertie Ahern was elected as the new leader of Fianna Fáil as the party lost power and went into opposition in the Dáil. Martin, however, joined Ahern's new front bench at the start of 1995 as spokesperson on Education and the Gaeltacht.
When Fianna Fáil returned to power following the 1997 general election, Martin was appointed to the newly expanded position of Minister for Education and Science. Aged 36, he was the youngest member of Bertie Ahern's first cabinet. As minister, his tenure was characterised by an increase in spending at all levels of education, while a number of educational initiatives, such as a review of the primary school curriculum and the introduction of special needs assistants, were also initiated.
In a cabinet reshuffle in January 2000, Martin was appointed Minister for Health and Children. Martin's predecessor, Brian Cowen, described the position as "like being in Angola", because 'landmines' can go off at any time.
In spite of tough opposition, Martin introduced a ban on tobacco smoking in all Irish workplaces, including pubs and restaurants. He announced on 30 January 2003 his intention to have the ban in place on 1 January 2004. He visited New York in September 2003 to look at how a similar ban worked there and signed the UN's framework convention on tobacco control at their headquarters. The smoking ban was introduced on 29 March 2004, making Ireland the first country in the world to introduce a blanket ban on smoking in the workplace. Martin was presented with an award by the European Respiratory Society in Glasgow on 4 September 2004 for his work on the smoking ban.
He introduced the first overhaul of the health system in 30 years. It included the abolition of the health boards and establishment of the Health Service Executive. He deregulated the country's pharmacies from 31 January 2002.
In October 2003 Martin promised to examine cases of symphysiotomy in Irish hospitals which occurred during the 1940s and 1950s, and offered free health care to those affected.
In September 2004 he exchanged government positions with Mary Harney, to become Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The following September, the government's economic record on the cost of living came under scrutiny from the RTÉ television programme Rip-Off Republic. This led to Martin abolishing the controversial Groceries Order 1987, a piece of legislation which prohibited the sale of groceries below cost price.
Letters containing death threats and shotgun cartridges, from a group calling itself the Irish Citizens Defence Force, were posted to Martin on 29 February 2008 at a prominent Dublin fertility clinic.
On the resignation of Bertie Ahern in May 2008, Martin supported Brian Cowen's bid for the Fianna Fáil leadership.
In a cabinet reshuffle on 13 May 2008, following the election of Brian Cowen as Taoiseach, Martin became Minister for Foreign Affairs. One of the first issues that he had to deal with was the referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon. Martin led the Government campaign. Despite the overwhelming majority of Government and Opposition parties supporting a Yes vote, the electorate rejected the Government's recommendation. Martin and Cowen failed to convince the Irish public to support the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon, and this protest expressed in the referendum on 12 June 2008 plunged the government into a major political crisis.
In February 2009 Martin travelled to Latin America for the first time, making stopovers in Mexico and Havana; it was the first time an Irish government minister had made an official visit to Cuba.
In September 2009 he travelled to Khartoum to discuss the kidnapping of Sharon Commins and Hilda Kawuki with the Sudanese government.
On 7 February 2010 he defended the €4.4 million redevelopment of the Irish embassy in Ottawa. While in Brussels on 22 February 2010, he questioned Foreign Affairs Minister of Israel Avigdor Lieberman over the use of fraudulent Irish passports in the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
On 17 March 2010 he met President of the United States Barack Obama in the White House, alongside Taoiseach Brian Cowen.
On 26 May 2010 he met with senior Chinese leaders in Beijing to discuss relations between China and Ireland, before travelling onward to Shanghai. While there, he visited the Irish pavilion at Expo 2010 in the city.
On 28 June 2010 he began a five-day trip to Uganda and Ethiopia, where he visited buildings and met ministers and businesspeople.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs Martin was critical of the blockade of Gaza, particularly after being denied access to the area in 2009. He wrote to Spain (as President of the EU) to suggest that the body send a team of foreign ministers to the area in 2010. He made his first visit there himself on 25 February 2010, on a one-day humanitarian mission through the Egyptian border. In doing so, Martin became the first Western foreign minister to visit Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007. While in Gaza, the Minister toured hospitals and schools. He was accompanied by United Nations vehicles.
Martin wrote about his experience in the International Herald Tribune the following week.
Martin was Minister for Foreign Affairs during the Gaza flotilla raid and the aftermath of this incident. He told Dáil Éireann that he had requested that the Israeli government allow the MV Rachel Corrie to deliver its cargo of aid to Gaza instead of involving itself in "further bloodshed".
In September 2010, doubts about Brian Cowen's abilities and political judgement as Taoiseach and party leader emerged following a disastrous early-morning radio interview on Morning Ireland. Cowen survived, however, that same month Martin admitted that he and other cabinet members, namedly Brian Lenihan and Dermot Ahern, harboured ambitions to lead the party should a vacancy arise. While some backbench rebel Fianna Fáil TD's called for Cowen to go, no cabinet minister publicly came forward to challenge the incumbent. In spite of this, Martin once again expressed an interest in running for the leadership of Fianna Fáil once the vacancy arises in December 2010 on RTÉ's Saturday View radio programme.
On 16 January 2011, Martin announced that he would vote against Brian Cowen in the upcoming confidence motion in his leadership of the party. He offered to resign as Minister for Foreign Affairs, but his resignation was initially refused by Cowen. Following the result of the motion, which Cowen won, the resignation was accepted.
On 22 January 2011, just days after winning a vote of confidence, Brian Cowen announced that he was stepping down as leader of Fianna Fáil but would remain as Taoiseach. On a special RTÉ News programme that day, a number of Fianna Fáil TDs came on the air and publicly backed Martin for the leadership. Later that evening, Martin formally announced his intention to seek support for the leadership of Fianna Fáil. He was immediately seen as the front-runner; however, a number of other candidates entered the field to ensure a contest. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was seen as Martin's biggest rival for the position, however, his position was weakened due to his public declaration of support for Cowen the previous week. Éamon Ó Cuív and Mary Hanafin, while both having different support bases within the party, were both seen as outsiders.
On 26 January 2011, the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party met to elect their new leader. Martin was proposed by Dara Calleary and seconded by Áine Brady and received 33 first preference votes. It was more than double that of his nearest rival Ó Cuív, however, he was still short of winning the election. After Hanafin and Lenihan had been eliminated from the contest and their surplus votes distributed, Martin emerged with 50 votes and was duly elected the eighth leader of Fianna Fáil. Upon election he pledged to reinvigorate Fianna Fáil from its traditional centre ground roots, believing that Fianna Fáil has never delivered to the Irish people through the labels of left and right.
Martin led the party into the 2011 general election, which saw Fianna Fáil swept from power in the worst defeat of a sitting government in the history of the Irish state. The party saw its first-preference vote more than halved, and lost 57 seats, representing a decline of 75%, being the worst electoral performance in its 85-year history.
Martin and other Fianna Fáil leaders concluded early on that they would not be re-elected to another term in government, and had hoped to hold onto at least 30 seats. In the wake of what has been described as "defeat on a historic scale", Martin pledged to renew the party "at every level".
During the Seanad elections, Martin recommended support for 10 candidates, in an attempt to bring new blood into the parliamentary party. This caused resentment from Fianna Fáil councillors and incumbent Fianna Fáil senators. Only five of the recommended ten were elected, although the party performed better than expected winning fourteen seats.
In August 2011, Martin approached Gay Byrne as a possible nominee for the presidential election, but this approach caused controversy within his party, who favoured an internal candidate, Brian Crowley, which was exacerbated on the declining of the nomination by Byrne and the withdrawal from the process by Crowley. In an opinion poll in September 2011, Fianna Fáil's popularity fell to 10%, several points lower than its performance in the February 2011 election.
Martin is also party spokesperson on Northern Ireland.
Martin is married to Mary O'Shea, whom he met at university, and together the couple have had five children. In October 2010, Martin's youngest daughter, Léana, died in Great Ormond Street Hospital after suffering from a heart condition. Eleven years earlier a son, Ruairí, died in infancy.Micheál Martin, Freedom to Choose: Cork & Party Politics in Ireland 1918–1932 (The Collins Press, Cork, 2009).