Friend of Ireland and first Catholic Speaker in centuries

Friend Ireland first Catholic Speaker centuries
Former Speaker Michael Martin

Michael Martin, Baron Martin of Springburn, who died on 29 April aged 72 was a life-long friend of Ireland and constitutional nationalism as a trades unionist, MP and as Speaker of the House of Commons.

He was born on 3 July 1945, the son of a merchant seaman and a school cleaner in Glasgow and brought up in a tenement community in Anderston.

He left St Patrick’s Boy’s School at 14 to apprentice as a sheet metal worker, became involved in trade union activity, joined the Labour Party aged 21, eventually became a Labour Party councillor and shop steward and in 1979 became MP for his Glasgow constituency, in which he grew up, until 2009.

In 2000 he became Speaker of the House of Commons, succeeding the first woman Speaker, Betty Boothroyd.

He was the first Catholic to hold this position since the Reformation. He set about modernising the office of the Speaker and introduced press conferences and did away with the tights worn by Speakers in favour of dark flannel trousers and continued the precedent set by his predecessor, Betty Boothroyd, by dispensing with the traditional wig.

His father had been an alcoholic so he was a teetotaller and when he had to choose the Speaker’s Whisky he asked a panel of friends to do the tasting and choose.

He was driven out of the office of Speaker, which he held for nine years, by a combination of class snobbery – a Daily Mail sketch writer aided and abetted by someone who wanted to be Speaker himself led a sustained campaign against ‘Gorbals Mick’ – and by politicians like the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

His defence of MPs exposed by the expenses scandal, and his unsure handling of that entire furore, compounded the already vicious campaign to destabilise and remove him. He led efforts to block the release of expenses details and called for a police investigation into the source of the leak to the Daily Telegraph.

Friend Ireland first Catholic Speaker centuries
Nick Clegg

Despite his attempts to modernise the office Clegg called him a “dogged defender of the status quo” and claimed he was not up to the job.

The late Labour MP Tam Dalyell, who was born into the aristocracy (Sir Thomas Dalyell of the Binns, the 11th Baronet Thomas Dalyell Loch) and who died last year defended Martin as Speaker: “All this stuff I read about ‘Gorbals Mick’ is odious. What the man is trying to do is do the job of Speaker properly.”

In October 2009, the former Labour MP joined his predecessor as speaker, Baroness Boothroyd, on the crossbenches in the House of Lords.

Former Labour Party leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “I knew him as a successful young trade union organiser, a dedicated member of Parliament, a conscientious Speaker of the House of Commons and latterly as a member of the House of Lords and no matter the position he occupied, he never forgot the debt he owed to his upbringing and the people he had been elected to serve.”


Why the events of 1918 impact upon us today

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