Ireland has very few civil servants that have become household names, even fleetingly.
Robert Watt’s recent pay hike on becoming secretary general of the Department of Health catapulted him into the news pages. Kevin Cardiff, former secretary general of the Department of Finance, was briefly in the limelight and the target of public ire. And Dermot McCarthy, former secretary to the government, courted full-blown controversy when he stepped down with a €700,000 package a decade ago.
But outside of TK Whitaker, few have had staying power in the public eye – and usually, that’s the way they like it.
Martin Fraser (51) – who has been secretary general at the Department of the Taoiseach for a decade and is to move from Government Buildings late next year to become the Irish ambassador in London – is in that low-key mould.
“He universally has the respect of every politician who comes across him, and the low profile he keeps suits that,” says a source. Another source says he has “indisputable” power across Government, but Fraser is not known for commandeering meetings.
His contributions are often short. “He has two eyes, two ears and one mouth, and he uses them in that proportion,” says a source. Sometimes his words are blunt; always they have an impact.
“When he turns in meetings, it’s kind of shocking; he wins friends and influences people well, but when he wants to take out the big stick, he’s well able to whack people,” says a source. He is seen as likeable and personable, but “bulls**t civil service excuses for not getting stuff done, that would really annoy him.”
Multiple insiders say that his low profile belies the power, esteem and influence he has held over a decade as the State’s most senior civil servant.
“He exudes a sense of authority,” a source says.
“One of the best people I have ever worked with,” says a senior Minister. “Always on your side – or at least you feel like he is.”
A “strategic genius”, says someone who has worked with him on Brexit policy.
Former cabinet minister Shane Ross says he is “an immensely powerful civil servant, listened to on all matters” and “absolutely fearless about expressing an opinion on an issue”.
Fraser, a native of Malahide in Co Dublin, is a devoted Liverpool fan who played soccer and golf from a young age, but never to a high level (his golf handicap was a respectable 17). He joined the civil service – following in the footsteps of both his parents – in 1986, straight from school. He worked first in the Department of Social Welfare, for some of the time working on information technology. At the time, the systems for processing payments for the teeming masses on the dole queues were some of the most advanced in the country.
He moved to the Department of Foreign Affairs, working on Middle East policy for a year, before migrating to the Department of Agriculture, working on the department’s finances and reforming the beef system in the wake of the beef tribunal. However, his long-term home was to be the Department of the Taoiseach, which he joined in 1999.
He has been working on Anglo-Irish affairs since 2004, more or less continuously, becoming director of the Northern Irish division from just after the Northern Bank robbery in December that year, and before the murder of Robert McCartney.
Few in the civil service can match his experience of constructing and maintaining the complex web of deals and finely balanced relationships which held the peace in Northern Ireland.
Among other things, he has worked on the decommissioning of IRA arms, the St Andrew’s Agreement, the devolution of policing and justice, the Stormont House Agreement and multiple running repairs to the Northern Irish institutions.
More recently, he has worked on the decade of centenaries projects. Before that he was influential in preparations behind Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland in 2011 and President Michael D Higgins’s State visit to the UK three years later.
He has an appreciation, insiders say, of the nuance needed in diplomacy. When Leo Varadkar was readying to meet UK prime minister Boris Johnson during a key moment in the Brexit negotiations, Fraser was one of those arguing that the meeting should take place in the Wirral outside Liverpool, and not on Johnson’s home ground in No 10 Downing Street.
He was also against Varadkar holding a meeting with Donald Trump at his Doonbeg golf course in 2019, preferring instead to arrange it at Shannon Airport.
“He really cares about the Anglo-Irish relationship; he’s maintained it. No matter how bad it gets between politicians, he’s the man with the direct line,” says a source. On Northern Ireland, Fraser has been known to remark to colleagues that those seeking to keep the peace are swimming against the tide of history. He is conscious of the fragility of the situation, sources say. He has worked with unionist politicians, fostering relationships, and has worked on the Government’s Shared Island initiative. Some speculate he may have a nationalist outlook, in a broad sense, but observers agree he is anchored in implementing the Constitution and the policies of the government of the day and the civil service.
After being appointed secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach in 2011, Fraser was part of a reform-minded group of civil servants, who wanted to speed up civil service reforms. In speeches to colleagues at the time, as the country reeled from the impact of the financial crisis, he urged them to accept a degree of ownership over the situation. Civil servants could not on the one hand exalt the central position they held in matters of the State and simultaneously disown how the State had failed to protect its citizens against the financial crisis, he argued.
He also played a role in enmeshing the ranks of senior British and Irish civil servants as political relations between Enda Kenny and David Cameron strengthened during their times in office.
Annual meetings of Irish secretaries general and British permanent secretaries were arranged, with attendees repairing to the Red Lion in Whitehall, or to Brogan’s on Dame Street, depending on whether it was held in London or Dublin, working closely with cabinet secretaries Jeremy Heywood and then Mark Sedwill.
Domestically, he is sometimes deployed as what one person described as a “fixer” – knocking heads together, especially on high-stakes projects, such as addressing the controversy over building defects at Priory Hall, or organising Enda Kenny’s northeast inner-city taskforce. “He definitely takes an interest in big projects and driving big projects the political system are interested in,” says a source.
More recently this has extended to housing, with Fraser chairing a wide group of secretaries general tasked with solving the State’s most intractable policy problem. His duties extend to briefing the Opposition – he met with Mary Lou McDonald and the Sinn Féin negotiating team when that party was attempting to form a government last year.
Colleagues reserve their highest praise for his work on Brexit policy, which one says was “his philosophy, his strategy”. The Brexit unit was set up in the Department of the Taoiseach a year before the June 2016 referendum. Irish strategy focused on boosting Cameron’s chances of getting a good deal with Brussels before the vote, arguing against Brexit and pointing out its dangers for the State. After the vote it focused on first articulating, then embedding Irish priorities – the Belfast Agreement, the Common Travel Area and the economic impact – in the European response.
He can clash with other “big beasts” in Government, multiple sources say. He and Watt were on opposite sides of the debate over the National Broadband Plan. With Watt stridently opposed to it on cost grounds, Fraser was key in influencing then-taoiseach Varadkar to proceed with the €3 billion plan.
A row with then US ambassador Anne Anderson during the St Patrick’s Day festivities in 2014 garnered headlines at the time. Theories about what they argued over abound, but concrete facts are thin on the ground. Those within the political bubble were most surprised not that there was a row, but that it happened where it could be seen by a journalist.
Some sources believe there will be a “discipline change” when he takes up the reins in London, pointing out the role of an ambassador is more visible, and is different in both subtle and obvious ways to his current job managing Government business on a daily, weekly and longer-term basis.
Fraser’s seven-year term as secretary general was extended first by three years, and in recent weeks by another year, following which he will take up his new role. The exit of a secretary general is a sensitive thing – it can’t be done too close to a general election, and periods of political or wider instability are best avoided. For several months, discussions on Fraser’s next post have been under way at the highest level of Government and the civil service. It was always unlikely he would retire aged 51. A role commensurate with his experience, but at a sufficient remove from his current position that his successor would be given freedom to operate, was desired. Ultimately the London role was identified and an official offer was made by Simon Coveney, who was understood to be enthusiastic about the appointment. His salary will remain at its current level of €211,000.
The next ambassador will probably outlast both the current governments in London and Dublin, sources say, with the new appointee likely to straddle a key period in Anglo-Irish relations. Relationships, even after Brexit, have not fallen into total disrepair. But Iveagh House is thought to be enthusiastic about rekindling the closeness between London and Dublin that existed a decade ago.
With this oldest and most complex relationship at a new juncture, Fraser is set for a key role.