Sunday 4 December 2016

Peter Barry 1928-2016: Barry was the greatest leader Fine Gael never had

Published 27/08/2016 | 02:30

Peter Barry at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in 1981
Peter Barry at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in 1981

For many, he will rank as the greatest leader that Fine Gael and Ireland never had.

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Peter Barry, who earlier this month celebrated his 88th birthday, died yesterday after a short illness surrounded by his family in his native Cork.

Peter Barry and his daughter, Deirdre Clune, who is now an MEP, attending the funeral of Dr FitzGerald in Dublin in 2011. Pic Tom Burke
Peter Barry and his daughter, Deirdre Clune, who is now an MEP, attending the funeral of Dr FitzGerald in Dublin in 2011. Pic Tom Burke

Tributes to the former Tánaiste flooded in from across the business, political and sporting worlds.

But it was in Cork where his loss was most deeply mourned with Mr Barry representing a link to the proud political era of Jack Lynch when Leeside was front and centre of Ireland's political stage.

A former Lord Mayor of Cork, Mr Barry served as a TD for 28 years and also helped oversee the remarkable expansion of his family business, Barry's Tea, into one of Ireland's best-known consumer brands.

Mr Barry was also famous for describing himself in the Dáil register throughout his lengthy career as a "tea taster" rather than a businessman.

A key architect of the ­Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, Mr Barry was also a staunch supporter of Dr Garret FitzGerald's famous 'constitutional crusade' in the 1980s.

Ranked almost as a patrician figure within Fine Gael, he was conservative enough to ensure that, when he personally opted to back policies, even the most reticent members of the party felt obliged to follow suit.

Mr Barry famously lost out in the race to succeed Dr Garret FitzGerald in 1987 and retired from national politics in 1997.

The father of six was then succeeded by his daughter, Deirdre Clune, in his old Cork South Central Constituency.

Ms Clune is now an Ireland South MEP for Fine Gael.

Uniquely, three generations of the Barry family served as Lords Mayor of Cork.

In 2010, Mr Barry received the highest accolade his native city could bestow, the Freedom of Cork.

Mr Barry had served as Cork's Lord Mayor in 1970 - a role he was deeply proud of given that his own father, Anthony Barry, had served as Cork's Lord Mayor in 1961.

The Barry family political dynasty began with Anthony Barry, who was first elected to the Dáil for Cork Borough in 1954. After his retirement from politics, his Cork seat was successfully won back by his son, Peter Barry, in 1969.

Whereas his father had lost a Dáil election, Peter Barry established himself as a dominant force in Cork politics for Fine Gael in the 1970s and 1980s, being returned at every election he contested over three decades.

Over the course of his career, Mr Barry's political and business skills saw him hold a number of senior portfolios for Fine Gael including education, transport, environment, labour, industry and commerce, and, finally, foreign affairs.

It is for the latter that he is best remembered.

Mr Barry served in the Cabinet of Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave before being appointed to the Department of Foreign Affairs by Dr Garret FitzGerald in 1982 at a critical juncture in Anglo-Irish relations. Together with Dr FitzGerald and then Labour leader Dick Spring, the three men helped hammer out the Anglo-Irish Agreement with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher between 1982 and 1985.

The agreement, now widely considered to be the cornerstone for the current peace deal in Northern Ireland, was achieved despite one of the most violent periods in Anglo-Irish relations including an IRA attempt to assassinate Mrs Thatcher as she attended a Conservative Party conference in Brighton.

Some within Fine Gael favoured Mr Barry taking the leadership after Dr FitzGerald signalled his resignation following the 1987 General Election defeat.

However, despite having served as deputy leader of Fine Gael, from 1979-1987 and from 1989-1993, Mr Barry was ultimately content to play a senior role in front-bench politics under, first, Alan Dukes and then John Bruton.

In retirement, Mr Barry maintained a relatively low profile and largely shunned the limelight. Senator ­Jerry Buttimer, a former Cork South Central TD, said Mr ­Barry actively encouraged young ­people to become involved in Fine Gael.

The respect in which the former Tánaiste was held was underlined by current Lord Mayor of Cork, Councillor Des Cahill, who revealed that when he decided to enter politics in 2009, the first person whose advice he sought out was that of Mr Barry.

Mr Barry socialised within his lifelong and close-knit circle of friends in Blackrock and Cork, indulging his love of travel and the arts.

He was modest in his personal tastes and, while a TD, drove a Ford car because the marque was Cork-based.

His greatest blow came in 2013 when his wife and lifelong companion, Margaret, died after a short illness.

Although, Mr Barry preferred to remain out of the limelight in retirement, he did hit the headlines a decade ago when he bought the Michael Collins/Kitty Kiernan letters so they could be displayed in Cork and not be lost to an overseas buyer.

Irish Independent

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