Entertainment Books

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Review: Biography: Tony Gregory by Robbie Gilligan

O’Brien Press,€19.99

'A case of a tail wagging two dogs" was the brilliantly witty summation of the late John Kelly, as the Dublin Central Independent Tony Gregory parlayed his Dáil vote with outgoing Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and wannabe successor Charles Haughey in a run-down building in Dublin's north inner city in March 1982 following the hung Dáil election of the previous month.

The outcome of those dramatic political days was the infamous Gregory Deal, a multi-million investment programme in jobs, education and housing for the deprived inner city communities that had just elected Gregory, and clinched his vote for Haughey as leader of a minority Fianna Fáil government when the Dail met on March 9.

On that same day, historian and Independent senator John A Murphy acidly commented: "There is an element of farce in the sight of a millionaire island owner seeking to woo the representative of the poorest people in Dublin."

This was one of the more dramatic events in the politically frenetic 18 months period of June 1981-November 1982, which saw three general elections in an economically broken country. Indeed, the kind of times we thought we'd never see again!

Understandably, the dramatic story of the Gregory Deal is the main theme of this very thorough biography written by Trinity College Professor of Social Work and Social Policy, Robbie Gilligan.

A campaigner for Gregory in that period of the late 1970s, early 1980s, which saw this Independent champion of the poor and disadvantaged win a Dublin Corporation seat in 1979, and a Dáil seat in the second of that trio of general elections, his insider knowledge gives Gilligan's narrative real authenticity and detail.

Of course, in terms of its actual implementation, the Gregory Deal was short-lived since that Haughey Government collapsed eight months later, in November 1982, and Gregory lost his unique political leverage.

But the extravagance of the deal, not just in terms of its commitment to badly needed social and economic investment in central Dublin, but embracing wider national issues, including the cancellation of the Dublin Eastern by-pass motorway, did give rise to an enduring debate about the political appropriateness of ransom deals extracted by pivotal Independents.

In more recent times we have witnessed Bertie Ahern's deals with a range of Independents, including Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rea. But the Gregory Deal is certainly more credible than these later creations.

Firstly, it was entirely transparent, and was published at the time. And the vast majority of the provisions, as they related to improving the lives of very disadvantaged communities in Dublin's inner city, were long overdue.

So while the political life of that deal was short-lived, it did bring a sustained focus on that cycle of deprivation, and Tony Gregory helped ensure in his dealings with successive government's up to his untimely death from cancer, in January 2009, that increased resources were invested in that area.

Robbie Gilligan's book is also extremely interesting on the other battles Gregory waged throughout his 27 years as a Dáil deputy, especially for his beloved inner city constituents.

The account of his campaigning for effective action against the drug pushers that were destroying young lives across the city is extremely important. Gregory really brought his on-the-ground knowledge, and his passion, to press politicians and the gardaí to take more effective action.

His pleadings to address the wealth trappings of the main dealers was an important contributor to the eventual establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau in 1996, and he showed real personal courage in naming and confronting local pushers at angry and emotional community meetings.

In 1986, Gregory served a two-week sentence in Mountjoy for refusing to sign a bond to keep the peace arising from his campaign in support of street traders in Henry Street.

And given the economic wreckage wrought in our own times by the marauding banking behaviour of Anglo Irish Bank, Gregory's concerns -- voiced in the Dáil in 2004 (at the height of the Celtic Tiger era) -- were very prescient.

He challenged then Environment Minister Dick Roche to take action over the conflict of interest embracing Anglo and the board of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, given that the latter was also the planning authority for the area.

All in all, this book is a worthy tribute to an outstanding community activist.

Gregory never compromised on his principles as a champion for the disadvantaged communities of Dublin Central. Persisting with the life of an Independent deputy and city councillor meant that he never got to hold any government office, nor did he get to serve as Lord Mayor of Dublin -- a distinction he would have richly deserved.

Gilligan's book also gives a generous account of the role of other indispensable local community activists, including Fergus McCabe, Mick Rafferty, Tony's brother Noel, his political successor in Dáil Éireann, Maureen O'Sullivan, and many others, who worked tirelessly to support his political campaigns and who helped get him re-elected in the seven general elections he contested after his initial victory in 1982.

He died in 2009 at 61 after 27 years in the Dáil.

Stephen O'Byrnes is former Press & Policy Director of the Progressive Democrats.

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