Tuesday 20 February 2018

Review: Tony Gregory by Robbie Gilligan

O'Brien Press, €19.99

DEAL MAKERS: Casually attired Tony Gregory and a besuited
Charles Haughey near Dublin's Five Lamps in 1982
DEAL MAKERS: Casually attired Tony Gregory and a besuited Charles Haughey near Dublin's Five Lamps in 1982
Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

Tony Gregory is an unusual figure in Irish politics: a committed politician of the left, who delivered for a specific community, and a genuine independent who didn't compromise and could not be said to be in any way in the game for financial gain, or pure careerism.

No such saint is without flaws, but when you look at the ministerial pensions list revealed recently, with all those long-forgotten grey eminences still pulling out up to a hundred grand each or more from the beleaguered State finances because they once sat on a ministerial seat, you realise just what a genuine article Gregory was.

He rose through community activism, in Dublin's north inner city, an area infamous for its deprivation and alienation, but also for its community spirit and strong sense of identity and historical background. Gregory, who lived in Summerhill, represented the modern version of an area that had some of the worst slums in Europe, but which also had the cultural richness of Joyce, the Dubliners, Jim Larkin and the 1916 Rising. It is a tribute to Gregory's sense of this, that when the wholesale renovation of Sean McDermott Street was proposed, he wanted it done in close tandem with the inhabitants so that they could save those parts of their legacy, and their housing indeed, which the community valued.

This book by Robbie Gilligan, a long-time associate, doesn't profess to be a weighty authoritative biography but a heartfelt memoir of the man and his legacy. An insider, he describes the development of the Gregory machine and especially the contributions of loyal activists Mick Rafferty and Fergus McCabe, whose casual attire and manner contrasted strongly with the besuited Charlie Haughey, when the two sides were, in effect, "deal making".

The story is familiar. Gregory came into the Dail after the election of March 1982 and suddenly found himself able to hold the balance of power. The Gregory Deal was the result, a one-off direct investment package for Dublin's north inner city, which would help an area that had been ignored by the political establishment to play development catch-up. Then-Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald also met Gregory but Fine Gael and FitzGerald were not really serious, and afterwards they would criticise the Deal as "auction politics" and "clientelism writ large". Gregory always resented this verdict and its almost patrician disdain for Gregory and his inner-city agenda. Haughey, for all his faults, was much more accommodating. A Donnycarney boy, he understood what such an investment could do for the area, and for the political fortunes of Gregory and himself.

One also needs to challenge here some recent pieties about clientelism in Irish politics. It is all very well for middle-class pundits to preach, but for people who are not so well connected, so-called clientelism and contacting your local politician is often the only way forward, especially when you are faced with nameless bureaucrats and a legalistic system that is loaded against you.

Anyway, the Gregory Deal is not clientelism but doing what is best for the entire constituency. Mind you, a lot of people criticise what Jackie Healy-Rae did for Kerry, or Michael Lowry for Tipperary, but they exempt Gregory. His Deal is now lauded, but it was not at the time. When Gregory gave his maiden speech, about the problems of Dublin's inner city, he was heckled, "what about Cork?" As if Cork was comparable in terms of scale, but also as if it was one area against another. Let others do for Cork, what Gregory did for Dublin. After all, politics is local.

There is much else in here to impress, not least Gregory's tackling of the drug pushers, when, as if things were not bad enough in Dublin's inner city, the arrival of heroin provided a further unbelievable, almost diabolical, challenge. He showed great personal courage in standing up to the criminals and urging that their assets be seized.

But most of all one is struck by Gregory's dedication and integrity in an era of political gravy trains, perks and obscene pensions. He was also that old-style rarity, a left-wing politician (and Republican) who shunned the liberal PC preoccupations of so many modern leftists, especially in the Labour Party, and instead dedicated his time to improving the lives and conditions of ordinary working people, and those who could not find work. Housing, safety, community, respect -- this is the bread-and-butter legacy of Tony Gregory.

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