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Friday 20 September 2019

Feargal was tolerant, affable and always a perfect gentleman

Superquinn founder and former senator Feargal Quinn. Photo: RollingNews.ie
Superquinn founder and former senator Feargal Quinn. Photo: RollingNews.ie

Joe O'Toole

Last night someone asked me: "What was Feargal Quinn really like?"

No doubt the question was prompted by the general national cynicism which seeks negativity where none exists. In fact, it was difficult not to like Feargal. There were no sides to him. He was what he appeared to be - a perfect gentleman, always affable, always tolerant and always listening.

Never one to be self-important, he enjoyed describing himself as a grocer. He loved telling stories of what he learned as a youngster working in the family business, Red Island holiday camp in Skerries.

Many times he reiterated what a privilege it was to be a member of the Oireachtas. More than most politicians, he understood and had an appreciation of the constitutional importance of his role. He loved the Seanad and was a busy parliamentarian, regularly producing legislation and policies on a range of issues.

Reforming the Seanad was something he was passionate about, and he was energetic about achieving it.

Indeed, I recall a day when he and I canvassed Henry Street during the Seanad referendum campaign, handing out leaflets, but sure the shoppers just pushed me out of the way as they flocked to Feargal to say hello and chat. That was Feargal. People were always drawn to him.

On the face of it, he and I should have been bitter enemies. He represented the cream of Irish business while I represented the trade union side. He was a conservative on social issues and a supporter of the Knights of St Columbanus while my energy was focused on the contrary and I lined out on the other side. We fought for votes against each other in the same NUI constituency for five or six Seanad elections.

The fact Feargal's first cousin was married to my brother-in-law threw up some interesting tussles as we split the extended family vote during those elections.

I knew Feargal for more than 40 years as an acquaintance, as a political competitor and as a parliamentary colleague, and I can say without fear of contradiction that he had never been other than honest, fair and diligent.

The measure of him was his willingness to listen and engage with contrary opinions. A classic illustration of that approach was his willingness to chair the Seanad Reform Group, including Michael McDowell, Noel Whelan, Katherine Zappone and myself, despite the fact all of us held contrary views to him on most issues.

His commitment to parity of esteem to others always shone through and ensured he was never blinded to a positive proposal from the other side.

His commitment to the Northern peace process is not often recollected but it was something close to Feargal's heart and never far from his thoughts. At an early stage of the Troubles, one of his extended family in Armagh was killed tragically and brutally. For the rest of his life that event coloured the prism through which he viewed the Northern scene.

Some time ago, Michael McDowell organised a quiet dinner for a few of us to recognise Feargal's contribution. Joan and I sat with Feargal and Denise and exchanged much banter, peppered with some serious chats. Joan reminded him of the times when she was involved with preparing food hampers for the less well-off and would be a thorn in Feargal's side in his Finglas shop as she wangled more hams, sausages or whatever from him. He responded in kind and was in great form that evening.

It was the last time I spoke with him and it leaves us with a sad, but warm memory.

Irish Independent

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