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Obituary: Liam Kavanagh, Labour Party kingmaker who built thousands of council homes during a downturn


Liam Kavanagh

Liam Kavanagh

Liam Kavanagh

Labour Party veteran and former government minister Liam Kavanagh died peacefully in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin last Monday at 86 years of age after a long illness. He was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1969 for the Wicklow constituency and held his seat in eight further contests until he was narrowly defeated in the 1997 general election.

At a time when dual membership of the national and European parliaments was permitted, he served as an MEP for eight years. Initially the MEPs were selected by the member-state parliaments and he was twice chosen on that basis, in 1973 and 1977.

When direct elections were introduced in 1979, he won a seat in the Leinster constituency for the Socialist Group in the Parliament, which included the Irish Labour Party. According to political folklore, he was the only Irish politician who held elected office in the town council, the county council, the Dáil and the European Parliament at the same time.

In 1981 he gave up his European seat after being appointed labour and public service minister. He later served as environment minister from 1983 to 1986 and his final cabinet post was as tourism, fisheries and forestry minister in 1986-87.

When Michael O’Leary, prior to joining Fine Gael, stepped down as Labour leader in October 1982, Liam Kavanagh could have been a strong contender for the leadership but instead he backed Kerry TD Dick Spring, who was elected to the position shortly afterwards.

Apart from politics, Kavanagh’s other great passion was golf and, despite work commitments, he would still find time to play nine holes at the end of a busy day.

Liam Kavanagh was born on February 9, 1935. His father died at an early age, leaving his mother with a family of 10 children. He was a nephew of another Labour politician, James Everett (1890-1967), who held cabinet posts in two coalition governments.

Kavanagh was an unsuccessful candidate in the by-election after his uncle’s death but made it to the Dáil in a general election the following year.

Paying tribute, Labour Party leader Alan Kelly described Kavanagh as “a giant of Wicklow politics over many decades” who made “a huge contribution both locally and nationally” in the various positions he held and was viewed as “a quiet kingmaker within the Labour Parliamentary Party”.

“One of Liam’s great legacies is the thousands of council homes he built during his tenure as minister for the environment in the 1980s,” Kelly said.

"In the worst of economic times, Liam ensured a comprehensive building programme was put in place and delivered on. His example is one that shows what the State can do when the political will is there to deliver public housing.”

In a statement, President Michael D Higgins who was represented along with Taoiseach Micheál Martin at the funeral in Wicklow town last Thursday, said: “He was a dedicated public servant and an effective minister, who will perhaps be best remembered for the many council homes he delivered during his term as minister for the environment in the 1980s.”

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Former Fine Gael taoiseach John Bruton said that, as public service minister, Kavanagh “played a pivotal role in preserving the solvency of the State by controlling the previously headlong growth in public service numbers”. Later, as environment minister, he “solved the housing supply shortage through a combination of public and private sector building”.

Kavanagh was a member of the British–Irish Parliamentary Assembly from 1990 to 1997 and served on the Semi-State Bodies Commission from 1987 to 1997, including the last two years as chairman. After his many years as a parliamentarian, he was appointed to the Standards in Public Office Commission when it was established in December 2001.

Liam’s son Conal was a member of Wicklow County Council and Wicklow Town Council from 2004 until he retired in 2014. He died suddenly three years later in August 2017, aged 51, which came as a major blow to all the family, including Liam who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Liam’s niece Breeda Bonner also served as a councillor in Clondalkin, west Dublin, from 2011 to 2019.

Kavanagh’s funeral mass took place in St Patrick’s Church, Wicklow, and he was laid to rest at Rathnew Cemetery.

He is survived by his wife Margaret, daughter Rosemary, daughter-in-law Kiara, grandchildren Áine and Rían, his brother Jimmy and sister Therese, sisters-in-law May and Maura and his extended family and friends.

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