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Obituary: Toddy O’Sullivan, Labour poll-topper whose resignation as minister helped end Fine Gael coalition


Toddy O’Sullivan standing for the Labour Party in the Cork South-Central constituency. Picture by Arthur Ellis

Toddy O’Sullivan standing for the Labour Party in the Cork South-Central constituency. Picture by Arthur Ellis

Toddy O’Sullivan standing for the Labour Party in the Cork South-Central constituency. Picture by Arthur Ellis

Former TD, minister of state and Lord Mayor of Cork Toddy O’Sullivan died at the age of 87 on December 12, just one day ahead of his Labour Party contemporary and fellow former TD, Liam Kavanagh, from Wicklow, who was just three months younger.

Mr O’Sullivan first stood as a candidate for the Dáil in the November 1979 by-election in what was then the Cork City constituency, following the death of Labour TD Patrick Kerrigan. He was unsuccessful on that occasion although he secured an impressive 8,742 (22.6pc) of first preference votes.

He went on to win a seat in the June 1981 general election when he topped the poll in the constituency of Cork North-Central. One of the unsuccessful candidates was Mairéad Farrell, a republican activist who ran on an Anti H-Block ticket and was later shot dead by British forces in Gibraltar on March 6, 1988 (her niece of the same name is currently a Sinn Féin TD for Galway West). Two general elections took place the following year and Mr O’Sullivan retained his seat on both occasions.

In the 1987 general election Mr O’Sullivan became a candidate in Cork South-Central, following the retirement of party colleague Eileen Desmond. He was the last of five candidates elected, held on to his seat in the 1989 contest and in the 1992 general election he topped the poll, getting elected on the first count. However he was eliminated on the ninth count in the general election of 1997. He ran for the last time in the October 1998 by-election caused by the death of Fine Gael TD Hugh Coveney, whose son Simon, now Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, won the seat.

In February 1986, when Labour were in coalition with Fine Gael, Mr O’Sullivan was appointed minister of state at the Department of the Environment. Just less than a year later, in January 1987, he resigned along with the other Labour ministers because of proposed cuts in health spending. This precipitated the collapse of the coalition and a minority Fianna Fáil government led by Charles Haughey emerged from the subsequent general election.

In 1989, Mr O’Sullivan was elected chair of the Labour Parliamentary Party. After the 1992 general election, Labour went into coalition for the first time in its history with Fianna Fáil under Albert Reynolds and Mr O’Sullivan became chair of the Dáil Éireann enterprise and economic strategy committee. That government collapsed and was replaced in December 1994 by the “Rainbow Coalition” of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left with John Bruton as Taoiseach. Mr O’Sullivan was appointed as minister of state at the Department of Tourism and Trade. He remained in this position until the 1997 general election when he lost his seat and a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition was formed under Bertie Ahern. Mr O’Sullivan considered running again in the 2002 general election but decided against it.

Originally from the Barrack Street area of south inner-city Cork, Mr O’Sullivan was born on November 8, 1934. He attended Greenmount National School and went on to become became a clerk in the postal service.

His career in public life began when he was elected to Cork Corporation in 1974, taking the second seat in the South West electoral area with 585 first preferences, a figure he more than doubled in the 1979 local elections with 1,119 votes, becoming the first councillor elected for the ward on that occasion.

He was Lord Mayor of Cork City in 1980-81 and, after he died, Cork City Council opened a book of condolences in his honour. Michael D Higgins was represented at the funeral by Colonel Stephen Howard and the Taoiseach by Commandant Claire Mortimer. The attendance also included Labour Party leader Alan Kelly, Cork Lord Mayor Colm Kelleher of Fianna Fáil and the chief executive of Cork City Council, Ann Doherty.

In an address to mourners, Mr O’Sullivan’s son Sean expressed his thanks to the staff at the Bons Secours hospital “for the wonderful care they gave my dad” and to everyone else who looked after him. He recalled his father’s “passion for music, angling, literature and, of course, for St Finbar’s Hurling and Football Club”, which he passed on to his family. Sean’s words were greeted with the first of two standing ovations in honour of his father. The coffin was removed at the end of the ceremony to the strains of the Joe Hill ballad, about the legendary labour activist.

Mr O’Sullivan died peacefully at home surrounded by his family. He was the beloved husband of Esther (née Chandley), father of Kay (O’Donovan), Deirdre (Gowen) and Sean and brother of Ka, Geoff and Breda, sadly missed by his grandchildren Abagael, Geoffrey, Christian, Senan, Hannah, Elliot, Robyn, Ethan and Alan, daughter-in-law Avril, sons-in-law Pat and Aidan, nephews and nieces, extended family and friends.

He worked for many years in the postal service and was an active member of the Post Office Workers Union (POWU), now the Communications Workers Union (CWU). He was the honorary president both of St Finbar’s Hurling and Football Club and Barrack Street Band. His Requiem Mass took place on December 14 in the Church of the Immaculate Conception the Lough.

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In a statement on his death, President Higgins said: “Toddy O’Sullivan will be remembered as one of the most warm-hearted members of the Oireachtas. Having had the privilege of being a colleague of his for decades, I can attest to that.

“He loved Cork in all its dimensions, be it history, politics, sport or personality.” Describing Mr O’Sullivan as “a principled trade unionist”, the President continued: “As a TD, as a minister of state he made a fine contribution. He did so also as Lord Mayor of Cork a personal highlight for him during a lifetime in local representation”.

Labour Party leader Alan Kelly said: “Toddy was a stalwart of the Labour Party in Cork over many decades, and great supporter of my own. He lived a long and successful life, and I am very sad to learn of his passing. I regularly sought his counsel, and he will be greatly missed by all those who worked closely with him over many years.

“As a student in UCC I got to know him very well and he was an inspiration to be around, having a deep knowledge and love for his constituents, his party and supporters.

“Toddy leaves behind a distinguished record of service, nationally and locally, and will continue to be an inspiration to future generations of Labour activists in Cork.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said: “I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Toddy O’Sullivan. As a minister of state, TD, lord mayor and city councillor, he served his city and his country with passion, integrity, dignity, and total commitment throughout his life.

“From my early days serving on Cork City Council in 1985, Toddy was a mentor and friend in politics. He understood the importance of a cross-party approach for the benefit of the people.

“In the Fianna Fáil and Labour government of the early ‘90s, we worked well together, and Toddy was a fierce advocate for working people and the poor. Whether in his capacity as city councillor, TD or minister of state, he worked hard to advance the interests of the people of Cork and the country. We will miss him.”

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