Wednesday 17 July 2019

John Downing: 'Noel Whelan was a true believer in our nation's democracy'

Huge loss as political pundit dies aged 50

Searing honesty: Noel Whelan delivered real insight for the public into the State's political process. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Searing honesty: Noel Whelan delivered real insight for the public into the State's political process. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
John Downing

John Downing

You might think you did not know who Noel Whelan really was - but the reality is that, if you like politics, you very probably did know him.

He was a frequent voice with distinctive tones on radio and television talking about politics, especially at election times, his strong south Wexford accent given an additional burr by a certain lisping tone.

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Those sounds will have explained many of the whys and why-nots of election results.

He was an essential part of the election process, especially the bit which is to Irish politics what the count results are to the Eurovision song contest.

Politics since the dawn of time needs drama and Whelan played his part.

His death, at the early age of 50, has shocked and saddened many people engaged in politics, media and law.

Whelan impressed in all of these key sectors of Irish life and made many friends along the way. He was also a nice bloke well known to this writer.

But the most important thing about Whelan was his true belief in Irish democracy, grounded in old-style, local popular politics.

From a big family who grew up in south Wexford, his father Séamus was a postmaster and Fianna Fáil councillor who was rated by his own party and all the other councillors who believed he was ultimately working for the local good and ready for cross-party co-operation, as good councillors usually are.

Whelan wrote very affectionately about his late father when he died in August 2011.

He cited him as a "political hero" and somebody who directed him to political involvement.

Whelan remembered his father's successful council campaigns and his failed efforts to get a party Dáil election nomination.

These experiences stayed with him in June 1997 when he stood himself for the Dáil as Fianna Fáil candidate in Dublin South East, an experience which he would later admit made him a "make-weight candidate".

Whelan wrote with searing honesty about the experience of standing for the Dáil, admitting at one point to a "rush of blood to the head" in the final campaign days and a sudden false belief he would be elected a TD.

After that election outing, he went on to work for Fianna Fáil as a government adviser and also to qualify in law.

This writer had a small walk-on part in his career in 2000 by helping invite him to write a political column for the 'Irish Examiner'.

This was very successful and he later moved to the 'Irish Times', also becoming a frequent contributor to television and radio.

The experience of standing for election, rare among political pundits, clearly informed his later dispassionate and sometimes pithy political judgments expressed across the media.

Many politicians found his judgments less repugnant since he had tried and suffered accordingly.

Noel Whelan always had strong views about politics. But these were tempered by kindness and a huge regard for the individual.

He respected everyone and his untimely death is a big loss.

We offer our profound sympathy to his wife, Sinéad McSweeney, and their young son, Séamus.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Irish Independent

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