Friday 18 October 2019

Obituary: Eddie Collins

Former Fine Gael minister who was sacked by Taoiseach over a perceived conflict of interest

Sacked: Eddie Collins when he was a junior minister
Sacked: Eddie Collins when he was a junior minister
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

The Waterford businessman and minister of state Eddie Collins, who has died aged 78, was the only senior figure in modern Fine Gael to be sacked from government, having rejected what was regarded as the "honourable" option of resigning in the belief that he had done nothing wrong.

After days of speculation and adverse publicity following an article in Magill magazine, Mr Collins was sacked by Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald on September 23, 1986 amid accusations of a "conflict of interest" and his attendance at a board meeting of the family firm Collins Brothers Meats, while he was a member of the government.

Following the call from the taoiseach at 4.19pm that Tuesday, Mr Collins issued a statement from his office in the Department of Trade, Industry, Commerce and Tourism in Clare Street, Dublin, saying he wouldn't resign.

In the meantime Garret FitzGerald convened a cabinet meeting and with government approval announced that Mr Collins's ministerial appointment had been terminated, "with regret".

Edward Andrew 'Eddie' Collins, who John Bruton characterised this week as belonging to the 'Redmondite tradition' in Waterford city, where politics was riven by inter-party factions to an even greater degree than most other constituencies, died last Monday.

Born in 1941, he was a member of Waterford Corporation from 1964 to 1981, serving as mayor of the city in 1975.

He contested the 1966 by-election caused by the death of FG's Thaddeus Lynch, but was defeated by the Fianna Fail candidate Fad Browne.

But when he ran again in the 1969 General Election, he was successfully elected and represented the city for the next 18 years.

When almost the entire Fine Gael party turned volte face and voted in favour of the Offences Against the State Amendment Bill introduced by Dessie O'Malley, changing their minds within hours of the Dublin/Monaghan bombings in 1974, Eddie Collins and fellow backbencher Oliver J. Flanagan were the only members of the party to join Labour and the Independents in voting against the Bill.

Eddie Collins was close to the Garret FitzGerald wing of Fine Gael and was an energetic Fine Gael spokesman on education from 1977 until 1981. According to Stephen O'Byrnes in his book Hiding Behind A Face: Fine Gael Under FitzGerald, when Garret FitzGerald was reading out the list of ministers of state he initially appointed Collins to Overseas Development.

"I don't want that, I want something in industry," Collins said loudly.

FitzGerald either didn't hear or ignored him and kept reading the names until he came to Jim O'Keeffe who he appointed to Industry & Energy.

"I'll swap with you," O'Keeffe said to Collins.

Stopped in his tracks by the cross-talk FitzGerald looked from one to the other and then said, "Oh, that's all right", and little did any of them realise that the 'swap' would be the undoing of Eddie Collins, who later that year became minister of state at the re-named Department of Trade, Industry, Commerce & Tourism.

The controversy that led to his downfall dated to June 1983 when Mr Collins attended a board meeting of the family meat company, while holding a ministerial position, something that was prohibited as politicians were required to resign their directorships on appointment to government.

A solicitor for a rival meat firm then sent a telex to a senior civil servant claiming that Eddie Collins had contacted the meat company he represented asking if they would buy out his firm and indicated that "he wanted to make a lot of money quick".

According to State papers issued 30 years later, the civil servant then prepared a memo for Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald suggesting the rather far-fetched possibility of a cartel in the meat interest if Collins's plan for the family firm had worked out.

A more benign view of the affair is that Mr Collins was simply trying to sell the meat factory in Waterford at a good price to concentrate on politics. "The content of this (disclosure) would worry me, if there is any truth in it. All I can say is that these papers make a serious imputation against Mr Collins and in my view they may be sufficient to warrant such suspension and his contacts to be investigated," said the memo from the senior civil servant.

It concluded, however: "I think it is fair to say that the evidence against Mr Collins is purely circumstantial."

But when details of it were leaked to an investigative journalist the political temperature began to rise significantly and Garret FitzGerald became seriously concerned that these might lead to tensions with his coalition partners in the Labour Party and later said that he had been "misled" by Mr Collins.

After his dismissal by FitzGerald, Collins called the decision "disgraceful" saying that he had consulted "the best solicitors in the country" regarding the sale of the family business and said "my integrity has not been impugned".

Although he was carried shoulder high through the streets of Waterford on his return, he lost his seat in the 1987 General Election.

After this defeat Eddie Collins, who lived in the John's Hill area of Waterford city, left national politics and lectured in economics for a number of years. He also continued in business and was a director of a number of shellfish firms connected to the port of Dungravan.

Eddie Collins, who was predeceased by his wife Lelia, is survived by his children Elizabeth and Edward.

His funeral took place in Waterford last Thursday.

Sunday Independent

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