Monday 20 January 2020

Obituary: Fergus O'Brien

The quintessential Dubliner had a fine political career and was passionate about helping people

Tough campaigner: Then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Fergus O’Brien, and his wife Peggy at the
Eurovision Song Contest in April, 1981
Tough campaigner: Then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Fergus O’Brien, and his wife Peggy at the Eurovision Song Contest in April, 1981
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Fergus O'Brien, who died on Wednesday last at the age of 86, was a genial Fine Gael TD and a very effective Lord Mayor of Dublin. Although he is now largely forgotten by all but the party faithful, O'Brien was also an influential ally of Dr Garret FitzGerald and at the centre of some of the many dramas that surrounded Leinster House for two turbulent decades.

Described by commentator Raymond Smith "as experienced and tough a campaigner as ever held a seat for Fine Gael", O'Brien was born in Dublin in 1930 and was educated at the College of Technology in Bolton Street, before going to work in the Electricity Supply Board (ESB).

He lived in Ranelagh and had an interest in rugby (particularly his local club St Mary's) and politics. He became a councillor, alderman and eventually ran for Fine Gael with John A. Costello in the 1969 General Election. He was first elected to the Dail in 1973 for the Dublin South-East constituency and, following boundary changes he moved to Dublin South Central where he remained a TD until 1992, apart from a short spell from February to November 1982.

Because of his natural friendliness, he was a very successful Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1980-1981 and his easy-going style set the tone for many of those who followed him.

From February 1981 to 1982 he was government Chief Whip under FitzGerald. There was a feeling in some sections of the party that he should have foreseen the negative reaction from Independent TD Jim Kemmy to the imposition of VAT on children's shoes in John Bruton's budget on March 9, 1982.

O'Brien believed that Dr Noel Browne would "deliver" Kemmy's vote, but this proved erroneous and the government fell on the 'children's shoes' issue that night.

"He was a quintessential Dubliner, he loved everything about the city, he loved his people, particularly working class people and took great pleasure in working with them to sort out many problems," said Taoiseach Enda Kenny last week, while former leader John Bruton said he was a great 'mentor' to younger TDs. As well as rugby, he enjoyed swimming and was a member of the Half Moon Swimming Club on the South Wall and took a walk out there almost every day from his home in Ranelagh.

He was re-appointed government Chief Whip in FitzGerald's cabinet re-shuffle of 1986. When the Labour Party withdrew from the coalition in January of 1987, he was instrumental in holding the minority government together until the following March.

As Government chief whip he was in constant contact with his opposite number in Fianna Fail, Vincent Brady, another low key TD. O'Brien insured that Fine Gael's then Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, and other ministers had an 'open door policy' to their opposite numbers in Fianna Fail, more or less as they do today.

Their aim "to head off potential political trouble" was partially successful and the Dail functioned during that time as a very different institution than it had before. However, the Labour Party and the Progressive Democrats became increasingly angry about the "collusion" of the two main parties and FitzGerald called an election in March, losing badly and resigning.

The subsequent minority Fianna Fail government only survived when the new leader of Fine Gael, Alan Dukes, formalised the arrangement under what became known as The Tallaght Strategy.

O'Brien got a measure of political revenge for his demotion following the Presidential election of November, 1990, which is now remembered because of Mary Robinson and Mna na hEireann.

It is often forgotten that Fine Gael was the big loser when their candidate, the distinguished former SDLP politician Austin Currie, got a mere 17pc of the first preference votes, in comparison with Brian Lenihan Snr's 44pc and Robinson's 39pc.

Furious at this ignominious showing, O'Brien immediately tabled a vote of no confidence in the then leader Alan Dukes. After a hectic few days, Dukes was persuaded to resign and he was succeeded by Bruton. O'Brien retired from politics in 1992 and in February, 2011, he suffered a family tragedy when his daughter Lynda Collins, a mother of three, was killed by a falling tree on Waterloo Road in Dublin 4, while going home from work during a storm.

O'Brien, whose funeral took place in Dublin on Friday, is survived by his wife Peggy and his children Tom, Suzanne, Michelle, Emer and Cathy.

Sunday Independent

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