Wednesday 17 January 2018

Obituary: John O'Leary - Fianna Fáil TD

Born: May 3, 1933; died: October 5, 2015

John O'Leary and CJ Haughey
John O'Leary and CJ Haughey Newsdesk Newsdesk

There aren't too many Fianna Fáil politicians who could say they had worked under Jack Lynch, Charlie Haughey, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern. John O'Leary, who died this week, was an exception. First elected to Dáil Éireann in 1966, he became the longest-serving TD ever for Kerry South, holding his seat through 10 general elections to 1997. Indeed, he topped the poll eight times.

During those 31 years O'Leary held several important posts, both in government and opposition, including Minister of State at the Department of the Environment. He also represented the State at the first World Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972, and was one of only five TDs to attend the funerals of the Bloody Sunday victims in Derry the same year.

John O'Leary was born on May 3, 1933, in Kilcummin, a few miles north-east of Killarney. After education at the local primary school and St Brendan's secondary in Killarney, he began work with Kerry County Council in 1952.

For the next decade O'Leary served in the housing, accounts and health sections, before being appointed acting town clerk for Killarney Urban District Council in July 1962. He subsequently worked as a staff officer in the health and hospitals section of Kerry County Council, and managed their planning department until first being elected to the Dáil four years later.

His maiden victory came in a by-election, following the death of Honor Crowley (daughter of pre-independence MP and Olympic gold-medallist John Pius Boland). This keenly contested campaign was considered Jack Lynch's first serious electoral test as Taoiseach after he succeeded Seán Lemass.

On re-election in 1969, John O'Leary was appointed to the Dáil Select Committee on Procedures and Privileges, until 1973. He then served on the Council of Europe for two years, followed by a stint as opposition spokesperson on physical planning and the environment.

O'Leary was also elected to Kerry County Council in 1974 - the party at that time held no less than three seats in Killarney electoral area - and in 1976 again attended the World Conference on the Environment, this one held in Kingston, Jamaica.

He had served alongside Charles Haughey on the Fianna Fáil front bench in 1975, after Jack Lynch - who had sacked Haughey during the arms crisis of 1970 - restored him to political prominence. O'Leary and Haughey's relationship would be a complex, sometimes fractious, one. The Kerryman later described CJ as "vindictive" in a 2015 memoir.

After topping the poll during Fianna Fáil's now-legendary landslide election victory of 1977, O'Leary was made Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (under Sylvie Barrett), with special responsibility for planning, roads, water safety, housing, traffic, water and sewerage schemes.

After Charles Haughey ascended to the party leadership and post of Taoiseach in December 1979, O'Leary lost his junior ministerial position. Although not always voting against Haughey in various internecine power struggles, he was seen as an opponent of Charlie, and had voted for George Colley in the most recent leadership contest.

There followed the quintessential GUBU period in Irish political history: three general elections within the space of two years, and O'Leary was returned by the people each time. Haughey made some amends for the earlier demotion by appointing O'Leary as a member of the New Ireland Forum in 1983 and '84.

Three years later, he topped the poll with such a massive mandate that over 10,000 surplus votes enabled John O'Donoghue to claim a second seat for the party. O'Leary then served on a number of Joint Oireachtas Committees, including, after the 1992 election, as Vice-Chairman of the All-Party Foreign Affairs and Finance Committees.

He retired from Kerry County Council in 1996 and Dáil Éireann at the following year's general election - Bertie Ahern's first time to become Taoiseach. Fianna Fáil selected his son Brian to contest the seat, which inadvertently kick-started one of the most successful independent dynasties in political history: Jackie Healy-Rae ran as an independent candidate, claimed the seat and has since been followed by his son Michael.

John O'Leary's autobiography, On the Doorsteps: Memoirs of a Long-Serving TD was published earlier this year. In it, he castigated Haughey as a "vindictive" man who was always worried about people plotting against him because his leadership was vulnerable.

O'Leary wrote: "Some of his supporters were an intimidating lot; they would appear in the Dáil bar late at night and many of them can only be described as thugs." He added that his fellow TDs feared speaking out against Charlie or his ministers; that would result in "the heavies hassling you and you would be ignored when it came to any promotional opportunities."

He also recalled how, despite the party returning to power in 1982, he was pessimistic about the future of Fianna Fáil. "There was a horrible atmosphere in the parliamentary party at the time, as the divisions of the previous years between the pro-Haughey and anti-Haughey factions remained."

O'Leary described Haughey as "incredibly paranoid" at the time, especially as the media had started to poke around in his shady personal finances. The 1983 publication of The Boss, Peter Murtagh and Joe Joyce's classic account of Charlie's career between 1979 and '82, "really angered him when it revealed what was going on behind the scenes in government", according to O'Leary.

He concluded in his memoir, "Looking back on my political career, I would like to think that the balance sheet would have more positives than negatives." The book was launched in Killarney by former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, a close friend, who also wrote the foreword.

In paying tribute to a party grandee, current Fianna Fáil leader Michaél Martin said that O'Leary's "passing brings to an end a remarkable career defined by his love of his home county of Kerry and his commitment to public service. He didn't always see eye to eye with Charlie Haughey and fiercely fought his corner in the constituency. But he always remained fully committed to politics as a means to better the lot of ordinary working people in Ireland."

John O'Leary died in the Mater Hospital on October 5. Predeceased by wife Judy, he is survived by seven sons and 10 grandchildren.

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