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Wednesday 18 September 2019

'The best president Ireland never had' was respected by all parties in 23 years of Seanad role

Late former senator Feargal Quinn and his wife Denise. Picture: Anthony Woods
Late former senator Feargal Quinn and his wife Denise. Picture: Anthony Woods
John Downing

John Downing

Feargal Quinn was that rare character in Irish politics - somebody liked and respected in equal measure by people across all parties, and none.

He spent 23 years as an Independent member of Seanad Éireann for the National University of Ireland (NUI) constituency, having been first elected in February 1993, and re-elected in four subsequent elections by the university graduates, until his retirement in 2016.

When debate began to get heated, Mr Quinn's interventions were usually quiet and measured but no less incisive and trenchant for all of that.

"Now, I'm just a grocer..." he would frequently begin.

Colleagues on all sides had great regard for the man and his work. They soon became fully aware of why he was such a successful businessman, who eventually made hundreds of millions from his innovative supermarket business.

Long-time senator Joe O'Toole competed against Feargal Quinn in five elections, in the very tight NUI three-seat constituency. The rivals were like chalk and cheese.

Mr O'Toole was a trade union leader with radically different views from Quinn on many political, social, and economic issues. But they learned to work together on many matters, hammering out a common position on several issues.

"He was a man totally without any kind of bitterness who sought practical solutions and compromises. His chief characteristic was fairness and he was easy to work with," former senator Mr O'Toole recalled.

As a lawmaker and contributor to public debate, he championed fairness and practicality. One of his initiatives was an attempt to separate the sacred feast of Easter from the public holiday, and pick a fixed date for it each year.

This, he argued, would help all those involved in the hospitality and tourism industries, especially. But it would also be a boon to employers who could better plan work schedules and rosters, and employees who could make better holiday plans.

Feargal Quinn was also an early fan of adopting 100pc metric measures in every facet of Irish life. This was part of his commitment to the European project, as in Seanad Éireann he picked the EU affairs committee as his first choice every time, and contributed enthusiastically to its proceedings.

"His interest in Europe was totally genuine based on a belief in its huge value to Ireland," a former colleague said.

Other parliamentary projects he championed included a comprehensive law to defend sub-contractors from potential abuses by larger contractors, and an effort to end unjust rental leases which had "upward-only" review clauses.

It was on projects such as this that he managed to get a great deal of support across the political spectrum in a simple quest for fairness.

Feargal Quinn's name was often cited as a potential presidential candidate and in other circumstances he might have secured cross-party support. It is known that he thought about it on occasion, but it never happened.

One former colleague yesterday dubbed him "the best president we never had".

But he remained loyal to the upper house of parliament and in autumn 2013 joined energetically in the successful campaign for the retention of Seanad Éireann. The voters' rejection of then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny's abolition plans was a boon to him.

Irish Independent

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