Thursday 19 September 2019

Cormac McQuinn: 'Fine Gael TD John Deasy's departure will bring the curtain down on five decades'

John Deasy with his late father Austin. Photo: Tom Burke
John Deasy with his late father Austin. Photo: Tom Burke
Austin Deasy as a young TD
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Fine Gael TD John Deasy's retirement from politics at the next election will be the end of more than 50 years of his family's domination of the political stage in Waterford.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Deasy family's contribution over the decades had been "one of the proudest and most honourable in our political history".

It would be equally fair to say that Mr Deasy's career, like his late father Austin's before him, has not been without controversy. Both have been credited with important contributions to public life while causing turbulent times for Fine Gael and its leadership.

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Austin Deasy clashed with Fine Gael's top brass long before his son was a thorn in the side of former Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Dungarvan native Austin Deasy, a father-of-four, was first elected as a councillor in 1967. He was unsuccessful in two subsequent general election campaigns but was appointed to the Seanad in 1973 and finally won his Dáil seat four years later.

Notwithstanding a combative approach to politics, or perhaps because of it, Austin Deasy was appointed to cabinet as agriculture minister in December 1982. That's despite his criticism of party leader Garret FitzGerald after Fine Gael's election defeat in the first of two general elections that year. Mr FitzGerald later said he appointed Mr Deasy for his reputation as a "tough negotiator" ahead of difficult talks on the European Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). Mr FitzGerald kept him in the agriculture brief after a 1986 cabinet reshuffle, citing the respect he won from the farming community while not caving to demands.

But it wasn't long before he was at odds with another Fine Gael leader. He quit the front bench in 1988 due to Alan Dukes's "Tallaght Strategy" to facilitate Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Charles Haughey's minority government.

Austin Deasy had a further falling out with his party in the early 1990s due to his opposition to seeking donations for Fine Gael from big business.

Party leader John Bruton was later the target of an unsuccessful no-confidence motion tabled by Mr Deasy in 2000. He denied he was a "stalking horse" for someone else seeking the leadership.

It was the year after Mr Deasy announced his intention to leave politics at the next election after undergoing heart surgery. When he left politics in 2002, he said: "It's for the best," telling 'The Munster Express' nothing that happened in the previous three years had changed his mind.

Mr Deasy passed away, aged 80, in 2017 after a short illness and was described as a "courageous politician" who would be "greatly missed", by Mr Bruton.

John Deasy referenced his father's departure from politics when he announced his own impending retirement.

He said: "My father left on his terms and I'm leaving on mine. That's one of the most important things in politics".

Mr Deasy (51), who is currently Mr Varadkar's envoy to Washington, said he wanted to leave before he was "too old to start something".

He won Austin Deasy's former seat in the 2002 general election. But if he thought he could replicate his father's maverick success in testing the party leadership and still securing a seat at the top table of government, he was soon to find he was very wrong.

In 2004 he was sacked by Mr Kenny as Fine Gael's justice spokesman after he lit a cigarette in the Dáil bar just days after the smoking ban came into force. He has languished in the political wilderness for most of the 15 years since.

It didn't help that he was on the wrong side of the 2010 heave against Mr Kenny and in 2014 he publicly said people were becoming "disgusted" with the way Fine Gael was being run.

He supported Mr Varadkar's 2017 leadership bid but was left disappointed when he was overlooked for a ministerial post. Mr Deasy, who is married to RTÉ presenter Maura Derrane, did land a consolation role as the Government's envoy to the US on immigration reform. He joined Mr Varadkar on his St Patrick's Day visit to President Donald Trump this year.

In recent times, Mr Deasy has been unhappy with Fine Gael's operations in his Waterford constituency, alleging that bullying claims were not being dealt with. Speaking about the controversy, Mr Deasy referenced remarks by former US president George W Bush, saying: "When you are your father's son in politics, you inherit 50pc of his friends and 100pc of his enemies."

Mr Varadkar was last night lavish in his praise of Mr Deasy, thanking him for 30 years of service to "Fine Gael, Waterford and Ireland".

He said Mr Deasy's work in the US had been "stunningly effective" and added he could be proud of his service to Dungarvan which had been "transformed" during his time in politics.

Mr Deasy is proud of his work on getting handguns banned and there may yet be a breakthrough in securing a deal for undocumented Irish in the US, but he never emulated his father's achievement in taking a seat at cabinet.

Irish Independent

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