Monday 19 August 2019

Micheal Martin: 'Passion, leadership and knowledge: remembering Noel - a true Irishman'

Micheal Martin pays tribute to political writer and barrister Noel Whelan who never shied from tackling serious issues

Noel Whelan never wasted a day in his short life. Photo: Collins
Noel Whelan never wasted a day in his short life. Photo: Collins

Micheal Martin

In the last few days Ireland has sadly lost two major contributors to public life. Both Brendan Grace and Noel Whelan were from very different professions but both were well liked and regulars on Irish media.

I knew Noel for many years as we both started our careers in the Fianna Fail party.

When I first heard of his death last Wednesday night I was shocked and deeply saddened. Noel was still so young and had still so much to offer to Irish public life.

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He was a larger than life character, a true Irishman who loved history and politics.

It has been well documented that his passion and leadership in the last few referendum campaigns led to their success.

Before each campaign he ensured research was done. With this and his own deep understanding of middle Ireland and of the political landscape across the country he led the way.

He believed in persuading rather than dictating to people on the marriage referendum and the Eighth Amendment referendum campaigns. This worked.

While Noel came from a Fianna Fail background he had many friends and associates from across parties and was respected and admired by all.

His love of history, knowledge and respect for our Constitution allowed him to delve into campaigns. Against all odds he helped retain the Seanad as he respected the role it had in our democracy..

Noel was an accomplished commentator as he understood politics. He was born into it, son of Myra and the late Seamus who was a councillor for many years. Being one of 12, their home was like a small cumann. The whole family debated politics on a daily basis and they never missed any political debate.

He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of elections going back decades - and not just general election results but local and European as well. He was co-author of The Tallyman's Guide - all political nerds still have copies in their homes.

After school he went to University College, Dublin, where he was an active member of the Kevin Barry cumann. However, he was also heavily involved in other aspects of college life and he was elected auditor of the Commerce & Economics Society in 1988 (a position held by Charles Haughey in 1945).

This was quite an achievement on Noel's part as the position was traditionally a sinecure of commerce students whereas Noel was an arts student who wasn't even doing economics; he was doing history and politics.

Like many great survivors of Irish politics he learnt about the back room of party politics when he joined Fianna Fail HQ in the 1990s as national youth officer.

He was moved to a few areas and learnt a lot about organising ard fheiseanna and how hard-fought selection conventions were organised and won.

In 1992, former leader and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds set up a party commission to review the structures of the party.

Noel worked with a few of us, the late Seamus Brennan and the former Irish Press journalist Mary Kerrigan, who was director of communications at the time to deliver change.

Noel writes in detail of this experience in his 2011 book, Fianna Fail A Biography of the Party. He describes it as a 'roller coaster ride'.

During this time Noel's talents were spotted by former Minister of State for European Affairs Tom Kitt who asked him to be his adviser.

It was the same time that Albert Reynolds succeeded in getting €8bn from the EEC at the infamous meeting in Edinburgh. This allowed him to form a coalition with Labour.

Noel was never afraid of tackling serious or contentious issues. He led from the front and did not hold back on saying what he felt.

This is a very admirable trait and at times it did irk party members when he criticised Fianna Fail given his close ties with the party but I am glad he didn't hold back. It drove us harder and I believe that's what he actually wanted us to do.

Noel, unlike any other pundit, actually ran for both a general and Seanad election. It is a pity that he was not elected as he would have made an excellent public representative. However being unsuccessful did not sway him from being involved in politics. He never wasted a day of his short life

He was a proud New Ross man and a number of years ago when the view was that the summer school model was tired and jaded, Noel established the New Ross Kennedy Summer School, with his former colleague and friend Brian Murphy.

This has now established itself as an annual end-of-summer reflection on politics.

I was actually asked to speak at it a few weeks ago and was honoured to accept. It is hard to believe that Noel will no longer be in attendance.

Noel was accomplished in so many ways.

He made an impact on everyone he met, whether it was in politics, journalism, current affairs or in court.

Behind his public persona he was also very much a family man. The role he loved and was most proud of was being husband to Sinead and, of course, father to their much loved son Seamus.

He will be very sadly missed by his family and very large circle of friends in Fianna Fail and beyond.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis.

Micheal Martin is the leader of Fianna Fail

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