Tony Gregory and radical change
Deaglán de Bréadún
One has a feeling of great personal sadness at the death of Tony Gregory. He was in the proud tradition of spiky, outspoken loners in Irish politics such as Noel Browne and Jack McQuillan who embodied the true meaning of that contemporary phrase, “The Power of One”.
Tony’s great moment for demonstrating the influence of a single TD came with his famous (critics would of course say “infamous”) deal with Charles Haughey. If it was Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown or Dublin South there might be more reason to object (although there are pockets of deprivation there too) but the fact that it was inner-city Dublin, with its slums and its poverty, meant there were few who could really condemn what Gregory was doing.
He sought to correct the balance and to even the score on behalf of his long-suffering constituents, most of whom never got a place at life’s banquet or a chance to achieve the status and prosperity attained by others in this unequal society.
If memory serves, Fine Gael did not have any objection in principle to a deal in return for Gregory’s vote in that long-ago hung Dáil of the early 1980s but Haughey just turned out to be much more efficient at bringing Gregory on-side.
Most of the deal was never delivered, through no fault of Gregory’s or indeed Haughey’s. After that, he faded a bit, although still a presence in the House. He was a sworn enemy of the drug-dealers on the streets who became yet another blight on the lives of the poverty-stricken and underprivileged.
What a pity he did not find a political party to suit him. None of them was really radical enough for Gregory whose roots were in the left-republican tradition. He was an admirer of the late Séamus Costello, a charismatic republican leader who was shot dead in 1977. A quiet, dogged individual, Gregory had plenty of personal charm but no aspirations to be a leader in his own right.
I shall miss our lunchtime conversations in the Leinster House canteen and his mordant observations on his constituency rival, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Gregory was irritated by the wave of tribunal-induced sympathy for his competitor that he encountered on the doorsteps in the last general election. He recounted with some annoyance how he was being told, “We have to vote for poor Bertie, he’s in trouble.” He would have smiled wryly at the sympathy expressed on his demise by the former Fianna Fáil leader.
A minor achievement but one that caught attention was his refusal to wear a tie in the Dáil chamber. The male journalists still have to wear them however!
Can radical change be achieved through the Irish political system? The example of Gregory suggests only minor, local adjustments can be at least promised to you, if you have the good fortune to hold the balance of power for a while.
Whereas it is comparatively easy (in contrast with Britain) for smaller parties as well as Independents to become part of the governing coalition in the Dáil, the concessions they achieve are often cosmetic or confined to their constituencies.
Arguably, Labour pushing through the abolition of third-level fees in the coalition with Albert Reynolds was an exception to this rule. Noel Browne’s successful battle with the TB scourge in the 1948-51 government was another.
Up to now, Irish people have shown themselves to be a conservative lot, largely content to have two right-of-centre parties taking turns at the helm. This could change with the economic crisis. A real alternative could emerge. But what would it look like and who would it be? Anyone got any ideas on this subject?
Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent