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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 3, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    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

    • Theo Dorgan says:

      “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.” ?

      Cosmetic? The damage done to the social fabric of our little Republic by the PDs? And still being done to our health service by the arch-champion of the free market (a woman, incidentally, who to the best of my knowledge has all her working life been paid by the taxpayer)? Now that would have brought a curl to the Gregory lip. All good wishes for the coming year to you, this is a very rare lapse in an impeccable reporting life.

    • Deaglán says:

      Thank you kindly Theo and best wishes to you. I was thinking mainly of parties with a broadly-similar perspective to Tony Gregory. The PDs are another category which I can discuss again. I have noted elsewhere that they did have a big impact on taxation policy.

    • Stewart K Kelly says:


      Thank you for the poignant post.

      On the topic of alternatives to the two Civil War protagonists, I think the broadly secular and modernising instincts of the PDs were right on for their time. Let’s not forget Liz O’Donnell’s courage in speaking out on the Roman Catholic Church’s role in Irish society a few years back. It is easy to knock Mary Harney, but she is one of the most talented and courageous politicians we have over the last twenty years. Simply by standing by their ideals, the PDs should be commended for the service they have done. If you want place blame for the excess and waste of the boom years, blame the party that ran the show.

      History will judge the PDs as an important injection of a purer kind of politics–driven by a real position on economic and social matters, not by whose side of the war you were on. You don’t have to agree with their position or record to recognize that.

      As an Irishman living in the US for the last year, I am alarmed by the lack of leadership or cohesion in Irish politics in this challenging time. We are still in the strongest position overall that we’ve ever been in. And other countries are suffering too. Yes the boom and excess is over. But we have a chance to consolidate the significant societal gains we have made: especially in our institutions–think Industrial Development Authority, diplomatic work in Northern Ireland and beyond, third-level education. We now have the opportunity to transition from the booming upstart of Europe to become a more mature society–both economically and socially.

      But this will require that elusive cliché: leadership. Cowen hasn’t got it, but neither does Kenny. For me the only hope is for Fine Gael to get its act together and establish itself as a substantial alternative. Difficult to do in good times, not as hard in tough times.

      The party has been in an identity crisis since Garret FitzGerald. A reinvention of FG on social democrat lines is the way to go. It may attract some moderate elements of the hopelessly out of touch Labour party, and may force the formation of a new PD-style spin-off. But Ireland desperately needs a credible alternative. How can we possibly chart our path into the future if we have two major parties that stand for little more than “whatever you’re having yourself…”?

      The lack of talent is what worries me most. Coughlan and Lenihen are showing their inexperience. But Enda Kenny is clearly incapable of rallying the support of the country. He has had his chance. I would like to see Bruton take his shot. But there seems to be little beyond him.

      I really don’t see any sing of a new party emerging from this situation. Us Irish are too apathetic about politics. Our best minds go into other careers. And we are too suspicious of our top business people to welcome them into the political sphere. Until the Irish people recognize that they are the custodians of this country’s fragile success, and start making an effort to get involved in constructive solutions, we will be stuck with the same bunch of myopic, parochial yahoos we have sitting in the Dail today.

    • Deaglán says:

      I just heard the oncologist Professor John Crown say, on Karen Coleman’s radio show on Newstalk, that he was taught by Tony Gregory for three or four years at CBS Synge St in Dublin. I was a pupil at the school myself prior to that period and I wish I had known that Tony later became a múinteoir there. I am sure he would have had some interesting observations about his time at “Synger” especially since, as Prof. Crown suggests, his leftie politics may have served to foreshorten his time on the staff!

    • An Fear Bolg says:

      Anyone read the Gregory obit by Bertie in the SBP? Amazing bout of self-serving nonsense, tying himself to everything Gregory did – all “he and I both fought fiercely to end poverty etc etc”. Quite horrible.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      “When I first came across Tony, he was a community activist in the north inner city…I began to see more and more of Tony.”

      Is Bertie trying to take credit for discovering Tony Gregory? I mean seriously is there no bandwagon the man wouldn’t climb onto?

    • Robespierre says:

      I also noted the direct grab for the Gregory vote by Joe Costello in the Sunday Tribune. A little indelicate considering the man has barely gone to his well-deserved rest. I disagreed with his economic views but with only a little of his social views. I live in the North Inner city a short throw from his house and frequently drive past the flame commemorating the inner-city victims of drug abuse off Amiens st.

      There is definitely a mood for change, but it will require a leader of charismatic, dynamic proportions to deliver it. Des O’Malley was a once-in-two-generations politician. I think the person that breaks the oligopoly of mainstream FF/FG/Lab will be more in the Vicente Fox mould.

      I also think that the hardcore FF vote is probably more threatened than the FG vote as they are more likely to stay conservative, pro-European and centre-right than FF are. The Mexican PRI party whose roots were similar to FF lost power almost ten years ago after 70 years of consecutive rule and have yet to get it back. Similarly, the Christian Democrats in Italy crumbled under the weight of bumbling incompetence and corruption. The former is now more likely to be the downfall for FF, corruption doesn’t seem to be quite as big an issue as it was.

      So the next party as I see it will need to have at least some of the following traits to distinguish itself:
      - secularist (final separation of church and state) i.e. full state gay marriage and adoption, general civic education replacing specific Catholic or Protestant (which is pluralist anyway) syllabus
      - structured/selective isolationism (vs integrationist mainstream)
      - socially liberal for legal residents
      - socially intolerant for illegal or unemployed people (e.g. workfare)
      - ambitiously reformist (changes to system of voting, local government, taxation, parliament and executive, major reform of public sector contracts from permanent to performance-based, major reform of land zoning and entitlement etc)

      I know that some fringe organisations stand for some of this already but they are still toxic to many and lack a serious leader. It would take a Michael O’Leary or David McWilliams type of individual to deliver this. Each would have a different style and would bomb with part of any electorate. I am not for a second ascribing any of these views to either however.

      Sadly it impossible to ignore that among the more charismatic politicians to have risen from nowhere in recent years have been the likes of Joerg Haider and Pim Fortyn. Others like Evo Morales and Chavez have done so on a land reform and wealth redistribution platform. We don’t have a constitution that really permits the latter so the former is more likely.

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    • Ian says:

      Tony Gregory’s efforts to improve the lot of his constituency were admirable. What really beggars belief is that while Tony spent a lot of his career as irrelevant to the Dail’s majority arithmetic, his fellow Dublin Central TD, Bertie Ahern became the most powerful man in the country and still didn’t sort out the poverty there. Now that says something. Tony will forever be a contrast to Bertie’s failures.

    • Ray D says:

      Sorry I can’t join in the eulogy for the man as a politician. Along with the other politicians in the Dáil over the past 30 years, he basically failed to make any worthwhile advances in this society. They would not have been missed had the Oireachtas been closed. Indeed I think that the permanent Government – the civil service – would probably have made a better fist of it, if untrammelled by politicians.

      I also resent stroke politics and the picking out of some people above others for State aids and I have always considered the Gregory deals with Fitzgerald and Haughey as gross abuses of public monies. Also the inner-city constituency has been swept away by the docklands development. This is very worthwhile development but has wiped away the local community. Tony had no influence, for all his years in the Dail.

    • Deaglán says:

      Interesting to hear Tony Gregory in an interview with John Bowman on RTE Radio, conducted some time in the early ’90s I would guess, stating that if Democratic Left, or New Agenda as they were originally called, joined the Labour Party, he would do so as well. But of course they did – and he didn’t. Maybe there were constituency considerations, I will have to check.

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