Obituary: Dr John O’Connell

Colourful politician with strong commitment to the poor

A jubilant Dr John O'Connell, after he was elected in Dublin South Central

A jubilant Dr John O'Connell, after he was elected in Dublin South Central

Sat, Mar 16, 2013, 06:00

John O’Connell. Born: January 20th, 1927. Died: March 8th, 2013.

Dr John O’Connell, who died last week aged 86 years, had a varied career as a medical doctor, politician and businessman.

He was colourful, controversial, driven, mercurial and frequently intolerant of those who stood in his way. An Irish Times editorial once described him as active almost to the point of hazard, vocal almost to the point of indiscretion.

But even his sternest critics would not deny his commitment to the poor. He was an able and compassionate GP who argued for the availability of contraception from early in his medical and political careers. He remarked in the 1960s that he did not know whether to prescribe tranquillisers or the pill to west Dublin women who came to his surgery ground down by poverty and excessive childbirth.

He was a member of two political parties, Labour and Fianna Fail, and his big ambition was to be minister for health. When he finally achieved it, a lack of time and a shortage of resources frustrated him, and he left the department a disappointed man ready to quit politics when he failed to be reappointed after the 1992 general election.

O’Connell was born in Dublins Liberties and grew up in Drumcondra in grinding poverty. His father was a First World War veteran who lost an eye; his mother was in poor health, unable to read, one leg distended by illness.

Determined to become a doctor, his local GP refused him a college application reference because medicine was not a career for the poor. O’Connell funded his education through a succession of menial jobs.

After qualifying as a doctor in 1955, he worked in the United States for a number of years before returning to set up a highly successful medical practice in Dublins South Circular Road.

Elected as a Labour TD for Dublin South West in 1965, he had a tense relationship with the party hierarchy, unhappy with his volatility and strong nationalist outlook.

He was bitterly disappointed when party leader Brendan Corish omitted him from the Cabinet when the party joined Fine Gael in power in 1973. Corish, who had been furious with O’Connell a year earlier for organising a meeting in his Dublin home with the then British Labour leader Harold Wilson and Provisional IRA leaders, Daithi O Conaill and Sean MacStiofain, allocated the Department of Health brief to himself.

O’Connell never forgave Corish, ridiculing him in his engaging but inevitably self-serving autobiography, Doctor John , in 1989. O’Connell was elected to the European parliament in 1979 when the dual mandate still existed.

His break with Labour came in 1980, when he refused to move from Dublin South Central to Dublin South West to give the then leader, Frank Cluskey, a clear run. Cluskey lost his seat and the leadership, while ’OConnell returned to the Dáil and went on to serve as ceann comhairle under Fine Gael-Labour and Fianna Fáil minority governments.

By then, he was a wealthy man, living in a large house with a swimming pool in Inchicore. He had sold the Irish Medical Times, which he owned and edited since the early 1960s, and the MIMS drug directory to the British Haymarket publishing group headed by Conservative MP and later deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine.

He joined Fianna Fáil in the 1980s when the party was led by Charlie Haughey, having had a good relationship with him during Haughey’s time as minister for health in the late 1970s. Despite the friendship, he had been scathing about the limited nature of Haughey’s 1979 Family Planning Bill.

Nevertheless, politics won out over a long-held principle when O’Connell, as a Fianna Fáil TD, voted against former Labour colleague Barry Desmond ’s more liberal family planning Bill in the 1980s.

When he lost his Dáil seat in 1987, Haughey appointed him to the Seanad. After returning to the Dáil in 1989, he was disappointed when Haughey failed to appoint him to the Cabinet and the relationship soured.

He would give evidence to the Moriarty tribunal in July 1999 about a IR£50,000 payment to Haughey in 1985 from a wealthy Saudi businessman.

He was influential in persuading Haughey to stand down as party leader, backing his successor Albert Reynolds, who appointed him minister for health.

His brief tenure from February 1992 to January 1993 did not allow him sufficient time to make a significant impact, although he had some achievements such as the patients’ charter. He was embroiled in controversy when he failed to follow departmental procedures in the allocation of IR£75,000 in lottery funds to his constituency.

Following a general election, there was no Cabinet place for him in the Reynolds-led Fianna Fail-Labour government and he resigned from the Dáil on health grounds, moving to London for a time and largely out of the public spotlight.

O’Connell is survived by his sons, John, Marcus and Karl, and daughters Debbie, Jean, Aoibhinn, Alex and Aisling, and grandchildren.