Waterford TD and former minister for agriculture who was regular critic of FG leaders

Obituary – Austin Deasy: Born: August 26th, 1936. Died: June 10th, 2017

Austin Deasy  outside Leinster House  after his party’s vote of confidence in leader John Bruton in 2000. Photograph: Moya Nolan

Austin Deasy outside Leinster House after his party’s vote of confidence in leader John Bruton in 2000. Photograph: Moya Nolan

 

Austin Deasy, the Fine Gael TD who represented Waterford in Dáil Éireann for 25 years and who served as minister for agriculture from 1982 to 1987, has died aged 80. Never afraid to speak his mind, he was critical of the three men who led his party during his time in the Dáil and even moved motions of no confidence in two of them.

He was born in Dungarvan, Co Waterford and attended Christian Brothers’ School, Dungarvan before taking up studies at University College Cork, afterwards working for some years as a secondary-school teacher in St Augustine’s College, Abbeyside, Dungarvan. He was elected to Waterford County Council and Dungarvan Urban District Council in 1967.

Unsuccessful in his attempts to be elected to the Dáil at the 1969 and 1973 general elections, he also failed to win a Seanad seat in 1973 but was nominated to the upper house by Liam Cosgrave. He won a Dáil seat in 1977 and was made frontbench spokesman on fisheries, a duty he performed until January 1981, when he was given responsibility for shadowing on transport. A very active frontbencher, he made a strong impression on the Dáil, so much so that it was generally expected that he would be made a minister in the July 1981 coalition government. To his deep disappointment, he was not.

FitzGerald displeasure

At the end of March 1982, during the parliamentary-party post-mortem on the general election defeat of the previous month, Deasy made no secret of his displeasure with leader Garret FitzGerald, with the political insouciance that had caused the party to lose power and with how he felt he himself had been treated in July 1981. Declaring that he had been one of the five TDs who had voted against FitzGerald in the leadership poll of the previous week, he said that his exclusion from government had hurt him less than not having been informed beforehand of the decision. Despite his attack on FitzGerald, he was appointed spokesman on foreign affairs in the new front bench of June 1982 and again made impressive use of his brief.

An extremely hard-working, professional politician, Deasy maintained his position at the top of the Dáil poll in Waterford over the three general elections in 1981-82, and this in a constituency that witnessed several changes in personnel and party balance. To his own personal, and indeed probably public, astonishment, he was made minister for agriculture in December 1982.

Among the reasons FitzGerald gave for the appointment were that he felt Deasy’s independence of mind and sense of grassroots’ feeling would be valuable assets to the cabinet, and that although Deasy had no special knowledge of agriculture, FitzGerald felt that because of the pressure on the Common Agriculture Policy, “what we needed in the department in the period immediately ahead was a tough negotiator” and he believed Deasy had “the requisite qualifications”.

Because of the importance of the dairy sector to Irish agriculture and to the economy as a whole, much of Deasy’s attention in 1983-84 was taken up with the threat of a severe cutback to the EC milk superlevy. FitzGerald has recorded how he and Deasy, whom he described as one “who never wanted to flinch from a fight”, ran a high-profile campaign to secure exemption or at least special treatment for Ireland within the proposed milk-quota regime. Concerning the outcome of their labours, The Irish Times remarked that it was difficult to see how Ireland could have done better.

Fearless critic

Deasy was seen as having a tempestuous relationship with the Irish Farmers’ Association and as being “a fearless critic” of its inconsistencies. In the cabinet reshuffle in 1986, FitzGerald kept him in agriculture because “he had won the respect of the farming community without bending to their often excessive demands”.

He shadowed on tourism and transport on Alan Dukes’s front bench but resigned in protest in 1988 at Dukes’s “Tallaght strategy”, whereby Fine Gael supported the minority Fianna Fáil government. His no-confidence motion in Dukes’s leadership in 1989 failed. He returned to the front bench as agriculture spokesman under John Bruton but resigned in 1993, saying that he was unwilling to seek finance from big business as was expected by the leadership of the cash-strapped party.

He also wanted to be free to speak on a range of issues without having to toe the party line. He tabled an unsuccessful motion of no confidence in Bruton in November 2000. He retired from politics in 2002.

He loved to travel, and as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and vice-chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he travelled worldwide. He was also a keen golfer.

He is survived by his wife Kathleen (Keating), sons John and Jamie, daughters Sally and Jane, brothers Fr Billy OSA, Pat and Joe and sister June.