Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Jim Flaherty: ‘One of the great Irish-Canadians’

State funeral to be held in Canada for a former finance minister proud of his Irish roots

James "Jim" Flaherty. Photograph: Cole Burston/Bloomberg

Wed, Apr 16, 2014, 17:30


Shane Morris

Ireland has lost a dear friend. Today, a state funeral will be held in Canada for Jim Flaherty, one of the great Irish-Canadians who passed away suddenly last week.

Up to three weeks ago, the 64-year-old had been Canada’s minister of finance for the past eight years. Proud of his Irish roots, he made it a point to step down on St Patrick’s Day.

He had steered Canada through the recession, not an easy task when the US, your neighbour and largest trading partner, was completely devastated. A fiercely determined man, who grew up in a large Irish Catholic family with seven siblings, he knew what hard work and sacrifice was. He studied at Princeton and became a lawyer, successfully practicing for 20 years before entering politics in 1995.

A strong proponent of Ireland-Canada economic and social relations, he understood the plight and role of Irish immigrants to Canada. He was acutely aware that Irish immigrants past, present and future provide the cornerstone of the very important bond between our two countries. In the last few years, Flaherty has visited Ireland almost every year, referring to these visits as a “homecoming”. He has been described as a “short Irishman with a love for a tall glass of Guinness”. He was also well known for his Irish charm and a wicked sense of humour. In addition, he was famous for wearing his green ties and wore his Irishness with immense pride. Even his dog was named Guinness.

While exceptionally successful, he was also very humble and genuine. In modern politics, his humility and down to earth attitude was considered “old school”. But I for one, can attest to its realness. As a civil servant in Ottawa, often working in the same building as him, it was regular occurrence to see him standing in line at the coffee shop cashier waiting to pay for his morning brew. He chatted freely with staff and blended in completely – one would never have guessed he was one of most powerful politicians in the world, responsible for Canada’s $279 billion budget. I never had the courage to say hello.

But in 2012, on news he was to receive an honorary doctorate from NUI Galway (in the same week I was to graduate from the same university), I decided to break all Canadian civil service protocols and directly email him to congratulate him. While hoping I would not be reprimanded, I expected maybe just an acknowledgement of receipt of the email. After all, I was just a lowly civil servant. To my astonishment, within hours, I received an exceptionally personal and warm reply. Old school.

As a conservative, Flaherty had very clear views on how Canada’s finances should be run but he also knew it was important to help those in need. This was an engrained belief and one of the reasons why when announcing improvements to the tax system to help parents of special needs children he cried openly on live television.

He was also instrumental in securing funding for the memorial park in Toronto to commemorate Irish immigrants who arrived during the famine. At the time the Irish Government would not provide funding but finally agreed they would match any contribution that the Government of Canada would make, which resulted in a total of $1 million being secured. That was the first time the Irish Government had made expenditure like that outside Ireland or the UK to commemorate the famine. At the opening of the park, attended by then President Mary McAleese, Flaherty stated: “Canada believes that [the memorial park] is a worthy project that will provide generations of Irish Canadians with a place of honour and remembrance. It will be a place where children can come to learn about their ancestry and get a sense of the strength and courage demonstrated by those who came before us.”

Jim, you and your old school ways will be missed in Canada and in Ireland. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam dílis.