Tony Gregory, our Jesse Jackson

 

MEMOIR: Tony Gregory,By Robbie Gilligan, O’Brien, 240pp. ¤19.99

THIS IS A WARM and at times engaging memoir of a significant figure in Irish political life. It is not the definitive biography of the late Dublin TD, but no doubt that will emerge in time. Tony Gregory (1947-2009) was a Dáil deputy for 27 years – during which time he famously never wore a tie in the chamber – but his biggest impact on the national scene came at the very start.

The balance of forces in the Dáil was very tight after the February 1982 general election, and anyone who wanted to become taoiseach needed to talk turkey with Gregory and his highly committed team of supporters.

It was the kind of situation in which Charles Haughey, the Fianna Fáil leader, was more at home than his Fine Gael arch-rival, Garret FitzGerald. The laird of Kinsealy was eager to cut a deal with the duffle-coated community activists from the inner city.

Significant concessions were secured for Gregory’s constituents, but Haughey’s period in office lasted only nine months: insufficient time for much of what was agreed to come into effect. Yet the “Gregory Deal” made the young TD a household name and helped ensure his return to the Dáil in subsequent general elections.

Regrettably, bringing home the bacon for your constituents is, most of the time, a sine qua non of political success in the State. But the Gregory Deal was unusual in that it gave a serious boost to an area that had been marked by the most extreme deprivation and neglect for many decades: few other places were in such a poor condition. The pact with Haughey also had some wider implications for education and social-welfare policy.

Robbie Gilligan, an early Gregory activist who is now professor of social work and social policy at Trinity College Dublin, quotes Jimmy Rabbitte, in the film The Commitments, describing northside Dubliners, in terms that might no longer be considered quite politically correct, as the blacks of Dublin. The character goes on to claim, with some justification, that the people of the north inner city are the blacks of the northside.

It would be inaccurate to portray Gregory, a lifelong socialist, as a mere clientelist, nursing his constituency from one election to the next. If the poor of Dublin are the blacks of Ireland, then Gregory was our Jesse Jackson of the Liffeyside.

There are 24 pages of evocative photographs, including Tony with his mother, Ellen, and schoolmates, the well-known shot of him with Haughey at the start of a sponsored cycle at the Five Lamps; Gregory with Ronnie Drew – another quintessential Dub struck down by cancer – and a moving shot of Gregory at the Basin Lane flats with two young children in the background.

Born and brought up in the inner city, Gregory was one of the few youngsters from his district to make it all the way to university and emerge with a degree and a teaching qualification. He could have shown his neighbours a clean pair of heels and decamped to suburban bliss in Howth or Sutton, but instead he chose to remain in the family home and devote himself to bettering the lot of his community.

A good deal of the motivation came from his mother, whose example of dedicated self-sacrifice he followed all his life. What she did for her family Gregory sought to do for humanity at large.

There are gaps in the narrative. One would have liked to know more about the subject’s relationship with his father, Anthony. More importantly, perhaps, we are told, almost as a footnote, that in his teenage years Tony joined the Irish Republican Army.

The book does not attempt to tell us much about why he did so, how long his membership lasted and how he fared in the turmoil of republican politics at the time.

Again we are told, almost in passing, that Gregory hugely admired the republican activist Seamus Costello, who was shot dead in a republican feud in 1977. He joined Costello’s Irish Republican Socialist Party but soon withdrew. There is little detail on this – or, indeed, about his later flirtation with the short-lived Socialist Labour Party.

It would also be interesting to know more about Gregory’s fatal illness, the nature of which is not specified here, although it was reported elsewhere that he had cancer.

There must be rich pickings for a future biographer in the long-running contest between the Gregory team and the so-called Drumcondra mafia, which supported his Fianna Fáil opponent Bertie Ahern.

In sum, then, a useful and informative recollection of an important life, but the full story of the late and widely lamented Tony Gregory still has to be told.


Deaglán de Bréadún is an Irish Timespolitical correspondent