Fergus McCabe obituary: Inner city Dublin activist and youth worker

McCabe came to prominence as an architect of Tony Gregory’s 1982 deal with Haughey

Fergus McCabe in 1996. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Fergus McCabe in 1996. Photograph: Peter Thursfield


Born: October 7th, 1949

Died: October 8th, 2020

Fergus McCabe, a community activist and campaigner who worked tirelessly for the communities of Dublin’s North Inner City, has died at his Dublin home following a long illness.

McCabe first came to prominence as one of the architects of Tony Gregory’s 1982 deal with Charles Haughey to fund services for the inner city. He was a reforming and unifying figure who worked across five decades. He was known for his love of sport and music, and an unyielding commitment to social justice. After he died, he was remembered as someone who reached across divides in an effort to address the underlying causes of social problems.

McCabe was born in Dublin 7 and educated at Belvedere College, where he was involved in anti-apartheid activism from a young age and volunteered with the associated Belvedere Newsboys’ Club, working with inner-city communities. He continued volunteering before going on to work in the area after graduating from UCD, where he qualified as a social worker after his degree in history.

The north inner city was then in a state of flux, with dwindling economic opportunities for its residents as the industrial heartlands of the docklands lessened in importance. It was blighted with social, housing, educational and health issues. McCabe was influenced by the Irish Foundation for Human Development, founded by Ivor Browne, a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, which developed models for community engagement in Dublin and elsewhere. It was then that he came into contact with Tony Gregory and Mick Rafferty, the third architect of the Gregory deal, as an organiser of tenants’ group and community events protesting the intended construction of a motorway along the route of the Royal Canal.

The fight against the motorway, and to promote social housing, was one of a number of community campaigns that gave shape to a wider sense that the north inner city, blighted by poverty and politically marginalised, was at risk of social and physical destruction, and of abandonment. These movements were the crucible for countless community organisations rooted in the inner city that tackled drugs, poverty and associated issues, many of which McCabe was involved in over the decades to come.

Balance of power

It was also the beginning of what became the Gregory organisation. After he was elected to Dublin City Council, and then the Dáil in 1982, Tony Gregory held the balance of power and entered into negotiations with Haughey and other political leaders on a package of supports for the north inner city to be traded for his vote in the Dáil. The Gregory deal was written by McCabe and others from a socialist viewpoint and was wide-ranging in its ambitions. Those involved in negotiations with Haughey recall the Fianna Fáil leader’s reaction to an early draft of the document with the words: “Now Tony, you know I can’t nationalise the f***ing banks”.

Ultimately the Gregory group secured commitments from Haughey to fund housing, employment and education initiatives in the area. As heroin began to take hold of the north inner city during the summer of 1982, it was hoped that the deal would become a framework for addressing the root causes of the growing crisis.

While some measures failed to materialise after the collapse of Haughey’s government, the goals of the deal reflected the organising principles of McCabe’s ongoing activism. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, through his involvement in groups such as the Inner City Organisations Network and the CityWide Drugs Campaign, McCabe was a mainstay of inner city community life. He considered working with people and communities to be an art form that needed to be learned on the ground.

He devoted the majority of his life’s work to direct engagement with young people, largely through the Neighbourhood Youth Project, based on Summerhill Parade, Dublin 1. This kept his advocacy relevant as it evolved with the changing landscape of the area, such as the need to support the integration of migrant communities in recent decades. Through individual practical and emotional support, music, sport, workshops and international exchanges, he listened to, guided and provided positive experiences to young people, working in collaboration with local schools and other community initiatives. This investment in youth paid dividends, with many young people returning to work or volunteer in the project.

He was known for his capacity to work apolitically with different groups to strive for common goals, and as someone who could deliver concrete outcomes for communities. In recent years, during his work as chairman of the Young People at Risk group, he formulated cross-agency responses to individual cases where people were at risk from drugs, crime or poverty. His knowledge of communities, as well as the vagaries of how State agencies sought to manage social problems, was unique. As President Michael D Higgins said on his death, “the great gift of Fergus was his genius in moving commitments on paper into the practical lives of members of communities”.

Drugs strategy

His activism led to his inclusion as community representative on the first National Drugs Strategy Team, in 1996, which he resigned from in frustration in 2009. He continued to represent the community sector on the National Oversight Committee with responsibility for leading national drugs strategy.

Despite officially retiring in 2014, McCabe continued to progress multiple causes, acting as community representative on the Programme Implementation Board of the North East Inner City group convened by former Taoiseach Enda Kenny. In the weeks before he died, he focused on lobbying for the re-establishment of the Community Policing Forum. Never a political party man, his death was marked by tributes from across the political spectrum.

McCabe was a life-long Tottenham Hotspur fan. His love of sport and music also imbued his community activities. He taught many young people the guitar, and was deeply involved with Belvedere FC, the inner-city club where he was co-founder and twice chairman. Footballer Wes Hoolahan and the actor Barry Keoghan were involved in teams or youth groups led by McCabe. In recent years he organised football matches involving young people from migrant groups, which bonded different groups within the wider inner city community.

McCabe’s vision was that social ills could be minimised or prevented when people and communities were allowed to maximise their potential. He said that individuals and societies would succeed “when everybody has a place where they can feel love, they can have shelter, they can feel safe”.

Fergus McCabe is survived by his wife, Helena; children Ella, Kathy and Eoin; grandchildren Poppy, Isabel and Cara; brother Dermot; and sister Bríd.