Fergus O’Brien: Former Dublin lord mayor who changed the face of urban renewal

Obituary: ‘He had a distinguished career in politics, winning friends across the political spectrum for his direct approach’

Fergus O’Brien: March 30th, 1930-October 19th, 2016. Photograph: Frank Miller

Fergus O’Brien: March 30th, 1930-October 19th, 2016. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Former lord mayor of Dublin, Fergus O’Brien, who has died, aged 86, was originally from Drumcondra. But he came to represent, at various times, almost the entire southside of Dublin city.

Initially Fergus qualified as an electrician, and followed his father, also an electrician, into the ESB. He worked initially in the field of power generation but moved into sales, where he excelled.

He married Peggy (nee Moylan) in 1959 and they had one son and five daughters. On the political front, he first joined Fine Gael, in the Rathmines area, in 1965. He was Garret FitzGerald’s running mate in Dublin South East in the 1969 general election, when Garret was first elected to the Dáil following the retirement of John A Costello.

He stood again in 1973 and this time both he and Garret FitzGerald were elected. He was first elected to Dublin Corporation in 1974. In the 1977 general election he topped the poll in the Dublin South Central constituency, and was subsequently elected to the Dáil in the 1981, November 1982, 1987 and 1989 general elections.

He retired from the Dáil in 1992. As a backbench deputy in the 1970s, and with the support of the then minister for finance, Richie Ryan, he moved the motion which led to the establishment of the office of the ombudsman, which was a major step in vindicating a right of citizens to quality public services, with or without the intercession of a local TD.

As a member of Dublin Corporation, he was lord mayor of Dublin in 1980 to 1981. He joined with the unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast, John Carson in promoting close links between Ireland’s two biggest cities. The two of them went down the Shankill Road in an open-topped car, which was significant ant at that time of great tension.

He was minister of state at the Department of the Environment, with special responsibility for housing, from June 1981 to February 1982.

Public housing

He held the position of minister of state at the Department of Health and Social from 1982 to 1983, followed by minister of state at the Department of the Environment until 1986. In this period, he had special responsibility for urban renewal, not only in Dublin but in major cities throughout Ireland, and here he made another enduring impact on the urban landscape of his native city.

As he said when the introduced the Urban Renewal Bill in 1986, at that time the inner core of our larger urban centres had been decaying and large areas had become derelict. He identified the reasons, which included the high cost of acquiring and assembling sites for development.

He said that, if left to the normal operation of the property market, these areas would have remained derelict for years thereafter. His 1986 Urban Renewal Bill changed all that, through tax reliefs and incentives for local authorities to act, in his words as “development brokers”, assembling sites and facilitating a combination of housing and commercial development.

The Bill also provided for an authority to develop the Custom House Docks site, which became the IFSC. Subsequent governments built of his work and made the IFSC an outstanding success.

He was government chief whip from 1986 to 1987. He was ideally suited to this very difficult job, combining practical common sense and humour with firmness and intense loyalty.

He had a distinguished career in politics, winning friends across the political spectrum for his direct approach. He was never silent or slow to act when he felt the issues at stake were important.

He was someone to whom I turned for advice many times. In private life, he had a deep interest in sport, and was a strong supporter of St Mary’s RFC.

Nature reserve

I saw him during his illness and was struck by his positive attitude, his faith, his continuing interest in other people and in the country to which he had given such great service.

He is survived by his wife, Peggy and children Tom, Suzanne, Michelle, Emer, Cathy. He is predeceased by their daughter Lynda.

Above all else, Fergus O’Brien was totally devoted to his family, and encouraged and supported them in everything they did. To Peggy, who meant everything to him, and without whom he could not have been the man he was, and to all his family, I extend heartfelt sympathy.