Joe Revington obituary: Student radical who became a troubleshooter for Dick Spring

Former Employment Appeals Tribunal vice-chairman was ‘gregarious, generous, humorous and sympathetic’

Joe Revington: liked to claim that he was the first Kerry Protestant to have played Gaelic football for Trinity College Dublin

Joe Revington: liked to claim that he was the first Kerry Protestant to have played Gaelic football for Trinity College Dublin

 

Joe Revington

Born: January 8th, 1948

Died: April 22nd, 2021

Joe Revington, who has died aged 73, rocked the establishment of Trinity College Dublin by winning election as president of the Students’ Representative Council (SRC, later Students’ Union) and becoming the first student ever to sit on the governing body of an Irish university.

Scion of a Tralee merchant family, with a department store on The Mall and a substantial stake in the town’s racecourse at Ballybeggan Park, he was educated at St Stephen’s prep school in Dublin and St Columba’s College Rathfarnham, and liked to claim that he was the first Kerry Protestant to have played Gaelic football for Trinity – probably because they were such a rare breed.

As a student Joe Revington was a supporter of the Just Society wing of Fine Gael, with an ingrained sympathy for the underdog, but his politics were well to the right of the Maoists, Trotskyites, Republican Club supporters and other assorted leftists who tended to dominate regular “mass democracy” sessions on Trinity’s Dining Hall steps during the heady days of student revolutions in 1968/’69.

A natural orator, with an almost theatrical Kerry accent, he was in his element on these occasions. But when the dust settled and the students were newly enfranchised to choose by direct election their representative on the board of the college, it was Revington who got their support with his ironic and self-deprecatory slogan, “Vote for Joe, the man you know. Policies not personalities!”

Gregarious

This was essentially due to his remarkable talent as a vote-getter. Open and personable by nature, he made friends easily. He was extremely gregarious, generous, humorous and sympathetic, and a dedicated party-goer. He seemed to know almost every Trinity student by name – no mean feat at a time when the student body numbered somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000.

In 1968, as an officer of the College Historical Society and tiring of its refusal to admit women to membership, he supported those who favoured a policy of obstruction to persuade “the Hist” to change its ways. For this, he became the first and only member to be expelled from the society – although the cause he championed prevailed, and women were finally admitted the following year.

Also in 1968, he succeeded in persuading the board of the college to sell all the shares it held in South African companies, in protest against the apartheid regime, more than 20 years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison; it helped that one of Ireland’s leading anti-apartheid activists, South African-born Kader Asmal, was a law lecturer in the college at that time.

As president of the college’s SRC he forged close ties with student leaders in other colleges – notably UCD, UCG and Queen’s University Belfast – most memorably at a marathon annual congress of the Union of Students in Ireland, held at Rosses Point, Co Sligo, in 1969. Later in life, he took up bridge and is remembered fondly, by partners and opponents alike, as a skilful player.

He built up a steady practice as an employment lawyer practising on the South Western Circuit, becoming a senior counsel

Surprisingly for one who had attracted so much attention as a student, much of Revington’s career was under the radar. Having transferred his political allegiance from Fine Gael to Labour, he became a special adviser to fellow Kerryman Dick Spring as tánaiste in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition governments during the 1980s, earning a reputation as a good trouble-shooter.

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One of his duties was to organise busloads of grassroots members from Kerry to flood postelection party conferences in Dublin to vote in favour of going into coalition with Fine Gael and later with Fianna Fáil. It is also suspected that Revington was behind the big banner erected beyond the bridge at Abbeyfeale in 1982, proclaiming the message “Socialist Kerry welcomes its new leader”.

Revington’s astute reading of local and national issues contributed to Spring’s success as leader of the Labour Party, and his contacts from student politics served him well during that time when the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government faced many difficult issues. He was also at Spring’s side in 1987 when the Labour leader managed to retain his Kerry North seat by just four votes.

By then, he had returned to his legal studies, which in his earlier life had taken a back seat to politics, and was called to the Bar. He built up a steady practice as an employment lawyer practising on the South Western Circuit, becoming a senior counsel, and was later appointed as a vice-chairman of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, where he is remembered for his fair and sympathetic approach.

He also surfaced in several high-profile cases where his encyclopaedic knowledge of electoral law proved an asset, acting as election agent for John Gormley of the Green Party in 1997, winning a celebrated battle for the last seat in Dublin South-East against Michael McDowell. In 2016, he played a similar role in a successful battle by Labour’s Willie Penrose to save his Dáil seat.

Election guru

Apart from being a peerless election guru, fellow-barrister and former Labour Party minister, Alex White described him as “a true and loyal friend since we were students together in the King’s Inns. Joe’s was a completely unique presence – you usually heard him before you saw him! – deeply intelligent, hilarious, a tad chaotic, such a lovable man, almost of a different time.”

Extraordinarily, he appeared in two “heresy trials” at internal Church of Ireland ecclesiastical tribunals, representing priests who were alleged to be either failing in their duties or to be doing so in a manner inconsistent with its doctrines. Both cases resulted in settlements that ensured respect both for Anglican doctrinal orthodoxy and for the employment rights of the priests concerned.

Recalled by friends as a great character who lit up every room, Joe Revington was above all a family man. He met his wife-to-be, Finola O’Donnell from Derry, in Trinity in 1968 and they married in 1974. They were together as a married couple for almost 47 years. He is also survived by his daughters Melody and Faye, three grandchildren and his brother, Gordon, who writes for Kerry’s Eye.