Obituary: Peter Mathews

Urbane politician was able, idealistic and uncompromising

Peter Mathews:  August 14th 1951 to  February 27th 2017. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Peter Mathews: August 14th 1951 to February 27th 2017. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Former Fine Gael and Independent TD Peter Mathews, who has died aged 65 years, was an outspoken and controversial politician who had little time for the conformity frequently required for party politics. He was able, idealistic and uncompromising when it came to his core values which he doggedly pursued, even when stricken by serious illness.

When he was first elected to the Dáil for Fine Gael in the then Dublin South five-seat constituency in 2011, he seemed ideal material for a party very much on the way back. The urbane and personally charming candidate, with a financial background, made a strong impression on the south Dublin doorsteps and secured a third seat for the party as the electoral tide went out for Fianna Fáil in a one-time stronghold. But he had not reckoned with the demands on a government backbencher in an FG-Labour coalition with a big majority which followed the election. Silence and brevity name came easy to a restless man with strong and passionate views. He found the demands of supporting policies he sometimes disagreed with stifling and eventually parted ways with the party on what he considered to be a conscience-issue relating to abortion.

He continued on as an Independent until he lost his seat in the last election in the redrawn three-seater, Dublin-Rathdown.

South Dublin

Peter Mathews grew up in south Dublin and attended Gonzaga College and University College Dublin, qualifying as a chartered accountant. He worked for Coopers and Lybrand, now PwC, and ICC Bank, and also as a consultant on banking and finance. He came to public prominence in the aftermath of the economic crash as a financial commentator on current affairs programmes, most notably Tonight with Vincent Browne on TV3.

He was articulate and insightful, despite his endearing, if sometimes somewhat exasperating, tendency to speak at length. He railed against the European Central Bank, opposed the setting up of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) and criticised the greed of banking executives, a theme he continued with after he was elected to Leinster House.

He could be a thorn in the side of some Fine Gael ministers and eventually lost the party whip when he voted against the Government on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, which allowed for abortion in certain circumstances, including a risk of suicide. He later resigned from the party.

He had argued for a free vote, insisting it should be treated as a conscience issue. He would later warn that the rigidity of the political party whip system in Ireland could lead to fascism.

Trail of destruction

He said there had been a “terrible trail of destruction, loss of life and mutilation’’ in countries across Europe because they lacked a constitutional provision allowing free votes on conscience issues.

Mathews was a devout Catholic. In 2012, he told The Irish Times his summer holiday that year, with his wife and brother, would be a few days in Lourdes, which had not visited for 30 years. “It is time for reflection, composure and looking for miracles for the country – and ourselves,’’ he added.

He forged cross-party alliances in Leinster House and sometimes found himself in agreement with left-of-centre colleagues. Nobody doubted his sincerity.

Debt burden

Independent Senator David Norris described him “as a traditional old-style Roman Catholic but not in any narrow sense and personally friendly’’.

When Norris spoke about Ireland’s huge debt burden in the Seanad, in the early days of the financial crash, he was telephoned by Mathews who encouraged him to continue with the line he was taking. He supplied Norris with figures to bolster his argument. “He was a most brilliant economist, as well as a thoroughly decent man,’’ said Norris.

A diagnosis of oesophageal cancer last year, following a routine check-up, did not deter him from contesting the election.

Campaigning between bouts of treatment, he told prospective voters, if re-elected, he would advocate cancelling the €25 billion due in promissory notes, raising enough money to cancel water charges, property taxes and provide billions for housing, health and education.

He continued to visit the Dáil occasionally up to recent times, displaying his unfailing good humour and ready to discuss the issues of the day.

He is survived by his wife, Susan, sons, James, John and David, daughter Maria and mother Clare.