Significant kingmaker in constituency politics

Dermot O’Leary Obituary: Born: September 15th, 1946 – Died: October 15th, 2017


Dermot O’Leary, who has died aged 71, was a highly successful businessman. He was a long-time Fianna Fáil activist and served on the board of CIÉ, from which he was removed as chairman in controversial circumstances in 1995, and of Aer Rianta.

An Irish Times profile (November 30th, 2002) referred to his being described as “a complex, cautious, ambitious, enterprising and loyal figure” and “a dapper dresser who enjoys the proximity to power that directorship of a State board brings”. In the same profile, an acquaintance called him “a courteous and formal individual, if shrewd and streetwise too” who had “the capacity to get to the kernel of an issue very quickly” and was “not known to act on emotion”.

He was heavily involved in Fianna Fáil and held a number of posts including chairman of the South Central constituency executive and a member of the party’s national executive. He was a significant kingmaker in the constituency politics that throws up election candidates.

He grew up on the Howth Road, Raheny, on Dublin city’s north side. His father Thomas, from Mungret, Co Limerick, was the proprietor of a structural-steel erection business, having previously been employed with McLaughlin and Harvey in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. He died aged 42 and his wife Mary Tuohy, whose family came from Adare, Co. Limerick, took over the running of the business. Dermot O’Leary attended St Joseph’s Primary School in Fairview and Marino College, which he left at 15 to work in his mother’s steel business.

In 1967, his mother co-founded Crane Hire Limited with her oldest son Tom and O’Leary acquired a 50 per cent shareholding in the company. From small beginnings, the company grew to be the biggest of its kind in the country, with around 100 employees.

He was appointed to the board of CIÉ in 1989 during Charles Haughey’s last period as taoiseach. Six years later he was removed as chairman of the board by the then Fine Gael minister for transport, energy and communications, Michael Lowry, 10 months into what was to be a five-year term of office. The circumstances of the removal proved controversial, fuelled as they were by unproven allegations from Lowry of a Fianna Fáil “cosy cartel” in the semi-State sector.

O’Leary took a case to the High Court over his sacking – a case that ran for some years. In November 1999, the court rejected his claim of a conspiracy among civil servants to engineer his removal. The case finally ended in early 2004, when O’Leary withdrew his action, saying that he was happy with the outcome of the settlement.

He was appointed to the board of Aer Rianta in 1992 and served for 10 years. There was some controversy associated with this position as well. He apologised to the government in January 2002 for arranging a special passage through Dublin airport for his friend, the former Fianna Fáil politician Liam Lawlor, and his wife Hazel. Acquaintances dismissed the affair as insignificant, resulting from his sense of loyalty to an old friend.

In late November of the same year, he met then taoiseach Bertie Ahern over the so-called “brandy and cigars” affair. This was the allegation that transport minister Séamus Brennan had ordered and received luxury gifts to the sum of £5,000 from Aer Rianta in 1992 and had not paid for them. In November 2002, O’Leary told a Sunday newspaper that he’d been aware of the alleged debt since 1993, when he was acting chairman of the company, that he’d spoken to the individual concerned at the time who had denied knowing about it and that he had asked Aer Rianta to secure the payment in the appropriate way. Brennan was exonerated in subsequent reports.

O’Leary continued as managing director of Crane Hire Ltd until earlier this year, when his nephew Jarlath O’Leary succeeded him. In addition to work and his interest in politics, he was a life-long car lover and very keen golfer.

He is survived by his wife Lóirín, children Tomás, Méabh, Seán, Gráinne and Dara, brother Pádraig, sister-in-law Margaret, nephew and nieces.