Cosgrave's diligent, right-hand man


James (Jim) Sanfey who died on April 2nd, aged 77, was a close associate of former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, during a critical period in Irish politics. A friendship, forged when they both served in the Army during the Emergency, developed into a professional relationship when Cosgrave appointed his friend to the post of Fine Gael general secretary in 1967.

Jim Sanfey took over the running of the party, from its then head office in Dublin's Hume Street, two years after Cosgrave succeeded James Dillon as party leader. The two worked closely together for the following decade. It was a time of change, and some turbulence within Fine Gael, which saw the party in the late 1960s, seemingly condemned to indefinite opposition, take power in a coalition deal with Labour in 1973, with Cosgrave as Taoiseach.

Jim Sanfey was born in Dublin in June 1922 and grew up in Curzon Street, off the South Circular Road. He was educated at Synge Street CBS and at the Irish Military College in the Curragh.

His early Army career, which began in 1941, was spent in Athlone, and he later moved to Dublin. He held a number of positions, including commandant in the Supply and Transport Corps. He was captain in the 34th Irish Battalion which served a tour of duty with the United Nations in the Congo in 1961. In 1950, he married Gabrielle (Gay) Robins, a nurse, from Coralstown, Co Westmeath, and they had three sons and a daughter.

When he joined Fine Gael as general secretary, a number of its TDs were effectively part-time. Some were lawyers, who spent the early part of the day in the Four Courts and applied themselves to parliamentary and constituency work in Leinster House in the afternoon. Some TDs did not even live in the constituencies they represented.

Fianna Fail, in power since 1957, had a tightly-knit, professional organisation, and a highly successful by-election director of elections in the then Minister for Local Government, Neil Blaney. Jim Sanfey brought considerable organisational skills to his new job, and, with Cosgrave, secured impressive by-election victories, in Wicklow, in 1968; in Kildare and Longford-Westmeath in 1970; and in Monaghan in 1973. He was Cosgrave's driver during the campaigns.

However, with Labour firmly set against coalition, Fine Gael had no chance of securing office in his first general election as general secretary in 1969. Fianna Fail was returned to power.

Despite internal criticism of Cosgrave's leadership, Jim Sanfey remained a close ally, and Labour's reversal of its anti-coalition policy paved the way for the 1973 Fine Gael-Labour government. Cosgrave appointed him to the Seanad where he was government chief whip. He was also a member of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and the Joint Restaurant Committee. Throughout the period of that government, he was a key aide to Cosgrave, a party trouble-shooter who sorted out organisational and personnel problems. Access to Cosgrave was frequently through the senator and party general secretary.

Jim Sanfey's style was matter-of-fact and sometimes blunt. He is remembered by many, inside and outside the party, as having called a spade a spade.

He was regarded as honourable, hardworking and accessible. Despite limited resources, the books were always balanced at party headquarters. Cosgrave retired as party leader, following his government's defeat in 1977. Jim Sanfey left his post as general secretary and went to work as development director for the Carmelite Order, where he remained until 1993.

He continued his interest in politics up to the time of his death, and he maintained his contact with old Army colleagues through reunions. He was a voracious reader, particularly of military history.

Jim Sanfey is survived by his wife, Gabrielle; daughter, Hilary; sons, David, John and Michael; and a brother and sisters.

James Sanfey: born 1922; died April, 2000