Mervyn Taylor: Quiet man who made a big noise in party politics

Divorce referendum was probably the high point of Labour minister’s political career

Mervyn Taylor with his wife, Marilyn Taylor, after she won the Bisto Book of the Year award 1999/2000 for her children’s book Faraway Home. Photograph: Alan Betson

Mervyn Taylor with his wife, Marilyn Taylor, after she won the Bisto Book of the Year award 1999/2000 for her children’s book Faraway Home. Photograph: Alan Betson

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Mervyn Taylor was a rarity in politics, a quiet man who avoided any hint of flamboyance yet made a substantial impact on the State he served during an important time of social change.

Prominent in the Labour Party from the 1960s until he retired from politics in 1997, he served as minister for equality and law reform between 1992 and 1997, which gave him scope to bring about change he had long sought.

The divorce referendum of 1995 was probably the high point of his political career, since he was responsible for drafting the proposal to remove the constitutional ban that existed against it.

Following the failure of the 1986 bid to change the Constitution, the 1995 referendum was always going to be hotly contested despite opinion poll evidence showing a substantial majority in favour of change.

In the event it was only carried by less than half a percent of voters, but Taylor’s calm presentation of the case was one of the decisive factors at the end of the campaign when it looked to be heading for defeat.

Paying tribute, the then taoiseach John Bruton said Taylor had been a pleasure to work with, and while he was dedicated to his political goals he also had a great ability to get along with colleagues across party lines.

Thorn in the side

While he demonstrated these qualities as a minister, during much of his earlier career Taylor had been a staunch advocate of left-wing policies within the Labour Party, often a thorn in the side of the leadership.

Elected to the Dáil in June 1981, he then strongly opposed coalition with Fine Gael. Later, he was closely associated with a vocal group of left-wing anti-coalition campaigners, including Michael D Higgins.

When Higgins stepped down as Labour Party chairman in 1987, Taylor was elected by the membership to succeed him. While he did not immediately change his views about coalition, his understated style paved the way for a more unified approach under Dick Spring’s leadership.

That led to the Labour surge and the so-called Spring tide in the November 1992 election. Spring appointed Taylor as minister for equality and law reform in the Fianna Fáil-Labour government.

Political crisis

He retained that position after the political crisis of November 1994, when Labour changed coalition partners and formed the rainbow government with Fine Gael and Democratic Left.

Coming from a Jewish background, he strongly supported the state of Israel, though this was not a widely popular position to hold in the Labour Party, where support for the Palestinian cause was the norm.

Having proved to be a successful minister, he caused some surprise when he decided to retire from politics and not contest the 1997 general election. In hindsight it was a wise decision, as Labour suffered a drubbing.

Unlike so many other politicians Taylor knew when it was time to call it a day. In the following years he was an unobtrusive visitor to Leinster House, regularly sitting down for lunch in the staff canteen with former colleagues of all hues.

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