Pioneering former Labour minister Mervyn Taylor dies aged 89

President hails his former cabinet colleague as ‘an icon in the struggle for equality’

 

Former government minister Mervyn Taylor has died at the age of 89.

Mr Taylor became the first person of the Jewish faith to become a cabinet minister when in 1993 he was appointed as the minister for labour in the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition. He was then appointed minister for equality and law reform.

When that government was replaced in 1994 by a three-party Rainbow coalition led by John Bruton, Mr Taylor again served as minister for equality and law reform, steering the divorce referendum to a narrow victory in the 1995 vote.

President Michael D Higgins, a former cabinet colleague of Mr Taylor’s, said he was an “icon in the struggle for equality – I was honoured to share a building with him on Mespil Road.”

Mr Higgins went on to describe Mr Taylor as a man of the “utmost principle, steadfastness, courage and courtesy” who had gifts of patience and an attention to detail.

The President added: “His passing is an immense loss, first and foremost to his family but also to all those who have worked, and continue to work, towards a more inclusive, more equal and fairer society.

“Mervyn Taylor will be remembered by all those who had the privilege of working with him, as a distinguished public servant who served with such dedication, as one of the most gracious, unselfish and kindest members ever to serve in the Dáil.”

Mr Bruton, who was taoiseach in the Rainbow coalition, said Mr Taylor gave “outstanding service” as minister for equality and law reform.

“He was a pleasure to work with as a cabinet colleague. We worked together on the divorce referendum. He was dedicated and committed to his goals but had a great ability to work together across party lines,” he said.

Early years

Mr Taylor was born in December 1931. A solicitor, he was educated at Zion School, Wesley College and Trinity College Dublin.

He joined the Labour Party in the 1970s and served as a councillor on Dublin County Council. He was elected to Dáil Éireann as a Labour Party TD for Dublin South-West at the 1981 general election and held the seat until his retirement from politics in 1997.

He was chairman of the Labour Party from 1987 to 1991 and Labour chief whip from 1981 to 1988.

Former Labour leader Dick Spring said he was “quintessential Labour Party from a very young age”. He was a “hard-working politician, very conscientious and always put the needs of the public at large as his priority. He was a gentleman to his bootstraps.”

He was “very strongly dedicated to seeking equality for people”, Mr Spring added.

“I don’t know of a more hard-working politician than Mervyn 24/7 and he was always putting people at the front of his agenda. He saw the prohibition on divorce as a serious infringement on people’s civil liberties.

“He brought the same forensic ability as a solicitor in terms of bringing Bills through the Dáil and Seanad. He was a very proud member of the Jewish community in Dublin and he worked very hard for them.”

Mr Taylor first became a minister at the age of 61. When appointed as minister for equality and law reform he prioritised women, people with disabilities and Travellers.

In an interview with The Irish Times in 1993, Mr Taylor said his Jewishness gave him empathy with minority groups. “It comes from 2,000 years of history,” he said.

His family were from Eastern Europe and they owned a clothing company in Clanbrassil Street. He adapted the name Taylor as a result.

‘Progressive voice’

Labour Party leader Alan Kelly described him as a “reforming and progressive voice in Irish politics” who changed Ireland for the better.

“He was a principled politician of the left, and throughout his career he left a great mark on our party and country with his distinguished record of service,” Mr Kelly added.

“He took on a huge legislative programme of work during his time as minister for equality and law reform and he also made history as Ireland’s first Jewish cabinet minister. His work focused on tackling inequality and discrimination in Ireland, and his legacy continues to this day.

“On behalf of the Labour Party I extend our condolences to his family and friends. He will be sadly missed but fondly remembered.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar led tributes in the Dáil to Mr Taylor, describing him as a “democratic revolutionary” when he was minister for law reform.

Extending his condolences to Mr Taylor’s friends, family and the Labour Party, the Tánaiste said he had only met Mr Taylor once or twice but he was a “fine man”.

He added that “I’ll never forget the role that he played in the divorce referendum. As a teenager getting interested in politics at the time, I remember that day that the referendum was won by such a small margin and I remember his speech that evening after the count saying that it was done.

“And I think that heralded a lot of changes and social reforms that happened to this country after that. Of course where history would have been very different but for 10,000 or 20,000 votes that might have gone the other way.

“And that shows how much in politics and democracy every vote matters and people like Mervyn Taylor really matter.”

Mr Taylor introduced the Employment Equality Bill and the Equal Status Bill into the legislature during his time in office. Among his legislative achievements were the Interpretation Act, the Maternity Protection Act, the Family Law Acts and the Domestic Violence Act.

Mr Taylor died as a result of cancer, in his home, surrounded by his family.

He was married to Marilyn Taylor, who is the author of numerous books for young people. He is survived by his wife, his children Adam, Gideon and Maryanne and his eight grandchildren.