Popular figure in domestic and European politics

 

Syvester Barrett, who died on May 8th aged 75 was a former Cabinet minister and Member of the European Parliament whose career spanned a turbulent period in the Fianna Fáil party during which Charles Haughey succeeded Jack Lynch as leader. It could be said that his political fortunes suffered as a result.

Sylvester Barrett was born at Darragh outside Ennis on May 18th, 1926, just two days after the founding meeting of Fianna Fáil at the La Scala Theatre in Dublin. His father, Frank, was a staunch party member and was Chairman of Clare County Council when he died at an early age. Sylvester was only four years old at the time and was reared by an uncle and an aunt.

He was educated at Ballyea National School and at St Flannan's College, Ennis. For a while he studied engineering at University College Galway. He also served as a cadet in the Defence Forces for two years. He then worked as a rate collector and an auctioneer. He married Mary Tubridy in 1952. They had four sons.

He was elected to the Dáil in 1968. A year later at the General Election, he topped the poll ahead of his more distinguished running mate, Dr Patrick J. Hillery, then Minister for Labour.

In 1970 he began what was to be a nine-year stint on the Fianna Fáil National Executive. He was also one of 12 members of the Public Accounts Committee appointed to inquire into the spending of £100,000 which had been voted for humanitarian relief in Northern Ireland following the beginning of violence there in August 1969.

When Fianna Fáil went into Opposition in 1973-'77, he served as Front Bench spokesman on Transport and Power. When the party returned to power in 1977, the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, appointed him as the first Minister for the Environment. As such he was responsible for setting up the first structures in an area which had had no separate identity in Government until then.

In the leadership contest which followed the sudden resignation of Jack Lynch at the end of 1979, Sylvester Barrett like most of the Cabinet supported George Colley. He did not lose a seat at the Cabinet table for backing the wrong candidate but he was shifted by Mr Haughey from Environment to Defence which could not have been seen as a promotion.

A clearer sign of being out of favour was to come in March 1982 when Fianna Fáil got back into power after the Fine Gael-Labour coalition was defeated on a Budget vote. This time, the Clare seat at the Cabinet table went to Brendan Daly who was appointed Minister for Fisheries and Forestry. Belatedly, Sylvester Barrett was appointed a Minister of State in the Department of Finance. He grew more disenchanted with Mr Haughey's leadership and was the only junior Minister to be part of the so-called "Gang of 22" who voted in October 1982 in favour of a motion of no confidence in the leader tabled by Charlie McCreevy. This action did not, however, result in his dismissal from Government by Mr Haughey. In the General Election which followed in November, Sylvester Barrett topped the poll in Clare reversing a previous decline.

In Opposition again in 1983, he was spokesman for Defence and made several speeches on military matters, calling for increased spending on the Defence Forces. But his sights were now fixed elsewhere and by 1984 he was to resign his Dáil seat and opt for the European Parliament where he won a Munster seat for Fianna Fáil.

In Strasbourg as part of the European Progressive Democrats group of Fianna Fáil and the Gaullists, he took a special interest in regional policy and development.

When the next European election came along in 1989, he was 63 and decided to stand down and retire from active politics.

In 1990, his name was to return briefly to the headlines in the controversy over telephone calls made to Áras an Uachtaráin on the night the Fine Gael - Labour Coalition was defeated on January 27th 1982. The controversy blew up during the 1990 Presidential election campaign when the Fianna Fáil candidate, Brian Lenihan, denied he had made any calls to try and persuade President Hillery not to dissolve the Dáil but instead call on Charles Haughey to form a new Government. But in an earlier interview with a research student, Jim Duffy, Mr Lenihan, who was then on medication, had said that he as well as Mr Haughey and Sylvester Barrett had made calls to the Áras that night but had been rebuffed.

Sylvester Barrett who was interviewed on RTE's Today Tonight programme following the publication of the Duffy tape of the Lenihan interview confirmed that he had tried twice to speak to President Hillery on the instructions of Mr Haughey but only reached his military aide-de-camp with whom he left a message. But he also asserted that Lenihan had not telephoned the Áras that night.

Sylvester Barrett is survived by his wife, Mary; sons, Frank, Joe, Syl and Tom; brother, Frank; and sisters, Sister Gertrude and Anna.

Sylvester Barrett: born 1926; died, May 2002