Tipperary trade unionist became four-term ceann comhairle

Sean Treacy obituary: Born, September 22nd, 1923 – Died, March 23rd, 2018

Former  German chancellor  Helmut Kohl is welcomed to the Dáil in October 1996 by  ceann comhairle  Sean Treacy. Photograph:  Joe St Leger

Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl is welcomed to the Dáil in October 1996 by ceann comhairle Sean Treacy. Photograph: Joe St Leger

 

Sean Treacy who served four terms as ceann comhairle of Dáil Éireann between 1973 and 1997, had a long political career serving the people of South Tipperary, first as a Labour TD and then as an Independent.

A native of Clonmel, he started work in a local shoe factory, and soon became an active trade unionist, becoming a member of the executive council of the Irish Shoe and Leather Workers Union.

He was elected to the Tipperary South Riding County Council in 1955 representing the Clonmel borough, and he was twice mayor of the town between 1957 and 1962.

A firebrand republican in those years, he spoke in favour of a motion before the council in 1957 urging the government to back the IRA Border campaign and “to give republicans fighting the common enemy the full support of our Army and police force”.

He ran for the Dáil as a Labour candidate in 1957, and narrowly failed to get elected. However, he topped the poll in the 1961 general election, and remained a TD for the following 36 years.

His one-time colleague Barry Desmond recalled that when he first met Treacy in 1961 he believed the Tipperary man had the potential to become leader of the Labour Party. “He was a forceful, articulate platform speaker in an era when mass meetings were all important.” Rural TDs

Treacy came close to losing his seat in 1969, when Labour campaigned on the slogan “The 70s will be Socialist”, but he managed to hold on as some of the party’s other rural TDs lost their seats.

He was out of sympathy with some of the party’s new TDs, particularly Conor Cruise O’Brien who steered Labour into taking a strong line in opposition to the campaign of violence unleashed by the Provisional IRA.

Treacy and Limerick TD Stevie Coughlan held resolutely to their republican views in the early 1970s, and there were some ferocious rows in the parliamentary party when the leader Brendan Corish endorsed the line being taken by O’Brien and TDs like Barry Desmond and Michael O’Leary.

It came as something of a surprise when Corish nominated Treacy as the party’s choice for the position of ceann comhairle on the formation of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition in 1973 when incoming taoiseach Liam Cosgrave indicated that a Labour nominee could have the post.

He relished the position and quickly stamped his authority on the Dáil, his sonorous tones ideally suited to the ceann comhairle’s office, although in later years critics accused him of undue pomposity. Consolation prize

He was not offered a post when Labour returned to government with Fine Gael in 1981, but was given the consolation prize of a seat in the European Parliament when Eileen Desmond vacated hers to become minister for social welfare.

Treacy gradually fell out of sympathy with Labour, particularly on social issues. He supported the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution on abortion, unlike most of his party colleagues, who backed party leader Dick Spring’s opposition to the measure.

The final breach with Labour came in 1985 when he lost the party whip after voting against Barry Desmond’s Bill which made contraception widely available for the first time. “I cannot be expected to legislate for promiscuity or immorality,” he said in an RTÉ interview.

Two years later, when Fianna Fáil failed to win an overall majority in the 1987 general election, Charles Haughey invited Treacy, now an Independent, to be the party’s nominee for the position of ceann comhairle.

He was duly elected to the position with the support of Fianna Fáil. Presiding over the vote for taoiseach he caused some surprise by calling on Fianna Fáil, as the biggest party, to nominate its candidate first rather than allowing Fine Gael to nominate outgoing taoiseach Garret FitzGerald. High drama

There was high drama as the vote was tied 82 for and 82 against Haughey’s nomination. Treacy then gave his casting vote in favour of Haughey, who became taoiseach for the third time.

Treacy was automatically returned in the 1989 general election, but was back in the ceann comhairle’s chair again due to the tight numbers, and was voted into the office for the fourth time after the 1992 general election, although Fianna Fail and Labour had a whopping majority. He served the full term of that Dáil despite the change government from Fianna Fáil to Fine Gael half way through.

During his terms as ceann comhairle he led delegations on visits to foreign parliaments, and it was an aspect of the job that he clearly enjoyed.

He did not let his name go forward for the 1997 general election even though he would have been returned automatically. Winding up the 27th Dáil on May 15th, 1997, Treacy brought his political career to a close, saying simply: “I bid you all a fond farewell, slán agus beannacht de gach éinne.”

His wife Catherine (Kitty) predeceased him.