So what to say? A giant figure, unique, a master politician. We’ve heard and read a lot of that stuff over the last few days. Much of it is true. I’m not even going to parse out the political implications such as they are for the the left and the Irish political environment. Not today. Not tomorrow.
For myself this has hit me a lot harder than I expected even though I expected it sooner rather than later. Or to put it another way it’s a shock but not a surprise. I’ve known Tony on and off for almost a decade (first met him on a protest in the middle of a road in East Wall) worked with him reasonably closely for half that time. It is hardly a surprise to most of you that I canvassed for him, after all his organisation (something I wouldn’t consider myself a member of, but a sort of detached supporter or supportively detached – mind you at least three other parties have a place in my political affections) was and is an eclectic grouping. Community activists, former OSF members, former CPI, IRSP (1st incarnation – Tony wasn’t much taken with later versions…), Republicans and leftists and some not really leftists at all. And so on.
Personally I owe Tony big time. He did me a good turn years back that – in its outworkings – had profound effects for me. I never quite said that to him, not his style, not mine either, but true nonetheless.
But then, he was a very private person indeed. During his illness, one that first manifested itself – ironically in view of his victory – in the months after the 2007 election, he brought a successful complaint against a newspaper for intrusion. And the illness took him with awful speed. From a fit wiry man in his late 50s he lost weight at an alarming rate (and hair! – something I suspect might have caused him a moments more thought than he’d like to admit). The emaciated figure during Lisbon was a surprise to many who hadn’t seen him in a while. His pleasure at that victory was self-evident and who could blame him? The amazing and awe-inspiring fact was that he was still on the go throughout, was still going into the Dáil until the last month or two, albeit at a reduced rate.
He wasn’t exactly humble, but he wasn’t pushy or egotistical in the way some politicians are (which is not to say he wasn’t egotistical). Someone I know was in the car with him one day asking about Seamus Costello and he turned and said “Listen, if he were alive today I’d still be driving this car but he’d be sitting in the seat you’re in and I’d be driving it for him.” I’m not so sure. Nor did I entirely buy it when he once mentioned that had he lost his first run for his seat he wouldn’t have run again. And he wasn’t entirely without broader ambitions. He briefly contemplated a European Election bid and rumour had it more recently that if he’d been offered the Ceann Comhairle’s position he might have accepted it. Who knows?
There was of course a facet of his personality which was – well, difficult. He wasn’t a team player. No surprise then his organisation has no successor of his stature. He could be brusque beyond rudeness, impatient to the point of alienation.
He could also be infuriatingly cautious. He would never leap forward. And this reflected in his politics. He was much more influenced by a broader left ideology than a specific brand or ideology, and he was determinedly of the left and of that ground between Labour and the further left. His Republicanism and socialism continued to his major guiding influences, but all contained within a steely pragmatism. But that said he had no real interest in broader left lash-ups. That’s not to say he didn’t get on with people, Joe Higgins and he were closer than might have been expected. So was Finian McGrath until he made the cardinal error of trying to do a Gregory Deal redux. There can only be one…
The boundaries of his political world sometimes seemed to be the Liffey, Phoenix Park and the northern fringe of the constituency (more irony, abutting McGrath’s area). I’ve noted before on the CLR that that was hugely problematic from my perspective but for him it as the source of his political strength, the justification for his work.
The Gregory Deal itself has come in for criticism, and some of it is justified. The country at the time was in dire straits. Many other communities equally deserved such funding. Yet Tony’s attitude was that he was elected to support his constituents and his constituency, as simple as that and that where he and his organisation led others could follow. There has also been some, essentially incorrect, talk that none of the Deal was implemented due to the Haughey government folding. I can point out social housing developments around the constituency that were part of the Deal, but more importantly I’d argue was the sense that the national spotlight was brought to bear on one of the most underprivileged and marginalised communities on this island, something that resonated for years afterwards. As importantly, at least to my mind, is that he unflinchingly ensured that that level of deprivation could no longer be ignored, that these problems had a name and therefore had a presence and an immediacy in the broader society. In that there was an educative effect in his continuing presence in the Dáil. And while later years would see mini-me Gregory Deals struck by various independents of varying political stripes, all paled in comparison to the original. Nor was he blind to the problems that were generated within the community and his work on the drugs issue, and personal bravery in facing that down, are well known. Then there was his progressive approach to a range of social issues from divorce to justice campaigns and animal rights. That continued in latter years, despite the political context changing around him.
The practical after-effects of his death have struck me very forcibly today having spoken over the past few days to others who knew and worked with him is the loss this will result in for the community. It is as if a bundle of connections have been sheared as people who depended upon his word, advice, input and even just (or perhaps more accurately often only) rhetorical support find that missing.
It’s true that some of that will be clientalist in nature. How could it be otherwise, outside a pure list system, in a representational system such as we have? People go to TDs because they hope and expect that something can be done about some issue. And as those of us who have worked at the interface between citizen and politician know that the desperation of people unable (or in some cases unwilling) to engage with the broader system due to fear, lack of knowledge or simple inexperience is considerable.
But beyond that is the figure in a community who has a certain degree of influence and weight in various forums from policing, through to funding and grants and on to just holding the ring between competing interests. It’s often a good thing that a phalanx of TDs and councillors turn up at meetings or on campaigns. It may often, if not indeed always, be self-interested to a greater or lesser degree. But for those on the street it provides the knowledge that their struggles are not isolated. It’s even better when some of those have no links to our beloved ruling parties (whoever they may be at whatever particular time). And better again, in some contexts, when the individuals have no axe to grind as regards specific parties.
I’ve noted elsewhere the limitations of the Gregory approach, the near de-ideological nature of a political approach limited to one constituency, the lack of a clear path forward or successors. But there are strengths. The sense that this politician isn’t in thrall to anyone, government or party alike. A certain aura of neutrality. A strange mix of individualism and collectivism.
And all this is not to ignore the fact that Dublin Central has some good representation on the left with or without Tony.
I’m going to miss a lot about him. His thoughts about constituency politics. His utterly cynical view on national politics and indeed the left, not necessarily in that order. The fact that he had a fairly complete selection of Starry Ploughs in his attic from the first year or so of the IRSP that he promised he’d get around to getting down for me but never did. A couple of years back well before his illness I toyed with the idea of collating some of his thoughts and those of the people around him. But I never got as far as suggesting it to him. And how could I? He’d never have gone for it, too much like an epitaph to him. The idea his work would be complete would be ridiculous to him. And it’s true. He was working up to the end… As he might say himself, what the fuck else would you expect him to be doing?
It’s a funny thing, but knowing his horror of any sort of intrusion into his private life when I first wrote this I was leery about mentioning individuals. But seeing as his brother Noel’s name is all over the media, I’ll just say my deepest sympathy to him and to all Tony’s comrades friends and supporters.
This is a slightly modified version of a post at the Cedar Lounge Revolution.
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