- 25 May 16
She entered politics, working with Tony Gregory, as far back as 1979. But it was only when the Dublin socialist TD died that she ran for the Dáil, successfully holding his seat. Recently re-elected, she looks back at her relationship with the man she describes as a “Casanova”. And she talks about some of the biggest issues of the day.
I first met Maureen O’Sullivan back in 2009, shortly after she was elected to the Dáil. She had just won the by-election victory caused by the untimely death of Tony Gregory who, at the age of 61, had lost his battle with cancer earlier that same year.
Tony had secured a place in the annals of Irish political history as one of the most influential independent TDs in the history of our state. He was elected to the Dáil in February 1982 and – in what became known as the ‘Gregory Deal’ – negotiated a major capital investment in his constituency in return for agreeing to nominate Charlie Haughey as Taoiseach.
Gregory campaigned vigorously on his constituents’ behalf, as well as on national issues. He was the first TD to refuse to sport a tie in the Dáil – which at the time was seen as being just as radical as turning up in a pink T-shirt – and he had little time for pomp or ceremony. But he cared deeply about the ordinary working-class people he represented.
Since 1979, Maureen had been a member of the tightly-knit group of Tony’s supporters, known as the ‘Gregory Group’ – she went on to canvass for him in a total of 14 elections. It was apt, therefore, that his political torch was passed on to her, as she held onto his Dáil seat for the Dublin Central constituency.
During my first chat with Maureen, we discussed an interview I had conducted with Tony shortly before his death, which we published posthumously in Hot Press. She expressed surprise at how much Tony – she describes him as a ‘very private person’ – had revealed during what was a poignant interview: deep down, he knew it would be his last opportunity to set the record straight.
Tony was nostalgic during the interview, and told me that he had his heart broken at UCD. Coincidentally, Maureen had also attended UCD. As an icebreaker – and putting two and two together and coming up with five – I asked if Tony might, in fact, have been referring to her? Laughing, she told me, “Excuse me! He was a few years older. No, that’s somebody else.”
But I wasn’t far off the mark. They may not have attended UCD at the same time, but their paths did cross in 1979 and they were practically inseparable until his death…
How did you get involved in politics?
I was involved with the youth club in East Wall. In the late ‘70s, one of the guys had a connection up in Cavan, in a place outside Ballyjamesduff, and a property was offered to one of the youth clubs and he felt it was too big for one club to take on-board.
So he invited a number of us to get involved – including Belvedere Football Club, Belvedere Youth Club and others who were working with young people in the inner city. I was involved in that. It’s now known as the Cavan Centre. And very shortly afterwards, Tony Gregory got involved because he was doing community work up in the Ballybough area. I was secretary for most of the time. Tony was chairperson up to the time he died. So, that was the first introduction to Tony.
This was before Tony stood for election?
In ’79, he decided to stand in the local election and asked would I support him. So, that was the first election of 14 (election campaigns) that I was with him on.
So, your involvement in politics was because of Tony?
It was. I had absolutely no political ambitions. I was very happy as a teacher and doing the voluntary work that I was involved in.
It sounds like you had a very close bond with Tony.
It was a strong bound. We were good friends. Most women who met him fell in love with him and I was the same, but it was a very short while. We grew out of that because we were friends for the rest of the time.
Did you hope at one stage that it might have turned out to be a very serious type of relationship?
I suppose I was at the age where, if I was going to get married, it would have been then. And actually people thought we would get married. Both of us were teachers, we were both involved in all this community and voluntary work. We did so much together. But I suppose nether of us was for marrying.
You never got married yourself?
No, no – and it wasn’t because he wouldn’t marry me! I mean, at one stage he did ask me to marry him, but I knew he wasn’t serious. He said, ‘What do you think about marrying me?’ or something. ‘We could always get married?’ And I just laughed. ‘You’re not serious!’ And I was probably right.
Was Tony too much of a Casanova?
Yeah, he was a Casanova! Anybody who knew him knew that. He was a vey handsome man. Women loved him. There were women in his life, particularly when he was younger.
How long were you and Tony together as a couple?
That’s hard to know. Ah, probably a few months. It fizzled out. It was up and down for a bit. But then after that there were… (pauses) I mean, I still met him, we still went out and we still went for dinner together and we would be up in the Cavan Centre together. So, we had a lot of contact.
When did you know it wasn’t going to work as a relationship?
Oh, probably after a few years, because we were still – I suppose I don’t want to say that because he was a Casanova and he was always with somebody or other. So, I just kind of left that. I accepted it at one stage. ‘Right, that’s it – he’s not going to change!’ but I couldn’t put a time limit on it.
The Casanova thing must have driven you up the wall?
Yeah, yeah. There were women in his life, particularly when he was younger. There’s a massive amount of years in between – time heals so much and it doesn’t bother you anymore.
But at the time it obviously hurt?
Yeah, at the time you would be saying, ‘What’s he at?’ But that was him, which I learnt afterwards.
After the initial stages of breaking-up, was it hard to keep the friendship going?
No, it wasn’t. The friendship was very strong and it probably got stronger as we got older. We had put all that behind. We had a few rows, disagreements (laughs), but we were very close. Good friends. I suppose the measure of the trust was that when he got ill, I was the first person he rang. I met up with him that night when he got the bad news and then he trusted me to organise his funeral.
I’d imagine it was a very difficult conversation after he got the bad news.
We had known from the election in ’07 that he wasn’t well. Tony always loved going out for meals and it was really strange because you’d be out for a meal with him and suddenly after a starter he wouldn’t be able to eat anymore – and that was most unlike him because he loved his food. So, that really was the start of it. And he was losing weight – even though he was very thin anyway, but he started to lose more weight. And he was going to his doctor, getting tests, etc. etc. And it was later in 2007 that he finally got a hospital appointment, and then he got the bad news. I’m the eternal optimist – I was trying to say, ‘Look, there are things that can happen’. But I think he knew at that stage that his time was limited.
Was it a tearful time?
Do you know something? I didn’t cry until after he died.
He wouldn’t have appreciated tears. I think other people he was close with were extremely upset – so somebody had to be not as upset. He was very, very brave himself through that whole process. He kept up with everything right up until the end and he continued to go to the Cavan board meetings as long as he could.
Can I ask what was your last conversation with him was like?
It was very difficult. It was the morning he died because Annette Dolan (Tony’s long-term partner) had rung me and asked would I get a few things for her on my way, and come in and let her go and have her breakfast or whatever. I just sat with him. His head was down in the chair. I think I held his hand for a little bit, but he just had no energy to talk or anything. It was literally sitting there with him and probably telling him a few things that were going on. I left the hospice to go to a funeral and I only arrived at the other funeral when I got word that he had passed away.
Was that when the emotion kicked in?
No, no, no, because we had the funeral to organise and Tony wouldn’t appreciate tears at that stage – he’d want business as usual. “Get on with the job that I’ve given you do to.” He had changed the arrangements for his funeral. The first one was it was straight to the grave – from the house to the grave. No religious aspect. And then he revised that, because he had so much respect for the older women who had supported him through everything – and he knew they would like him to go to the church. People were surprised that that happened – but that was his wish.
You gave a very stirring eulogy.
Yes. I worked with Tony on that – certain things that he wanted said and we worked through all of that. He was very definite as to who were to do the readings, the singing, the carrying of the coffin, all of that. One thing I kind of let him down on, he wanted to hear what I wanted to say about him after he died and I just couldn’t do that because as long as I didn’t do it, you know, he was still alive – whereas if I had written out that eulogy and had said it to him it would have been acknowledging that. I wanted to believe that something would happen, that he wouldn’t pass away the way he did.
You came in for some criticism for your eulogy.
The one bit that got criticism was I had said – and this was the bit that he knew because we did go through some of it before he passed away – that his funeral wasn’t a photo opportunity. And there were other bits – he had been denied chances to be the Lord Mayor of Dublin, for example. And in his illness he had tried to come in here (to the Dáil) to speak on an issue and he didn’t get time. As it turned out, when I got in here afterwards, the person involved came up to apologise and said, ‘If I had realised Tony was so ill I would’ve given him time’. But for heaven’s sake! You have eyes in your head! You would’ve seen that he was ill.
Did he ask you to run for his Dáil seat when he was dying?
No. What he said was, ‘Whoever stood had to do it on their on merit’. He would be saying (to me), ‘Why aren’t you standing?’ I do believe he would have been happy that I did. It’s funny, when he passed away, for me, that was it – because nobody could replace him. I thought, ‘It’s over. That’s the end of the political campaigning for all of us’.
So what changed?
When we got together sometime after he died, the feeling was that we should defend the seat for him. I suppose I just drew the short straw. I was one of the people who was around from the very beginning, like Fergus (McCabe) and with Mick (Rafferty), so there was that longevity there – and the fact that I had been on the Council. I’d done that bit. We really enjoyed the campaign. Because Bertie Ahern had got 12,500 first preferences in the previous election, and Tony got 4,000-something, I felt if Maurice Ahern got at least half he would take the seat. So, I was convinced that I would be back teaching that September.
Speaking of Bertie Ahern, there was no love lost between him and Tony?
Shortly before he died, Tony told me that Bertie was ‘pissed off’ about the fact that he had managed to put together the ‘Gregory Deal’, which resulted in millions being pumped into the rejuvenation of the north-inner city.
I think so. I suppose Tony was doing the things for people that nobody else was doing. He was following up on the housing issues, on the addiction, on the lack of services. Now, of course, today – because of Tony – everybody is, but nobody was in the beginning. In fairness, Bertie did ring him when he was ill. He asked if he could call and see him and Tony didn’t want to see people – he only wanted to see the people who were close to him.
Tony’s brother Noel somewhat bizarrely decided to support a different candidate, former Lord Mayor Christy Burke rather than you. Did you have an argument with him?
No, Tony Gregory’s brother decided to go on a different road and that upset and disappointed the rest of us who were involved with Tony, particularly Fergus McCabe, myself and people who were involved right from the very beginning. We didn’t have an argument. He just decided that he was supporting Christy Burke in the general election – and the first we knew about it was in the paper.
Did it feel like being stabbed in the back?
Noel had been part of everything and so we just felt let down by this. I felt very hurt. So did other people in the (Gregory) group. He was making this point that Christy and Tony were great friends. Christy and Tony were rivals. Christy was a member of Sinn Féin and Tony would’ve had great difficulties with Sinn Féin. And Tony followed the independent line all of his life.
You were part of the large group of independent TDs who held exploratory talks with Enda Kenny about supporting a Fine Gael minority government.
They were all very general discussions. The main thing for me being there was that because it was so rural dominated – and I’m not objecting to that – there was nothing about urban disadvantage.
Were you offered any incentives to support Kenny?
At that stage there was nothing like that, so I was a bit bemused to see last Sunday’s paper about this €13 billion that independents were going to cost. I don’t know what went on privately.
I understand you weren’t at any of the talks Fine Gael held with the independent TDs last week just prior to Kenny being elected again as Taoiseach?
No, I was not involved in talks. I think Fine Gael are concentrating on the two groupings so I don’t envisage them coming back to me unless they’re short.
This interview is taking place a few days prior to the Dáil vote to re-elect Kenny as Taoiseach. I’m getting the sense that you’d find it difficult to offer Kenny your support?
I won’t be voting for Enda Kenny – I intend abstaining. It’ll be very difficult to support Kenny and Fine Gael because I saw the devastating effect of their economic policies. And while we all accept that hard decisions had to be made, they hit people disproportionately and I saw that particularly with the community projects, the youth projects, the drugs projects – some of the were hit up to 38 per cent. And then bringing in those water taxes, that was just incredible.
Do you think he’s out of touch?
I always felt that the Dáil was bit of an ivory tower and when you’re in here you’re very much protected from outside. But, look, I’m just across the bridge from home. I know when I cross that bridge in the evening that I’m back in the real world. So, it will be difficult to support him, but I want to see a government – if I have to do it, I may reluctantly, you know?
Do you think Fianna Fáil were serious about trying to form a government?
I met Micheál Martin himself and then I had a call to go to the meeting. I couldn’t go that afternoon, and they didn’t come back to me after that. That made me think they weren’t serious. And if they had been serious they wouldn’t have put Sean Ó Fearghaíl forward for Ceann Comhairle.
And they certainly don’t want to work with Fine Gael?
No, and it’s probably good that we have a stronger opposition. The point I keep making is that we have to accept that we were elected to this Dáil, not the next one.
How long will this government last?
Being the eternal optimist, I think it will last until 2018 at least.
One of the big issues will surely have to be tackling the Eight Amendment. What’s your stance on abortion?
I’m in favour of terminations when in the cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, or rape, incest, drunken – or drug-fuelled – one-night stands. I have difficulty over saying repeal the Eight Amendment because I’d like to see time limits. It just doesn’t sit easy with me that somebody can have a termination at six/seven months into a pregnancy – that’s why I haven’t come out and said: repeal.
I can’t understand why we can’t deal with important issues quicker.
I know! You know the saying, when you grasp the nettle it doesn’t sting! There is a need for reform. It is wrong that those who have the means to do so can travel from Ireland for a termination and those who don’t have the means can’t. There has to be a change. There should be safe terminations here for people who need them and, of course, at any stage if there’s a danger to the life of the mother. I was on the Constitution Convention and it’s a pity we didn’t have that as one of our topics.
What’s your thoughts on legalising prostitution?
This is a dilemma for me because I have friends who work in Ruhama. So, I know about trafficking and women/girls being forced into prostitution. And I know about – because I was on the Foreign Affairs Committee and involved in things like that – of the number of young girls who are taken from their homes and forced into prostitution. So, I am totally against that. I totally abhor the idea of selling your body, but people would say that sex always has a price!
And your thoughts on the so-called Swedish model that makes it a criminal offence to purchase sex, which was introduced last year in Northern Ireland?
I’m not too sure if the legislation that was due to come in is going to tackle the traffickers and people in that situation. I met sex workers and I’m looking at the situation from their perspective and I don’t think we’re getting the full story from the Swedish model. I think we’re only hearing one side of it. I haven’t done a U-turn, but I’m looking at other aspects of it. My fear is that the legislation could drive it further underground and make it more difficult. The concern I have is that there is evidence that criminalisation increases sex workers’ isolation, their exposure to violence – and has effects on their relationships with, and access to, both the police and support services.
Did you ever try marijuana?
I didn’t. I never smoked.
What’s your stance on legalising drugs?
Obviously this area is something that I’ve been heavily involved in. When I was teaching, I chaired the North Inner City Drugs Task Force. I’m back on it now, chairing prevention and education – and we run a number of youth conventions to listen to young people’s views on it. I think we do need to decriminalise those small amounts for personal use, because you shouldn’t have a criminal record if you have a few joints or whatever. We have to open the debate on decriminalisation. I know there are people working in the area, like Peter McVerry, who would be very pro-decriminalisation. I would love to get the debate open on decriminalisation, which doesn’t mean it’s going to happen – but at least let’s talk about it.
You’re saying a few joints, but shouldn’t decrimalisation also include Class-A drugs like cocaine and heroin?
Yeah, let’s open the debate. I’m not saying I’m in favour of it, but I’m saying we should open the debate, that’s all. I’ll tell you, the big problem at the moment in the inner city are tablets. Z-Drugs – Zaplacone and Zimovane. (Note – these so-called Z drugs are nonbenzodiazepine drugs with effects similar to benzodiazepines – JOT.) They are causing absolute havoc and because the legislation is not catching up with them, the guards hands are tied. Now, the Garda are doing a lot; they’ve got a few cases coming. What’s happening now is people on heroin are using the tablets – so the polydrug use has increased considerably. So, we know that our drug policies are not working. We’re not doing enough on the prevention and education.
What about supervised injection rooms for heroin users?
Before my TD role, I chaired North Inner City Task Force, so I know all the projects including Ana Liffey (Drug Project), which was actually set up years ago by a good friend Frank Brady, a Jesuit priest. I brought the guys in to the Dáil from Ana Liffey on the medically supervised injecting rooms. They asked to come in. We were looking at the Australian model and it’s difficult looking at somebody injecting in these rooms – but it’s in a safe environment, there’s medical help there. My worry/query, which I put to with Tony Duffin (director of Ana Liffey), is some of our injectors have chaotic lives and whether they can wait to get to an injecting room is, you know, there is a little gap there, I feel. The ones we were looking at in that Australian model were much older heroin users.
But would you be in favour of them?
If medically supervised and well managed I’d support it as a harm-reduction strategy, but would always hope not to lose sight of recovery and having the means for that.
Staying on the theme of drugs, Christy Kinahan – regarded as the biggest supplier of drugs into Ireland from his base in Spain – is involved in a terrifyingly tit-for-tat murder spree with Gerry Hutch, aka The Monk, who is from Tony Gregory’s constituency. Was Tony friends with Hutch?
No, not at all. They’re a family in the inner city and Tony would have known them. He would’ve known quite a number of others who ended up in the criminal fraternity. As I do too. So, that’s all, the Hutch family are an inner-city family.
What’s you take on all this violence?
It’s dreadful. I mean, again just at the meeting this morning (with the Garda), to date other people – and it’s not condoning their murders – but they have been part of that family, but whereas the man who was shot last month, Martin O’Rourke, was an innocent bystander. Now, I know he was down to buy drugs, but he was caught up in it and it’s horrific.
Do you feel it’s going to escalate?
Well, that’s the fear in the communities. People are afraid that they can just be standing, minding their own business, or going about their business – and could be an innocent victim.
You could argue the point that some media outlets have also escalated the problem with their coverage?
They have – and sometimes they don’t get the reports right and that makes things worse again.
What can be done to resolve this bloody feud?
It’s a strange one because I would believe in mediation. But it appears that Gerry Hutch had tried to do that with the Kinahan family and they weren’t for accepting this. But unless something does happen, along those lines, it is going to continue. There is a need for somebody to make the first move, but then do they understand words like conciliation and reconciliation?
As a former teacher, what needs to be done about the Catholic Church’s involvement in the education system?
I taught in a school with the Catholic ethos and I would have to say we were the most inclusive school. I also chaired the management of a primary school, exactly the same. We don’t discriminate. We don’t look for baptismal certificates. I would’ve been very free to discuss whatever with my classes – whether it was sex education or whatever. So, it wasn’t a brainwashing. So, I’m coming from seeing that. Now, my preference would be no religious ethos in schools – and that means Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim. No private schools. I think it should be a completely equal system in education. But we have to take into account what parents want – and there are parents who want Jewish, Muslim faith, Protestant ethos, Catholic ethos, fee paying – that’s the reality. But where there is an indication for non-religious ethos that has to be respected.
Looking forward, are you going to run in the next election?
I’m only after getting in this term (laughs), as I keep saying. I’m just living in the moment. Look, I’ve been blessed with very good health and I don’t take anything for granted, so at the moment I’m here, I’m going to do the work – and depending when the election comes, I’ll decide. I mean, if it’s five more years I’ll be 70! I’m 65 since March. And I do think that everybody should have a sell-by date. I was on Vincent Browne last month and we were just chatting afterwards and he came up with the idea after being here a number of years people should have a break from the place and then come back after, kind of like a sabbatical. But it’s a difficult world in here, isn’t it?
You must be very proud that you’ve managed to hold onto the seat for so long?
Yes, I am. It’s three elections now. I often think about Tony and how he would be. When I got in after he died, first of all it was like a culture shock. I think I was in shock for that year. And we had no speaking rights or anything. But in the last Dáil when we had the technical group, so many times I thought of him and how much he would’ve relished that, because he was the whip of the other technical group, the first time that there was one. And it was one thing he wanted me to say at the mass, which I did, that he was very proud of that because it showed how people from diverse backgrounds and diverse views could work together – because in that (technical group) Sinn Féin were there, the Green party were there, and a range of independents. And I thought about him a lot in the last Dáil. He probably would’ve been the whip. He would’ve been the oldest, longest serving TD there.
Do you think if Tony could see you now in the Dáil that he’d be very proud?
I think he would say, ‘You’re doing OK.’
I think so because I wouldn’t be… (pause) I’m not him. I think he was an exception and I think people recognise that. He had so much integrity and so much concern for people, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly. I would be a much easier person to talk to and I would give people more time. Tony would cut to the quick and he could be very abrupt with people, but there’s absolutely no doubting his integrity and commitment. I suppose I’d be much more caring, compassionate and I’d have more time and sympathy and empathy for people then he would. And I do know – and I believe in an after world – that I can look him in the eye and I can say, ‘I’ve done my best’. And whether that’s good enough or not, it’ll be irrelevant at that stage!