The Top 5 Greatest Irish Politicians

Leinster House - Photo Credit jmartyk
Leinster House - Photo Credit jmartyk

In an era where people are becoming increasingly disconsolate with our current politicians, I thought it would be interesting to delve into the archives and see if there are 5 politicians who stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of their legacy and contribution to Irish society. Here is the Author’s pick listed in order of preference from 1 to 5.

1. Sean Lemass

Taoiseach Sean Lemass taking a tour of the Wavin Pipe manufacturing facility in Ballbriggan in 1962

In the late 1950s, the Ireland was in a state of economic crisis as the country suffered from high unemployment and soaring emigration. The ideals of De Valera’s Ireland had become stagnant and a new vision for Ireland’s future was needed. In June 1959, Sean Lemass became Taoiseach and steered Ireland out of the depression of the 1950s, and into the modern age of the 1960s, a decade that saw the Republic of Ireland experience huge economic development and great social change.

Born in Dublin in 1899, Lemass was a veteran of the Easter Rising in 1916. He fought in the War of Independence and was imprisoned in County Down for a year. He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and fought against the Michael Collins Free State in the subsequent Civil War. He was among the rebels who occupied the Four Courts which were famously bombed by the Free State forces. He was again interned in Mountjoy and the Curragh.

He was first elected to the Dail in 1924 as member of Sinn Fein and was re-elected from his Dublin South constituency at every election that followed, up until his retirement in 1969. With DeValera he was a founder member of the new Fianna Fail party in 1926. He served as Minister for Commerce, Minister for Supplies and finally as Tanaiste (Deputy-Taoiseach) before being elected leader in 1959. His dealings in economic matters on behalf of the State were to serve him well.

Lemass along with the assistance of the Secretary of the Department of Finance, T.K. Whitaker produced the “Programme for Economic Development” in 1958

The Programme was in effect a five-year plan. It proposed increased state investment in certain selected areas of the economy to improve productivity and exports. Lemass gave it his full backing though the implementation was in the hands of his Minister for Finance.

By 1960, the economy had begun to improve, the balance of payments was better, unemployment declined and emigration eased and the Irish economy had turned the corner and moved away from the protectionist economic policies of the previous decades.

2.Tony Gregory

The late Tony Gregory TD for North Dublin

A secondary-school history teacher from the North Strand area of the capital, he was elected as an Independent city councillor in 1979. He won a Dáil seat in February 1982 and secured the famous multi-million-pound ‘Gregory Deal’ in return for his support for the minority Fianna Fáil government of Charlie Haughey. The deal secured a pledge from Haughey for jobs, housing, schools and resources for his north inner city constituency that had been blighted by social and economic decline and exacerbated by the collapse of Dublin Docks and the rise of drugs.

Gregory didn’t normally wear a tie and said most of his constituents couldn’t afford one.
He opposed the Section 31 state broadcasting censorship of republicans in the 1980s and was a constant campaigner against miscarriages of justice such as the jailings of Nicky Kelly, the Guildford Four/Maguire Seven and the Birmingham Six.Since 1982, Tony Gregory was re-elected at each subsequent general election and his illness did not prevent him from actively campaigning against the Lisbon Treaty in the past year or carrying out  his unrelenting Dáil and constituency work.

Current Dublin Lord Mayor Christy Burke in paying tribute to Tony Gregory following his passing in January 2009 after a long battle with cancer. “It’s the people’s loss. There will never be another Tony Gregory.” Gregory was a true champion for the inner city people of Dublin whom represented for 26 years.

3. Shane Ross

Shane Ross speaking on You Tube

ShaneRoss was educated at St Stephen’s School, Dundrum; Rugby School; Trinity College Dublin, and the University of Geneva. At Trinity he studied History and Politics, and edited Miscellany magazine.

Ross was first elected as an Independent Senator for Trinity College Dublin in 1981, and was subsequently re-elected nine times. During his time in the Senate, he was a regular contributor to debate and raised many notable issues, such as, the economy; broadband; Eircom; transport issues (particularly relating to the M50 chaos); childcare and education as well as waste in the public sector.

Today, Shane Ross is a weekly columnist and former Business Editor of the Sunday Independent, Ireland’s biggest selling broadsheet. He won Journalist of the Year Award 2009 for his investigation, with Nick Webb, into waste and extravagance at the state agency FAS. A qualified stockbroker, Shane was executive chairman of Dillon and Waldron stockbrokers, and Irish Times stock exchange correspondent for 8 years. He is director or chairman of several investment funds including the Barings New Russia and SVM Global funds.

Ross is also a best-selling author. His 2009 bestseller, ‘The Bankers: How the Banks Brought Ireland to its Knees, lifted the veil from those whose reckless lending to property developers brought Ireland from boom to bust. In 2010, along with Nick Webb, he co-authored another bestseller, ‘Wasters, an examination of the scandal of public sector waste and extravagance at the taxpayers’ expense.In 2012, along with Nick Webb, Shane co-authored another bestseller, ‘The Untouchables’. Ross and Webb investigate the workings of lobbyists; judicial appointments; law firms and much more in a shocking indictment of modern Ireland.

In the 2011 General Election, Shane Ross was elected as an Independent TD for Dublin South. He topped the poll with a total of 17,075 first preference votes.

4. Jackie Healy-Rae

Jackie Healy Rae’s acceptance speech in Kenmare Co.Kerry

If  “all politics is local” in Ireland, then, Jackie Healy Rae is Ireland’s undisputed king of local politics and a legend in his native South Kerry constituency. Jackie Healy-Rae was first co-opted to Kerry County Council in 1973, filling the seat left vacant by the death of Cllr Michael Doherty. The following year he was elected to Kerry County Council.He served as Cathaoirleach of the council between 1980 and 1981 and again between 1995 and 1996. Mr Healy-Rae served on the council until the abolition of the dual mandate saw Danny Healy-Rae replace him on Kerry County Council in 2003.He was elected to Dáil Éireann in 1997 and served the Kerry South constituency until 2011, when he stood down before the 2011 general election, with his son Michael taking a seat in the constituency. Although a strong Fianna Fail supporter he categorised himself as being independent Fianna Fail.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in paying tribute to Jackie Healy-Rae said that “when you went to secure his support in the Dail when  trying to put a coalition together, he would arrive with a list of demands as long as your arm for his South Kerry constituency and most of the time I would cave into his commands”. Healy-Rae was a real champion of the South Kerry people in the Dail.

5. Michael D. Higgins

President  Michael D Higgins addressing the European Parliament

Current President Of Ireland Michael D. Higgins  has been political voice, poet and writer, academic, human rights advocate and politician since the 1960’s, Michael D. Higgins was Ireland’s first Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht.

Michael D. Higgins was born on 18 April 1941 in Limerick city and was raised in County Clare. He was a factory worker and a clerk before becoming the first in his family to access higher education. He studied at the University College Galway, the University of Manchester and Indiana University. As a lecturer in political science and sociology in National University of Ireland, Galway, and in the United States, Michael D. Higgins was a passionate campaigner for the extension of access to third level education. He was centrally involved in the development of extra-mural studies at National University of Ireland, Galway, and he travelled extensively across the West of Ireland to provide accessible evening classes for interested citizens.

A desire to campaign for equality and justice led Michael D. Higgins to enter public life and he went on to serve as a public representative at many levels including County Councillor for 9 years,Mayor of Galway for 2 years,  as well as in the Seanad and as a TD for 25 years in Dáil Éireann.

As Ireland’s first Minister for the Arts in 1993-97, Michael D. Higgins’ achievements included the reinvigoration of the Irish film industry, the establishment of Teilifís na Gaeilge, now TG4, and the repeal of censorship under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Acts. He also established a rich network of local arts and cultural venues which brought a crucial access to citizens across Ireland to these facilities.  He also played a pivotal role  in the movement for  the revitalisation of Ireland’s canal network, resulting in over 1,000 kilometres of navigable waterways.

President Higgins is a champion for human rights and for the promotion of peace and democracy in Ireland and in many other parts of the world, from Nicaragua and Chile to Cambodia, Iraq and Somalia. In 1992, Michael D. Higgins was the first recipient of the Seán MacBride Peace Prize from the International Peace Bureau in Helsinki, in recognition of his work for peace and justice in many parts of the world.

President Michael D. Higgins is also a prominent writer and poet and advocate of the Irish Language, contributing to many books covering diverse aspects of Irish politics, sociology, history and and culture.

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