Jack and Jill boss to climb a political hill

Charity founder Jonathan Irwin will run in the next election because he thinks the Irish are ready to vote for an Etonian seeking change, says Arlene Harris

Jack and Jill boss to climb a political hill

WITH the local, European and bye-elections showing the wind blowing in favour of non-party candidates, the man who was the voice of vulnerable families during the medical-card fiasco wants to be at the centre of this sea change in Irish politics.

Jonathan Irwin is a founder of the Jack and Jill Foundation, a former CEO of Goffs, and a former big gun at the Dublin International Sports Council. In the next general election, he wants to run as an independent candidate in the three-seat Kildare-South constituency.

The 72-year-old has long campaigned ardently for greater recognition for carers, but assumed his cut-glass English accent would undermine any political ambitions in this country. Not any longer. He can sense a desire for change, as “everybody is so fed up with the old party system” that “there is a lot of room for independents”.

Jonathan’s life that hasn’t been without many set-backs, notably the death of his baby son, Jack, in 1997. He also recently survived rectal cancer, after his wife (Senator Mary Ann O’Brien, who created Lily O’Brien’s chocolates) persuaded him to go to the doctor for an examination. The cancer has been eradicated, but he has been left with a ‘dead leg’.

But despite, or because of, all this drama, Jonathan has just published a book about his life and has announced his decision to run for office in the next election. “There is a lot wrong with the health system in this country and, although I am 72, I feel that if I can get together with a few other untarnished people to try and make a difference, I would like to give it a shot,” says Jonathan, who was educated at Eton.

“When Jack was diagnosed with a terminal illness, Mary Ann and I were told (by a consultant) that the best advice would be to abandon him at the hospital, as it was the only way we would get any assistance. We were utterly appalled and naturally took our baby home with us and cared for him until he died.

“But it was extremely difficult, and only for the help of friends and neighbours, who took it in turn to come and give us respite, we may never have got through. So we vowed that no other family in Ireland would ever have to endure what we did, and while our charity does help thousands (and has raised €55m to date), the HSE should be doing something to help — we are the only country in Europe without paediatric home care.”

Well-spoken and vivacious, the father-of-nine, who lives in Kildare, says family and health should be at the forefront of the political agenda, but, for some “unfathomable” reason, these issues are constantly overlooked.

“Dear Enda isn’t a bad fellow, but he doesn’t seem to think things through,” he says. “Children should be recognised as needing medical cards in their own right. There is no comparison between someone who is unemployed and getting free healthcare and someone who has a baby dying at home and has to be dragged into the whole means-testing process — it’s completely inhumane.

“The same goes for the carers of the country — they are saving the Government billions of euro and yet they are treated like pariahs. It makes no sense whatsoever. No-one seems to be looking at the bigger long-term picture and it is about time that the politicians stopped running the country as if it was a county council.

“Nothing is more important than family, and looking after their health is paramount to everyone in this country — many people have sick children and we all have parents who will need to be cared for eventually. So, the sooner the Government realises that, the better.”

Jonathan knows only too well the importance of family and, having lost three sons, feels it more keenly than most.“I have experienced a lot of things in my life — I have had many high points and difficult patches, which included my battle with cancer last year,” he says. “Like a typical man, I ignored the symptoms initially, but, thankfully, Mary Ann forced me to go to the doctor and get it checked out. And I am very grateful, as I may not be here today if it wasn’t for that.

“But while the diagnosis and treatment was difficult at times, none of it compared to the pain of losing three of my boys. John died in infancy, Jack didn’t make it to his second birthday, and Sam (from his first marriage, to Mikaela Rawlinson) slipped off a wall while he was on holiday in Portugal and died when he was 18-years-old.

“No one should go through the pain of losing a child and while the charity was a positive thing, created as a result of Jack’s death, Sam, who was in perfect health, was just taken away from us. It was incredibly distressing — which is why I believe that helping families to make the most of their time together is so important.”

Despite a well-to-do upbringing in England, Jonathan has devoted much of his life to helping others less fortunate, and by standing for office he hopes to bring about significant change in Ireland.“I might be seen as a bit of a fruitcake, but I am prepared to have a go in trying to change some of the policies in place in Ireland,” he says. “I want people to have the opportunity to vote for something other than corruption.

“I know a lot about life, I have a few credentials which are not to be laughed at, and if I could get ten other untarnished individuals, I think we could do something good.

“And whether I succeed or not, I think it’s worth trying for.”

Jack & Jill — The Story of Jonathan Irwin is published by Mercier Press and is on sale now for €16.99. All proceeds will go to the Jack & Jill Foundation; www.jackandjill.ie ; www.mercierpress.ie .

More in this section


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up