We have lost a woman of great charm, courage and conviction

EILEEN DESMOND was one of the greats.

The facts of her career are well known the first woman to be appointed to a senior cabinet post, the woman who secured a 25% increase in social welfare rates (the highest ever increase), a successful and popular TD and senator for more than 20 years.

But what is less well-known is the courage and character of a woman in what must have been often a heartbreakingly lonely position. She became a TD only because her husband died after they were just 12 years married.

Her work kept her miles apart from the two daughters she loved and cherished; they were her closest friends throughout their lives together. She was a woman in a political party then dominated by men, at times the only woman in a position to influence many of their political decisions.

And influence them she did. I can remember many discussions among Labour politicians about a range of issues in the early 1980s. I was a raw recruit to politics at the time, and somewhat in awe of the likes of Barry Desmond, Frank Cluskey, and Mervyn Taylor, then among the dominant figures in any Labour debate.

None of them was a man to hold back in argument, and if it was your job (as it was sometimes mine) to persuade them to do something they weren't keen on, that involved a lot of trepidation and advance preparation.

And usually, they wouldn't listen anyway. I remember going to Frank Cluskey on one occasion with a close colleague to try to get him to change his mind about something. He heard us out with visible impatience, and then said "thanks, son. Next time I need a lecture on socialism, I'll let you know, OK?"

But there was one person they always listened to Eileen. She was the quietest and most unassuming member of the parliamentary party. She seldom led a debate, unless the issue was within her own portfolio. And often during debate it would seem as if she wasn't really listening because she had a certain

other-worldly air about her. But when it came her turn to speak, in that soft voice of hers, she was never interrupted. And she was seldom, if ever, wrong in her analysis or judgement. Above all, when it was an issue that involved conviction, rather than some question of tactics, Eileen's contribution frequently settled the discussion.

I remember a long discussion among TDs about the first abortion referendum, and what way they should vote. The background was complicated. In the course of the 1982 election, both Garret FitzGerald and Charles Haughey had agreed to a demand by the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign for a referendum, and both had essentially agreed to a form of words to be inserted into the constitution. Dick Spring, as leader of the Labour party, had resisted both demands throughout the election campaign, despite the most intense pressure to capitulate. After the election FitzGerald was Taoiseach and Spring was Tánaiste, and the problem of how to honour the commitment of a referendum plagued the new government. The Attorney General, Peter Sutherland, offered advice that the wording proposed could endanger the health and lives of women (advice that was vindicated years later in the 'X' case judgement). He came up with an alternative, safer, form of words, and Garret FitzGerald decided that he would put that form of words to the people, if he could get it through the Dáíl. But Haughey wouldn't agree, and so a bitter confrontation was inevitable.

Many TDs at that time struggled with their consciences, genuinely and agonisingly. For some, the difficult choice was between two forms of words. For others, there were two choices to be made. Should they support an amendment to the constitution at all, and, if so, which form of words? For Eileen, although she was both a spiritual and religious person, the choice was simple. And that's an extraordinary thing to say because you had to live through that time to realise how much pressure there was.

TDs who were suspected of not supporting the pro-life movement got mountains of hate mail. Their offices were besieged by phone calls and visitors demanding that they toe the line. Many TDs buckled under the pressure, voting for something that they didn't really believe in because the alternative was the certain loss of support in their constituencies.

IF you were a woman TD from a rural constituency, that pressure was much greater. The danger of being labelled as pro-abortion was ever-present, and the hate that anyone who carried that label had to endure was intense. Eileen never wavered, from the start of that debate to the end. When it came to her turn to speak, her summing-up was simple and direct. "My people know where I stand on this issue," she said, "and if they don't know me, after twenty years of representing them, there's not a lot more that I can do about that. We already have a ban on divorce in our constitution and it has done untold damage over the years. Under no circumstances will I support another constitutional ban on an issue that affects the lives and health of women."

Although she didn't speak in the long, bitter Dáil debate on the subject, her views were known from start to finish, and they never wavered, despite, as I say, intense pressure. At the end of the debate on the referendum bill, some TDs abstained.

Some 140 voted to hold the referendum to put a ban on abortion in the constitution, including around a dozen women members, many of whom desperately wished to vote the other way. In the end, only 11 members of the Dáil voted against the holding of that referendum. And there was one woman among that number Eileen Desmond.

So, she was a woman of conviction and considerable courage. She was a woman of ability, as her elevation to a senior cabinet post testifies.

Above all that, she was a woman of gentle grace, capable of putting a distressed constituent at ease, and just as capable of holding her own at the soirees and receptions she attended as both a minister and an MEP.

Throughout most of her political life she suffered from illness, although I never remember hearing her complain.

Throughout the Labour movement, Eileen will be remembered as an inspiration and a standard-bearer. At the end of Paddy Hillery's first term as president, I tried to persuade the leadership of the party that we should contest the presidential election then due, and that we should nominate Eileen Desmond.

Realpolitik (in the form of a severe economic emergency and plummeting support for the Government) dictated otherwise, and it was an idea that was impossible to pursue. Her passionate belief in equality would have given the office a dimension that it wasn't to attract for another seven years. I'm not saying she would have won that election, of course, but like every election she fought, she would have given it a right good rattle.

Eileen is gone now, loved and remembered by her family and friends. I hope they accept that for a great many more of us, she'll never be forgotten.

More in this section