Michael Clifford reflects on the life Cork politician and businessman Peter Barry on his death at the age of 88, and says that while he never led his country or party, his contribution as a vital cog in Northern diplomacy will be the shining light of his legacy.
PETER Barry never led his country or his party but he was in the vanguard of the politicians who brought peace to the island of Ireland.
He was the true blue Fine Gaeler who harboured instincts on the national question that were usually the preserve of Fianna Fáil. Among Cork’s merchant princes, he was king, yet he wore his success in business and inherited wealth lightly, always more conscious of his obligations than entitlement. For many who encountered him though, he was just a decent man who did his best to make a difference, using the competence, charm, and not a little steel when required.
Barry was born in 1928 into a Cork business family which was by then already successful. The Barry’s Tea Company had been founded by his grandfather James J Barry, who opened his first grocer shop in 1901. By the time Peter was born his father Tony had expanded the tea business greatly after he came out of the army where he had served during the Civil War.
In 1960, while still a young man, Peter brought the business to another level by importing tea from East Africa, which went down a treat with the tea-mad Irish.
Just as business was in the family DNA, so too was politics.
His father Tony had served as election agent for WT Cosgrave in the 1920s when the latter stood in the Cork borough and continued to do so for nigh on 20 years.
Tony Barry himself was elected to the Dáil in 1954 and served there and in the Seanad until losing his seat in 1965.
The pinnacle of his political career came in 1961 when he served as Lord Mayor of Cork, and in time the chain of that office would be worn by both his son and grand-daughter Deirdre Clune.
With such a background, it was inevitable that Peter Barry would enter politics and this he did in 1969 when he was elected for Cork South Central. His election came soon after the outbreak of troubles in the North with the brutal state and unionist reaction to the campaign for civil rights among Catholics.
Soon after he was elected he drove to Derry and knocked on the door of John Hume unannounced and told the SDLP leader who he was.
“I told him that a lot of people down south who didn’t know anything about the North were making fiery speeches but I wanted to meet people who were affected by it,” he said in an interview last year.
“So he took me around Derry and then he gave me an introduction to people in Belfast. I heard first-hand what nationalists had to put up with. I described it later as the ‘nightmare of the nationalists’, and it was true. They had an awful time.”
Barry’s instinctive empathy with Northern nationalists was highly unusual for a figure from such a deep-rooted Fine Gael family. This was Fianna Fáil territory, but unlike his kindred spirits in the Soldiers of Destiny at the time, Barry did not feel compelled to wear his nationalism like a badge.
Four years after his election, Fine Gael entered government in a coalition with the Labour party.
Barry was appointed as minister for transport and power by the new Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, son of WT Cosgrave whom Peter’s father had served so faithfully.
He was competent rather than outstanding as a minister and he enjoyed the chance to make a change.
“It was great fun, he told Vincent Power for the latter’s book Voices Of Cork.
“The thing I liked best were the files marked secret. That’s what it means being a cabinet minister. That’s where the power is. You’re making decisions in Cabinet which affect this country and the lives of the people maybe for a long time to come. It’s a heavy responsibility and a great privilege.”
Towards the end of that administration he was switched to the education portfolio until the 1977 general election which saw Fianna Fáil swept into power under Jack Lynch.
Cosgrave resigned as party leader leaving the field open to a straight choice between Barry and Garret FitzGerald.
Barry sought counsel within the party and ultimately came to the conclusion that FitzGerald enjoyed more grassroots support, if not the majority of the parliamentary party.
Under those circumstances, he felt it best to step back and allow the other man lead.
His second stint at the cabinet came as environment minister in the short-lived coalition government of 1981-82. Then, when the coalition returned to power in late 1982, FitzGerald gave him the choice of portfolio.
“I said I’d love to take foreign affairs if it included the North,” he later reflected.
Through the following years of the New Ireland Forum he forged a friendship with the British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe whom Barry described as a decent man who harboured no anti-Irish prejudice. The relationship and trust built up by the two men helped smooth passage towards the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
He harboured more constitutional republican instincts than most Fine Gaelers, which led to some suspicion within his party, and heightened that of the unionists towards him as minister for foreign affairs. Notwithstanding that position, all involved in those negotiations say that he was a vital cog in the system, as much, if not more so, than his taoiseach, FitzGerald.
On the day that the agreement was signed in Hillsborough, the ceremony was actually held up because Barry and Howe had gone missing. Fergus Finlay, who was present on the day as adviser to tánaiste Dick Spring, recalled in his memoirs Snakes and Ladders what unfolded once the two men showed up.
“Mrs Thatcher sniffed and set about straightening the foreign secretary’s jacket. Then, noticing a speck of dandruff on Peter Barry’s lapel she reached to flick it off. The foreign minister from Cork, a direct political descendent from Michael Collins recoiled in horror, and Mrs Thatcher had the good sense to let him flick his own lapel.”
For some unionists his role in an agreement which saw the Republic take a role in the affairs of the North made him a figure of hate. Security at his Cork home was installed round the clock. Word was put about that packets of Barry’s Tea were poisoned. His wife, Margaret, got abusive phonecalls.
Barry found the security invasive and felt it wasn’t necessary, but he was left with little choice by the security services. The bad times passed and life got on as normal, but his central role in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which laid the foundations for the Peace Process, remains the shining light of his legacy.
Despite the agreement, Fine Gael was roundly defeated in the 1987 election, losing 19 of its 70 seats and ceding power to a minority Fianna Fáil government. FitzGerald resigned as leader and for the first time in its history Fine Gael embarked on a genuine leadership election — all the previous leaders had been unanimously elected after discussions and horse trading.
Barry would say later that FitzGerald stepped down too soon. There were three candidates to succeed him, Alan Dukes, John Bruton and Barry. The Corkman was the early favourite, but in the nature of these things there were straws in the wind in the final few days that things might not go that way.
Dukes won by a reputed large majority, beating Bruton into second place and Barry trailing a distant third. The actual result was never made known, a strategy that seems amazing by today’s standards.
Barry admitted he was “shook and disappointed” at the defeat, as he tore up the acceptance speech that had been prepared for him by Bill O’Herlihy. But true to the man he actually stopped off on his way home to Cork to put in an appearance at Duke’s victory party in Kildare.
“I’d see that it was things I did and said to people in the intervening 15 years that lost me votes,” he said later. “I think Alan probably worked harder on them than I did, although that’s not the only reason. He’s a highly attractive personality , with lots of energy.” He remained on the backbenches for the remainder of his career until the 1997 general election, when he handed the baton on to his daughter Deirdre Clune, who duly got elected.
The party did come calling in 1990, asking him to go forward for the presidency, but he declined. He later said he felt he wasn’t suited to the role, but his standing was such that he would have been in with a shout had he gone forward.
He made few enemies in his career, but one of the criticisms thrown his way was that he didn’t concentrate enough on his constituency in the 1980s, during the darkest days of recession, when big employers like Ford and Dunlops folded their tents. Perhaps, but he would have thought a reputation for giving too much attention to national politics rather than constituency matters wais one to be valued rather than scorned.
Peter Barry was awarded the Freedom of Cork in 2010. His daughter Deirdre Clune, one of the six Barry children, carries the political torch for the family as an MEP for the South Constituency. Peter’s wife Margaret predeceased him in January 2013.
Asked once how he would like to be remembered, he said he would be happy if people said he was a reasonably good human being who did his best. The reply was typical of the man, modest, devoid of pretension and acutely aware of the good hand he had been dealt in life.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved