Lives Remembered

Michael O'Kennedy: Dedicated government minister and 'Irish patriot'

Michael O'Kennedy

MICHAEL O’Kennedy was a senior member of the Irish government during a critical time for Anglo-Irish relations.

He held six different cabinet portfolios during his long political career, including as foreign affairs minister in the late 1970s.

Having grown up steeped in republicanism – his father was interned in Belfast during the War of Independence and an uncle was killed – he advocated for a united Ireland but worked pragmatically with British ministers during times of crisis.

From Nenagh, Co Tipperary, O'Kennedy initially trained for the priesthood in Maynooth, where contemporaries included future SDLP leader John Hume, but left to study classics at UCD and then law.

He qualified as a barrister and became a rising figure under Sean Lemass's progressive leadership of Fianna Fáil, narrowly losing out in the 1965 general election.

He earned a Seanad seat instead, was chosen to serve on an all-party review group on the constitution, and topped the poll in Tipperary North in 1969.

O'Kennedy was appointed minister for transport and power in 1973 but when Fianna Fail lost power itself that year he became its spokesman on foreign affairs. Taoiseach Jack Lynch then made him foreign affairs minister in 1977.

In a graveside oration, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he "had responsibility for managing much of our policy towards Northern Ireland and Britain at a very dark time".

"The options available to our government were obviously very limited at a time when extremist minorities were terrorising communities – and also when the London government was often dependent on unionist votes.

"Michael never failed to speak up for basic democratic republican principles – and he never faltered in his belief that dialogue built on democratic principles was the only sustainable route forward."

When Lynch resigned in 1979, he was the only cabinet minister to publicly back Charles Haughey in a leadership battle with George Colley and was rewarded with the finance ministry.

He became a European Commissioner in 1981 but won back his Dáil seat the following year and served as minister for agriculture for five years before being sacked by Albert Reynolds.

After another period in the Seanad O’Kennedy sought the Fianna Fáil nomination for the presidency but lost out to Mary McAleese.

He won election again to the Dáil and was co-chair of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body between 1997 and 2002 – work which saw him became the first former government minister to accept a royal honour, an honorary CMG.

He retired from politics in 2002 but continued working as a barrister as well as on the Refugee Appeals Tribunal.

At his funeral, son Brian told mourners his father's proudest moment in politics was when he brought a group of 20 EU agricultural ministers to meet his mother in her little grocery shop in Nenagh.

Mr Martin described him as an “Irish patriot who devoted his life to the distinguished service of his community and his country”.

Michael O'Kennedy died aged 86 on April 15. He is survived by his wife Breda, children Brian, Orla and Mary and siblings Sheila, Páidí, Noreen and Eamonn.

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Lives Remembered