Dáil debates

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Death of Former Member: Expressions of Sympathy.


4:00 pm

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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During the summer recess we heard of the death of our former colleague, John Wilson, former Tánaiste, distinguished Minister and Member of this House for 20 years. On this occasion, I wish to convey my sincere condolences and those of my Fianna Fáil colleagues to his wife, Ita, his son, John, his daughters, Claire, Siobhan, Lucy and Maria, his grandchildren and his brothers and sisters.

I also join with the people of Cavan and Ireland in remembering one of that county's and this country's most loyal servants and best loved and respected politicians. John Wilson, as many in this House will know because they served with him, was one of the friendliest, most energetic and most formidable elected representatives that this House has ever seen. Along with being a superb politician, he was an accomplished sportsman and a dedicated scholar. Born in Cavan in 1923, he was educated at St. Mel's College, Longford, the University of London and the National University of Ireland. He graduated with an MA and a Higher Diploma in Education. He was a secondary school teacher at Gonzaga College and also a university lecturer. During his teaching career he was an active member of the ASTI and was a past president of the association.

John loved languages. He was fluent in Irish, Greek, Latin and Spanish. He was very pleased that he could speak Russian and he also dabbled in a number of other languages. He could be found around the House reading weeks old newspapers in various languages. As a young Member of this House I remember asking him why he read newspapers that were a few weeks or a month old. He said it was to keep up to date with the language rather than for the news worthiness of the articles.

As a younger man, John was famous for his exploits on the football field. He proudly wore the Cavan jersey many times. He won five Ulster Football Championship medals, a National League medal and two All-Ireland medals, including a medal at New York's Polo Grounds when Cavan defeated Kerry in 1947 in that famous final. In his passing the GAA community has also lost a legend of the game and showed him due respect.

In politics, where I worked with John, he will be remembered for his knowledge, insight and wisdom on a broad range of political issues of interest at local constituency level and at national level where he performed at the highest level. This Chamber and the corridors of the House will be a lesser place for the passing of John Wilson. Since he left the House he continued to serve on the Fianna Fáil National Executive and as vice president of our party. For many years his wit, courtesy and friendship was recognised by Members on all sides of the House.

From the time he entered this House in 1973 and for the next two decades the people of Cavan-Monaghan gave John a very strong mandate to represent their interests in this House. He took great pride in this mandate and always sought to ensure that the interests of Cavan were heard loudly in the corridors of power. As a Minister and as Tánaiste, John continued to work tirelessly for Cavan and for the country serving for periods in the Departments of Education, Transport, Posts and Telegraphs, Tourism and Transport, the Marine and Defence. He is still recognised as a Minister of great ability with a long list of achievements on behalf of the Irish people.

In later life, John's name became synonymous with the quest to end the heartbreak that the Troubles caused to so many communities. I had the opportunity for a number of years as Taoiseach to work with him in his role as an independent commissioner for the location of victims' remains. He sought to relieve the heartache of many families. He became particularly close to those families and put in huge effort to try to bring closure to many of the families involved. I appreciated his commitment to that cause. He was deeply committed to this effort and there are many families throughout the island who remain thankful for his unswerving dedication to that important task.

There is no doubt that John will be remembered for a long time as a sportsman, a scholar and a fine politician. He will be remembered fondly not only in this House, but in the minds of Irish people for many years to come. We thank his family and the Fianna Fáil Party for allowing John to work with us for so many decades in so many posts, before he was elected to this House in an organisational capacity and after he left this House in an organisational capacity. He was always immensely proud of Cavan and of Ireland. He held this House in high regard as the Chamber of the people. I assure the Wilson family that both his county and his country are proud of his extraordinary contribution. People showed that all over the country but particularly in his native Cavan during his funeral. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I would like to commiserate with the Taoiseach as the leader of Fianna Fáil and with the Fianna Fáil Party on the passing of Seán MacLiam. John Wilson was born on 8 July 1923 and he died on 9 July 2007. During the 84 years between those two dates he lived a full, honourable and deeply connected life to his family, his constituency, his party, his principles and, above all, to his country. On behalf of the Fine Gael Party, I am honoured to pay tribute to somebody for whom I had a very deep measure of respect and who was both a gifted and good man. He was, as everybody who knew him knows, a person of great wit and charm, a very formidable adversary in this House and a proud and passionate member of the Fianna Fáil Party. That party is a lesser party for his passing.

John Wilson was always an impressive man in so many ways. In politics, since he was first appointed by the late Jack Lynch to the Fianna Fáil Front Bench, he impressed in his constituency, he impressed here in the House and he impressed in the many roles he played in Irish politics and, through that, in Irish life. His professorial image in the House, with that great mane of silver hair, is something that will remain in people's minds for many years. Through the years of his public service he held portfolios that impacted significantly on the day to day life of this country — Tánaiste, Minister for Defence, Education, Transport, Communications, Posts and Telegraphs, Tourism and the Marine. I know he was particularly proud, because I spoke to him about it, of his work for the families of the disappeared. I am quite sure those families were reassured and comforted in the knowledge that John Wilson's sincerity and conviction in attempting to determine their loved ones whereabouts was genuine.

In education, tá a fhios ag gach duine gur thug sé buntáiste faoi leith do ghaelscoileanna na hÉireann ó thaobh na Gaeilge de, mar thug sé buntáiste faoi leith do na muinteoirí as ucht an Ghaeilge a bheith mar theanga labhartha acu.

On the sports field, he was a talented and physically and mentally tough individual. That is evidenced by his experience of winning five Ulster Championships when football was much more physical than it is today. His obvious delight in beating Kerry in 1947, something my county has not repeated in a long time, is still recalled with great pride.

I had the privilege of knowing John Wilson for many years and of serving with him on various committees. His contributions to debates were always well informed, eloquent and given in his particular staccato style. No person in my 32 years in Dáil Éireann has ever whipped a pair of spectacles off his face as fast as John Wilson. No film star ever drew a six gun with the speed of retort of the Wilson glasses. Much of what is said in the House is Greek to many, but this was literally so in John Wilson's case. He was a distinguished linguist and livened up many dull days in the Dáil. His jousts in Latin and Greek with Deputy Dick Burke, who preferred to be called Richard, were eloquent in the extreme. Whether they were talking about a two-teacher primary school in a remote part of a constituency or a major school development, the Wilson-Burke debates were a joy to behold. One might not know Agamemnon from Achilles or whether he was praising one or burying one, but he had his own way of doing so.

When he passed on we lost an esteemed colleague and some of us lost a good friend. His wife, Ita, and his children lost not only a loving husband but an adored and adoring father. John, Claire, Siobhán, Lucy, Maria and all his grandchildren were truly blessed to have such a father and grandfather. His brothers and sisters will grieve his loss in their lives. In their presence today, I am proud to be involved in this tribute to the memory of a man who lit up their lives in so many ways.

John Wilson was a towering figure in Cavan politics for many years. He exuded energy and the power that comes from people of deep conviction in their beliefs. He departed this world 210 years, to the day, after Edmund Burke, whom he greatly admired and often quoted. Edmund Burke wrote:

It is by imitation far more than by precept that we learn everything. What we learn thus we acquire, not only more efficiently but more pleasantly. This forms our manners, our opinions, our lives.

That was a lesson John Wilson knew, lived and taught by example. Go ndéana Dia grásta ar a anam dílis.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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I join the Taoiseach and Deputy Kenny in expressing my sympathy and the sympathy of the Labour Party with the family of the late John Wilson. There are few people of whom it can be said more truly than of John Wilson that he led a full life. He was an outstanding sportsman, a great teacher, a scholar and an outstanding public servant. His commitment to public service and to the country continued well beyond his time in this House.

I knew John Wilson for some time before I became involved in party politics. I met him first in 1976 when I was president of the Union of Students in Ireland and he was Fianna Fáil spokesperson on education. He was always courteous and good humoured. I found him a great listener and, better than that, I found him to be very effective because many of the things I said to him appeared in the Fianna Fáil election manifesto in 1977. After the 1977 election I decided to put his effectiveness to the test. I wrote to him immediately after his election congratulating him on his appointment and we were one of the first groups he met. Over a period he delivered increases in student grants and degrees for graduates of regional technical colleges. A shortage of primary school teachers was solved by introducing one year courses in colleges of education for university graduates. Teachers who qualified under this system are still known as Wilson grads. An anomaly in the student grant scheme clearly caused him some political difficulty. We explained the problem and I could see that he reflected on it. He spoke in Latin and Greek and made a number of classical allusions, none of which I can remember. He told me he would not be put into the desert to suffer for the sins of his predecessor, and he went on to resolve the problem.

I had great personal affection for him. He is a loss to his family and to public life. He will be remembered fondly for his achievements in politics and sport and for his good humour and nature. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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Unlike previous speakers I did not know John Wilson. Nevertheless, on my behalf and on behalf of the Green Party I express sympathy to his family and to the Fianna Fáil Party. John Wilson was a man of many talents. He was a linguist, a classical scholar, an able politician, a tireless worker, an actor, a republican and a teacher. Of course, he will be remembered most in Cavan for the fact that he played in the memorable All-Ireland final in the Polo Grounds in New York. To be part of that event alone gives him legendary status in his own county. John Wilson had many strings to his bow. His academic pursuits brought him to Maynooth and Galway before completing his studies in London. His teaching career brought him to several schools and universities throughout the country, including my constituency. His teaching career was the catalyst for his involvement in national politics through his presidency of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland. He was a founder member and chairman of the national committee of the European Association of Teachers.

His involvement with Fianna Fáil was a successful one. He was successful electorally, regularly topping the poll in Cavan-Monaghan. While he went on to hold Government positions, he never lost sight of his duty to his constituents. This was despite the fact that he sat on his party's Front Bench for the duration of his time in the Dáil, a significant achievement. His wide-ranging ministerial appointments demonstrate his capacity. His contribution to his country through holding six ministerial portfolios and the position of Tánaiste cannot be underestimated.

He continued to make a significant contribution to Irish society upon leaving this House by becoming involved with the Irish delegation in talks with the British Government on the future of Northern Ireland in the early 1990s. The Taoiseach has referred to the fact that, as chairman of the Victims Commission, he liaised with members of the provisional IRA to assist in finding the bodies of the disappeared.

For all these reasons, it can be said he led a full life. If those of us present lead lives half as full we will have made a major contribution to society. My sympathies and those of the Green Party go to his wife, Ita, his daughters, Siobhán, Lucy, Claire and Maria, and his son, John. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.

5:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I join the Taoiseach and other Dáil colleagues in expressing our sympathy to the wife and family of the late John Wilson. I also extend sympathy on behalf of the Sinn Féin Party in the House to the Taoiseach and the Fianna Fáil Party on the loss of their long-serving colleague.

John Wilson's record of service has been reflected by a number of speakers and I will not repeat the various posts he held. Unquestionably he performed with distinction in each of them, through the various portfolio responsibilities he held here, in his role as Tánaiste and subsequently with the Victims Commission and the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains. I had occasion to engage with him in his role as victims' commissioner in bringing people who had been displaced during the years of the conflict in the northern part of our country and I found John Wilson, on each of those occasions, very facilitatious, open and courteous at all times, which showed throughout his political life. I contested five general elections with John, three of them as candidate, and on every occasion he demonstrated himself as a man of great courteousness, never acrimonious and fair. That is the way I wish to pay my due respect to him.

He was an impressive figure in every regard. He had a great intellect and was a striking figure in every respect. He was a champion of his native county of Cavan in every endeavour he undertook. He served not only Cavan but the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan from 1977 up to his retirement in 1993. He is remembered fondly throughout County Cavan and he will deservedly rank in the thoughts and the generational memory of the people of County Cavan for many decades into the future. On behalf of my colleague representatives in Sinn Féin, I extend our sympathy once again to Mrs. Wilson, to his son and daughters, his nephew, Senator Diarmuid Wilson, who is present in the Chamber this afternoon, and to all his colleagues in the Fianna Fáil Party. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Photo of Mary HarneyMary Harney (Minister, Department of Health and Children; Dublin Mid West, Progressive Democrats)
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I also express my sympathy to Ita and her five children on John's sad passing, to her son, John, and her daughters, Claire, Siobhán, Lucy and Maria, to his brothers, sisters and grandchildren and to his nephew, Senator Diarmuid Wilson. I first got to know John Wilson before I entered this House in 1974, when he was president of the Trinity College Fianna Fáil cumann. He took a keen interest in young people and in encouraging them into politics. He was almost a father figure to the students who belonged to that cumann and was the first person to bring some of us to visit Leinster House, some time in 1974 or 1975. He inspired many of us back then as a man of enormous intellect but he was also a very compassionate man. John Wilson was a republican and was very proud of his roots in Cavan but he was also a constitutional politician and was never ambivalent nor wavered in his view that constitutional politics were the only way forward on this island. He was, as others have said, a great scholar, a linguist and a man who had a particular interest in Greek and Latin. My predecessor as leader of my party, Mr. Michael McDowell, was one of his former students who used to speak fondly of all he learned from John Wilson. When I mentioned that fact to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, he suggested that Mr. McDowell had maybe not learned quite enough.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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The Minister will be a target now.

Photo of Mary HarneyMary Harney (Minister, Department of Health and Children; Dublin Mid West, Progressive Democrats)
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He certainly was a great teacher, a great university lecturer and, as we know, a great sportsperson. The last time I saw him was in his role as head of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains and he played a very important role in that regard. It was welcome that, in recent years, he was able to play such a strong public service role because John Wilson, above all else, was a very committed public servant. May he rest in peace.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children, Department of Health and Children; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to join in the tributes to the late John Wilson, who was a personal friend and colleague of mine for many years. I had the privilege and honour of working with John Wilson in each Department in which he served as Minister and, latterly, in his role as Tánaiste. That experience was hugely influential and beneficial in shaping my outlook on public service. John was elected initially as Deputy for Cavan and subsequently for the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. His popularity at local level was evident with the huge endorsement he won from his electorate at successive elections. John served the people of Cavan-Monaghan extremely well and played a leading role in securing investment in many projects, investments that have brought many benefits to the people of the constituency. He served with distinction in seven Departments and had a great working relationship with all his constituency colleagues.

Before his election to Dáil Éireann John had a noted career as a teacher at second and third level and as a trade union leader. For many people throughout this country who love our Gaelic games, John Wilson was first widely known as a star of a golden age for football in County Cavan. He won a glittering array of medals at all levels, including two senior all-Ireland football titles, one national league, five Ulster championships and numerous county championship medals with his beloved Mullahoran, as well as Leinster colleges medals. His passionate support for all sports, particularly Gaelic games, continued throughout his life. He was not, to say the least, best pleased with the fortunes of our county teams in recent years. A noted linguist, he lost no opportunity to promote our language and, although steeped in his native language, games and culture, he was able to look beyond Ireland and absorb the traditions, literature and history of Europe.

At an advanced age, he accepted the request of Government to take on the onerous task of victims commissioner and member of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains, and that appointment allowed him to bring all his political and life experience and compassion to deal with extremely sensitive and difficult issues. His report, A Place and a Name, brought home to all of us the need to deal comprehensively and with compassion with the concerns and needs of victims of the Troubles. The title of the report says much on its own — if a title ever conveyed a message that was it. The report was John Wilson's final contribution to public life and was an extremely important contribution for many people on both sides of the Border, particularly throughout the province of Ulster.

To John's wife, Ita, who was so supportive of his work over the years, and their daughter Maria, who are both with us today, I again extend my sincere sympathy. I also extend my sympathy to other family members, Siobhán, Claire, Lucy and John, to John's sisters, May and Agnes, and his brothers, Aidan and Eugene, and to our Oireachtas colleague, his nephew, Senator Diarmuid Wilson. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I join the Taoiseach and my colleagues in paying tribute to John Wilson. First, I extend my sympathy to Ita, John, Siobhán, Maria, Lucy and Claire. John was a big man, in stature and in heart, who had tremendous intellectual ability. He had a burning desire to work for the people of Ireland, never forgetting his roots in Cavan. I got to know John in the early 1970s when he was TD for Cavan and, in 1977, when Cavan-Monaghan became a constituency for the first time, we were both elected to the Dáil. John was a great constituency colleague and was always supportive of any initiative that would better the lot of the people in both Cavan and Monaghan. As a Cabinet colleague he was very loyal and used his talents to very good effect. When he left the House he became the commissioner for victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and his work was very much appreciated, particularly in the Border counties. He was a distinguished sportsman, a distinguished scholar and a great raconteur, and it was always great to be in John's company.

As Members will appreciate, I fought seven elections with John. At election time there was always fair competition for votes in Cavan-Monaghan and John allowed, on a number of occasions, that he had no difficulty consulting me as a doctor at any time but would certainly not do so during election time. I think he was afraid I might send him home to bed. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Photo of Margaret ConlonMargaret Conlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to Ita and the family of the late John Wilson. I consider it a privilege to have known John. I first met him in the late 1980s when I served on the national executive of the party. At that time I valued his excellent guidance and wisdom. As has been said today, he was a man of tremendous ability, both on and off the football field. He had many achievements in seven different Departments. He represented the Cavan-Monaghan constituency with great distinction. His foremost aim was to represent all his constituents in an effective manner. All sides of the House will agree he discharged this duty to a very high standard at all times. His constituents held him in high regard and this was evident at his funeral. His was an impressive style and he exuded charisma when he entered a room or stood up to speak. One might expect to be entertained in several languages by one of the finest orators I have ever met.

To John's wife, Ita, to his children, John, Claire, Siobhán, Lucy and Maria, and his nephew, Senator Diarmuid Wilson, I offer my deepest sympathy on their great personal loss. As a new Deputy for Cavan-Monaghan, I can only aspire to his achievements. His will be a hard act to follow. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I join my party leader and other Members in expressions of sympathy to the late, great John Wilson. John served in this House for 20 years. He was a decent, hard-working and honourable servant of the people. He was easily recognised in a crowd because of his distinctly long hairstyle. He was a giant in every way. He was well-liked by people from all sides of politics and sectors. As a Minister and as Tánaiste he played a major role at national and international level. Originally, he was best-known for his role on the football field, an area in which he had a proud record.

I was first honoured to get to know John Wilson when I was at a senior level in the IFA. I was at many meetings with him during that time. He had a great interest in the Irish position at that level and in the Northern Ireland process. In later years, he played a major role in the peace process to help to solve some difficult problems.

I extend my sympathy to his wife, Ita, his family, grandchildren, his nephew, Senator Diarmuid Wilson, his Fianna Fáil colleagues in Cavan-Monaghan, which he proudly represented, the Taoiseach and the Fianna Fáil Party.

I am sure when John Wilson is looking down on us today, he will be smiling at all the nice things being said about him. He certainly deserves them.

Members rose.