Seanad debates

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Death of Former Member: Expressions of Sympathy.


1:00 pm

Photo of Donie CassidyDonie Cassidy (Fianna Fail)
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I extend the deepest sympathy and condolences of this House and those of my Fianna Fáil colleagues to Ms Nuala Fennell's husband, Brian, their children, Jacqueline, Gareth and Amanda and her extended family and friends on the passing of a truly inspirational woman, a loyal and loving wife and mother and a dedicated champion of women's rights.

As many of her family and friends will know, Nuala was truly committed to the cause of women's rights and was a leading campaigner in this area long before becoming a prominent member of the Fine Gael Party in the 1980s. Nuala first came to prominence in 1972 as a founder member of AIM Group which was set up to look after the interests of deserted wives and established the first refuge for battered women in Dublin. Indeed, it was her commitment, compassion and determination to help those less fortunate than herself that led her to the establishment of Women's Aid in 1974. Since then, Women's Aid has grown to become the leading national organisation it is today working tirelessly on the issues of domestic violence.

Nuala Fennell was the first chair of Irish Women's Aid in 1975 and an executive member of the Irish Council for the Status of Women. Nuala contested the 1977 general election as an Independent candidate but was not elected on that occasion. It was her prominent role in the campaign for women's rights that brought her to the attention of Garret FitzGerald and the Fine Gael Party in the late 1970s and in the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979, Nuala stood as a candidate for the party in the Dublin area. She was elected to Dáil Éireann for the Dublin South constituency in 1981 and held her seat in the two elections that took place in the following 18 months.

After the November 1982 election, Nuala was appointed as a junior Minister with responsibility for women's affairs and served as Minister of State with responsibility for women's affairs and family law reform from 1982 to 1987. Nuala was a major force behind a range of reforms introduced to improve the position of women. She lost her seat in the 1987 general election but was then elected to the 18th Seanad on the Labour Panel.

In the 1989 general election, Nuala was returned to the 26th Dáil but retired from politics following the 1992 general election. Her decision to stand down from politics in 1992 was a great loss to our country and to the Fine Gael Party for which she had worked tirelessly over the years.

Nuala's remarkable achievements as a woman, both inside and outside politics, are a lasting legacy to Irish women and Irish men of today. She will be truly missed. She was a remarkable Irish woman. To her husband, Brian, and her children, Jacqueline, Garrett and Amanda, we extend our deepest sympathy. Go ndéanfaidh Dia trócaire ar a anam.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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It is an honour to pay tribute in the Seanad to the late Nuala Fennell, former Minister of State, TD, Senator and equality campaigner, loving wife, mother, sister. I acknowledge the presence of her family here today.

The first anniversary of Nuala's death takes place next month and it is an apt time, therefore, to pause and reflect on the lifetime of work of this remarkable woman and what she gave to this country and to the causes which were so dear to her, which made a difference to so many people.

In 1972, Nuala established the AIM group which was dedicated to looking after the interests of those who were then described as deserted wives. She worked and led the charge to establish the first refuge for women suffering domestic abuse in Dublin and laid the foundation for the development of many services since then.

Nuala became the first chair of Irish Women's Aid. I was reading about her interest in that and the story was that she was watching a television programme about violence in the United Kingdom and saw that there were many Irish women that service was trying to look after who had left Ireland and had no place to go. She wrote a letter to The Irish Times and asked if people were interested in working with her to try to do something in Ireland. That is how the organisation got established, which has gone on to do much good work and help so many families.

Nuala was also an executive of the Irish Council for the Status of Women, now the National Women's Council of Ireland.

Towards the end of the 1970s, Nuala became interested in Garret FitzGerald's work with Fine Gael and contested the 1981 election to the Dáil in Dublin South. She was elected and held her seat in the two elections in the politically turbulent months that followed.

In many ways the high point of Nuala's career came upon her appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for women's affairs and family law reform in 1982. She was a strong voice and an advocate for women and equality in the Dáil, in the Government and in public life.

Nuala played a leading role in the divorce referendum of 1986 and while the referendum was not successful, when one looks back now it is clear she was a politician and a thinker ahead of her time. Everybody will agree with that.

As a junior Minister, Nuala succeeded in abolishing the concept of illegitimacy, ensuring that every child was recognised as equal. It is difficult to believe now that she had to take on that task. It was a difficult task at the time but she did it and she succeeded.

In 1987, this House benefited from Nuala's election to the Seanad where she served until her return to the Dáil in 1989. Despite Fine Gael being out of office, Nuala continued to play an important role through her membership of the Oireachtas committee on women's rights. She was involved in many seminal reports produced by that committee that led to much change in Irish society during that period.

In 1992, Nuala retired from politics having served with energy, distinction and determination. The warmth of the tributes paid to Nuala upon her death from politicians on all sides of the political divide paints a revealing picture of a woman who was respected and admired by all and who was a role model and a source of encouragement to women in politics, regardless of political affiliation.

On a personal level, Nuala was the first politician I campaigned for as a member of the Women's Political Association. I recall being drawn to her campaign and her candidacy based on our shared views on equality and women's issues. Nuala was a trailblazer, and the trail she has set out in politics will never be erased and can only be further developed and progressed. Indeed, in recent years Nuala said that much work remains to be done. Much work does remain to be done to ensure there are more women in politics and more attention paid to the issues Nuala cared deeply about but the body of work done by Nuala, and the trailblazer she was, makes that burden all the easier for those of left behind.

To Nuala's husband, Brian, her children, Jacqueline, Garrett and Amanda, her sisters, her grandchildren and her wider circle of family and friends, on behalf of Fine Gael and on behalf of women, I want to thank them for sharing Nuala with us. We are all better for knowing her and working with her, and Ireland is better for her service to this country. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I am honoured to have been asked by my group to represent the Independent group in paying tribute to the late Nuala Fennell. She grew up in Portlaoise and as a Laois man of one remove, I am very proud that county can claim a connection with one of the great forward-looking figures of Irish politics in the second half of the 20th century.

She was the daughter of an officer in the Garda. I knew her for many years. She was one of a formidable group of early feminists. She gave the impression of owl-like wisdom which she justified by her behaviour and her political activity. She could get tough, but she was always courteous and honest. She was the kind of person who gave feminism a good name. She was a kind of respectable revolutionary.

I recall when she left the Irish Women's Liberation Movement because she felt there was something negative in some of the attitudes towards men. She always attempted to keep a type of balance in her thoughts and in what she did.

Nuala was taken very seriously, and one can gather that from the attacks on her from the reactionary right. She was one of a group of people who would be consistently named as representing that kind of progressive tendency, which was rejected and resisted by some.

She was involved in many organisations including AIM, which has been mentioned, Cherish and the National Women's Council of Ireland. I had a good deal of contact with her when I was helping to fund-raise for the women's refuge.

Her appointment in 1982 was historic. She was the first Minister of State for women's affairs. If I am correct, that was the first time a ministerial post was created specifically to look after the status of women. That was historic, but her interest did not end with the end of her active political career. She was former president of the European Parliament Former Members Association and kept in touch with her colleagues and friends. We used to see her occasionally because eventually she had a career as a political lobbyist.

She was a decent sort. She was somebody who will be very much missed in these days in politics when the apparently modest virtues of decency and honesty are sadly lacking. I believe she will leave a gap in national life and in the life of Fine Gael, her party, to which she was devoted.

I was abroad when Nuala died and only learned of her death subsequently. It gave me a considerable shock to learn that somebody of my own generation who had fought a similar fight had died, in my opinion long before her time.

I also recognise, as others have done, the presence of members of her family in the Visitors Gallery. On behalf of the Independent Members, I extend our sympathy to them. I also transmit the respect, honour and value we place on the work done by Nuala Fennell.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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On behalf of the Labour Party, I extend sympathy to the late Nuala Fennell's family and remember her here today. It is appropriate that we remember her as a great campaigner. I remember her as a great social reformer. The first time I came across her, as was the case for many people, was when she started to write in newspapers and the women's press which at the time was not particularly radical in its content. However, one of the things she did was to bring issues into the mainstream. Sometimes we underestimate the power and impact of well written and campaigning journalism. That is one of the many things Nuala Fennell demonstrated in the course of her very active political life. We owe her huge credit for all the work she did.

The sense of the period - the 1970s and 1980s - when Nuala Fennell was most prominent comes back to us when we revisit some of the issues, struggles and controversies of the time. We speak about Women's Aid and the organisations in which she was involved and established and which were portrayed and regarded by many at the time as being marginal. It was a huge struggle to get notice for the incredible and vital work they had to do. It is a great tribute to her and others, but Nuala Fennell, in particular, brought issues into the mainstream through journalism and political discourse. She, in turn, raised them in Parliament. As Senator Fitzgerald stated, we are inclined to brush aside some of her achievements such as abolishing the concept of illegitimacy and wonder how could we conceivably have had such a thing in our laws, but we did. We forget how difficult and what a struggle it was at the time for these issues to be confronted to bring about change. Nuala Fennell taught us that when people were steadfast and tenacious, they could bring about change.

At some stage we will assess whether we have made a contribution or have been in a position to bring about change, however marginal. I am sure colleagues will agree that we have to conclude that Nuala Fennell really did make a difference. In her autobiography she engaged in a rather modest assessment of her achievements. As a politician, she really did achieve things. She demonstrated that, with the tenacity political and social campaigners need, change could be brought about, even in an environment which looked hopeless, difficult and cold. I remember Nuala Fennell as a reformer, a very strong and great Irishwoman and a great politician as a Deputy for Dublin South, an area in which I have an interest. I note the presence in the Visitors Gallery of members of her family, to whom we convey our condolences and sympathy.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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On behalf of the Green Party - Comhaontas Glas, I wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to the family of the late Nuala Fennell and her political colleagues in Fine Gael. Nuala Fennell's entry into public life and a position of political prominence coincided with my first experience as a voter. I remember her as being one of the new breed of women entering Irish politics. She was part of that vanguard. That the advances made in the early 1980s seem to have slowed down since is regrettable. Nuala Fennell made the breach and used the opportunity presented by her involvement in public life to achieve significant legislative change. The legislation annulling the legal concept of illegitimacy is something with which anyone involved in public life would be very glad to be associated and will forever be associated with her efforts.

It has also been commented on that her contribution to public life went beyond elected office in both Houses. Her contribution preceded her election to Dáil Éireann and membership of this House and continued after her retirement from elected politics in 1992. Her experience stands as a template in respect of how all citizens can and should involve themselves in public life. It is about addressing issues of concern, making these concerns known and working collectively to ensure they are addressed. Not many people involved in in public life have attained the status or gained the experience of Nuala Fennell in terms of how Irish society can be changed for the better. She will be missed as a result of this.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I join my colleagues in expressing sympathy to the family of the late Nuala Fennell who served in this House from 1987 to 1989. She certainly loved her years in the Seanad, although she was glad to win back her Dáil seat in 1989 in which she served until 1992. As many others have stated, she was part of the irreversible movement at the time in highlighting the status of women in Ireland and making it a political issue for the first time. She spoke about the loneliness she felt when she entered the Dáil for the first time which was almost a male club. Many female Members of the Seanad have told me that they had similar feelings when they were elected, particularly during their first few months in the House. I do not think, however, that it prevented her from doing her work, as she was an excellent politician. She listened and acted on the problems encountered.

Nuala Fennell made an outstanding contribution as a politician in increasing awareness of domestic violence and the necessity to provide shelter, through the Women's Aid movement, for battered wives and those at the receiving end of male domestic violence. As Minister of State with responsibility for women's affairs, with a budget of approximately only £50,000, she made a tremendous difference in the Department. She had no office and no blueprint, but she certainly made up for this with her enthusiasm. She was a wonderful politician. I express my sincere sympathy to her family gathered here today.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I extend my sympathy to Brian and the family of the late Nuala Fennell. When I met her here on the day set aside for female parliamentarians, I asked her if she would be good enough to meet me for a cup of coffee because I had always admired her. She said she would love to and it is a matter of regret that I did not have the opportunity. As a young mother, I will always remember her trail-blazing and that she was never afraid to speak out on issues in which many were not interested. She was a role model for me. She spoke with dignity, respect and honesty, qualities that many involved in public life do not have. She had all three. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a ainm dílis.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I am very glad to have an opportunity to pay tribute to my late colleague Nuala Fennell. I was proud and honoured to walk into this House in 1987 alongside her. At that stage she was already a political institution. During the course of the Seanad election in 1987 I met her on many occasions on what was a long and winding road. I suppose we struck up a friendship through that unusual route. During our time in politics together, both in the Dáil and Seanad, I hope we had a close bond.

I would describe her as nothing less than a magnificent person - honest, decent, kind and generous. She held strong opinions, but did so with a smile. She took every political issue seriously but she also had the ability not to take herself too seriously, and that was a marvellous attribute of hers.

She contributed very effectively, not only to the legislative positioning in the Oireachtas in this country but within the Fine Gael parliamentary party where she played a significant role. On an almost weekly basis at the parliamentary party meetings, she certainly had a great deal to say. She had the ability to inform us of her views, to present her argument coherently and calmly, but also to respect every person, not only in the parliamentary party but in the Oireachtas.

I certainly miss her. In one sense it could be said that over the course of her last few years when she suffered illness, she showed a very different side of a person who was serene, calm and accepting.

I read her autobiography which, of course, was completed by her husband. If I am paraphrasing it correctly, the last line in the book is Nuala simply saying, "Hadn't we a lovely life?" That speaks volumes of her.

She had a lovely life. Her life impacted marvellously on this country. Tens of thousands of people have benefitted from the life of Nuala Fennell. All those of us who were in some way touched by her remember her with fondness. She certainly was a political institution the likes of which we will not see too many times in this Oireachtas. May she rest in peace.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I too extend my sympathy to her family on Nuala's death. While I did not ever meet her, I had the honour of working with her daughter Jacqueline on a gender and equality committee for Fine Gael a number of years ago.

Looking back on her life, and having the opportunity to read her autobiography as many others did here, what really struck me is that I completely agree she was a trailblazer for women, not only in politics but in the torch she held for women in everyday life.

What I admire immensely about her as a politician is she was clearly mission driven as a social reformer. Her seminal work in areas like Women's Aid in getting rid of that awful term "illegitimacy" made an immense difference to people's lives. It continues to make an immense difference for the amount of women who have come to me since I became a politician who need help in the area of women's refuge and around the whole issue of domestic violence. She was a true champion and we must remember the work we may continue today has come from her.

Mission driven in that way is clearly the best type of politician to vote for. When one comes into politics, one can sway this way and that, but to be that clear about her role as a politician is a lesson for us all and is truly admirable, and it is fair to say her legacy lives on.

When I read her book, it helped me as a woman in politics. It is interesting what Senator Cummins stated. Sometimes you have feelings as a woman in politics and often you do not know is it just yourself or do others have them as well. Reading that book really did help me, especially when she spoke about the whole world of male politics and how in many cases it presented blocks to her as opposed to encouragement, and yet she continued because she believed in her mission. She knew why she had chosen this path. It was a lucky stroke for Ireland that she and former Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, came together at that point in history because that was good for women's lot.

Clearly, she was a formidable woman. It cannot be easy for family to follow in her footsteps, but at the same time what an honour it is because it is a true inspiration for a family to have had such a mother, wife and grandmother. For me, it also has been really good to hear what everybody else has said about her here today. It is an opportunity again to reflect on how important it is to have a mission in politics.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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It is an honour to have this opportunity to pay a brief tribute to Nuala Fennell. I welcome to the Gallery her husband Brian, her son Garrett, her daughter Jackie - unfortunately, her other daughter Amanda cannot be with us today - her grandchildren Katie, Ian and Eveline, her daughter-in-law Dara and her sister Bernie.

I got to know Nuala really through her son Garrett and, indeed, her brother Michael. She had a distinguished career, as has been said and given great testimony to here by so many speakers, in the Dáil between 1981 and 1987 and again from 1989 to 1992, and in this House from 1987 to 1989. As Minister of State for women's affairs, as has been said by so many, she was a great champion of women's rights and, to quote The Irish Times, she was, "Courageous, determined and with an original mind".

I have been reminded that - from what I heard from her I believe it - she liked this House very much, both as a Member and in bringing legislation before it, particularly the Status of Children Bill 1986 in which she believed the Seanad really came into its own.

I loved the stories she told in her book about the Seanad campaign in 1987 and her journeys through fields, yards, marts, funerals, shops and so many workplaces. Of course, coming from where I come, I was particularly taken by her little yarn about not having time to linger at Ladies' View on her way to Kenmare. Hopefully, next year another visitor will have time to linger there and to go on to Dinas and Glena where Victoria enjoyed afternoon tea - I refer to Victoria's great-great-granddaughter when she comes, please God.

As has been said, Nuala was an extremely kind, nice and courteous person at all times, and yet she had a steely will. She knew what was necessary to achieve and she saw it through. Of course, she had a life outside of politics. She was a noted journalist before she entered politics and a successful public affairs consultant when she left it. She is, and will be, missed. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis.

Photo of Eugene ReganEugene Regan (Fine Gael)
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If I can add to what has been said already, and I adopt all the points that have been made, Nuala Fennell was an outstanding contributor to Irish society and to Irish politics. She described in her autobiography why she was attracted to Dr. Garret FitzGerald's Fine Gael. It was his liberalism and enthusiasm for change and a better Ireland.

It is worth noting that she entered politics in a difficult period of the 1980s and she was part of that period which represented the constitutional crusade. We remember the term "fiscal rectitude" and a new approach to Northern Ireland where there was an effort at meeting of minds. It is important that context is understood.

She wrote of her first branch meeting - her first contact with Fine Gael was in Blackrock in my constituency - and described the short-waves from the assembled men. I think she represented a new era for Irish women in politics.

She also represented something else. It was during her period in representing Dublin South that Fine Gael attained three seats, a feat which was only repeated last year, albeit on a temporary basis but to be revisited.

I add my voice to the tributes, and my regards to the family here, Brian and the extended family.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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Senator Norris has already spoken on behalf of the Independents but I did not want to let this opportunity pass without expressing my memories of Nuala. I knew the family, and her father, way back in the 1950s. When I met Nuala, I did not realise at that stage she was the daughter of her father. I came to know her and the family, including Garrett, Michael and others. There is a lovely quote which I have often heard and used before: "Whether you believe you can or whether you believe you can't, you're right." The difference was that Nuala believed she could change things. However, she changed them in a manner different from the way many others would have changed them and she did so with humour and by getting people who liked to be in her company involved. She was committed to the things in which she believed. She believed very much in those who were not getting a fair deal in the Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s. She focused, in particular, on the position of women and we have been reminded today of some of the things she did.

I wish to touch on another aspect of her life, that is, the family she reared. She was very proud of them and with good reason. I was surprised to hear Senator Fitzgerald state it was 11 months since she had died. I had not realised that length of time had passed because it seems she is still a part of our lives. What I remember most about her is her sense of humour and smile. There was a sense that, even after she had left these Houses, she continued her commitment because there were other things she wished to do and other changes to bring about. We will remember her in this and the other House. I never served with her here, but I know those of us who knew her in those days and afterwards will remember her with great fondness. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I pay tribute to the late Nuala Fennell whom I came to know in the late 1980s. We both ran for election in the general election of 1989. I knew her as a very reflective person who pursued and focused on the issues to which she was so committed, in particular, anything to do with women. Equal opportunity was the main theme. She was very aware of the lack of women in Leinster House, an issue on which she made many contributions. I recall being with her at many residents' association meetings and during many debates in Dublin South, especially during that general election campaign. At no time was she ever confrontational. We were competitive, but she never took me on on any issue; she was always courteous and kind. She was a beautiful person and a very good politician. She was a competitor, but she did not use this trait in the way we all do today. That is what I remember best about her. She was a lady. It was very nice to have known her and I am pleased to be associated with the many tributes paid to her today. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I would also like to be associated with the tributes paid to the late Nuala Fennell. As has been stated, she was a member of the House from 1987 to 1989, having been nominated by the then Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald. She made a great contribution to Irish political life and the Houses of the Oireachtas in her role as a Senator, Deputy and Minister of State. She will be remembered especially by many for her role in advocating women's rights, for which she was recognised in her appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for women's affairs. I extend my sincere sympathy to her husband, Brian; her daughters, Jacqueline and Amanda; her son, Garrett, and extended family who are here today on their sad loss. May she rest in peace.

Members rose.