As retirement beckons, Dan Neville reflects on his career

Norma Prendiville

Reporter:

Norma Prendiville

A pensive Dan Neville at the moment of his election to the Dail in 2011 makes for a stark contrast to his ecstatic supporters. He later revealed that at that moment he had been thinking of his recently deceased wife, Goretti. Picture: Owen South
THERE is a time to go, Dan Neville said somewhat philosophically this Tuesday when he publicly announced his intention not to contest the next general election.

THERE is a time to go, Dan Neville said somewhat philosophically this Tuesday when he publicly announced his intention not to contest the next general election.

The rumour mill in West Limerick Fine Gael circles had been whirring for some time but, Deputy Neville acknowledged, his resignation had come as a bit of a surprise to many of his colleagues in Dail Eireann.

But, he admitted, his decision had a lot to do age.

“I will be 69 in December. If I stood again and was re-elected I would 74 by then. You have to look at your personal position as well.”

And it wasn’t taken lightly. “I thought about it for some months, weighed up the pros and cons. It was hard but in another way I always intended I would not be working way into my 70s. That was always my position, whatever job I would be in. But in politics, you can’t part-retire.

“It was always an onerous, stressful and unpredictable job, and I am not talking about elections. You don’t know what is around the corner. You can’t plan for things that are about to happen. That creates a level of stress that is a feature of being a public representative.

“You must ensure that you have both the physical and mental stamina. You are at the coal face of the difficulties people experience in all aspects of human living. You cannot but be affected,” he explained.

And then he also had to give consideration to the timing, to ensure the best possible outcome for the party.

“We are probably six to eight months to an election and that gives space to the party to ensure we win two seats in the next general election,” he said.

But the biggest problem he faced when thinking about his retirement, he acknowledged, was the absence of his wife Goretti, who died in January 2009.

“I didn’t have Goretti to share in the decision,” he said. And while he was determined not to get too emotional about the issue, it was clear there is a certain loneliness at the prospect of facing into that retirement without his life-partner.

“I will miss meeting with and dealing with people,” he continued. “There was a lot of satisfaction in advising and dealing with issues of concern to people. I will miss the closeness and camaraderie of my colleagues of all parties in Leinster House, and I will miss the challenge of serving and the challenge of promoting the issues.”

Dan Neville grew up in a political household. Two uncles, Michael John and Sonny Dan Neville, were activists in the West Limerick Flying Columns during the War of Independence and his own father, a lad of 14, was all too familiar with raids by the Black and Tans searching for his brothers. The two most admired people in the Neville household in Kiltannin, Croagh, Dan revealed, were Michael Collins and Sean Finn, the Brigadier General of the IRA who was shot in Ballyhahill.

In a coincidence which he likes, Dan Neville’s constituency office in Rathkeale is now in the same house where Sean Finn was born.

But he only became involved in Fine Gael party politics by accident. He was invited to a meeting in Croagh but didn’t intend going. However, two men who bumped into him leaving the tennis club, encouraged him to “look in”.

“I left the meeting as secretary,” he recalled.

Dan Neville’s political career began in earnest in 1985 when he was first elected to Limerick County Council. He retained his council seat for almost two decades, only resigning it in 2003 when the dual mandate was abolished. His son Tom was then co-opted and went on to win the seat in 2004.

But Dail entry eluded Dan for a number of years. He contested the 1987 general election in the Limerick West constituency without success and did not stand in the 1989 election which was a disaster for the party. But he went on to become a senator and in the 1992 general election put in a strong showing.

In the 1997 general election, he topped the poll in a constituency where Fine Gael bucked the national trend, winning two out of three seats, and has retained his seat ever since. In 2002, after a count that went on for two and a half days, he succeeded in holding his seat, beating fellow deputy Michael Finucane by one vote.

“It was an awful way to win and a terrible way to lose,” he recalled this week.

For most of his years in the Oireachtas, as both a senator and a TD, Dan Neville’s name has been associated with suicide and mental health, both the campaign to decriminalise suicide and the campaign to raise awareness about suicide.

“Everybody I meet around the country asks me why? There is a bit of presumption that I am bereaved by suicide, which I am not. Everybody advised me to stay a hundred miles away from it, that it would hurt people and it would have a serious negative impact on my political opportunities and my support. I didn’t see it that way.”

He put forward three private members’ bills in the Seanad, before finally, in 1993, the then Minister for Justice Maire Geoghegan Quinn took one of them as a Government Bill and it was enacted into law.

“That was at a time when suicide was part of the Hidden Ireland and was not discussed,” he recalls.

Things have improved “a bit” since but not enough.

“Other countries have successfully and significantly reduced the level of suicide and improved mental health awareness. The key thing is to de-stigmatise mental, psychological and emotional ill-health.

“It is a long, long way to go to get mental illnesses or ill-health to be as acceptable as any other illnesses.”

One in four people will suffer some kind of mental illness or mental ill-health in their lifetime, he pointed out.

“Society is still frightened, and this is not only the case in Ireland.”

We are still, he argued, not too many decades away from when psychiatric hospitals were known as lunatic asylums. And, from a political viewpoint, he is disappointed that more progress has not been made in the area of mental health.

He intends, however, continuing his work with the Irish Suicidology Association, of which he is a co-founder and president.

“It involves meeting and talking to people who are in extreme difficulties in their live. While I am very conscious I am not a clinician and have always ensured that is understood, I have information for and empathy with people in crisis. You develop that through your involvement along with a very very deep understanding of the complexity of the suicide bereaved,” he explained.

He counts his work on suicide and mental health among the highlights of his political career. But he is pleased too that his work has contributed towards significant structural projects in Limerick, among them the Rathkeale and Askeaton by-passes and the N21. However, he bemoaned the fact that 30 years on, Adare is still without a by-pass.

Next month, as chairman of the parliamentary party, Dan Neville will welcome his party colleagues to Adare for their annual think-in, a fitting finale to a long political career.

And his hope is that he will continue to play a role within the party, bringing his experience and expertise to bear.