Limerick's Gerard Collins looks back on a political life after 50 years

Norma Prendiville

Reporter:

Norma Prendiville

FIFTY years ago this week, Gerard Collins took his Dáil seat for the first time, the seat he won in the by election following the death of his father James.

But the new Fianna Fail TD was no rookie. He had cut his political teeth on his father’s campaigns and in UCD where he had won his stripes as an organiser and debater.

Then, in 1965, came the first of the many “calls” that peppered his long political career, when the  Taoiseach of the day and party leader, Seán Lemass asked him to step into the role of assistant general secretary as the general secretary was out of action.

It put the young Abbeyfeale man, still in his 20s, right at the heart of what was then the most powerful political force in the country and at a time of immense change.

Change came calling again two years later with the death of his father James who had been a TD for Limerick West since 1948. The by-election was called for ten weeks after, Gerard recalled at his home in Abbeyfeale this week.

“We were into it straight away,” he said, naming the two men who proposed him at the selection convention and remembering too the novelty of canvassing with one of the first-ever coloured canvassing card.

“And with a photograph on it!”

Ranged against him were Willie Madden for Fine Gael and Ned O’Dwyer for Labour. But Gerard topped the poll with over 14,000 votes a feat which he was to repeat in general election after general election for the next 30 years.

And he smiled remembering the night of the count, November 10, 1967, a night which saw big rallies in Adare, Rathkeale, Newcastle West and finally in Abbeyfeale, where there were flaming torches and pipe bands to hail the victor.

Just four days later, Gerard found himself in Dáil Eireann, and within a few weeks, he was making his maiden speech.

“I was of the newer generation coming in,” he recalled. “I used to be referred to as Young Collins.”

The late Liam Cosgrave continued to call him Young Collins, even when he, Gerard, was a member of government.

Promotion followed quickly, first to parliamentary secretary,(today’s equivalent of a junior minister) to George Colley and then in 1970, he was made Minister for Posts and Telegraphs.

“I didn’t expect it,” he said this week.

“It was the time of the Arms Trial when ministers were dismissed. Blaney, Haughey and O’Móráin were dismissed and Kevin Boland resigned,” he recalled.

He and his new wife, Hilary, had gone to watch a Hitchcock film when the “call” came.

“Half way through, I got a call out from a member of the Garda Siochana, that the Taoiseach (Jack Lynch) wanted me straight away.”

“I knew his difficulty,” Gerard said. But his answer was yes.

It was a baptism of fire in a decade dominated by the Troubles; a time when he and his wife  came under threat and where Gerard found himself caught up in a political whirlwind over Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act and his decision to sack the RTE authority.

He now describes the 1970s as a “sad time” but a time when political stability was maintained and subversion contained.

The 1980s opened with three general elections within 18 months, something which, Gerard says, required peak physical fitness and peak mental stability.

“It was physical crucifixion,” he recalls now.

In government, he took on, first,  the role of Minister for Justice then later Minister for Foreign Affairs “which I enjoyed immensely”.

"It was exceptionally challenging and very demanding but there was a great sense of fulfillment,” he observed. “If I were young and involved again, it is a department I would very much like.”

But by the early 1990s, tensions within Fianna Fail between Taoiseach Charlie Haughey and future  leader Albert Reynolds came to a head. In a bid to maintain unity, Gerard Collins appeared on RTE News appealing to Reynolds to desist and not “burst”  the party.

Asked about that now, he says: “I said what I said. If I were to do it again I might do it differently. I became emotional.”

When Albert Reynolds finally became Taoiseach, Gerard Collins and many others lost their cabinet seats.

“With a new leadership coming in that didn’t have a place for me, I felt I should consider my options which I did.”

A new direction brought Gerard to the European parliament as MEP, where he was later to became its vice-president as well as being leader of the Fianna Fail group.

At his third European Parliament hustings in 2004, however, Gerard failed to retain his seat in the reduced three-seat Munster constituency.  

“I had the second highest vote of anyone in the country but didn’t get the seat,” he recalled of the only election he failed to succeed in.

But, he continued, his reaction was not one of feeling rejected.

“There was a certain feeling of relief for me.”

By now in his late 60s, the job, from a physical point of view, had become physically onerous. But now, from a vantage of 50 years, would he do it all again?  

“I probably would. I was never afraid of a challenge,” he replied.  

He does however feel that politics today is very different.

“What I can’t get to grips with is the effect social media has. It is difficult to measure the effect that has on the political issues or difficulties that have to be dealt with,” he mused.

The advent of fake news has given him cause for concern. And he finds the “tweeting efforts” of US President Trump “extremely disturbing.”

“His continuing attacks on media that dare to challenge him is equally extremely disturbing,” Gerard added. “The truth must always be known. The people must be informed of the truth on all issues.”

“Public service, public representation exacts a toll, more so now than in my time,” he continued.  

Unlike others, Gerard Collins, has resisted efforts to “tell all” from his own political career. The man who was close to and at the heart of many of the most tumultuous events of the late 20th century prefers, like many before him, to “let sleeping dogs lie.”

A number of high-profile journalists have pressured him to consider a book but he still hasn’t said yes.

“There are areas I don’t wish to talk about,” he said.

“It may be the best thing. We came through very very difficult times in the life of the nation. We came through difficult political times,” he said.

He is, he told the Limerick Leader, thoroughly enjoying his retirement. Now, half a century on, he says: “My fondest memories now are of the very pleasant times representing the people of Co Limerick.”