O’Hanlon steps down after 33 years

11 February 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

As Dr. Rory O’Hanlon, TD prepares for retirement following the General Election, we at The Northern Standard felt it would be fitting to do a profile on his life, after what has proven to be a vast and varied career.

Rory O’Hanlon was born in Dublin in 1934, eleven years after the Irish Civil War ended. His father was a Medical Officer in the army, who had also participated in the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War.
Although, these conflicts were never talked about, Rory could recall the people of Mullaghbawn, Co. Armagh, where the family had a second home, being very despondent at being excluded from the Irish Free State at the time of Partition. Perhaps that was what ignited his interest in politics.
His mother AnnaMary worked in a bank before devoting her life to Rory and his three sisters, Deirdre, Fionnuala, and Meave. Deirdre and Fionnuala went on to become nuns, while Meave also caught the medical bug and practices as a GP in Ballybay.
Their house was just beside his grandmothers, and two of Rory’s uncles were GPs in the local area, with practices in Bessbrook and Newtown, Co. Armagh.

He received his early education in Mullaghbawn National School before going to boarding school, first in St. Mary’s in Dundalk before going on to Blackrock College, Dublin.
The Leaving Certificate served as the entrance exam to college, as there was no points system in those days. One could buy their entry into college by purchasing a matriculation or paying an entrance fee of £20.
Rory vividly remembers entering the National Concert Hall with other students of UCD, Earlsfort Terrace on October 1st, where the various faculties had a table and students could sign up for the course of their choice. Naturally, Rory followed in his father’s footsteps and signed up for medicine.
At the time, Fianna Fail were not active in Northern Ireland and when Rory was presented with the opportunity of joining the Kevin Barry Cumann associated with UCD, he seized it. However, meetings had to take place off campus as university was a politics free zone, so the Cumann used to get together in Hartigan’s Pub at the foot of Leeson Street.

When Rory left UCD he trained as a House Doctor in the Mater Hospital, before going on to do six month residencies in the Coombe Women’s Hospital, Temple Street Children’s Hospital, Cherry Orchard Fever Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital, Phoenix Park, all in preparation for becoming a GP.
The young doctor then went to work alongside his uncle in his Bessbrook practice, before doing stints in Carrick-on-Shannon and Patrick’s Well, Limerick.
In 1965, he went in front of the Local Appointments Commission, who subsequently appointed him Dispensary Doctor for Carrickmacross, covering rural areas including Corduff, Lisdoonan and Bawn. And that is how Carrickmacross became home.
There were no health boards then, so he was an employee of Monaghan County Council. His contract stated that he had to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, bar 28 days holidays at the discretion of the County Manager. Adequate cover had to be organised and the County Manager also had to approve of the locum doctor acting in Rory’s place.
His interest in politics endured and after joining the Cumann in Carrickmacross, it wasn’t long until he was chairing it and the Comhairle Dáil Cheantair, the County Executive.

In 1973, Monaghan man Erskine Childers became President of Ireland, and subsequently asked Rory if her would go forward to an election convention as a perspective candidate in the by-election of that year. The doctor, who was dedicated to his practice had to think long and hard about the impact the decision could have on family life. But having mulled over the pros and cons, he decided to go forward, only to be narrowly defeated by Brendan Toal of Smithborough.
Interestingly, back then it was a three seat constituency, encompassing not only County Monaghan, but also West Louth and North Meath. In 1977, Cavan/Monaghan became a five seat constituency, and it was second time lucky for Rory, who was elected as a Fianna Fail TD.
During his first decade as a Dail Deputy, Dr. Rory O’Hanlon continued as a medical practitioner in Carrickmacross, between coming home on a Thursday and returning to Dublin on a Tuesday, naturally other doctors were also there.
Another interesting fact is that Rory was a Dail Deputy before he became a Monaghan County Councillor. He served on the North Eastern Health Board from 1971 to 1987, and on Monaghan County Council from 1979-1987, but had to resign from both positions when he became Minister for Health in 1987, a decade after becoming an Oireachtas member.

Rory recalled that Ray McSharry was the Minister for Finance at the time and although he says there wasn’t a penny to be had, 25% of the total tax intake went towards health.
The government made some unpopular decisions back then, similar to now, he said, but he felt happy to be in government because he believed they were the right decisions and therefore he had no trouble defending them.
He felt that being a doctor charged with the health portfolio had both its advantages and disadvantages. He felt that perhaps expectations were a lot higher than what they would have been if he wasn’t a doctor. However, he conceded that it was an advantage to have a working knowledge of the department he led.
Dr. Rory O’Hanlon’s basic philosophy is that everybody is entitled to quality of life and an equal quality of healthcare. However, he was frustrated by financial restrictions on government departments:
“When I was a minister there wasn’t the funding to do the things I’d like to do, you have to be able to live within a finite budget provided, it’s the same in every country in the world. The challenge is to get better value for money being spent. We did that.”
As a minister, he said he had four jobs, any of which could have been full-time: 1) He was a government minister 2) in charge of health 3) with a responsibility to the Dail and 4) Cavan/Monaghan at local and national level.
However, he did not underestimate the importance of the opposition. A strong opposition was needed to hold the government to account and explain how they would do things differently.
In fact, he felt that being a government back bencher was perhaps more frustrating, as one can’t make long speeches in the Dail. However, the Fianna Fail Parliamentary Party was a place where their ideas were listened to and direct access to ministers obtained.
When asked if being automatically returned to the Dail was a great honour after serving as Ceann Comhairle, he said that it was a great personal honour and an honour for the constituency. However, he explained that the reason the Ceann Comhairle is automatically returned to the next Dail is because they are expected to be impartial and are not allowed to take part in any party political activity. This, he says, would make it next to impossible to be re-elected.
The political landscape had changed since he entered politics, he said, but the economy seemed to operate in cycles. He recalled the high taxation, mass unemployment and emigration of the eighties, but said that when things turned around, recovery came quickly. However, he conceded that the unprecedented prosperity enjoyed during the Celtic Tiger, perhaps made the downturn harder to adjust to.

The veteran politician, who has now retired, said that he had always maintained a good working relationship with all members of Dail Eireann. He welcomed robust debate around legislation and the like, but condemned personality politics and character assassinations as appalling, adding that there was no room for them in the political system. He also commented that politicians back-biting each other publicly saddened him.
Dr. O’Hanlon has long campaigned for a code of practice to be drawn up for Oireachtas members, to abolish this sort of behaviour. He said that he had always respected the integrity of his colleagues, as they had a mandate from their constituents.

Dr. O’Hanlon said that all of his proudest moments and fondest memories related to family, his wife Teresa, children Fiona, Rory, Ardal, Neale, Shane and Dearbhla, as well as his 13 grandchildren. Fiona followed in daddy’s footsteps by becoming a GP, now practicing in Cootehill, while Dearbhla is a Practice Nurse in the town. Rory junior qualified as a civil engineer but instead decided to pursue a career in religious publishing. Ardal became a comedian, an actor and a household name as a result. Neale pursued a career as a chartered accountant, whilst Shane became your friendly neighbourhood estate agent.

When asked what his biggest achievement was, the TD remained modest, saying that anything he had accomplished, he had not done alone. He recalled being asked by a constituent if the old school at Mullyash could be turned into a community centre, and inside two years this vision became a reality.
He said that he did his best for individuals and the constituency at national and international level and that is how he would like to be remembered. However, he admitted that he sometimes found the length of time it took to get things done frustrating.
Dr. O’Hanlon, who turned 77 on Monday, still lives with his wife in Mulinary, Carrickmacross and he says he has never thought of leaving it.
After hopefully seeing deputies Margaret Conlon and Brendan Smith re-elected, Rory looks forward to a quieter life, although he does confess he will miss the cut and thrust of politics. However, he says he will remain a dedicated member of the Carrickmacross Cumann.
He says that he has been out canvassing for the Fianna Fail duo and accepted that there is a lot of anger and unhappiness towards the party within the constituency and beyond. He reiterated that the party were not afraid to make unpopular but necessary decisions when they had to. He is an optimist by nature and feels that when recovery comes, things will turn around quickly.
When asked for his predictions on how he thinks the General Election will go at local level, he said that he can see Fianna Fail retain two seats, as will Fine Gael and Sinn Fein, leaving the final seat of the five up for grabs.
We may complain, Rory concluded, but democracy allowed people to vote and have their say, and when governments get elected they are obliged to do their best.

For all the ups and downs that are part and parcel of a political career, Dr. Rory O’Hanlon, TD would recommend it to anyone who was so inclined. He encouraged young people to get involved in politics and encouraged more women to put themselves forward for election, as he hoped the gender imbalance would be rectified in time.
Some of the finest people he knows are politicians, and he hoped that his proposed code of practice would restore the good reputation of both the profession and the people in it.

He also said that whether people of Carrickmacross and the wider constituency supported his party or not, they had always been courteous to him. He wished to thank all his supporters down through the years, his esteemed colleagues John Wilson, Jimmy Leonard, Seamus Dolan, Brendan Smith, Margaret Conlon, Diarmuid Wilson, Francie O’Brien, and various other TDs, senators, county and town councillors too numerous to mention. Not forgetting his dedicated support staff Ita Connolly, who has been his assistant in Carrickmacross since 1972 and Jacqueline Taffe, his Parliamentary Assistant in Dublin.
His decision signals the end of an era in Irish politics and there are a lot of new faces hoping to fill his highly distinguished shoes. Good health to you, Dr. O’Hanlon.

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