O'Connell, John (1927–2013), medical doctor, businessman and politician, was born in a tenement at 73 Aungier Street, Dublin, on 20 January 1927, the fifth child of three sons and three daughters of John O'Connell, a half-blind, semi-literate British army pensioner, and his wife Mary (née Smith) also semi-literate, whose mobility was reduced as a result of puerperal fever. O'Connell grew up in a council house in Drumcondra, Dublin, in an austere, piously catholic and chronically hungry household. His eldest brother died in 1931 of heart failure caused by rheumatic fever, a sister died of tuberculosis aged fifteen, and his other brother died on active service with the RAF during the second world war.
O'Connell was educated at St Patrick's National School, Drumcondra, and the Christian Brothers' secondary school attached to St Vincent's Orphanage, Glasnevin. (His mother obtained permission for her children to attend the school without paying the fees required from day pupils, provided they always came first in class.) Deciding to become a doctor at the age of seventeen, he trained through the RCSI, sharing flats and financing himself through part-time jobs. Upon graduating in 1955, he married Elizabeth (Lillian) Gunning from Brandon Road in Drimnagh, Dublin, and emigrated to the USA where he practised at a catholic hospital in Ohio for three years. His career was marked by determination to make a difference through sheer energy (he boasted of sleeping just five and a half hours nightly) punctuated by weariness and burnout. Back in Dublin and after a brief period as registrar at the Mater Hospital, he established a general practice serving communities around the South Circular Road in 1958. During these early days he felt he was engaged in social medicine, offering tranquillisers to people depressed because of their real problems with overcrowding, lack of money or dearth of work. Describing it as like 'offering aspirins to the victims of an earthquake', he wanted to tackle the earthquake, and this was the main reason he would later enter politics (Irish Medical Times, 13 March 2013).
He made a fortune from founding the pharmaceutical directory Monthly Index of Medical Specialities (MIMS) in 1960. The motivation for launching MIMS has its origins in the difficulties he encountered in prescribing drugs while working in the USA where quick, accessible proscribing information was necessary for foreign doctors and he sought to fill this gap. MIMS would become required reading for doctors and a successful international brand. He also went on to establish the Irish Medical Times in January 1967. He was titular editor, sharing editorial duties with Dr Robert Towers (1927–2010). In 1972 he sold a stake in his company Irish Medical Publications (IMP) to Haymarket Publishing Group. O'Connell remained editor and profited again when IMP was sold to Jefferson Smurfit in 1988; he finally disposed of IMP to Reed Elsevier in 2000. By 1972 O'Connell could afford to live in a Victorian mansion in Inchicore, Dublin.
In 1963 he joined the Labour Party in reaction to the chronic unemployment and poverty he witnessed, and published and edited a party paper, Labour News, with Proinsias Mac Aonghusa (qv). With his medical practice providing an electoral platform, he financed a personal political machine based on paid canvassers and private opinion polls while generally refusing political donations. In the 1965 general election he was elected a Labour TD for Dublin South-West. His constituency became a personal fiefdom, challenged only briefly by Labour TD Seán Dunne (qv) during the 1969 general election. Elected to the dáil nine times amid several constituency boundary revisions, he represented Dublin South-West (1965–77), Dublin Ballyfermot (1977–81) and Dublin South-Central (1981–7 and 1989–93). He was also MEP for Dublin (1979–81) and served on Dublin Corporation. He attributed his sparse attendance at the European parliament to a fear of flying, eventually resigning his seat there.
Although he was widely admired by constituents, his volatility and emphasis on problem-solving over coherence led dáil colleagues to distrust him. Highly active in the dáil, he drew media coverage by sending a telegram to the pope about homeless constituents living in Griffith Barracks. His sustained publicity tactics were decisive in securing compensation for Irish children born with deformities after their mothers received thalidomide during pregnancy. His election as a Labour TD reflected the party's move from conservative catholic labourism to more secular and professional social democracy. A frequent critic of the Irish catholic hierarchy, he consistently advocated legalising contraception, both as a dáil deputy and as the owner-editor of the Irish Medical Times.
He liked resolving labour disputes, antagonising established unions by mediating between CIÉ and the breakaway National Busmens' Union. He was also the only Labour TD to oppose the expulsion of Senator Jack McQuillan (qv) over a trade union split. After 1969 O'Connell undertook private peace initiatives in Northern Ireland, meeting both sides in the Troubles. He was republican but expressed respect for the forthrightness of the UDA leadership and of Ian Paisley (qv). His arrangement of meetings between British opposition leader Harold Wilson and Provisional IRA representatives in Dublin (March 1972) and Luton (July 1972) outraged many public figures, who feared this encouraged paramilitaries to bomb their way to the negotiating table. That October he spearheaded an attempt to repudiate Conor Cruise O'Brien's (qv) criticism of SDLP policy.
As party spokesman on social welfare, he was prominent in moving Labour away from opposition to coalition in May–June 1972, but when the Fine Gael–Labour alliance won the 1973 general election, he was disappointed not to be apointed minister for health. Party leader Brendan Corish (qv) took health himself; when asked O'Connell refused to become Corish's special adviser. O'Connell was one of the few Labour TDs to oppose disciplining David Thornley (qv) for attending a Sinn Féin demonstration, and criticised coalition security legislation. O'Connell became Labour spokesman for health from 1977–9, criticising Charles Haughey (qv) as health minister for introducing 'Mickey Mouse' legislation allowing prescription-only access to contraception for married couples. In fact a friendship had developed between the duo from the mid 1970s, leading many in Labour to accuse him of going soft on Haughey.
O'Connell's Labour Party career ended when redrawn constituency boundaries caused party leader Frank Cluskey (qv) to move into Dublin South Central. Cluskey maintained O'Connell should move to Dublin West, while O'Connell argued that as a sitting TD he should choose his constituency and his personal support could secure two seats. After being refused one of three nominations in South Central, O'Connell became an Independent TD. During the 1981 H-Block hunger strike he reinforced his republican credentials by visiting Bobby Sands (qv). At the 1981 general election O'Connell headed the poll in Dublin South Central, while Cluskey was defeated. (O'Connell's transfers divided evenly between parties, suggesting a strong personal base.)
He first negotiated with Haughey about possible support for a Fianna Fáil minority government, allegedly trying to secure the health ministry, before being elected ceann comhairle by the incoming Fine Gael–Labour coalition following talks with Labour. His erratic tactics irritated and amused both sides. Following the February 1982 election, he was re-elected ceann comhairle to the annoyance of Fine Gael and Labour who hoped that he would resign and force the new Fianna Fáil government to reduce its voting strength by putting forward one of its own TDs. Fine Gael and Labour subsequently accused him of pro-Fianna Fáil bias, citing his casting votes in support of the 1982 government's finance bill and his handling of procedural issues. He cited the convention that the ceann comhairle's vote is cast for the government. Both Fianna Fáil and Independent TDs paid tribute to his availability to deputies, willingness to advise on procedure, and lenient interpretation of the rules.
After the November 1982 general election returned a Fine Gael–Labour coalition, he sought unsuccessfully to remain as ceann comhairle, saying Labour remained 'his first love'. For eighteen months he was absent from the dáil, prompting the Workers' Party to call on him to resign in July 1984. He joined Fianna Fáil in February 1985, saying Independent TDs were largely powerless. This brought accusations of hypocrisy, given that the government's Family Planning Bill risked defeat through tightly whipped Fianna Fáil opposition and defections by government deputies. Some commentators suggested his decision reflected personal hostility towards the Labour health minister, Barry Desmond. Later he acknowledged that he privately favoured the bill, but said politics required party loyalty.
Having developed Middle Eastern business interests, O'Connell had during 1980–82 sponsored successful applications for Irish citizenship on behalf of fourteen relatives of Saudi businessman Mahmoud Fustok; he helped secure citizenship for another of Fustok's relatives in 1990. Most of these naturalisations were granted against the advice of senior department of justice officials, but with the support of Haughey as taoiseach. In 1985 Fustok paid £50,000 to O'Connell who passed it on to Haughey, which led to O'Connell testifying in 1999 and 2006 before the Moriarty Tribunal on Haughey's finances. Although Haughey, O'Connell and the surviving beneficiaries denied these transactions were corrupt, the tribunal ruled in 2006 that Haughey and O'Connell had acted inappropriately. It also emerged that in March 1985 O'Connell subscribed £5,000 at Haughey's request to Celtic Helicopters, a company owned by Haughey's son Cathal.
O'Connell became more active in the dáil and addressed public meetings on health service shortcomings and the need to reform the tax system. At the 1987 general election he was narrowly defeated by a party colleague and then nominated to the seanad by Haughey. He was ridiculed for claiming that hospital patients on trolleys did not reflect a bed shortage since trolleys were beds with wheels, and annoyed fellow senators by lamenting that he had been banished to the political margins.
In 1988 he published a disorganised memoir, Doctor John: crusading doctor and politician (1989), combining a moving account of his early life with anecdotal score-settling. At the 1989 general election he was returned to the dáil, but failed to secure office, and as his relationship with Haughey deteriorated, he complained the poor and sick had not benefitted from the improved fiscal situation. In 1992 O'Connell secured a commitment from Haughey to retire later in the year following a discussion of their dealings with Fustok. Suggestions that he was working with Haughey's rival Albert Reynolds (qv) were denied by O'Connell and Reynolds. On the day he left office Haughey paid £15,000 for O'Connell's stake in Celtic Helicopters; no other investor saw a return.
Reynolds' first cabinet in March 1992 included O'Connell as minister for health. O'Connell announced that he would liberalise family planning legislation and as a result was hailed by some commentators. He oversaw the introduction of condom machines, which had previously been banned. The legislation, however, was limited in scope (and superseded in 1993), and his attempt to be a dynamic minister cutting through red tape antagonised civil servants and was hindered by cutbacks. In 1993 the dáil public accounts committee investigated grants of lottery money made by him to community groups in his constituency just before the November 1992 general election; these were not illegal but breached standard procedures. He took responsibility for these transgressions, claiming he preferred meeting needs to observing formalities.
His ministerial tenure was marked by other gaffes, including a maladroitly phrased suggestion that 'unnecessary' heart surgery could be reduced by proper diet, exercise and medication. He won credit for publishing a 'patients' charter' explaining the services and outcomes hospital patients might reasonably expect, for creating liaison bodies which kept nurses and other groups in touch with health officials (some discontinued by his successor) and establishing review groups on specific problems; most reported after he left office.
The formation of a Fianna Fáil–Labour coalition in February 1993 sealed his political demise. Excluded from the cabinet, he resigned from the dáil on 24 February, immediately going to London for cardiac treatment. Shortly after leaving the dáil he met UDA representatives in the hope of establishing contact between them and the Irish government. In political retirement he led a quiet life in Ranelagh. He died on 8 March 2013 at St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, after a long illness, and was survived by three sons and four daughters. He was remembered as a man of genuine ability and social concern, with too little time in office to prove himself. He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. He was fatally disadvantaged in politics, if not in business, by emotional and intellectual incoherence and a dislike for teamwork.