Boland, John James (1944–2000), politician and government minister, was born 30 November 1944 at 28 Rathfarnham Road, Terenure, Dublin, eldest among two sons and one daughter of Charles Boland and Kathleen Boland (née Whitty), both of whom were civil servants, resident at 15 St Agnes Road, Crumlin. He was educated at the Presentation convent in Terenure, Synge St. CBS, and UCD; after graduating B.Comm., he worked as a sales representative for Pan books. Cutting his political teeth on several local government bodies, he was elected for Fine Gael to Dublin county council at age 23 (1967–81, 1982); after serving as the council's vice-chairman (1969–71), he became at age 26 its youngest ever chairman (1971–2), and occupied the office on three subsequent occasions (1973–4, 1976–7, 1979–80). Closely associated with several controversial planning decisions, he successfully piloted through the council the rezoning of lands near Dublin airport, resulting in their increasing in value by over £1 million; taking out an auctioneer's licence and establishing an estate agency (1972), he personally handled the sale of the lands. His role in such transactions, involving properties the rezoning of which he had influenced, and similar activities by Fianna Fáil councillor and auctioneer Raphael (‘Ray’) Burke, were among the planning-related matters investigated by the garda fraud squad (1973–4); though a file was prepared for the attorney general and forwarded to the director of public prosecutions, no charges were brought against either politician. In later years Boland contended that, while he might have acted unwisely in the matter, he had not acted unethically.
Defeated in the 1969 and 1973 general elections as Fine Gael candidate in Dublin Co. North, he served in Seanad Éireann on the labour panel (1969–77), on his first election becoming, at age 24, the youngest senator up to that time. Elected to Dáil Éireann and commencing a twelve-year tenure (1977–89), he abandoned his auctioneering business and became a full-time politician. In general elections he took the second seat in the Dublin North three-seater, behind poll-topper Ray Burke of Fianna Fáil. When canvassed by Garret FitzGerald (qv) during the Fine Gael leadership contest after the 1977 election, Boland subjected the more senior politician to a searching, half-hour telephone interrogation regarding his intentions if elected leader, impressing FitzGerald with both his pluck and command of the issues. Though a supporter of outgoing leader Liam Cosgrave, and associated with the party's right wing, Boland was elevated by FitzGerald (with whom he never became personally close) to the front bench as spokesman on health and social welfare (1977–81); shadowing Charles J. Haughey (1925–2006), he impressed with grilling performances in dáil debates, especially on the 1979 family planning bill. As opposition spokesperson on the environment (January–June 1981), he was highly effective in debate on the Stardust nightclub disaster.
Through the three tightly contested general elections of 1981–2, Boland not only held the second seat in Dublin North, but through skilful vote management brought in party colleague Nora Owen to the third seat. As minister for education (June 1981–March 1982) in the nine-month Fine Gael–Labour coalition, he accomplished the landmark reform of abolishing corporal punishment in schools. His decision to raise the school-entry age to four-and-a-half years engendered furious media debate, and was fiercely opposed by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, which, fearing job losses, condemned it as a crude cost-cutting measure; Boland, arguing the educational merit of the proposal, successfully steered it through a tense dáil division (November 1981). When the February 1982 election produced another hung dáil, Boland publicly called for a national government of the two largest parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. In opposition he was Fine Gael leader of the house, and spokesperson on industry (March–December 1982). As director of elections for the critical Dublin West by-election of 25 May 1982, occasioned by the appointment of sitting Fine Gael TD Richard (‘Dick’) Burke as European commissioner by the minority Fianna Fáil government, Boland orchestrated a masterful campaign culminating in an unexpected Fine Gael victory, thereby thwarting Haughey's attempted ‘master stroke’, and maintaining the existing dáil alignment.
On Fine Gael's return to government in December 1982, Boland became minister for the public service (1982–6), the first time that the department was allocated its own separate minister. Appointed by FitzGerald expressly to effect a thorough, and long overdue, reform of the civil service – the Devlin commission's proposals having simmered unheeded since 1969 – Boland overcame stiff resistance, both overt and subtle, from within the bureaucracy, displaying his characteristic toughness, dogged determination, and astute political judgement. His ministerial order of January 1984 created a Top Level Appointments Committee (TLAC) to consider applications for senior civil service positions, and recommend for appointment the best candidate available, regardless of the applicant's department, background, or speciality; it applied the principle of promotion based on merit rather than seniority, and introduced mobility between departments, and between professional and administrative grades. Representing a major change in appointment procedures, the order also imposed on secretaries of departments fixed seven-year terms, and retirement at age 60. To obviate anticipated resistance to the TLAC reform, and pressuring of ministers by their senior department officials, Boland brought the measure directly to cabinet, eschewing the customary procedure of prior circulation of proposals to all interested departments.
Boland's other public service reforms included introduction of merit pay and career breaks, as well as extension of interdepartmental competition for lower-level posts and of the executive programme allowing for job swaps between the public and private sectors. Confronting the civil-service culture of secrecy and anonymity, he introduced procedural changes establishing the principle of personal accountability of civil servants to individual members of the public. Establishing the office of ombudsman (October 1983), he ensured that it was adequately funded, and appointed as its first occupant Michael Mills (1927–2008), a respected political journalist with a prominent public profile and a reputation for independence and integrity. Boland oversaw publication, after repeated delays, of a government white paper on the public service, Serving the country better (1985). A modest effort at modernisation, informed by contemporary thinking on management systems, the paper recommended delegating and decentralising decision-making authority, thereby allowing officials to ‘manage’ rather than ‘administer’; freeing ministers and senior advisers from routine, day-to-day administration of their departments to concentrate on formulation of policy; and enhanced emphasis on staff development and training, and continual assessment and appraisal.
Regarded as the government's shrewdest political strategist, Boland chaired the communications strategy committee, comprised of TDs and officials of both coalition parties, which advised on the presentation and publication of cabinet decisions. He was initially designated for the health and social welfare portfolio in a cabinet reshuffle in February 1986, but when Labour minister Barry Desmond refused to budge from the department, and there were embarrassing media leaks about the impasse, Boland was made minister for the environment (February 1986–March 1987). He introduced an urban renewal bill intended primarily to stimulate redevelopment in Dublin, afflicted at the time with a plethora of derelict sites, and established a national parks strategy. In the reallocation of portfolios following Labour's withdrawal from government after failure to agree the 1987 budget, he also served briefly as minister for health (January–March 1987). In the ensuing general election (February 1987) he retained his seat despite a decline in personal first preferences and the overall party vote, and the loss to Fianna Fáil of the third Dublin North seat. He was opposition spokesman on the environment (1987–8), until being dropped from the front bench by the new party leader, Alan Dukes. After losing his seat in the June 1989 election to party colleague Nora Owen, he retired from politics. Having already begun legal studies, he qualified as a barrister (1991), and practised on the Dublin and eastern circuits.
‘A gritty performer with a dash of the street fighter in his make-up’ (Tansey (1985)), Boland was a hardnosed political operator who lived for a scrap, pugnacious and acerbic in disposition, with a quick mind and biting wit. A dynamic and imaginative minister, he refused to quail before unpopular decisions, and was ready to overrule his civil servants. He married (1974) Catherine (‘Kay’) Kennedy; they had one son and one daughter. Residing in the early 1970s at 94 Monastery Road, Clondalkin, Co. Dublin, he later lived in Skerries, Co. Dublin, at 14 Shenick Drive, Holmpatrick, and latterly at 35 Townparks. His recreations were sailing, reading, and following racing and Gaelic games. A heavy drinker and smoker, he was long ill with cancer, and died 14 August 2000.