Tully, James (1915–92), politician and trade unionist, was born 18 September 1915 in Carlanstown, Kells, Co. Meath, second youngest among ten children of John Tully, cattle-herd, and Ann Tully (née Flood). He was educated at Carlanstown national school and St Patrick's Classical School, Navan; on leaving school he worked as a labourer for the post office and later as a grocery assistant in Dundrum, Co. Dublin. He joined the army in March 1941 and was discharged in the general demobilisation at the end of the Emergency in July 1946. He first came to prominence in the labour movement when he became the organising secretary of the Federation of Rural Workers for Meath in April 1947. He was appointed its regional organiser in 1951, and in 1954 became its general secretary, a post he held until 1973.
An unsuccessful Labour candidate for Meath in the general election of 1951, he secured a seat in 1954. In 1955 he was elected to Meath county council. He was again unsuccessful in the 1957 general election and a 1959 by-election, but was returned in 1961, topping the poll, and continued to hold his seat in the next five general elections. He was the Labour Party whip (1961–9) and deputy leader (1972–7, 1981). Appointed minister for local government by Liam Cosgrave (March 1973), he was regarded as one of the most effective ministers in that coalition cabinet. At the time of his death in 1992 no other minister for local government had exceeded his house-building record of 25,000 a year for the four years of his tenure (1972–7). Moreover, the quality of local-authority housing was greatly improved during his term of office.
This period was not without its difficulties, however, as during this time he was involved in two controversies. The first arose from statements made in the dáil in July 1974 by Fianna Fáil TDs Robert Molloy and Brendan Crinion, who alleged that the minister had a financial involvement with a local building contractor in Meath. Tully denied the allegations and referred the matter to the committee of procedure and privileges, who rejected a proposal to recommend a Garda investigation. In July 1975, although Molloy had withdrawn the allegations and apologised to Tully in the dáil, a tribunal was set up to investigate the matter further. Molloy and Crinion refused to attend the tribunal on the grounds that it was not competent under the 1921 act to investigate allegations made in parliament. In August 1975 the tribunal rejected this argument and found that Molloy and Crinion did not have at their disposal the necessary evidence for a proper investigation of the allegations.
The second controversy concerned Tully's redrawing of the constituency boundaries under the Electoral (Amendment) Act, 1974. This incensed members of Fianna Fáil, who accused the minister of gerrymandering and attempting to maximise coalition seats in future general elections. Tully was an astute strategist, and his manipulation of the boundaries was acknowledged to be a masterly attempt to minimise proportionately an ordinary swing towards Fianna Fáil, and earned his constituency revision the description of ‘Tullymander’. There was widespread expectation that the coalition government would be returned in the following general election of 1977. In the event there was a massive vote in favour of the Fianna Fáil election manifesto instead. The fine adjustments of the constituencies engineered by Tully did not allow for such a dramatic swing and actually caused a disproportionate increase in Fianna Fáil representation in the dáil, which secured the party the largest majority in its history. As a consequence two senior Labour ministers, Justin Keating and Conor Cruise O'Brien, failed to be elected, as did the future president of Ireland, Mary Robinson.
In spite of this disastrous outcome Tully was appointed minister for defence (30 June 1981) when Fine Gael and Labour formed another coalition government under Garret FitzGerald (qv). As minister, he was a guest at a military display in Cairo on 6 October 1981 when President Anwar Sadat of Egypt was assassinated. Tully was wounded when a piece of shrapnel, the size of a 10p coin, pierced his cheek and exited from his mouth. When the coalition government was defeated in January 1982, over the controversial budget that proposed a new policy to impose VAT on children's shoes, Tully announced that he would not seek reelection.
As a politician he was regarded as one of the most conservative of Labour party TDs. Within the coalition governments, for instance, he was probably the closest of all Labour ministers to the Fine Gael viewpoint on law-and-order questions. He was not at all sympathetic to the leftist socialist trend that developed in the Labour party prior to the 1969 general election. At the annual conference of the party in 1970 he referred to some fellow-members as being ‘commies’ and ‘smart-alecs. . . with sweat dripping on to their schoolbooks who talk about the workers of this country’. His background of trade unionism led him to concentrate in a practical way on the bread-and-butter issues of unemployment, health, social welfare, and housing. It was the latter issue, in particular, to which he succeeded in bringing his considerable talent and energies, and for which he will be best remembered.
Tully died on Wednesday 20 May 1992. He married (April 1942) Mary, daughter of James and Alice O'Brien. They had one son, John, and four daughters, Kathleen, Anne, Margaret, and Claire.