Wilson, John Patrick (1923–2007), government minister and Gaelic footballer, was born on 8 July 1923 at Callanagh, Kilcogy, Co. Cavan, the son of John Wilson, farmer, and his wife Brigid (née Comaskey). His grandfather James Wilson was a Fenian, his father a Fianna Fáil and GAA activist and devotee of Éamon de Valera (qv). He attended the local Clonoose and Cloncovid national schools and from 1937 boarding school at St Mel's College, Co. Longford, where he was head prefect in his final year. His academic ability and love of languages were apparent from an early age.
Gaining further renown on the Gaelic football pitch as a defender-cum-midfielder, he dominated opponents through physicality and sure catching, his burly frame, athleticism and nous offsetting a lack of flair. He won Leinster college medals with his school in 1941 and 1942, being selected for the Cavan minors in 1941 and the Leinster college team in 1942. On the fringes of the Cavan senior team from 1943, he won an Ulster championship with the Cavan juniors in 1944.
He established himself in the senior team during the 1945 championship as Cavan lost the all-Ireland final to a Cork side captained by Jack Lynch (qv). Two years later he participated in the only all-Ireland final held abroad, Cavan defeating Kerry at the Polo Grounds, New York. Starting at half-back, he failed to contain Batt Garvey who goaled as Kerry built an eight-point lead. The selectors moved Wilson into midfield where he contributed to Cavan's comeback. In 1948, he dropped to the bench as Cavan won the national league and retained the all-Ireland. By then working outside Cavan, he retired from inter-county football, having as a starting player won one all-Ireland (1947) and two Ulster titles (1945 and 1947). With his club Mullahoran, he won five Cavan county titles, in 1942, 1944–5 and 1947–8.
In 1942 he entered Maynooth College to train for the catholic priesthood, developing into an outstanding debater, orator, linguist and classical scholar. After graduating BA with first-class honours in classics in 1945, he left after four years as a seminarian and became a secondary teacher at St Mary's College, Galway, while studying for an H.Dip., obtained from UCG in 1947. During 1947–50 he taught at St Kieran's College, Kilkenny. In 1950 he went to London, teaching in Finchley grammar school and studying part-time at Birbeck College in the University of London, gaining another degree in classics. An unwilling emigrant, he developed socialist sympathies and associated with the radical Tribune group. He also met and in 1953 married Ita Ward from Hampstead; they had a son and three daughters.
In 1952 he secured a position teaching classics at St Eunan's College, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, enabling him to pursue studies at the Magee College, Derry, and, being a lifelong theatre aficionado, to perform as a star turn with the Letterkenny Players. He achieved prominence in the local GAA as a referee, administrator, and particularly as football trainer to the St Eunan's school team and the Donegal minors. Perfecting his Irish in Donegal, he became likewise fluent in Greek, Latin and Spanish (studying in Zaragoza), and competent at Italian, French, German and Russian, maintaining his linguistic range by perusing foreign newspapers.
He was elected Donegal delegate to the central executive of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) in 1953. Having shed his radicalism, he ingratiated himself with the clericalist ASTI leadership, being elected vice-president for 1959–60 and 1964–5, and assuming the presidency for the rest of the one-year term when the incumbent died in October 1959. This high-profile position led in 1960 to employment at the exclusive Gonzaga College in Ranelagh, Dublin, where he taught Michael McDowell, subsequently tánaiste and leader of the Progressive Democrats, and Peter Sutherland, subsequently EEC commissioner and eminent practitioner and advocate of corporate globalism. Graduating MA in classics from UCD, Wilson became in 1964 an assistant lecturer in classics there while continuing at Gonzaga. From 1969 he lectured at St Patrick's teacher training college in Drumcondra. On becoming a full-time politician in 1973, he mourned the loss of a vocation he enjoyed and at which he excelled.
After running unsuccessfully for Seanad Éireann on his ASTI credentials in 1965, he became active in Fianna Fáil, having previously downplayed his party associations, and served as chairman of the Dublin South East comhairle dáil ceantair. In 1969, nomination to a Dublin dáil constituency eluded him while another seanad bid failed. Turning to his native Cavan, he diligently attended Fianna Fáil cumanns and GAA functions there, seeking to parlay all-Ireland glory into a dáil seat. He was elected to the national executive by delegates at the 1971 ard fheis. When he secured the party nomination for the Cavan constituency in the 1973 general election, bookies quoted him at 100–1, but he was narrowly returned, gaining a seat for Fianna Fáil against national trends.
This improbable success arose from his adept electioneering, combining eloquence and a brash, bristling presence with unaffected repartee. Thereafter, he cultivated his electorate with an assiduity that impaired his national standing, but assuring that he easily held his seat in a further six elections for the Cavan–Monaghan constituency, topping the poll all but once. His professorial exterior, accentuated by a tousled mane of white hair, camouflaged a savvy political operator who ensured that his constituents gained from his subsequent accession to government office. He lived at Kilgolagh, Finea, Co. Cavan, where he bought a bungalow shortly before the 1973 election, also maintaining a house in Churchtown, Dublin.
A much-deployed media interlocutor, he effortlessly kept interrogators at bay through charm and ostentatious flashes of learning. At international conferences and official excursions abroad, his bravura multilingual exhibitions and informed ruminations on high culture conveyed a flattering impression of Irish politicians. He added much-needed oratorical lustre to the dáil, sprinkling his speeches with quotations from Edmund Burke (qv), and with classical allusions and epigrams rendered in Greek and Latin. By turns pungent and pompous, he extemporised wittily in a distinctively clipped style, subjecting foes to withering sarcasm and outsized bombast. Sardonically distancing himself from the contrivances and partisan theatrics of his public persona, he was congenial and entertaining in company and popular throughout the dáil, particularly as an avuncular support to younger deputies. However, the public never warmed to him, beholding an arrogant Fianna Fáil supremacist addicted to verbose speechifying and glib dissimulation.
Immediately appointed Fianna Fáil education spokesman, he spent his entire dáil career on his party's front bench. His rapid advancement was assisted by support for what he termed the rational and unemotional Northern Ireland policies of party leader Jack Lynch. One of the few southern politicians to travel north regularly, also being appraised of developments there by his cousin Fr Des Wilson, a Belfast priest of socialist republican views, he fostered cooperation between Fianna Fáil and the SDLP. Unsympathetic to unionist aspirations, he regarded a united Ireland as inevitable, but to be achieved peacefully, his emphatic renunciation of violence putting him at odds with Charles Haughey (qv), champion of Fianna Fáil's advanced nationalists. Similar in age, both men were considered leadership contenders.
'Minister for Cavan' (and education)
On becoming education minister in 1977, he brought to conclusion a tumultuous period in Irish third-level education, appeasing students with generous grant increases and reversing controversial efforts to yoke the emerging vocational colleges to the traditional universities. He also set up a special one-year training course to meet a shortage of teachers and sanctioned the first multi-denominational school in Ireland at Dalkey, Co. Dublin. In a pattern repeated throughout his career, having quickly defused the most pressing controversies, he lapsed into inactivity.
With one eye on political advancement (or preservation) and another on his constituency, he neglected his administrative duties. Nicknaming him the 'minister for Cavan', civil servants despaired at his enthusiastic but unfocused working habits. Legislation proceeded tardily, if at all, and was dominated by departmental attitudes sometimes in contradiction to his proclaimed intentions. Though only tangentially involved with his department's workings, he was anxious to claim any credit; in 1987 after a radio broadcast detailing a policy initiative failed to mention his name, he descended upon the RTÉ studios to remonstrate with the relevant producer.
His policies were subject to delay and continuous revision as he sought to appease all interested parties, often mediating interminably between irreconcilables. Thus, an attempt to ban corporal punishment wilted in the face of opposition from teachers' unions, while a long-awaited white paper on education, published in 1980, failed to moderate the excessive centralisation of the education system or to commit to specific policies. Neglecting third-level education, he was slow to place the vocational institutions on a firm statutory footing, and departed office in 1981 with the universities close to financial collapse.
He trod warily regarding the catholic church. His progress in teaching, trade unionism and politics had been furthered by personal associations with leading clergy, mainly arising from his time at Maynooth, though a lifelong friendship with the primate of the Irish catholic church, Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv), derived from their being roommates in a summer school as twelve-year-olds. Accordingly, he failed to intervene meaningfully in a lengthy impasse between the church and lay teachers over the composition of boards of management in primary and some secondary schools, discouraged further attempts to establish multi-denominational schools, and sat on plans to reform the NUI as it would entail dealing with the anomalous position of Maynooth seminary. He was content to watch the church's effective control over education gradually crumble from the effect of declining religious vocations.
By no means a bad minister, his emphasis on primary education and on inner-city schools mitigated the education system's middle-class bias, and an ambitious school-building programme reduced the number of primary school classes with over forty pupils from 3,620 to 980 during 1977–81. He delivered funds at a time when an unusually large proportion of the population was in full-time education and when Ireland's economic fortunes hinged on rapidly attaining an adequately educated workforce (in west European terms). In 1981, Education became the highest-spending government department. However, he failed to make the difficult decisions needed to achieve a more efficient apportionment of scarce resources and disappointed the high expectations that accompanied his appointment.
In Haughey's shadow
His caution reaped a lengthy ministerial career, while ultimately undermining his leadership credentials. Once established as a party grandee, he strove for widespread acceptance, hoping to emulate Lynch as a compromise taoiseach. He was caught flat-footed when a backbench revolt installed Haughey as taoiseach in late 1979 after which their relations improved, without becoming more than businesslike. Although prepared to argue his point, he always assented to Haughey's decisions and it was at the latter's behest that in October 1980 Wilson granted extravagant pay increases to teachers, almost double the amount recommended by an independent review group. This concession contributed to escalating public-sector wage demands and to the overweening influence subsequently wielded by teachers' unions.
Following Fianna Fáil's defeat in the 1981 general election, he irritated Haughey by flirting with party rebels, and was fortunate to be included in his 1982 cabinet. Denied Education, Wilson received Posts and Telegraphs where his economising initiatives were disrupted by exigencies attendant on the government's minority status.
Fianna Fáil's loss of power in late 1982 precipitated a climactic internal power struggle during which the beleaguered Haughey encouraged Wilson, and others, to contend for the leadership as a means of dividing his enemies. Wilson let it be known that he was willing to serve, but otherwise cloistered himself away, ignoring proposals for a joint statement by anti-Haughey candidates. His only overtly rebellious step was to sign a petition demanding a parliamentary-party meeting to discuss the leadership.
After Haughey unexpectedly prevailed in a February 1983 confidence vote, Wilson remained transport spokesman; he had not been particularly disloyal. Neither had he been particularly loyal, unlike constituency colleague Rory O'Hanlon, who gained Haughey's approbation with grave implications for Wilson's ministerial prospects. In 1984, Haughey appeared sympathetic towards (or at least did not discourage) failed efforts by hardline republican elements in Cavan Fianna Fáil led by former arms trial defendant James Kelly (qv) to undermine Wilson within his bailiwick.
Suitably motivated, Wilson adopted Haughey's bellicose nationalist rhetoric, vigorously seconding his spoiling tactics in relation to the New Ireland Forum report (1984) and his rejection of the Anglo–Irish agreement (1985), and justifying these positions as protecting Fianna Fáil's republican flank from Sinn Féin. Wilson's obedience helped to consolidate Haughey's position and to hold the party together; it also probably determined a spurt of state investment in Cavan in the late 1980s when Haughey resumed as taoiseach. Participating energetically in Fianna Fáil's cynical opposition tactics, in a 1984 dáil debate Wilson alleged that education minister Gemma Hussey was bringing sectarianism into the department, a reference to one of her advisers being a methodist.
Upon Fianna Fáil's return to government in 1987, Haughey surprisingly found room for both Wilson and O'Hanlon in cabinet. The former's appointment as minister for tourism and transport was partly reward for sharing his vote, enabling Fianna Fáil to win three seats in a four-seat Cavan–Monaghan contest allowing for the ceann comhairle's return. Furthermore, he had demonstrated his competence and pliancy, important considerations for Haughey who was keenly interested in tourism and dominated Wilson's policy-making therein.
He enacted tough cutbacks as the state curtailed investment in transport and withdrew from the tourist industry, instead encouraging private investment through tax incentives. Looking to his constituents, with the help of EEC Commissioner Ray McSharry he secured in 1989 EEC funding for the £30 million scheme to restore the Ballyconnell–Ballinamore canal, thereby providing a water link between Lough Erne and the Shannon. A symbol of improved North–South cooperation, this project benefited tourism in the border region, though critics grumbled that the money would be better spent on Ireland's crumbling road and railway network.
His main responsibility was tourism, no longer to be subordinate to the interests of state transport companies. Intensifying an ongoing policy of liberalising aviation, in 1988 he agreed with his British counterpart radically to deregulate air routes between Britain and Ireland. This initiative stimulated more frequent trips home by Irish emigrants in Britain, and Wilson irritated hoteliers by trumpeting this as a tourist boom. However, he failed to follow through on deregulating bus transport and remained too obliging of Aer Lingus; consequently, the private operator Ryanair, which was crucial to the government's aviation agenda, nearly succumbed to the state airline's predatory pricing.
Like most of the cabinet, Wilson unavailingly opposed coalition with the Progressive Democrats in 1989. Per these arrangements, he was demoted to minister for the marine, obliging him to resolve an acrimonious dispute with anglers over the introduction in 1987 of a licence fee on trout and coarse fishing. Regarding this as a precursor to the privatisation of fishing rights, the anglers enforced by intimidation a boycott of the inland fisheries, devastating fishing tourism. He proposed a compromise whereby anglers paid into co-operatives for investment in local fisheries. The anglers were reassured by Wilson, but regarded him as subject to his civil servants, and it was only after wringing further concessions, requiring the consent of a significant majority of co-op members for contributions to be levied, that they ended the boycott in February 1990. Anglers declined to make the promised contributions once the co-ops were established.
Presidential aspirations; tánaiste
Expertly eliding various controversies associated with the hazardous marine brief, including the state's promotion of environmentally problematic fish farms and the drowning of four fisheries officers, colleagues viewed him as a safe pair of hands and a serviceable ceremonial figurehead. He was set fair for the 1990 presidential nomination until late 1989 when support within Fianna Fáil for party stalwart Brian Lenihan (qv) waxed irresistibly. In September 1990, Wilson announced belatedly that he would contest the party nomination, stressing that his dáil seat was safe while the government's majority would be imperilled by a by-election in Lenihan's constituency. Concerned to maintain party unity, Wilson campaigned circumspectly and lost a vote of Fianna Fáil TDs by 51 to 19, as sentimentality trumped political logic. Enjoying nothing like Lenihan's popularity, he would have been a more assured candidate.
Consolation came in November when he was made tánaiste, Haughey elevating a veteran with no designs on his position. Wilson associated with the 'country and western' clique grouped around Albert Reynolds (qv), which was hostile to coalition government and to Haughey. As Haughey's authority ebbed during 1991, Wilson counselled patience and opposed Reynolds's failed leadership challenge in November, arguing influentially that Haughey be permitted a graceful leave-taking. Desperate to thwart Reynolds, Haughey loyalists then touted Wilson as an interim taoiseach. Instead, when Haughey resigned in January 1992, Reynolds succeeded with Wilson's support. Reynolds, however, dismayed Wilson by purging the cabinet, perpetuating factional animosities.
Under Reynolds, he cruised towards retirement as tánaiste and minister for defence and the gaeltacht (acknowledgement for his advocacy of the Irish language), as such neglecting policies to rationalise the army's administration and introduce merit-based promotion. His condemnation of the beef tribunal as a barrister-fattening exercise attracted controversy, as did the publicisation of his attempt to pressure the Olympic Council of Ireland on behalf of a friend whose daughter had been excluded from the Olympic swimming team. From July to November 1992 he led a government delegation in fruitless negotiations held in London, Belfast and Dublin involving the British government and Northern Ireland's constitutional unionist and nationalist parties. Assailed over the republic's claim to Northern Ireland, Wilson responded firmly and fluently without being abrasive. Once the talks ended, he announced he would not contest the November 1992 general election.
He continued in politics as Fianna Fáil vice-president, also being appointed to the Arts Council in 1993 (his wife exhibited various of her paintings), and receiving an honorary LLD from the NUI in 2001. In 1998 he was made chairman of a commission for victims of violence in the Irish republic relating to the 1969–94 'troubles'. The commission's 1999 report called for greater compensation, counselling and advice for victims and their families and for a review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Determined efforts followed to locate 'the disappeared', those killed and secretly buried by paramilitaries. Along with a British civil servant he was in 1999 appointed to lead a commission to trace the bodies' whereabouts, throwing himself into a physically and psychologically demanding role, necessitating interaction with bereaved families and the IRA. Some remains were retrieved.
In declining health, he retired from the commission and as Fianna Fáil vice-president in 2005, and died at St James's Hospital, Dublin, on 9 July 2007. He was buried in Mullahoran, Co. Cavan. Eager to repudiate Haughey's legacy, the Fianna Fáil establishment paid hyperbolic tribute to Wilson, who emerged untainted from the corruption scandals of the 1980s, depicting him as a peerless statesman and sage. He would have been gratified and amused.