Death of Member: Expressions of Sympathy.

Wednesday, 22 March 2000

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 516 No. 4

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The Taoiseach: Information on Bertie Ahern  Zoom on Bertie Ahern  Expressions of sympathy on the death of Deputy Michael Ferris shall be taken now and the Order of Business proposals shall be taken on the completion of the expressions of sympathy.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn  Zoom on Ruairí Quinn  The sudden and unexpected death of our friend and colleague, Michael Ferris, at a Western European Union meeting in Lisbon on Monday is a tragic loss for the entire Labour Party. I was shocked and devastated to lose such an esteemed colleague and a good friend. However, our loss does not compare to that which his family has suffered and must cope with in the coming weeks and months. In Michael, they have lost a loving husband, a caring father and above all, a real friend. On behalf of the membership of the Labour Party and the parliamentary party, I extend our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to his wife, Ellen, his daughters, Gráinne and Catherine and sons, Michael, Tom, Bernard and Gerard. I also offer my heartfelt sympathy to his mother, Mary, who I am sure, at the great age of 94, never thought she would outlive her son.

Michael suffered a great loss in 1978 with the death of his first wife, Josie, the mother of five of his children but found great happiness again when he married Ellen and she gave birth to another daughter, Catherine. Michael's wife Ellen, like so many politicians' partners, was involved in every aspect of his political life as an adviser, mentor, guide and supporter. Ellen gave Michael unquestioning and loyal support throughout his career. As a team it was clear that Michael and Ellen had a loving relationship and it was fitting that Ellen should have been at Michael's side when he died.

For the people of south Tipperary, Michael's death is a huge blow. They have lost a dedicated and faithful public representative who always put the needs of his constituents first. Michael served the people of Tipperary as a councillor, Senator [796] and Dáil Deputy since he entered public life more than 30 years ago. At local level he served with distinction on the Tipperary South Riding County Council which he chaired twice, first in 1973 and again in 1981.

He entered national politics in 1975 when he won a Seanad by-election. Incidentally, he beat me for that nomination. He served in the Seanad throughout the 1980s as leader of the Labour Party Seanad group and Deputy Leader of the Seanad. In 1989, Michael fulfilled his lifelong political ambition when he won a seat for the Labour Party in Tipperary South. He held that seat in the two subsequent elections. Michael was never going to let go of that seat. It was a testament to his fighting qualities that he retained the seat in 1992 and particularly in the 1997 general election.

As a TD Michael fulfilled many roles in the Oireachtas. He was chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs from 1995 to 1997 and his work in that committee was always imbued with his passion for European integration. Most recently, he served as chairman of the Joint Committee on Sport, Tourism and Recreation, a role he took to with characteristic gusto and enthusiasm.

Michael displayed some of his finest abilities as a parliamentarian on Committee Stages of Bills. If he had a keen interest in a Bill, he would press his case strongly, as Ministers know to their cost. He was particularly proud of the fact that he held the record for the greatest number of Opposition amendments to a Bill accepted by a Minister. He achieved this considerable feat in December 1997 when the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, accepted almost 100 amendments from Michael during what was, by all accounts, an enjoyable and good natured debate on the Taxes Consolidation Bill.

Michael's family was solid Labour Party. He was always passionate about the party and it was a particular privilege for him to be the Labour Party standard bearer in Tipperary South and Clonmel, the town in which the Labour Party was founded in 1912. Michael carried the Labour Party flag in its home during good times and bad with courage and pride. He served as vice-chairman of the Labour Party from 1979 to 1986. As many Members of the House will be aware, the Labour Party was experiencing some development difficulties during that period. As vice-chairman, Michael fulfilled his duties with great skill, tact and a sense of humour. Those were stormy years for the party and Michael played a central role in steering it through a difficult period of its history.

Michael was a socialist and an internationalist. He believed passionately in the ideals of the labour movement worldwide. Through his extensive travel and work abroad he had many friends and contacts in numerous parliaments and in international organisations. I recall the occasion when I represented the Government at the funeral of Andreas Papandreou in Athens. I was ushered into a room for VIPs and introduced to the Pres[797] ident of the Republic of Cyprus, Mr. Clerides. His first comment, upon hearing that I was from Ireland, was: “How is Michael Ferris?” Many colleagues in both Houses will have had a similar experience over the years.

Michael had other passions and interests outside politics, which will be surprising to some people. One of them was beekeeping. Only last week he gave presents of his home made honey, with its unique flavour of Galtee heather, to some of his friends in Leinster House.

My abiding memory of Michael is of his energy, his sense of fun and his sheer lust for life. He was a generous and warm friend who gave his all to the Labour Party. There was never a scintilla of doubt or a hint of equivocation in Michael about his commitment to the party. We have lost one of its finest members and we are all the lesser for it.

Michael was a true Labour Party stalwart. We will miss him greatly. The thoughts, condolences and prayers of the Labour Party are with his wife Ellen and family at this very sad and tragic time.

The Taoiseach: Information on Bertie Ahern  Zoom on Bertie Ahern  We on this side of the House join in this tribute and motion of sympathy on the death of the late Michael Ferris. We all mourn his passing. He is a great loss to his party, the House and, most of all, to his family, his wife Ellen, his mother, sons and daughters.

He was an exceptionally decent, conscientious, and immensely hard working Deputy. We on this side of the House worked with him for several years. He worked very hard. The House comprises a number of Members who work hard on the floor of the House while others work equally hard, but not so much on the floor. Michael did both. He enjoyed the floor of the House. Deputy Quinn summed it up well. If he was into a Bill he gave it his all and held strong and passionate views. There was always a sense of fun about him. When he scored a good point he was happy to chuckle about it. He greatly enjoyed the cut and thrust of politics on the floor of the House.

He will be enormously missed by his constituents, both as a local representative and because of the work he did in this House for them, which I know they appreciate. In addition to representing well the interests of his South Tipperary constituency, he was an assiduous parliamentarian and played an active role on the committees of the House. Many of us believe the committees are of immense importance; perhaps others do not. Michael believed they were. He chaired many of them and was prepared to play a major role on them. He was active on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and, more recently, on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Tourism, Sport and Recreation.

He played a very active role in European and international affairs as a member of the European socialist group and interparliamentary group. He took them very seriously. As Minister for Finance or as Taoiseach he appeared to be everywhere before me. He was not going around [798] the world taking life easy, but was representing the country. He was remembered wherever he went, which is more than most of us can say about some of these parliamentary blocks. Regardless of the language, people knew him and he made it his business to be known. I could name many places he visited, both popular and unpopular. He was known because he spoke up wherever he was. He did not merely attend as part of a delegation – he had his bit to say.

He was a member of the Labour Party for a number of decades. He was vice-chairman of the party from 1979 to 1986, was Chief Whip and assistant Government Whip. He served in the Seanad during the 1970s and most of the 1980s. As a county councillor in Tipperary South Riding he served two terms in the Chair. He was also a member of numerous committees, including agricultural committees, many of which he chaired, the VEC and the South Eastern Health Board. He was a long time member of Tipperary UDC. He was immersed in the community and not too many things happened in which he was not involved. He was present and very active during any visit I made there as party leader.

While the towns tend to claim the more numerous part of the electorate, the late Deputy Ferris, born in Bansha, came from a rural tradition in the Labour Party. He was always very keen to explain agricultural life. As the number of Deputies from rural areas declined over the years he was happy to explain the rural aspect to issues. I had to suffer that on a few Finance Bills when he lectured us about placing too much emphasis on business life and not enough on rural life. I remember a number of times he made long speeches about that on Bills with which I was involved.

He was a moderate and non-ideological person but he showed great social concern rooted in strong moral and religious values. I pay tribute to the much appreciated contribution he made. I recall with gratitude the time I worked closely with him when the Fianna Fáil-Labour Party partnership Government was in place. I considered him a true friend and a person whose loss will be felt enormously.

On behalf of the Government and the Fianna Fáil party, I extend our sympathies to the leader of and his colleagues in the Labour Party. I am conscious that this is the third time I have had to do that in the life of this Dáil which is less than three years old. That is a price which seems especially hard on a party so I sincerely extend those sympathies to his colleagues. It is hard on any party, large, small or in between, to lose that many members. As has been said many times, it reminds us in the House of the price people pay for the hard going of political life. That is a price the Labour Party has had to pay in a hard way in this Dáil.

Last year the Government provided funding towards the establishment of the Ferris scholarship scheme in the NUI in Galway. The scheme is designed to ensure that a great diversity of [799] students participate in exchange programmes by bringing US students from disadvantaged backgrounds to the university for the year. Its establishment was promoted strongly by Deputy Michael Ferris. He discussed that with me a number of times together with his relations in the United States who provided the remainder of the substantial funding for this scholarship. He was passionate about it. I recall at least two conversations in which he said it would give a lead to getting more ordinary Joe Soaps into universities. It was his contribution. It is now up and running and, for years to come and because of his efforts, people from deprived, disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds will receive an education.

I offer my deep condolences to his wife, Ellen, his four sons and two daughters and his friends and colleagues who bear the greatest burden of this sad and tragic loss. I am told by my colleagues who were with him on Monday that his last comments were about the pride and satisfaction he received from the involvement of Irish troops working under the UN banner in Kosovo. He was immensely proud of that role and wanted that to be recorded. At a time when we have troops in so many parts of the world, he was a politician who was very involved internationally, gave of his time and ultimately died in service abroad. I refer to that because it was a contribution which my colleagues noted and they shared his pride in it. He apparently put it strongly and well on the day. Ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh a anam fíor-uasal agus go gcanfaidh Mícheál i measc na n-aingeal go deo. May he rest in peace.

Mrs. Owen: Information on Nora Owen  Zoom on Nora Owen  Our party leader, Deputy John Bruton, wanted to be present to pay tribute to his dear friend and former colleague, Michael Ferris. Unfortunately, Deputy Bruton had to be present in Lisbon on party business, which is ironic and coincidental, and I know he has expressed his apologies to Deputy Quinn for not being here.

On behalf of Fine Gael, I extend our sympathy on the untimely death of Michael Ferris to his wife, Ellen, to his sons and daughters, Gráinne, Michael, Tom, Bernard, Gerard and Catherine, to his mother, Mary, and to his sister, Josephine. I also pay tribute and extend sympathy on behalf of Fine Gael to Deputy Quinn, leader of the Labour Party, and to all Michael's colleagues in the Dáil, the Seanad and throughout the country. He was well known and loved by all Labour Party people throughout the country and by many others. It is a terrible loss for the Labour Party to have to see another of its members pass away in this manner.

Michael was the embodiment of all that was decent and honourable in politics. Wherever he went, he left friends behind, be it at county council or health board level or in the Dáil or Seanad. He saw his role as first and foremost to represent the people of south Tipperary.

His work for his constituents knew no time limits. He was an active member of many local [800] organisations and his knowledge of local issues was legendary. When he died, he was president of Bansha Agricultural Show Society and a member of the Bansha Musical and Dramatic Society and I shared many songs with him. He was influenced by his great hero and friend, Canon Hayes, who founded Muintir na Tíre. Canon Hayes's inspiration in his community work led Michael to get involved in political life as a way of delivering for his people of South Tipperary.

In addition to his deep commitment to his beloved Bansha and South Tipperary, Michael also took a keen interest in European and world affairs. It is a coincidence that he lost his fight for life at a meeting on such matters.

I was part of another dramatic period in Michael's life. I was with him in South Africa during the South African elections when he was sent from a distant part of the country to Cape Town to undergo a quadruple by-pass. I became close to him because I spent a lot of time in the hospital until his wife, Ellen, joined him. I saw how quickly he became known despite the fact he was wired to tubes and medical devices. Anytime I asked where the Irishman was, I was pointed in his direction because people in the hospital knew he was undergoing an operation. He made a tremendous recovery and he did not lose his good humour during that difficult time. I was glad he survived that and came back to serve the country for a number of years.

As a Member with more than 20 years experience in the Dáil and Seanad, he saw many of his colleagues and friends come and go on the merry go round of politics. These people always considered him a friend.

His repeated election was a measure of the strength and depth of the Labour Party's support in urban and rural Ireland. As a member of that party's smaller rural base, Michael will be sorely missed by the Labour Party. It is a cruel blow and a statistical improbability that the Labour Party has lost its third Deputy since the 1997 general election.

On behalf of the Fine Gael Party I extend my deepest sympathy to Michael's wife, his children, his mother and his sister. We are all saddened by his untimely death. May he rest in peace.

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Ms Harney): Information on Mary Harney  Zoom on Mary Harney  I join with the Taoiseach and Deputies Owen and Quinn in extending my sympathy and that of the Progressive Democrats to Michael's wife, Ellen, his six children and the Labour Party. It is extraordinary that this is the third time in the short life of this Dáil that we are extending our sympathies on the death of a member of the Labour Party. As Deputy Owen said, it is almost an impossible statistic if one considers it as a proportion of its members. It is a big blow to the Labour Party because, as Deputy Quinn said, Michael was passionate about his politics but he was particularly passionate about the Labour Party.

[801] Michael led a full life. I attest to the fact he was well known internationally because on a recent visit to South Africa I met a man from Tipperary who asked me if I knew Michael Ferris. He said he did not know him because he left Tipperary many years ago but Michael stayed with the man and his family after his illness in South Africa. He told me that after Michael returned to Ireland a number of years ago he telephoned him every week to talk to him and they became great friends. That sums up the type of man he was. We all felt we were his friends. He had a very warm and vibrant personality and his innate decency was obvious to all who knew him. Two weeks ago we had a conversation about a matter in south Tipperary in which he was particularly interested. One always wanted to make a special effort to help him as one regarded him as a pal. That is not something we could all say about each other.

When Members of the Oireachtas travel abroad they are always interested in who will accompany them. I never travelled with Deputy Ferris but he was a popular choice because he got on with everyone, he had a great sense of humour and a great love of life. To his wife, Ellen, I wish to say how sad and sorry we are at this loss and how deeply shocked we were to hear of Michael's sudden and untimely death. I also extend my sympathy to his children and to Deputy Quinn and the Labour Party who have lost a terrific party member and a man who was a close friend to us all.

Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  I dteannta An Taoisigh, An Tánaiste, Ceannaire Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre agus Leas-Cheannaire Fhine Gael ba mhaith liomsa ar son an Chomhaontais Ghlais comhbhrón a dhéanamh le baintreach an Teachta Michael Ferris, Ellen, lena bheirt iníon, lena cheathrar mhac, lena mháthair, Mary agus leis an chlann ar fad i ngeall ar a bhás obann Dé Luain.

It is normal to only speak words of praise for a colleague on his death but it requires no effort to praise the late Deputy Michael Ferris. I can think of nothing bad to say about this thoroughly decent man. Different parties have political differences but to all in the Green Party Michael was always friendly, humorous and warm hearted. He was a true and hard working gentlemen and a very loyal gentleman and colleague to all in the Labour Party. On behalf of the Green Party I extend my sincere sympathy and prayers to Deputy Quinn and the Labour Party, but especially to Michael's family and many friends. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.

Mr. Davern: Information on Noel Davern  Zoom on Noel Davern  I offer my sympathy to the Ferris family, to Michael's wife, Ellen, and to his four sons and two daughters. I also extend my sympathy to Deputy Quinn and the Labour Party. Michael joined me as a colleague through the Seanad in 1975. He had boundless energy and was consistent and persistent. Sometimes he could be annoying because of his intention and [802] diligence but he thoroughly researched any matter in which he was interested and was consistent in pursuing such matters. Michael had a tremendous sense of loyalty, particularly to south Tipperary and to Bansha and the Glen of Aherlow in west Tipperary where he always topped the poll in local elections. However, his deep concern over the past two years was not for his own health but for his mother, who was moved to a nursing home.

Michael was a very fit man and often lectured me about my more pleasurable indulgent habits suggesting that I should follow his example. He is the third Labour Party Member of the Oireachtas to die but he is also the third Member from south Tipperary to die since 1968, following Paddy Hogan and Don Davern, so his death is a blow to the constituency as well as to the Labour Party.

Michael would have been happy to die with his boots on. He could not foresee a life of retirement and none of us could imagine him living such a life. He would always arrange a meeting for any night that one might be at home knowing we would all be available. I often thought that he scouted for meetings rather than arranging them. While we had many differences we worked together, particularly in the past two and a half years, for the benefit of Tipperary town where Michael lived and much of this work has come to fruition.

On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party in south Tipperary I offer my sincere sympathy to Michael's wife, Ellen, to his family and to the Labour Party in the House and in Tipperary on this tragic loss.

Mrs. T. Ahearn: Information on Theresa Ahearn  Zoom on Theresa Ahearn  It is with deep sadness and great sorrow that I join the tributes to my constituency colleague and friend, Michael Ferris. While sharing 18 years of public life with Michael, I experienced the extraordinary enthusiasm and remarkable dedication of a truly devoted politician. As the representative of his constituents in south Tipperary, he was steadfast, determined and fearless in promoting and protecting their interests and well being. As a political colleague, he was decent and fair, helpful and kind. He was most generous with advice and we all know that Michael had much advice to give. He can be best described in very simple terms – he was a gentleman.

Michael was extremely proud to be elected to Dáil Éireann in June 1989, the same day as me. From then on Leinster House became his second home. His entire life was one of public service. His success can be attributed to one thing – his belief in his own ability. His political journey saw him climb every rung of the political ladder, from community involvement in his native Bansha to Tipperary Urban District Council to South Tipperary County Council, Seanad Éireann and then Dáil Éireann. He spoke of his native Bansha and the Glen of Aherlow as if they were a city but to him the area was a city. He was conscious that he [803] was following in the footsteps of one of Bansha's noblest sons, the late Canon John Hayes. Canon Hayes always said that where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows. It was this belief of his mentor that gave Michael his breathless enthusiasm for public life.

He was a committed family man and spoke just two weeks ago about the desperate attempts all politicians must make to ensure a fair balance between public service and family life. Michael left us while carrying out the parliamentary duty he liked most – representing this Parliament and this country abroad. I am glad that, with his priorities in the right place, Ellen was with him on this, his last journey. It may be of comfort to all of us, if not daunting to know, that Michael is not alone in his new home, having joined three of our colleagues who have sadly left us since June 1997.

When many of us meet tonight in Bansha, at the foot of the Galtee mountains and in the shadow of his beloved Glen of Aherlow, it will be with deep sadness and heavy hearts that we will follow Michael to his final resting place, his true home for the last 68 years. We all know that for Michael it is all over now but he can surely rest in peace because he served his people well, he cared for his family with endless devotion, he did us, his political colleagues, and the political profession proud. Above all, he showed such loyalty and endless love for his party, the Labour Party. None of us could find a better role model for ourselves and those who will follow us than Michael Ferris.

I wish to extend my deepest sympathy to Ellen, to his family, to his elderly mother, to his colleagues and friends in the Labour Party and, indeed, to everyone in south Tipperary. For all of us, this is a desperate loss. I will always remember Michael with much affection.

Members rose.

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