A political colossus who was a courageous voice for social change

By Paul Hickey

John Connor represented Roscommon as TD and Senator from 1981-2002 and was Mayor of Roscommon in 2004-5.

For the Roscommon public, he was a Fine Gael standard-bearer for a generation, and a tenacious political representative at a time of high unemployment and emigration.

To his political colleagues, John Connor was untypical: he combined close attention to constituency matters with an exceptional appetite for international politics. He was a member of the Council of Europe while he was a TD, and he volunteered in Africa for the United Nations.

For the hundreds of Connor supporters who campaigned loyally with him for two decades, John Connor was a political colossus. At a time of great political heat in Ireland – the eras of Fitzgerald v Haughey and Reynolds, Bruton and Spring – John Connor gave definition to the political views of his supporters, by what he stood for; and what he stood against. He favoured social change before that was fashionable in rural Ireland. And he railed against corruption.

As a young man, John Connor worked as a Rate Collector, beginning a lifetime of knowing every Roscommon by-road and family connection.

Active in Macra na Feirme in his 20s, John was 33 in 1977 when Garret FitzGerald became leader of Fine Gael. Attracted to FitzGerald’s liberal agenda, Connor emerged as a Fine Gael candidate for the 1981 General Election. He was elected and FitzGerald became Taoiseach.

The young TD was still finding his political feet when an election occurred suddenly in spring 1982. This was unfortunate timing for Connor who lost, despite increasing his vote to 6,897 from the 4,717 polled eight months previously.

His Fine Gael colleague Liam Naughten won the seat in 1982, the second of six general elections in which he and Connor headlined the Fine Gael ticket in Roscommon; with John Connor winning the seat on three occasions (1981; 1989; 1992) and Liam Naughten winning three times also (1982; 1982; 1987).

Six elections in 11 years, against the backdrop of bleak economic problems, must have been physically, emotionally and financially exhausting for the politicians. Connor, Naughten, Seán Doherty (FF), Terry Leyden (FF) and Tom Foxe (Ind) were the main contenders. All five served as TDs, and each man experienced defeat. Most agonising of all was John Connor’s defeat in 1987 after three dramatic recounts, one of which declared him as victor; another declaring him as having lost by one vote. He bounced back to top the poll in the 1989 election.

He was a persistent campaigner. He and his friend Cllr Charlie Hopkins were faithful advocates for Arigna mining families. He and trusted allies Cllr Tom Callaghan and Cllr Michael Creaton worked to improve local mental health services. He spoke up for western farmers.

He had eclectic interests – one summer holiday spent travelling through remote parts of the Soviet Union; another in the Public Records Office in London, studying old colonial reports on Roscommon. He loved cattle farming.

He leaves a significant political legacy. As Government TD from 1994-97 for the county, he delivered Castlerea Prison, Ballaghaderreen’s Dillon House (headquarters of the Western Development Commission) and the General Register Office (Roscommon Town). At the official opening of the Ballaghaderreen bypass in 2014, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny described John Connor as “a key architect” of the N5’s modernisation.

Most of all though – of all of Roscommon’s politicians of his era – he was a courageous voice for social change. He was among the first in the Dáil to discuss marriage breakdown, laying the ground for a successful divorce referendum. In the early 1980s he advocated for a pluralist solution to the Northern Ireland problem, at a time when anything other than flag-waving was unpopular in Ireland; the Good Friday Agreement was signed 15 years later. He emerged from political retirement in 2015 to campaign alongside Deputy Frank Feighan and former Senator Maura Hopkins for marriage equality.

John Connor was hard-working and enormously loyal – he never flinched from his friends, from unpopularity or from anyone whom he felt deserved his support. He made a lasting impact on Roscommon. And he was one of the builders of our modern Republic.

*Paul Hickey is a native of Castlecoote, Co Roscommon and a keen political observer