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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 12 May 1994

Vol. 442 No. 7

Death of British Labour Party Leader: Expression of Sympathy.

On behalf of the Government and of the Irish people I would like to convey deep regret and sympathy on the sudden death of the British Labour Party Leader, Mr. John Smith, to his family, party colleagues and friends. It is a sad day for everyone in these islands.

He was a political leader of outstanding ability and stature. He came to politics from a Scottish professional background in Edinburgh. He was impressive in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate, and had a great sense of humour. He won the trust and confidence of the financial and business community, as well as his own more natural supporters, because of his clear commitment to prudent and sensible economic policies as a framework for his party's social concern. He also took on courageously the task of party reform as vital to its future progress.

The British Labour Party has for many years been sympathetic and helpful to Ireland. I had the privilege of meeting John Smith on a couple of occasions in the last year. I always found him accommodating and helpful. He was committed to the achievement of peace in Ireland. He gave his enthusiastic support last December to the efforts of the two Governments in the Joint Declaration to achieve peace, without calculation of party political advantage. We will always be grateful to him and his colleagues for adopting a responsible and statesmanlike attitude during potentially difficult moments in the emergence of the peace process.

He was very clear on matters of principle. When he was here last June, he told me that the bombing campaign in Britain was totally counterproductive, in terms of the aims of its perpetrators. He said at a press briefing, on 11 June 1993, that a peaceful resolution of the Northern Ireland problem would be high on his agenda when he came to office. He disagreed with the view that a time limit should be set for the completion of talks between the political parties. Governments had to be patient and maintain their persuasive approach, because the problems of Northern Ireland would not be solved quickly. On a visit to Belfast in December 1992, he stated that a renunciation of violence was essential for participation in negotiations, and that political change could never be achieved through violent means.

The Labour Leader, helped perhaps by his Scottish background, was unequivocally committed to Europe, and took a positive and forward view of European integration, including economic and monetary union and the Social Charter. This represented a significant new departure from previous British Labour Party policies. Undoubtedly, a harmony of outlook on European policy between Britain and Ireland, such as existed when both were members of the ERM between 1990 and 1992, is very beneficial to Ireland, just as a divergence of outlook can create difficulties for us. Obviously, though, both countries have to decide their own policy, on the basis of what they judge to be in their own best overall interests.

By his early death, John Smith and his party have been deprived of the opportunity of a democratic contest for Government under his leadership. I am certain that in whatever capacity, he would have continued to be a good friend of Ireland. Go ndéanfaidh Dia trócaire ar a anam.

On behalf of Fine Gael, I have written to Margaret Beckett, the Deputy Leader of the British Labour Party, to express the sympathy of our party to the British Labour Party on this grievous loss. I take this opportunity to express my deep sympathy to his wife Elizabeth, whom I had the pleasure of meeting not long ago, on this awful loss. As has been said, his family began a normal day this morning only to find that it has been cruelly changed in every way by this sudden death.

John Smith was a politician of deep conviction. He voted in favour of British membership of the European Community against his party's Whip; he was willing to take a risk for his convictions. He was committed to decentralising power within Britain and handled the difficult issue of Scottish devolution on behalf of his party, both in Opposition and in Government. He also worked as leader of his party with dedication and skill for the modernisation of the British Labour Party and, through that, for British democracy, building on the work of his predecessor, Neil Kinnock. It is only a week since he led his party to an unprecedented success in the council elections in Britain.

Last year I had the privilege of meeting John Smith and his wife, Elizabeth. Having spoken to him for quite some time I was impressed with his detailed knowledge of virtually every subject, including those I raised about which he had no notice. He showed an all-encompassing detailed knowledge and understanding of them. He had a complete grasp of Anglo-Irish relations and, in particular, of Northern Ireland. He showed courage in standing against those in his party who might have wished the British Labour Party in Opposition to take a superficial, simplistic or crowd pleasing approach to the problem of Northern Ireland. It was that courage, conviction and knowledge that led him to give his support to the Downing Street Declaration.

John Smith did not believe in short cuts in international relations any more than he believed in short cuts in politics. He was a politician for the long haul and it is a cruel blow to his party that the long haul upon which he was leading it back to office was cut so prematurely short. He was a committed European who pointed out to me two European models that could be used to help solve some of the problems of this island. In particular he referred to the Shengen Agreement as a means of dealing with security problems on this island. He was, as he said publicly and privately on many occasions and as anybody who has had his experience will testify, impatient with the role of Leader of the Opposition and wanted an opportunity to test his ideas in the exercise of power and responsibility in Government. He would have been a truly excellent Prime Minister and his loss will be deeply felt on both sides of the Irish sea.

I again wish to express the deep sympathy of all in the Fine Gael Party to the family of John Smith, to his wife and daughters, to the Labour Party in Britain and the labour and socialist movement throughout Europe who have lost a great champion of social justice and the European ideal.

I find it hard to express the sense of shock I felt this morning when I was told of the death of John Smith. I was proud to regard him as a friend and I believe that the United Kingdom has lost a potentially great leader.

John Smith was a genuine friend of Ireland. He and his wife, Elizabeth, spent part of their honeymoon here and I know from experience that he looked forward to, and thoroughly enjoyed, his visits to our country. More than that, he was a deep and committed student of the problems of Northern Ireland, he spent a considerable amount of time discussing those problems and developing his own approach to addressing them.

At our many meetings, here and in London, and indeed at European meetings, Northern Ireland was always on John Smith's agenda. He was always anxious to be told the latest developments and to offer any constructive help he could. Indeed, it may not be generally known that in the period leading up to the Joint Declaration, he offered his help on several occasions, with a view to ensuring that progress in Northern Ireland would never be made a partisan political issue under his leadership of the Opposition.

Again, speaking from experience, I know that John's views carried considerable weight whenever and wherever the leaders of European socialist parties met. He was, rightly, seen by them as a man of immense experience and wisdom and as someone who had employed his own qualities of integrity and inner strength to unify and consolidate the support base of the Labour Party in Britain.

He was always good company. His quiet and sometimes demure exterior masked a wicked sense of humour, which could enliven any occasion. His considerable compassion was always visible, particularly in relation to any personal dealings. He had a particular kind of charm and his warmth and wit will always be recalled by those privileged to have known him.

However, that quiet exterior also encompassed both a vision and a strong sense of conviction about the future of Britain. His vision extended from the need to strengthen and develop the technological base of British industry to the overwhelming demand for better and more responsive public services. The unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped and the homeless were at the top of his concerns and I have no doubt that, had he lived, he would have come to be remembered as one who had transformed their lives for the better.

John Smith will be genuinely mourned across Europe. His loss will, of course, be most keenly felt in the United Kingdom and among the members of the great party that he led for a tragically short time.

On behalf of the Irish Labour Party, I extend my deep sympathies to his wife, Elizabeth, to his three children, to his many friends and to the Labour Party.

Like other Members I was deeply shocked to learn of the death of John Smith, the Leader of the British Labour Party. On behalf of the Progressive Democrats I express our most sincere sympathy to his wife, family, relatives, party colleagues and to the British public at large on the loss of someone who was already a leader and a potentially greater leader. It is a cause of great sadness to see men or women cut down in their prime. John Smith brought great standing and ability to his position as Labour Party leader in Britain.

Within his party he achieved the commanding height of leader but it would appear from public opinion and recent election results that he stood on the threshold of even greater personal and political achievement. It is deeply regretted that the potential represented by John Smith in democratic and political terms should, through today's tragic event, fall short of its ultimate achievement and reward.

There is one dimension of Mr. Smith's career — others have commented on it — to which I would draw attention from an Irish point of view. Greatly to his credit he developed and consolidated within the British Labour Party and wider Labour movement in Britain a coherent pro-European long term strategic view. I witnessed at first hand his influence on colleagues in the European Parliament. Some of the younger members of the socialist group came into a group with many Euro sceptics. They had great enthusiasm and energy and were motivated by the leadership and commitment of John Smith. Many of them who were close to John Smith brought this view forward in a vigorous way and gave public testimony to his pivotal achievement, in some respects, in reorientating the Labour movement in Britain towards the focus of a positive view on Europe. Not only are we all interdependent in terms of the European Union, it is important that our nearest neighour would have a coherent and broadly similar philosophy to ours. There are many areas, as we witnessed with the currency crisis, where things become unstuck and John Smith deservedly earns our respect for this contribution alone.

I met him when he visited Dublin and in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He had a deep understanding of Irish affairs and deserves our deepest respect for the fact that he had no truck with any kind of ambiguity about the role of violence in politics. There were forces in part of the wider Labour movement in Britain that might have been inclined to look in that direction from time to time but he would have none of it.

His death is a tragic loss to his family, party, country and the people of Europe. Go ndéanfaidh Dhia trócaire air agus ar dheis Dé go raibh a ainm.

Like everyone else I was deeply shocked to learn of the death of the British Labour Party leader, John Smith. The British labour movement and people have lost an outstanding leader and the Irish people have lost a valuable friend. It is a tragedy that Mr. Smith died so young when he had served only two years as Labour leader and when, clearly, he has so much to offer.

The sense of shock provoked by John Smith's death has been reflected in the warmth and generosity of the tributes paid to him on both sides of the Irish Sea. His ability and skill as a parliamentarian was admired by politicians all over the world. His powers of oratory, his sharp intellect and wit were all used to great effect to further the interests of the British Labour Party and its supporters. His loss to politics is a heavy one for he was clearly a man of great integrity and intellectual power and with a great sense of joy in life. It was that which made him so determined to seek progressive change so that all could share in that joy, free from the shackles of poverty and unemployment.

He was a formidible political opponent yet he never showed any personal rancour to those with whom he disagreed. He was a much admired father figure in the House of Commons and he was never aloof. He came to the Labour leadership when the party lost its third general election in a row. He responded to the task, restoring a sense of vigour and confidence and leading that party to an impressive performance in the recent local elections. He was very much a Prime Minister in waiting.

When I met Mr. Smith during his last visit to Dublin I was greatly impressed by his interest in Ireland and his desire to see a lasting solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland. He was a good friend of the Irish people and a staunch supporter of the Downing Street Joint Declaration. Perhaps the best tribute we could pay to John Smith is to continue to seek the social reform for which he had worked and peace and friendship between the Irish and British people.

I wish to convey my sympathy and that of my party to his wife, family and the British Labour Party.

Let us rise in prayerful silence.

Members rose in their places.