Obituary: Michael O'Halloran

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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL O'HALLORAN was, in my experience, the least coherent man ever to come to the House of Commons. Yet, for 12 years he represented Islington North and, if he didn't contribute much to parliamentary debate or select committees, there were other ways at least in which he did contribute.

It is a matter of delicate debate as to whether there ought to be written and oral tests for those seeking endorsement as parliamentary candidates. All sorts of hoops exist, in the form of written and oral examinations, which have been erected by Labour and Conservatives alike. The tests are rigorous. Many fall by the wayside. There are searching examinations of how to deal with a myriad hypothetical problems which a modern Member of Parliament may face.

I believe that it is up to the local Labour Party or Conservative Association to choose whom they will. When it comes to a general election, it is those people in the party of their choice who have to do the hard work slogging round the doorsteps. And, if they choose a man or woman who can hardly string two coherent words together, so be it. He or she is their choice. Furthermore, there are a lot of people in Britain who can hardly string two words together; and in my opinion they deserve to be represented in the House of Commons.

Once - along with Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, Frank Dobson, Donald Anderson and a number of other non-railwaymen - I was a sponsored member of the National Union of Railwaymen parliamentary group. Unlike us, O'Halloran was a genuine railwayman. His contributions to the discussions inside the group were significant over the 1970s, and we listened to what he said precisely because he did have the first-hand experience that we did not.

Michael Joseph O'Halloran was a very Irish Irishman. He was a huge, burly man, who was not offended to be described as an Irish navvy, and had a broad Irish accent. He was brought up in County Clare and, like many others, could find no employment in his home area. Therefore, as he told me, he "drifted to London" in 1948 and found a job on the railway. He would give vivid accounts of his experiences at Euston, King's Cross and St Pancras and could reduce his friends to fits of laughter, albeit we were a little unnerved by his account of the realities, as he saw it, of railway life. Whenever we travelled by train and remembered his stories we felt that bit less safe in our seats and were certainly infinitely more careful about what we chose from any menu in a restaurant car.

In the autumn of 1969 Gerry Reynolds, then aged 41, suddenly died. He was not only the Member of Parliament for Islington North, Minister of State for Defence, and George Brown's chief lieutenant in the House of Commons, but a potential leader of the Labour Party. It was a terrible shock and totally unexpected. In something of a hurry, Islington was told to find a candidate, and the Irish faction who then were in charge of the Islington constituency Labour Party alighted on one of their own number, Michael O'Halloran. He himself was disarmingly open about the fact that he had never ever intended to be a Member of Parliament, was astonished that he had been selected, openly admitted it was the work of "the Irish mafia" and said that he would do his best, but that he was a fish out of water.

On 14 November, appropriately on the London Transport Bill, he made his maiden speech:

In my constituency, people need good Tube services and, more particularly, good bus services to go to work, to shop, or to visit their friends. Many of them do not have a car, and those who have one often find that they prefer to travel by bus or Tube. We are worried that our public transport services seem to be getting worse rather than better. We want them to know who is responsible for them, and how they can be improved. We are not satisfied, and we want those in charge to know how we think matters can be made better. That is why I strongly favour the transfer of London Transport to the Greater London Council.

It is only sensible that a single body should control transport in London. It is ridiculous that practically every large local authority has been in charge of its own transport system while London has had a different system. This has meant that we have been unable to tie in our ideas on matters such as parking, building roads, or one-way traffic schemes with the way in which the buses and Underground run. It has meant that any ideas which people living and working in London have had on how their public transport should be organised, on what new bus plans we needed and what Underground lines should be built, have not been duly considered by the people who represented us on our council.

It is always a long-term mistake for a Member of Parliament, especially if he or she has been a member of a council, to try to second-guess the decisions of committee chairmen of that council. I believe that the seeds of O'Halloran's tempestuous relations with the Islington party throughout the 1970s were sown by his willingness to intercede on behalf of constituents on what very definitely were council responsibilities and not those of the Member of Parliament.

There was another factor at work. Islington, which when he inherited it from Gerry Reynolds had been what Labour was pleased to call a solid working-class constituency, had undergone gentrification. Some very articulate people came in to the constituency and O'Halloran, by no stretch of the imagination, was their cup of tea. They were determined to winkle him out of his seat and in 1981, with the formation of the SDP, it was all too understandable that he should be one to leave the Labour Party.

However he soon discovered that he was less than welcome in the SDP and that Roy Jenkins and David Owen were not exactly his milieu, nor he theirs. In 1982 he was ejected, or ejected himself - there are two versions from the SDP - and in the 1983 election was humiliatingly defeated. Jeremy Corbyn gained 14,951 votes, the Conservative 9,344, John Grant, the official SDP candidate and former MP for the other half of Islington, gained 8,268 and Michael O'Halloran a paltry 4,091, or 11.1 per cent of the vote.

He left politics and returned to a job in the building industry, where he had been a works manager from 1963 to 1969. When he reached pensionable age, he retired to his beloved Ireland.

Tam Dalyell

Michael Joseph O'Halloran, politician, railway and building worker: born 20 August 1933; Councillor, Islington Borough Council 1968-1971; MP (Labour) for Islington North 1969-81, (SDP) for Islington North 1981- 82, (Independent Labour) for Islington North 1983; married 1956 Stella McDonald (three daughters); died Gorey, Co Wexford 29 November 1999.