Rina Nealon

Formidable Edinburgh city councillor
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The Independent Online

Catherina Theresa O'Reilly, politician: born Glasgow 12 August 1915; Chairman, South-East Regional Hospital Board, Scotland 1969-74; Chairman, Scottish Gas Consultative Council 1970-74; President, National Society for Clean Air, Scottish Division 1972-74; President, Scottish Association of Executive Councils 1972; Chairman, Lothian Health Board 1974-81; CBE 1979; married 1940 Jim Nealon (died 1989; one son); died Edinburgh 23 July 2004.

Rina Nealon was a prominent city councillor and latterly bailie of the City of Edinburgh for a quarter of a century from 1949, until she became Chairman of the giant Lothian Health Board for seven years. Nationally she was well known as a prominent member of the Whitley Council negotiating pay and conditions, and internationally she was well known through her attendance at conferences and on study tours of the International Hospital Foundation.

In 1972 she was chosen as the British representative to go to the United States to deliver a message from the British government to the President's Committee for the Disabled in Washington.

Catherina Theresa O'Reilly was born in 1915 into a Roman Catholic working-class family in the centre of Glasgow who scraped to send her to the Convent of Mercy, Garnethill. She would recount that the nuns were aghast at her refusal to go on a visit to Lourdes, the unspoken reason being that she didn't want to have to ask her parents for the modest sum of money involved. The punishment the nuns levied was the cause of her leaving the Catholic Church and becoming a (somewhat nominal) member of the Church of Scotland.

In 1940 she found what was to be half a century of happiness with Jim Nealon, who worked for the Gas Board in Edinburgh, and nine years later she was elected as a Labour member for the Pilton Ward of the then town council, which she was to retain undefeated for nine elections - quite a feat in the turbulent Edinburgh politics of the day. In that time she held numerous posts, as a magistrate, Chairman of the Health Committee and Chairman of the Scottish Gas Consultative Council, serving on committees and boards of governors. She was one of the first elected persons to draw attention to the acute problem of drugs. (She it was that the Drug Squad would call on, at any time of day or night, for her authorisation; on her leaving the council they presented her with a memorial plaque.)

Her later public life centred on the National Health Service. She was vice-chairman of the NHS Executive Council for Edinburgh and Chairman of the South-East Regional Hospital Board for Scotland when, in 1974, the tripartite service (hospitals, general practitioners, local authority health administrators) was united; and, even under a Conservative government, she was a natural choice as Chairman of the new Lothian Health Board.

I know at first hand, because her health board covered my then West Lothian constituency, how effective an operator she could be in a good cause. On the other hand if my case was weak she would speak bluntly and tell me I was barking up the wrong tree.

One of her particular interests was creating a close relationship between the health board and the distinguished medical school of Edinburgh University. The acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Berrick Saul, in presenting her for the degree of Doctor honoris causa in 1977, lauded her chairmanship skills in his laureation address, even in dealing with senior members of the faculty -

for I feel sure, Sir, that you will agree that whilst as a body university professors are equals in being difficult and dogmatic where their own disciplines are concerned, medical professors are, in Orwell's phrase, considerably more equal than the rest.

Though, he said, her courage was not limited to the committee room:

Rina Nealon is reported to have caused a sensation during a hospital tour of France by entering a bullring in the Camargue. Like others before them, the bulls recognised when they were beaten.

Rina Nealon was one of a group of formidable Edinburgh councillors - Mrs Isa Stewart, Mrs Barbara Woodburn, Mrs Phyllis Heriot. Not for them, all-women short lists! They were there on account of their own abilities, and everybody knew it.

Tam Dalyell