Anthony McIntyre remembers a great mind he met at political conferences.
I didn't get to know Noel Whelan well, only ever meeting him through attending political conferences, where he would catch the attention of his listeners quicker than most. He had an acutely sharp mind and the ability to articulate key ideas succinctly. For that reason when he died at the early age of 50 I sensed that the country had been deprived of one of its keenest minds.
The last time we spoke I believe was at a British Irish Association event in either Oxford or Cambridge. Events and locations tend to haze as we get older, and the clarity of recall we had in youth is more agonised than agile. In our last conversation he commented to me that he had eventually come to understand my view of the peace process, having read a piece earlier in the year written for the Irish Times. He seemed to admire the article and it was praise indeed coming from a political analyst of his stature who was easily able to discern that not all republicans opposed to the peace process lived in the hope that another car bomb might trundle its way into a town like Omagh, but manage to avoid casualties this time.
Back in the day when I was still young enough to know everything, I would have recoiled from the thought of being influenced by thinkers like Noel Whelan. What I came to learn from him and a wide range of others, many of whom were avowed political opponents, is that a healthy porous society needs to place a premium on intellectual promiscuity and encourage infidelity to the fixed and the formulaic. Barrister, broadcaster, activist, Noel Whelan was above all else a man of ideas. They simply gushed from him.
I followed him on Twitter, would listen intently when he appeared on our television screen and frequently read his column in the Irish Times which he continued to write up until a week before he died and where a word was never wasted. The month before his life came to a premature end he penned a column that grasped the scale of SF’s election collapse, arguing that:
The fact that Sinn Féin’s leading operatives didn’t foresee this dramatic collapse in their vote suggests that the renowned Sinn Féin ground army has lost its knack for political intelligence-gathering, whatever about voter persuasion or mobilisation.
It was his take on Sinn Fein throughout the years that primarily interested me and which formed the basis of what conversations I had with him. He was never fooled by the party's protestations that its lily white heart was being pierced by false accusations about its link to the IRA.
He was not however one of the party's unremitting critics. He praised Pearse Doherty as finally someone who:
gets to heart of dishonesty & spin at centre of insurance industry case about fraudulent claims, it happens, but not on anything like scale industry claims to justify their premiums, terrific use again by @PearseDoherty of the @OireachtasNews committee system.
He was no one-trick pony and there was much more to Noel Whelan than his insight into Sinn Fein. His expertise on elections was legendary. A former election candidate for Fianna Fail in the 1990s he was to prove hugely influential in the marriage referendum campaign in 2015 and was crucial in defeating a Fine Gael/Labour plan to abolish the Seanad as well as putting his shoulder to the wheel of the campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment.
He also toyed with the idea of running for the presidency but jettisoned it when it was confirmed that the outgoing president Michael D was throwing his hat in the ring for a second time. It is very hard to unseat an incumbent, particularly one as popular as Michael D.
President Higgins said of him, “propelled by his social justice values, Noel was not only a commentator but a driving force in some of the most important political campaigns of recent times.”
I also met his wife through the British Irish Association and later when myself and my wife interviewed the then PSNI Chief Constable, Hugh Orde for The Blanket. She was head of Communications for the PSNI. A funny thing that stands out is that on the morning of that interview my wife discovered she was pregnant with our second child so Hugh Orde and Sinéad McSweeney were the first people we got to share the news with.
Our son is 14 now. Noel Whelan's son was 10 when his dad died, the tenderness of his years magnifying the loss sustained.