Emmet Stagg obituary: Labour Party stalwart was ‘a very determined standard-bearer for the left’

Long-standing TD and two-time minister of State ‘championed the needs of those facing inequality and disadvantage’

Born October 1st, 1944

Died March 17th, 2024

Emmet Stagg, a former Labour Party TD for Kildare and minister of State, has died aged 79.

The Mayo-born politician served continuously in the Dáil from 1987 to 2016. Aged 75, he was the oldest candidate in the 2020 general election when he ran as the Labour Party candidate for Kildare North but he was not elected.

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When serving as minister of State for the Environment in 1993-1994, Stagg was a strong advocate of the direct building of social housing by local authorities and proud of his record of building homes and reducing housing lists during his time in office. He then served as minister of State at the department of transport, energy and communications in 1994-1997.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Stagg was a prominent figure within the internal politics of the Labour Party. He was viewed alongside Michael D Higgins and Joe Higgins as one of the leaders of a strong left-wing faction within the party opposed to coalition with Fine Gael and an opponent of the then party leader, Dick Spring. He subsequently opposed Spring’s expulsion of Joe Higgins at the 1989 Labour Party conference, and, in the early 1990s, he considered leaving the party to join the newly formed Democratic Left. However, he reconciled his differences and went on to be Labour Party chief whip in 2007-2016, serving as deputy chief whip during the coalition with Fine Gael between 2011 and 2016.

In opposition, he was a Labour Party front bench spokesman with various portfolios including agriculture and social welfare. A former leader of the Labour Party, Pat Rabbitte, said Stagg was “a very determined standard-bearer for the left” adding that “he was a conviction politician who was driven by ideology and policy.”

Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik said Stagg was a great mentor to her when she first joined the Labour Party as a student in the late 1980s. “He was always very supportive of Labour Youth within the party. He was hugely popular in his community and consistently championed the needs of those facing inequality and disadvantage,” she said.

President Michael D Higgins, who shared an office with Stagg for a number of years, described him as one of his closest friends in Leinster House. “He was a courageous and brave campaigner and one of the most hard-working TDs that I can remember in my time in Dáil Éireann,” said the President. Recalling how for several years both politicians had visited the Irish centres in Britain in December, he said Stagg was also a long-term supporter of Irish people living in the UK.

In one 2004 Dáil debate about proposed government funding for Irish emigrants, Stagg spoke about the poverty in the west of Ireland that had resulted in mass emigration in the 1950s and 1960s. “I remember de Valera’s great Republic, dominated by an arrogant clergy, who visited regularly. Meat was seldom on the table and tuberculosis was rampant. There was a savage school regime and unaffordable fees if one was to go to secondary school. Young men and women in de Valera’s Republic were forced to emigrate to get work simply to survive,” he said. He also recalled the money sent back by these emigrants, which allowed families “to break out of the black hole of poverty.”

Stagg grew up on a small farm near the south Mayo village of Hollymount, one of 13 children of Mary and Henry Stagg. His father fought in the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Stagg attended the Christian Brothers School in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, which he strongly disliked. Following his secondary school education, he moved to Dublin to work as a trainee laboratory technologist at Trinity College Dublin. At that time, lectures were held at the College of Technology, Kevin Street (now part of Technological University of Dublin) with exams set by the Institute of Medical Technologies in London. While working in Trinity, he met his wife to be, Mary Morris from Straffan, Co Kildare, also a laboratory technologist there. The couple married in 1968 and bought a house in Straffan, where they brought up their two children, Gillian and Henry.

Mary also had a great interest in politics and was involved in the Labour Women’s Council at local level. “We always made a point of talking to the children about what was happening in the area to give them a good sense of social justice,” she said, adding that at his many local clinics, her husband helped people regardless of their political affiliation. The prominent Irish politician Noël Browne (who lived for a time in Co Mayo) was a big inspiration to Stagg.

In 1976 Stagg’s brother Frank (Proinsias), a member of the Provisional IRA, died on hunger strike in a West Yorkshire prison. Subsequently Emmet – as well as other prominent politicians at the time – was reportedly intimidated by members of the IRA due to his opposition to his brother’s reburial (Frank was initially buried in the family grave near Hollymount) in the republican plot in Ballina, Co Mayo. Stagg remained resolutely anti-IRA throughout his political career – and was under the protection of Garda detectives, then known as the Special Branch, for a number of years – although some of his siblings supported Sinn Féin.

Stagg’s political career began when he was first elected to represent the Celbridge area of Kildare County Council for the Labour Party in 1979. He continued to work as a county councillor until, like many other TDs, he had to relinquish his seat when the dual mandate of serving on a local authority as well as in Dáil Éireann ended in 2003. Throughout his career he remained dedicated to the people in his local constituency.

In 1993, he was questioned by gardaí in an area of the Phoenix Park frequented by gay men. However, no crime had been committed and no charges were ever brought about the incident.

Although he described his childhood in Mayo as one gripped by poverty and the rule of the Catholic Church, he nonetheless retained a great love of his native county. He was an avid fisherman – the family kept a fishing boat on Lough Carra – and he returned to Mayo with his family on summer holidays every year. Stagg was also a keen gardener throughout his life, and colleagues in Leinster House remember fondly how he often brought them produce from his garden in Straffan.

Emmet Stagg is survived by his wife, Mary; his children, Gillian and Henry; his granddaughters Nessa and Cara; his brothers Seán and George; his sisters Maureen, Bríd, Siobhán and Martha. He was predeceased by his brothers Joe, Patsy, Proinsias (Frank) and Micheal; and his sisters Rosaleen and Veronica.

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