A Starring Role for Corporal O'Dea

Willie O'Dea has no official role at the 1916 commemoration on Easter Sunday but he will be on the podium in O'Connell St for the army march-past at noon and thousands will strain to see Willie take the salute. By Vincent Browne.


For the little moustached corporal is one of the grittiest soldiers in Irish politics. Over the years he has slayed ranks of opponents in the Dáil and outside, and is one of America's staunchest allies in its war against whoever it is waging war against, provided it uses Shannon.

He took out the entire Fine Gael front bench in a skirmish on 7 December 2000. He had broken government ranks on the taxi deregulation issue and was under assault in the Dáil. He rose defiantly to defy his detractors, notably the then Fine Gael leader, John Bruton, and the deputy leader, Nora Owen. "It is extremely ironic to be lectured on party loyalty by the dynamic duo of Deputies Bruton and Owen, both of whom are immaturing with age." More recently he has said of Pat Rabbitte: "He seems to be permanently in awe of his own cleverness. Now he is presently in awe of his own pomposity." Of the anti EU campaigner Anthony Coughlan he said: "(Coughlan) is the quintessential example of a man who cannot take yes for an answer."

He has been compared in his constituency (Limerick East) with the former world Heavyweight Boxer Mike Tyson. The reference was obscure but came about as follows: In the 2002 general election campaign, Willie told the pirate radio station Limerick FM (a few months previously it had lost its license) that if Limerick East returned three Fianna Fáil seats (out of five), he would be in the cabinet and Limerick FM would have a chance of recovering its radio license (this is according to the people at Limerick FM). This persuaded the operators of Limerick FM to abandon plans to have all the Limerick East candidates in studio on the eve of the election and instead have just the Fianna Fáil candidates.

Willie O'DeaSome weeks later on the same station, there was a hilarious late night discussion on why Willie O'Dea was given freedom of the airwaves on the night before the election. In the course of this post election discussion a Fianna Fáil national executive member said he knew well before the election Willie would not get a cabinet position, Bertie Ahern had told him. The reasons for this were speculated upon during the programme and it was at that stage that the name of Mike Tyson improbably entered the discussion. Arising from that, Willie took a libel action against the defamer and the station.

He was born on 27 November 1952. Educated at Patrician Brothers College, Ballyfin, County Laois, later went to UCD, the Kings Inns and the Institute of Certified Accountants, after which he worked as an accountant. And what a pity it would have been if someone of his mischief, cleverness and guile had been locked forever in a room with ledgers.

He was elected to Dáil Éireann as a Fianna Fáil TD in the February 1982 general election, as a side kick to Des O'Malley, who later founded the Progressive Democrats, but who was then in Fianna Fáil and a tormento rof Charles Haughey. Willie O'Dea courageously followed the lead of the dominant party figure in his constituency and took a principled position against the then leader.

Willie got his first leg-up in February 1992 when Albert Reynolds massacred a sizeable phalanx of the Haughey-loyalist ministers. Willie became a junior minister but to his intense disappointment he remained a junior minister right up to 2004 (with the exemption of the brief interruption from 1994 to 1997 when Fianna Fáil lost office).

He was made Minister for Defense in the cabinet reshuffle of September 2004. His support for America is not so much ideological as local. Willie's political hinterland includes Shannon airport and anything that promotes traffic in and out of the airport is fine by him. He has proclaimed himself "unashamedly" on the side of the US and went on to claim that during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963, the Russians used Shannon to transport the crews that were intended to launch nuclear missiles at the US. "A little known fact," he said.

Now at the centre of the 1916 commemorations, there is just that tiny suspicion that this is a Fianna Fáil stunt designed to protect its green flank against assault by Sinn Féin in the next election – after all these major comemorations were announced just a few months ago at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis.

But Willie will enjoy the limelight even if he will regret the march-past is not in O'Connell St, Limerick.