Writer and barrister Noel Whelan dies aged 50 after short illness

Writer and barrister Noel Whelan dies aged 50 after short illness
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Writer and barrister Noel Whelan dies aged 50 after short illness

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The President and Taoiseach have led tributes to Noel Whelan, the political writer and barrister who was a leading figure in the campaign to introduce same-sex marriage, who died last night after a short illness.

He was 50.

He was married to Sinéad McSweeney, vice president of public policy and communications for Twitter in Europe and former head of communications for both the PSNI and An Garda Síochána.

They have a son named Séamus.

An Irish Times columnist, author and a former advisor for Fianna Fáil, Mr Whelan ran for the party as a general election candidate for the Dublin South East constituency in 1997.

He took silk in 2018, becoming a senior counsel after practising as a barrister for 19 years in Dublin, Wexford and Waterford.

Such a sharp intellect. So articulate and effective on marriage equality
A well-known commentator on radio and television, recent years also saw Mr Whelan launch the successful Kennedy Summer School on Irish-American history, culture and politics in New Ross, Co Wexford.

He was also heavily involved in recent referendum campaigns to save the Seanad, introduce same-sex marriage and abolish the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

Co Wexford
He grew up in a family of 12 and was raised in a small rural post office in Ballycullane in Co Wexford where his father Séamus was a Fianna Fáil councillor. His brother Michael is currently a Fianna Fáil councillor in the county.

Mr Whelan ruled himself out of the presidential race last year after deciding not to mount a campaign if President Michael D Higgins stood again.

The Editor of The Irish Times Paul O’Neill said Mr Whelan wrote fondly of his fascination with politics, rooted in his childhood in Co Wexford where his father Séamus was a Fianna Fáil councillor.

Pictured in 2011 at the launch of his book, Fianna Fail: A Biography of the Party, is author Noel Whelan (right) with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photograph: The Irish Times
Pictured in 2011 at the launch of his book, Fianna Fail: A Biography of the Party, is author Noel Whelan (right) with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photograph: The Irish Times
“That gave him an early understanding of and respect for politicians. Combining this with acute analytical skills and an insatiable appetite for detail, he was a formidable observer, commentator and a hugely valued columnist with The Irish Times. On behalf of his many friends and colleagues in The Irish Times, I extend my sympathy to Sinéad, Séamus and his family.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Ireland had “lost a friend”.

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“We come from different party backgrounds but I feel this morning like Ireland has lost a friend,” wrote the Taoiseach. “Such a sharp intellect. So articulate and effective on marriage equality.”

President Michael D Higgins expressed “my deepest condolences to his with Sinéad, his son Séamus, his wider family and friends, and all those who will miss him and his contributions to public life dearly.”

The then taoiseach Bertie Ahern (right) and Dermot Bolger (left) at the launch of Noel Whelan’s book, The Tallyman’s Campaign Handbook Election 2007. Photograph: The Irish Times
The then taoiseach Bertie Ahern (right) and Dermot Bolger (left) at the launch of Noel Whelan’s book, The Tallyman’s Campaign Handbook Election 2007. Photograph: The Irish Times
‘Social justice values’
“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.

Mr Higgins said Mr Whelan had founded the successful Kennedy Summer School which continues to make a “lasting contribution to our collective understanding of Irish-American history and relations.”

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin also extended his condolences and those of the Fianna Fáil party to Noel’s wife Sinead, son Seamus, extended family and many friends.

“I was very saddened to hear about the death of Noel Whelan who I have known for many years. Noel was a man with a sharp intellect who was born into a Fianna Fáil family.

“His father was a Fianna Fáil Councillor as is his brother Michael in County Wexford. Noel was steeped in local, national and international politics from a very young age.”

Mr Martin said Mr Whelan worked in Fianna Fáil headquarters in the early 1990s. “From there he learned to be a great political pundit who wrote many books on election results and an extensive book on our Party through the decades.”

“Noel loved writing his weekly articles with the Irish Times and was never afraid of tackling controversial issues or criticising positions of any political party. He had a wide circle of friends across the political divide and was very well respected and admired.”

Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty said aside from his many talents, “Noel was a thorough gent”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Bryan Dobson said Mr Whelan’s work was “independent and effectively articulated”.

“He was a master of the telling phrase, an outstanding communicator. Our sympathies this morning from all of us on the programme.”

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