Ben Briscoe obituary: Proud lord mayor of Dublin who was a thorn in Haughey’s side

He survived one of the longest election counts in the country’s history, describing it as ‘the agony and the ex-TD’

Born March 11th, 1934

Died July 10th, 2023

During almost four decades in national politics, and a term as lord mayor of Dublin, Ben Briscoe – who has died at the age of 89 – was one of the most prominent faces of the Jewish community in Ireland. While he never held ministerial office during his 37 years as a Fianna Fáil TD, he was a central figure in some of the great political controversies of his era.

A genial character who was on good terms with TDs of all parties, he nonetheless played a central role in the various heaves against Charles Haughey’s leadership. While he was personally on friendly terms with Haughey, he felt that it was his duty to oppose a leader who he considered had become a liability to the party and the country.


Famously during the heave against Haughey in January 1983, he declared at a critical and extremely tense parliamentary party meeting. “I love you, Charlie,” to which Haughey interjected “I love you too, Ben”. The emotional exchange did not stop Briscoe telling his leader he should step down. Haughey survived that day and left Briscoe on the backbenches when he became taoiseach again in 1987.

However, he had the compensation of being elected lord mayor of Dublin in summer 1988, describing his elevation as one of the proudest moments of his life. One of the reasons it was such a proud moment was that his father Robert (Bob) Briscoe had held the post in 1956. They were the only father and son to hold this honour over the centuries.

The elder Briscoe was an important figure in the War of Independence and was a founder member of Fianna Fáil who was elected as a TD in 1927 and served in the Dáil for the following 37 years.

Ben was born in Dublin 1935, one of seven children of Robert and Lillian (Isaacs). After attending St Andrews College, he was determined to follow his father into politics. When Bob retired in advance of the 1965 general election, Ben took his place on the Fianna Fáil ticket and was elected as a TD for Dublin South West.

Because of boundary changes he was forced to change constituencies three times and was subsequently elected for Dublin South Central (1969-1977), Dublin Rathmines (1977-1981), and a new Dublin South Central (1981-2002).

For most of the 1980s and 1990s Briscoe was one of three Jewish TDs in the Dáil along with Alan Shatter and Mervyn Taylor

His proudest achievement was the year he spent as lord mayor of Dublin in 1988-1989. He achieved the office at a difficult time and led the city council at a time of budget cuts while insisting on protecting public services. During the Dublin Millennium celebrations in 1988 he unveiled the statue of Molly Malone at the bottom of Grafton Street. It was subsequently moved around the corner to Suffolk Street.

In a tribute after his death, Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, said that during the 1988 Dublin millennium he had been a high-profile advocate for the city and helped ensure that that celebration marked a turning point for Dublin. “Ben was proud to have been the lord mayor when Dublin Corporation agreed to grant the freedom of the city to Nelson Mandela, while he was still in prison,” he added.

In 1992 he was involved in one of the closest and longest election counts in the country’s history when just one vote separated him from Democratic Left TD Eric Byrne after the initial count. The lead changed hands during various recounts. It took 10 days to get the final result, with Briscoe eventually holding the seat by five votes. Retaining his sense of humour through the interminable count he described it as “the agony and the ex-TD”.

His long time constituency colleague and rival Gay Mitchell of Fine Gael described Briscoe after his death as a pleasant and charming man who loved his native city

The outcome had huge political significance at the time as the failure of Byrne to be elected put an end to the prospects of a rainbow coalition involving Democratic Left, Labour and Fine Gael. It paved the way instead for a Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition. When that government fell in 1994 after a number of by-election defeats the required numbers enabled the rainbow coalition to take office. It was the only time in the history of the state that power changed hands without a general election.

For most of the 1980s and 1990s Briscoe was one of three Jewish TDs in the Dáil along with Alan Shatter and Mervyn Taylor. All three were advocates for the state of Israel in a chamber not noted for sympathy for their cause.

His long time constituency colleague and rival Gay Mitchell of Fine Gael described Briscoe after his death as a pleasant and charming man who loved his native city. “He was a reliable and trustworthy colleague and a pleasure to work with. His word was his bond.” Mitchell recalled that he had a great sense of humour and always had a funny story and a song to lighten the mood. His party piece, performed at many a residents’ outing, was Flanagan and Allen’s signature song, Underneath the Arches.

After he retired from politics in 2002, he returned regularly to Leinster House to reminisce with old friends and regale younger colleagues with the inside stories of past events, particularly the leadership heaves in Fianna Fáil.

Ben Briscoe is survived by his wife, Carol, and adult children Andrew, Rachel, Vivienne and David.