TOM CURRAN, THE partner of right-to-die campaigner Marie Fleming, will run as an independent candidate for Wicklow County Council this May.
The former IT professional has a national profile as a result of the couple’s courts campaign, which ignited a national debate last year on the subject of end-of-life care. And while the health service and the caring sector are his main areas of experience, Curran says he doesn’t want to present himself as a single-issue candidate.
Curran has teamed up with independent TD Stephen Donnelly for the campaign, and if elected, says he’ll also will work to promote tourism in the county, and to help projects like the regeneration of Arklow town.
In an in-depth interview with TheJournal.ie, the campaigner spoke of his life with Marie before and after her illness, his family’s feelings on his decision to run for election, and his plans to launch the next phase of a national right-to-die campaign.
On deciding to run…
The whole thing really started before Marie died.
I’ve been always been involved in community politics – not so much around where I live now, because most of my time living there has been spent looking after Marie – but in years gone by I was active in things like the Dublin Housing Action Committee back in the ’70s.
I made a lot of contacts on her campaign for the right to a peaceful death and a death at a time of her choosing… and she suggested that I should get involved in local politics again, or community politics. The election came up, and after she died I made a decision that that’s probably what I’d do.
It’s obviously been a very traumatic time for yourself and for your family. Have your own family members raised any concerns on whether you’re up to the task?
No. I think I’m strong enough. I gave January to myself… I’m not saying that I haven’t finished grieving – I don’t think I’ll finish grieving for years, and I don’t think anybody does – but yes I am up to it.
I have the strength, and I think that I’ve learnt a lot both in working with carers and on behalf of carers in bringing Marie’s issue out there. Lots of people have said to me that that my natural progression should be into politics.
As you face into a public role, you’re likely to be asked about Marie’s ordeal again and again – by interviewers, by people on doorsteps – is it something you’re ready to do? Is it something you’re willing to do?
There are parts of it that are very private between myself and Marie – and there are things that I won’t talk about but I suppose it’s out in public already that Marie did die peacefully, which was one of the things she had been campaigning for for years.
It was a very difficult year for us because Marie got her first infection – her first serious infection – of last year on Saint Patrick’s night, and it never really shifted since then. She had quite a difficult year and her health was progressively going downhill.
No matter how much you prepare yourself in your head you can never prepare yourself in the heart for something like that – but yes, I do think I’m up to it, and I do think I’ve learnt a lot over the last couple of years. I would be a good person to represent the people of South Wicklow.
[Niall Carson/PA Archive]
By the nature of how the media works, people’s awareness of your campaign and the ordeal you and Marie went through may be a little narrow. Can you tell us a bit more about your life together? What was your own professional background, for instance, before you became a full time carer?
Well we met more or less professionally. I was in IT most of my life, and Marie was in education. She had moved back from Wales after her marriage broke up to live in Wicklow. She was having a problem with an IT system and somebody recommended that I come in and talk to her.
It was just one person helping another and that’s how it started. We met and we seemed to get on very well. We were both separated or both divorced and probably lonely, but we just seemed to get on very well right from the start.
What’s your viewpoint now looking back on how you were treated by the State – by the courts and by the HSE? Is there any bitterness?
No, I’m not a bitter sort of person. I learn from things that happen and I take those things to go forward. I don’t think that there’s any benefit in eating yourself away with bitterness, but I have learnt a lot over the years.
It’s unfortunate that people like myself, as carers, that feel that we’re doing something we should have a partnership with the State with, who are looking after a person in their own home where the person wants to be, rather than in a nursing home which would cost the State a fortune – that the State regards us as unemployed, and just won’t give us the help that’s needed. That’s been one of my campaigns for years.
Now that I’ve my caring role finished – in an instant, I’m regarded as long-term unemployed. Now to me that is despicable – I worked very hard, I was working every hour that I was awake on Marie’s behalf and on the State’s behalf, but that’s not recognised and that’s something that I have been campaigning about for a long time.
What supports would have been available to you as a carer in rural Wicklow in the last few years?
Nothing that wasn’t fought for. Nobody comes and volunteers – but the same applies to most situations in South Wicklow.
From getting involved and trying to look for assistance for myself and other carers, one of the things that I found is that the area is practically ignored, and the representation from South Wicklow has not been strong enough. That’s one of the reasons why I want to go forward, because I think I have a strong voice – I’m used to shouting, and I’m used to shouting until something happens.
[Niall Carson/PA Archive]
How much can you do as a member of a council? Is it a matter of having a platform to continue your national campaign?
No, I think there’s an awful lot that can be done locally… Even last night, for instance, I was at a meeting of the Arklow business people – they’re calling themselves the Arklow Business Association – and that’s a group of people getting together in Arklow to try to bring the town back to where it used be.
To me that’s the heart of things – organisations like that should have direct contact with councils, and the councils should have direct contact with the Dáil. Its organisations like that I think that will get the country back together again.
You’ve talked about how you don’t want to be seen as a single-issue candidate, so what are some of the wider issues in the community that need to be looked at?
Well the right-to-die situation and the carers are national issues, and I’ll continue to work on those. I’m a board member of the Carers Association, and I’ll continue that work, but I’m going forward on local issues – for instance, the regeneration of Arklow and tourism in south Wicklow, which is one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
Employment is a huge issue – all that I’ve heard of since we moved there twenty years ago is places closing down… The whole of south Wicklow has become a commuter belt – we need to regenerate it, and one of the industries that is right at our doorstep is tourism. There doesn’t seem to be anything being put into that.
So, no I’m going not going on national issues such as the right to die – that’s a totally separate issue… But I live in south Wicklow, Marie and I fell in love with south Wicklow… I’ve lived there for a long-time and see it going further and further down, so and I want to try to contribute to getting it back up again.
Tom Curran, Stephen Donnelly TD and Jennifer Whitmore, who’ll run in Greystones [Stephen Donnelly campaign]
You’re working with the independent TD for the area, Stephen Donnelly. What’s the arrangement there? Is it the beginnings of a party?
It’s not really… It’s not a party, no. I suppose I had said at one stage before that I was thinking of going for the Council – I was approached by political parties, but I had been talking to Stephen on the subject of the Carer’s Strategy and about other things for carers, and also on the right to die situation… He was in a position to ask questions, and he has been co-operating with me on both of those for a long-time.
I happened to mention it to him that it was very difficult for an individual like me to put themselves forward without a ‘machine’. He said ‘well if you need help, I’ll give it to you’, and that’s how it came about.
Looking at your national campaign on the right-to-die issue, what’s the next step there?
Its not an issue that’s going to be tackled very quickly. It’s very difficult to see any of the political parties that are going to be in power – with this Dáil or the next Dail – having the guts to tackle it head on, so I think it’s going to be a slow process.
I have put together a working group of four barristers and we’re drafting legislation to be presented to the Dáil. There are various ways of presenting that to make sure that it’s not just immediately thrown out, and that’s what we’re working on at the moment - an intelligent long-term campaign rather than a quick burst and it going nowhere.
(Video TheJournal.ie) Tom Curran on his draft right-to-die legislation
Finally — if you don’t get the Council seat, what then? Would you run for the Dáil?
Well, I initially thought of running for Europe but more for a publicity issue, as a right-to-die candidate. That was more a passing whim than anything else, I didn’t take it any further than that.
If I do get into the Council I would take that obligation very seriously and I feel that I am a representative, not just a person with my own ideas… I take from what people want, and try to get that achieved and I would take it very seriously – I’d be very reluctant to leave halfway through that and go for something else.
If I don’t get into the Council then there’s a while left – well theoretically there’s a while left – before the Dail dissolves… And yes, I would give consideration to going as a local TD.