Tip O'Neill

Tip O'Neill

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Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill Jr. was a highly respected and talented Democratic politician.  He his most known for his time spent as Speaker of the House, but O'Neill was politically involved from a very young age.  Born on December 19, 1912 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, O'Neill was raised in a working class community.  His father was the superintendent of sewers and a member of the Cambridge City Council.  These positions in the community allowed O'Neill's father to assign patronage jobs to those who needed them, ultimately giving him the title of “the Governor.”  It was from his father’s involvement, as well as the boy’s deep devotion to the Catholic Church, that started Tip O’Neill on his journey though politics.

O’Neill worked his first precinct at the age of 15, campaigning for the presidency of Al Smith in 1928.  In 1934 he was introduced to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who very much inspired O’Neill to both campaign for Roosevelt and to pursue his own political career.  Two years later, in 1936, O’Neill won a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served until 1952.  Following John F. Kennedy’s election into the Senate in 1953, O’Neill filled his vacant position in the House of Representatives.  He then became the first Catholic Irish-American Speaker of the House in 1977.

Tip O’Neill was a proud Catholic Irish-American, which greatly influenced his political actions.  He was a descendant of Irish immigrants who migrated to North Cambridge to work in the brickyards, and would directly experience anti-Irish sentiment throughout his life.  Growing up, O’Neill would see “No Irish Need Apply” signs and experienced the Bunker Hill and North Church Strikes. Many of his colleagues disrespected him, viewing him as the stereotypical “Irish Boss” who would smoke cigars and make back room deals. In spite of these struggles, O’Neill would go on to become an extremely influential voice in the Irish community, especially during the “Troubles”.  

The “Troubles” referred the conflict between Northern Ireland and Britain that occurred largely during O’Neill’s time as Speaker.  The strife originated from unsound constitutional agreement in Northern Ireland: Protestant Unionists wished to stay apart of the United Kingdom, while Catholic Nationalists wanted to break away and join the rest of Ireland.  The Irish Republican Army (IRA) created the most controversy during conflict, often carrying out attacks that would kill and injure many.  These acts of violence were used as excuse by British and North Irish politicians alike to halt the advance of constitutional negotiations.  During this time, O’Neill was a number one advocate in pushing resolution. As a member of
“The Four Horseman”, a coalition of four Irish-American politicians, he persuaded Presidents Carter and Reagan to put pressure on Britain and promoted widespread support of American aid to Northern Ireland.  Initially, O’Neill advocated for Irish revolution and accepted violence as a means of achieving it, but as attacks persisted persisted he altered his views to promote a peaceful resolution.

Throughout his political career, O’Neill would make decisions on policy based on his own moral compass.  He believed that the government should be a benevolent organization whose whole purpose was to help those who could not help themselves.  His moral stances often put him at odds with his party members and political backers, but O’Neill was able to use his oratory skills to persuade a large majority to his side.  For instance, O’Neill was one of the first politicians to speak in favor of the impeachment of President Richard Nixon;  however, O’Neill was known to accept incentives and on occasion voted for reasons political security, such as his decision to back the Tonkin Resolution.  Later, O’Neill admitted his vote went against what he felt was right and advocated for the end of the Vietnam War.  This move actually proved useful, as gained support from younger House members who also opposed the war, which helped secure his spot as Speaker.  

His moral character can be largely attributed to his Catholic background and deep devotion to the church.  O’Neill would often carry church ties into politics, essentially killing bills that went against his faith.  Nevertheless, he would not let his faith completely dictate his policy, as reflected by his stance on abortion.  In the eyes of a devoted Catholic, abortion is a sin, which O’Neill strongly believed and backed initially. He later came to the conclusion, however, that while his views had not changed, he could not in good conscience deny someone’s freedom of choice, and he began to back pro-choice legislation.

O’Neill governed based on moral values, but this did not make him universally liked or easy to get along with.  O’Neill often bumped heads with his colleagues:  It was not uncommon for him to stand against a friend running for office or publicly slander other political leaders.  Of all the rough relationships O’Neill had, his relationship with President Ronald Reagan had to be the bumpiest.  Although the two shared an Irish background, ideologically speaking they simply did not see eye-to-eye, as O’Neill was an old liberal and Reagan was a neo-conservative.  The topic they collided the most over was Social Security.  O’Neill was a strong believer in the New Deal and government aid to the less fortunate, while Reagan’s policy centered on creating tax cuts.  On more than one occasion, O’Neill would denounce Reagan as a selfish, upper class ignorant who did not know the hardships of ordinary people because he did not experience these hardships himself and never bothered to meet the people who did.  

Though they were stark enemies politically, Reagan would sometimes invite O’Neill over as a guest, and O’Neill visited Reagan in the hospital when he was recovering from the assassination attempt.  This “frienemy” relationship derives from O’Neill’s practice that before 6 o’clock everyone was a political enemy, but after 6 o’clock the “political arena” closed.  In other words, O’Neill created a divide between his work and social life.  Although O’Neill was renowned by many and greatly respected, he never let his bonds with others or their political status get in the way of his beliefs, which created rather peculiar relationships.

Thomas “Tip” O’Neill died from cardiac arrest on January 5, 1994 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.  He is regarded as a prominent political figure, who genuinely enjoyed politics, and stood by his morals.  After his death, Bob Dole, a Republican leader and harsh critic of O'Neill said, “Mr. O'Neill will go down as one of the greatest political leaders of our time”.  O’Neill was outspoken, but clever.  He knew what he believed in and was not afraid to show it.  He was a down-to-earth man, following the ideology passed down to him by his father that “all politics is local.”  He held onto this strong commitment to his community, whether it was the Irish community, the Catholic community, or working-class community.  Took his role to represent them all seriously, as he truly believed that the government was for the people, by the people.



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The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 30 July 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Tolchin, Martin. “Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., a Democratic Power in the House for Decades, Dies at 81.” New York Times. 7 Jan. 1994. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.