Denis O'Reilly

Denis O’Reilly, a Pākehā now well into his 60s, linked up with Black Power because he was committed to social justice.

It was the same concern for social justice that had his brother, Laurie, who died nearly 20 years ago, becoming a lawyer and then the Commissioner for Children.

Each of the boys had many other strings to his bow. Laurie, for instance, was a significant figure in the development of women’s rugby.

But, in this discussion with Dale, Denis traces some of the moves he’s made in the course of a lifetime of fighting for the underdog.


Kia ora, Denis. I feel privileged to interview you because you’re a larger than life character who’s been leading an influential life, especially in social justice issues for Māori. But the O’Reilly whakapapa reaches way beyond Aotearoa, doesn’t it?

That’s true. The O’Reillys came from County Kerry in the south-west of Ireland, although we were originally from Brefni in Northern Ireland. My people came out here on the Otaki and landed at Lyttleton on 8 February 1875.

They were described in the Lyttleton Times as being “a thoroughly useful class of people”. I’d like to think I’ve fulfilled that early promise. The whānau went down through mid-Canterbury and my family eventually settled near Fairlie in the MacKenzie Country, not far from what is now Lake Opuha.

Mum’s side were more of Scots stock. My grandfather William Wallace Hooper got gassed in the First World War and he died early on. He’s buried in Timaru. So Mum, Patrica Hooper, was brought up pretty much by my grandmother Ellen Hooper. Mum was a very, very intelligent woman and was educated in French by the Sacre Coeur nuns in Timaru.

My old man, another Denis, generally called Dinny, came down to Timaru as a mechanic just before the outbreak of the Second World War. He and his brother, Bob, met my mother and her sister Dot — and the two brothers married the two sisters.

We grew up in an Irish-Catholic household. I’m the youngest of six by some years. We had a service station called Cassidy’s Motors and we were sort of upwardly mobile Irish-Catholics. All the brothers and sisters did university and that sort of stuff, and I helped Dad.

From 13 or so, I worked with the old man at the service station. After school and in the weekends and school holidays. When Dad had a slipped disc and a stroke, Mum and I basically ran the garage. We had eight adult mechanics working for us. It was a seven-day affair and we were pumping half a million gallons of petrol a year in the 1960s. So it was pretty full on.

I went to St Pat’s in Timaru, which is now called Roncalli College. When I left school, I trained to be a Catholic priest up at the Mission, the Marist Fathers’ seminary, at Greenmeadows in Napier. It was a significant part of my personal development, to say nothing of my love of wine.

I see that you spent a year there. But then, in an interesting twist of fate, you ended up in Wellington with Black Power. You’re still well known for that connection. You’ve been a patched member. How did that come about?

Well, I’m a life member. I saw that work as a continuation of what I was aspiring to do — basically trying to be a priest. We’d been brought up with Latin-American liberation theology. Social justice I suppose you’d call it. Paulo Friere and all that sort of stuff. And I just saw these Māori guys being picked on.

I got a job at a gas station in Newtown and I met all these Black Power fullas who worked for a concrete company called Riteways. They used to drink at the Tramways and I suppose that’s where the Catholic social justice thing kicked in. I thought: “Well, this is what I’m meant to do.” And that’s pretty much what I’ve done.

Were there some negative reactions to you sidling up to, and then joining, the Black Power movement?

I don’t think my folks knew what the hell it was all about. Mum and Dad had never been on a marae until they came to our wedding, when Taape and I got married. There were about 300-400 Black Power there. So were Bob Jones and Tim Shadbolt and Pat Rippin and even Brian Edwards. Then the Mongrel Mob arrived as well. It was culture shock plus. But we had a Catholic nuptial mass on the marae and, with that anchor, they just rolled with it.

What about the reaction from the Māori side? How readily were you accepted by Taape’s people?

They may have thought I stuffed up about 700 years of good whakapapa. Some of them are still grappling with my presence amongst them. I wouldn’t say I’d be the most popular man at the pā. But God put me on earth, I think, to get things done, not to be popular.

Why haven’t some warmed to you?

I tend not to take prisoners. I’m inclined just to go and do things. I’m not all that good on the consensus side of things. I find it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. It’s not a formula for good synergy. These days my children champion my ideas as their own and get a higher degree of acceptance.

One of your interesting relationships was with Rob Muldoon. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But he was one politician who took an interest in the gangs. And it’s probably not pushing it too far to say you two had a friendship.  

Yes. It was definitely a friendship. He was a mentor. People might not credit this, but you wouldn’t have the kōhanga reo movement if it wasn’t for him, as well as Iri Tawhiwhirangi and a bloke named Sam Jamieson from the Department of Labour.

These three worked out a way to milk the work scheme stuff to enable each of the original kōhanga reo to employ staff and to make a start. True.

You know, no one ever gives Muldoon the recognition he deserves for that sort of thing. We’re more likely to remember Bastion Point and all that. I read a vituperative essay by Paul Thomas in a recent Listener. He likened Muldoon to Trump. Paul’s a fine writer, but bile has got the better of him in this instance.

Hugh Templeton provided a letter of rebuttal this week, noting that “comparisons are always odious”, and praising Muldoon’s commitment to speak the truth. Muldoon could be a dislikeable bully, but he also had a strong sense of social justice. Paul should say an “Our Father” and three “Hail Marys” as penance.

I remember there was that rousing haka for him from you and those deemed to be the bad guys, the gangsters, of New Zealand society. You fullas made the Town Hall shake that day.

At the time he died, I was doing a degree, an MBA, over in Melbourne, so I shot back and linked up with Martin Cooper and Knockers Allen and all those other leaders from Black Power. And, after Graham Latimer’s eulogy, we did the haka. On the way out of the service, Thea grabbed my hand and said: ”Oh, my husband would’ve loved that.”

There’ve been changes in the gang scene, haven’t there, since those days in the 1980s when you got the work schemes going.

Well, we had the Employment Liaison Service which started up after there was the committee on gangs in 1981. I became the CEO. But, when the neo-liberal Fourth Labour Government came in, in 1984, Phil Goff called me to his office and said: “We’re not going to be funding bad New Zealanders into work when good New Zealanders aren’t in work.”

Social scientists can look back to that time and see that, when the work schemes stopped, the prison population began climbing. And that’s what we still live with today. When all the work schemes were pulled away, the boys became criminalised a fair bit and we’re still cursed by that now.

But there’s been another development fostered by an insightful Māori programme called E Tū Whānau.

I was thinking about that a few weeks ago when we buried a fulla called Sonny Crawford. Sonny was a Nomad. He’d done some terrible things. Yet, through the time of his illness, he began to demonstrate a spiritual awareness.

He became really concerned for the wellbeing of his son and grandson. He’d been estranged from his own whānau because of his attitudes and behaviour. However, when the final karanga was given, the whānau came. His biological whānau and his gang whānau, not just Nomads. We were gathered there at his burial as a collective of whānau.

So I think there’s less gang, more whānau now.

Ka pai. But I suppose, all along, there’ve been differences between the gangs. There’ve been indigenous gangs as well as the Mongrel Mob and Black Power.

In Black Power, we were politically and socially “conscientised” pretty early on in the piece by people like “Burma” Bill Maung. So we were somewhat different in terms of kaupapa. I think the Mob have come to that consideration of whānau and their place in society in later years through the efforts of people like Roy Dunn and Harry Tam.

Aren’t all the gangs really just a cluster of people who’ve been marginalised — and been almost forgotten by society?

Oh, no. They’re not forgotten. They’re definitely marginalised, but they’re not forgotten. We heard all this stuff leading up to the election. There was a lot of space given to the gangs. And, once again, they’ve been very convenient whipping boys.

There’s one thing that we tend to overlook — and it’s that the Māori gangs came out of the boys’ homes. That’s where they came from. Bring on that investigative commission!

I think of a young fulla from Te Araroa who had a pretty hard life. This was maybe 30 years ago. His name was Tumanako Tauhore. I didn’t find out until after his death that he referred to me as his father. Anyway, the MSD of the day decided that he should go into state care. He hadn’t done anything really wrong, but he was taken away from his family.

I got called into Kohitere Boys Home because they were having trouble managing him and I was taken to him in an isolation block. There was a room, a cell really, and in the cell was a cage. And in the cage was this 14-year-old kid.

Every evening around 5 o’clock a male nurse and a guard would come in and administer a powerful sedative drug called largactil (chlorpromazine hydrochloride). And so, when he regained consciousness, Tumanako attacked anyone who came near him.

Thus he grew into a very violent man and served long periods in prison. Tumanako became quite a legend among his crew and fellow prisoners. “Madness”, they used to call him. He was tragically gunned down at Te Araroa in 2015, just when he was finally becoming a family man. So, yeah, Tumanako’s story is the story of many of those guys who became gang members.

There was sexual abuse and physical abuse, and all this when they were meant to be cared for by the state. This is not to say that things were perfect at home either. But the Mob guys and the Blacks basically came out of the boys’ homes. They came out of Kohitere and Epuni and Hokio and so forth.

That’s the experience that fostered the Māori gangs. That was the basis of the Black Power’s Waitangi Tribunal claim. They weren’t after an apology or compensation, but simply recognition of what happened and a commitment by the state that we’re not going down that route ever again.

No doubt you would support the call for an independent inquiry into state care abuse of young Māori.

Absolutely. These patterns of abuse at the hands of the state are being repeated even as we speak.

Then there’s drink and drugs.

Well, they’re sort of self-medicating devices, aren’t they? They’re ways to obliterate the past and the hurt. Then they become an ongoing means of suppression. You know, people talk about the amount of money that these guys make, but I don’t see any wealth. At least not among these fullas.

Mind you, there’s a lot of money made out of illicit drugs, but you don’t have to be a gang member or a criminal to make it. Look at the $70 million being spent by Housing New Zealand on the spurious science con-job in the so-called methamphetamine decontamination industry.

For me, Denis, there’s another problem. It’s the question of whether the gangs can be respectful to Māori communities. And what comes to my mind is a woman from Ruatoki who can’t forgive some of her whanaunga after a big standoff, when she was young, between the Mob and the Blacks down in the valley.

She’s met a guy who wants to be taken seriously as a tribal identity and leader. But she can’t forgive him because of an incident where shots were fired in the wharekai. Total disrespect for the marae and the manaakitanga it stands for.

I won’t attempt to defend the indefensible, but you only have to look back into Māori tribal history to learn of truly horrible acts that were visited on the members of one tribe or hapū by those of another. Horrible, truly horrible acts.

These hara are not new or unique to gangs. It was really tough up the Ruatoki Valley in the 1980s when city-influenced young Māori returned home. They’d been rejected by both Pākehā and Māori leadership and had created their own culture that, in many instances, eschewed tikanga.

I got called in by Jim Anderton in 2004 or thereabouts over this perceived Black Power, Mongrel Mob standoff in Ruatoki. But it was actually an intergenerational dispute, although those fighting each other came from the Black Power and the Mongrel Mob.

It went back to the great-grandparents of the respective adversaries. So what’s often manifesting on the surface isn’t necessarily showing the cause underneath. And, if you can’t forgive, then I suppose you’re destined to live with that hara, aren’t you? To err is human, to forgive is divine. So maybe the answer is to kick this situation upstairs and look for a bit of divine guidance.

I get the impression that you’ve had so much hands-on experience as a community organiser, and such a strong sense of social justice, that you’re not fazed by too many problems. But your approach has been strengthened by your academic studies too, hasn’t it?

I was lucky enough to have a pretty good education at school and then at the seminary when I finished school. We were taught how to think. And, yes, I read a lot. I was even going to carry on and do a PhD, but I’ve been too damn busy. Haven’t had any time.

But I’m familiar with the work of the significant international figures, the big thinkers and activists like Paolo Friere, Saul Alinsky, Foucault, Thaler and Sunstein. So I’m able to quote them. And I know that language. The critical pedagogy, behavioural economics, blah de blah.

But community development is as much art as it is science. And, of course, it’s all bound together by the notion of love. Arohanui.

Hemi — James K Baxter, our great poet — used to talk about manuhiritanga, ma te wā, mahi, kōrero, and arohanui. He spoke of the love of the many. But you don’t hear that in the narrative of government departments.

I’m uplifted, though, to hear the fresh voice of reason and compassion by economists like Ganesh Nana. I heard him on the radio the other morning arguing with Don Brash — and he was contesting the prevailing monetary theory and the ideological canon called neoliberal economics — and promoting sustainability, productivity, fairness and equality. Ganesh’s kōrero is poetry to my ears.

I know you’re a man of quotes and poetry so, as we wrap up our kōrero for now, I wonder if there’s a whakataukī or a line or two that springs to mind as something you’d like to share as an illustration of your attitude to life.

Well, the first Māori to speak in the House of Parliament was my children’s tīpuna, Tāreha Te Moananui and, when I look at his maiden speech in September 1868, he basically said: Focus on that which is good. That which is evil is not strong enough to overcome that which is good.

I think of Maslow’s Theory of Eupsychian management which can be wrapped up as: “Assume the best.” And finally I recall Saul Alinsky, who says: “You will see it when you believe it.”

So, there you go: Focus on the good. Assume the best. You’ll see it when you believe it.


© E-Tangata, 2017

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