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Labour’s first female general secretary Margaret McDonagh dies aged 61

Margaret McDonagh, Labour’s first female general secretary, has died at the age of 61.

The politician, who sat in the House of Lords as Baroness McDonagh, has been described as an “unstoppable force of nature” and a “tireless champion for women”.

Announcing her death at the weekend, Margaret McDonagh’s sister, Siobhain McDonagh MP, posted on social media: “At 9.38am this morning [Saturday 24th June], my extraordinary sister peacefully passed away at home surrounded by friends who loved her. She was the first female, the youngest, and most successful Labour Party General Secretary in history. She was kind, generous and brave. I loved her with my whole heart.”

Tributes have been paid with the baroness being described as an essential figure to the party’s successful 1997 and 2001 elections.

Sir Keir Starmer said: “Margaret may not have been as famous as some of the politicians she worked with but they wouldn’t have got into power without her.”

In a statement, Mr Starmer said the death was “absolutely devastating news”.

The Labour leader said: “As general election co-ordinator, Margaret was an absolutely essential part of the 1997 Labour landslide, and as the first female general secretary led the organisation through a historic re-election campaign in 2001.

“Both inside and outside of the Labour Party, Margaret was a tireless champion for women, mentoring a whole generation of political and business leaders.

“To the very end Margaret was campaigning for better healthcare for those with brain tumours.

“Margaret was absolute proof that one person can make a difference in the world. The difference with Margaret is that she also built an army of change-makers along the way who will proudly carry on that fight in her name.

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“You can’t think about Margaret without her sister Siobhain (the Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden), campaigners together not just in Mitcham and Morden, but across the world.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Siobhain, and all Margaret’s family and friends at this tragic time. I know I speak for many when I say I will miss her friendship and wise counsel in the years ahead.”

He added: “I know I speak for many when I say I will miss her friendship and wise counsel in the years ahead.”

Former prime minister Sir Tony Blair said: “Margaret was an amazing, vibrant, unstoppable force of nature. Dedicated to the country, the Labour Party and to fighting for what she believed was right.

“As general secretary of the Labour Party she was an incredible support to me and a vital element of New Labour.

“Most of all she was the most loyal friend anyone could wish for.”

Peter Mandelson, who was Labour’s campaign director in the 1997 general election, said: “Margaret was a tour de force.

“She ran Millbank in 1997 with a rod of iron. Everyone was terrified including me.

“I have never met anyone so resolute, so uncompromisingly honest and so direct.

“She almost never made it to the high command in the early 1990s, but once she arrived there was no going back. She was formidable.”

Margaret with her sister Siobhain.

Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader, said: “Margaret was magnificent in every way.

“She strove in the most practical ways for true equality for women throughout her life, she was a brilliant organiser for democracy and she had mixture of steel and charm which earned her loyalty from friends and admiration from foes.

“Her courage in fighting her illness was remarkable, but typical of the valour which defined her.”

Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said: “For the rest of my life I will feel blessed to have known Margaret McDonagh.

“The best of the best. Utterly integral to Labour’s 1997 victory and what it delivered.”

Peter Kyle, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, described her as a “legend”. “Her loss is heartbreaking,” he added.

“The fiercest organiser and most loving support. She inspired and drove positive change like no other.”

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves said: “Margaret was a Labour Party legend and pivotal to the last Labour government’s path to power. She leaves a great legacy.”

Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith described Baroness McDonagh as “an absolute Labour warrior and inspiration, an innovator and an entrepreneur, and a lovely and loyal friend”.

“Taken far too soon and we’ll miss you,” she added.

Tracey Paul, a close friend who ran Labour’s National Campaign Centre, said: “The Labour Party has lost a titan and we have lost an incredible friend.”

MP Pat McFadden described her as a “true working-class hero”.

Pat McFadden MP, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East, said: “Margaret, and her sister Siobhain, were part of the huge generation of second generation Irish people whose parents came to Britain after the war.

“They were the first generation of working-class people able to take advantage of higher education and a bigger range of opportunities than had existed before.

“For Margaret, that meant fighting for more opportunity and a better society for others. She became General Secretary of the Labour Party under the first winning leader since Harold Wilson and was a key part of Labour’s victories with Tony Blair.

“She was held in very high regard by all who worked with her during that period. Passionate about the Labour cause, tough as steel, and with a winning mentality. She inspired her colleagues to be as good as they could possibly be.

“In her final illness her sister Siobhain was at her side caring for her every step of the way. She will be so missed by all who knew her. May God rest her soul.”

Born in Mitcham, Surrey into an Irish family, Margaret was the younger of the two daughters of Cumin McDonagh, a construction labourer from Oughterard in County Galway, and Bredan McDonagh who was a psychiatric nurse from Carlow.

Her elder sister was Siobhain McDonagh who was elected the Labour MP for Mitchan and Morden in 1997.

In 1998, Baroness McDonagh became Labour’s first female general secretary. She stepped down from the position following the 2001 general election and entered the House of Lords in 2004.

Margaret was also President of the Labour Party Irish Society.

Labour Party Irish Society tweeted on Saturday: “We are deeply saddened that one of our greatest champions and Labour Irish Society President, Baroness Margaret McDonagh, passed away this morning. Our thoughts and love are with her sister Siobhain McDonagh, her family and friends.

“Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam. May she rest in peace.”

Lord Roy Kennedy of Southwark, said: “I met Margaret and her sister Siobhain when I was 18 and have been proud to call them friends ever since. Margaret was a formidable campaigner, who stood up for what she believed.

And so much of Margaret’s political life was informed by her Irish upbringing, which she was rightly proud of. Her mother was an NHS nurse from Carlow, and her father a builder from Galway.

Margaret cared for others, worked hard for others, and changed many lives for the better. I will miss my dear friend.”

Deirdre Costigan, Vice Chair of the Labour Party Irish Society, said: “Margaret was fierce and she was fearless – an Irish warrior queen at the heart of the British Labour Party. She never accepted defeat, she always battled on, and she was immensely generous to those coming up behind her, while never forgetting the Irish community in south London that made her what she was.

“A whole generation of politicians, businesswomen, entertainers, and friends owe her a huge debt of gratitude for pushing them to see how much they could achieve. She was a force of nature – a woman the Irish in Britain, and in Labour, can be immensely proud of.”

Margaret had been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2021 and her death comes after her sister Siobhain accused the NHS of “abandoning” her during an emotional speech in Parliament earlier this year.

In March, Siobhain McDonagh fought back tears as she told the Commons about her sister’s experiences with glioblastoma and a course of treatment which involved a monthly four-day trip to Dusseldorf, Germany.

She told the Commons: “The numbers that the NHS is currently forsaking and abandoning to international travel, the lucky people who can get the funds to do that, is nothing short of a complete and utter national scandal.

“I wonder what my mum, who came here in 1947 to train as the first generation of nurses from Ireland, would say about the NHS abandoning her daughter.”

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