Inner West Independent

Vale Irene Doutney 1948 – 2018

Irene Doutney Photo: Twitter

By Hall Greenland

When news came through last week that Irene Doutney, the former deputy Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney Council, had died just 11 days short of her 70th birthday, the phrase that immediately sprung to mind was ‘Last of the Mohicans’.


Irene was born and bred in the heart of a Sydney that once was home to bohemians, wharfies, blue collar workers, Aborigines, artists, musicians and students.  And she never forgot it.


Gentrification and the current sell-off of public housing is reducing that city to a memory, but Irene always had that old Sydney in her veins.


Irene’s father was a RAAF man, a World War II pilot who saw action against the Japanese in the Pacific. Back in civilian life he was an aspiring artist eking out a living.


Irene grew up in what her older brother has described as ‘straitened circumstances’, in a rent-controlled flat in Victoria Street near the corner with Orwell Street, in the centre of Kings Cross.


When Irene was nine, the family moved to the suburbs, to Banksia, but her father died soon after of leukemia. Her mother struggled on but succumbed to cancer a decade later.


Irene attended local Catholic schools but rebelled against heavy authoritarianism of those schools and left school before matriculating. Like so many of her generation she made her way to London which she found as intolerant of non-conformists as she had found suburban Sydney.


Back in Sydney she drifted in and out of jobs, suffered severe bouts of depression, and became a junkie – again like many of the best and brightest of her generation.


However her steak of idealism saved her – with the help of methadone. She volunteered to help when the AIDS epidemic hit Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s and straightened her own life out.


She went back to TAFE to complete her university entrance qualifications. She then did an Arts degree at the University of Sydney.


Essential to turning her life around was stable public housing in Redfern. So it was not surprising that she emerged from university to become an advocate for public housing and its tenants.


Given her background and values she was drawn to the Greens twenty years ago. She was elected to the City of Sydney Council as a Greens Councillor in 2008.


Remarkably, in 2012 she was forced to go public with her background of mental illness and heroin addiction when she learned political opponents were preparing a ‘dirt file’ on her.


“I know there will be people who sit in judgment on me but I hope there will be people who will understand,” Irene told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I’ve been on a journey and it hasn’t necessarily been a great journey but it’s my journey and it’s what has made me the person I am now.”


The next day a David Ong from Auburn wrote to the Herald: “Her difficult journey to turn things around speaks to an uncommon level of resilience. It also bodes well for her empathy for the disadvantaged. I am sure some people will appreciate these qualities in their councillors.”


They did. Irene was re-elected and went on to serve as deputy Lord Mayor in 2016. The empathy was always in evidence as she championed the rights of public housing tenants, the LGBTI community and our First Nations people.


In her last days as the battle against cancer entered its final phase, this ‘old school Green’, as one supporter called her, asked that instead of tears and flowers, people make donations to the Factory Community Centre in Redfern.


Irene was also determined that the fight against the evisceration of pubic housing in the Inner City be stepped up. She was a woman who never forgot and was unforgettable.


A commemoration meeting for Irene Doutney will be held  on June 29 at 2pm at Redfern Town Hall, jointly organised by the city of Sydney ?Council and the Greens NSW.


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