Despite his 'everlasting shame', Denis O'Reilly remains loyal to Black Power

by Clare de Lore / 10 February, 2017

Denis O’Reilly. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Denis O’Reilly has dedicated much of his life to social justice, but he’s the first to concede he’s no angel.

He’s only partly joking when he describes himself as the Black Power sheep of his family. Now 64 and a member of Black Power since his twenties, O’Reilly is focused on his work as a writer, social activist and consultant to government and private-sector organisations, his PhD studies and his whanau.

Born in Timaru on Christmas Eve, 1952, he was one of six children. One of his brothers, Laurie O’Reilly, was the ­Commissioner for Children until 1997. Denis studied for the priesthood at the Catholic seminary at Greenmeadows in Hawke’s Bay before leaving to join Black Power.

Despite describing himself as a ­“recovering bureaucrat”, Taradale-based O’Reilly moves easily within the ­Wellington Establishment, but firmly identifies as Maori (Ngati Pakeha no Aotearoa) through his wife, Taape Tareha, their six children, 19 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Tell me about your wife and children and your sense of belonging in their world.

I am firmly in one world. I empathise with my family and I take the same shit they take. My kids have suffered ­terribly with prejudice from the police, ­essentially racism, seeing us as an ­underclass. It would have been easy to sanitise myself and say I am reformed, but I am not going to.

You prefer to call yourself a resultant, rather than a consultant, and you work with all sorts of businesses and organisations. Is there any such thing as a typical work day?

No, not really. There is what you think the day will bring and what actually happens – maybe a ring from [Superintendent] Wally Haumaha from Police National HQ to say there is a drama somewhere and can I help, take the heat out, get people to talk to one another.

Denis and Taape’s wedding party. Photo/O’Reilly family collection

What attracted you to Black Power?

I joined Black Power after witnessing how young Maori in the city were marginalised and oppressed. And I was influenced by the poetry of James K Baxter, not only because of the magic of the verse, but also the loving values of the Maori that he espoused.

Those values weren’t much in evidence recently when Black Power and the Mongrel Mob clashed at a funeral in Whakatane. What went wrong?

What happened at Whakatane was ­unacceptable in terms of what triggered the attack and the response attack on the funeral motorcade. Sometimes things go wrong in the heat of the moment. They all have their genesis in an action on someone’s part that may not be evident to everyone there. We can all be thankful no one was killed, but the metaphysical consequences for the mourning families will be significant and in that regard, as a member of Black Power, I express my personal regret to the Mongrel Mob community.

Are you involved in trying to sort it out?

No, there are enough good leaders locally across both roopu [groups] to sort it out. I am confident they will work hard to find a mutually acceptable solution that ensures all the families involved are kept safe.

With son Tareha, daughter Kaylene and Bob Marley in 1979. Photo/O'Reilly collection

How did you go from being Black Power to apparently being able to speak and negotiate between all the gangs?

It’s a bit like when you have stopped being on the field, you are just a former rugby player – but a respected person for what you have done. Hanging up the patch means I am not owned by any chapter. I am still a member of Black Power, and I am for life, but it is a higher kaupapa.

You are one of a number working with the gangs and others trying to combat the “meth mess”, as you call it. How deeply are gangs such as Black Power involved in the meth trade?

Look at Operation Ghost [the police recently investigated and broke up one of the largest drug syndicates ever found in New Zealand] – there are people involved who are probably better known to people in high places than to me. A lot of our guys are involved, but they are way down the tree generally and they are ­consumers. You now have little networks running across the gangs – guys who have met up in prison, for example; these syndicates are organic.

So, commerce has broken down gang demarcations and individuals can work across lines, so to speak?

They can do business together. When you say gangs, within every crew, there is a split – those who do drugs and those who don’t. Methamphetamine and whanau ora are incompatible, so you have people who genuinely want their kids and grandkids to achieve. One of my friends, Eugene Ryder, tells a story about being at his daughter’s 21st at the Green Parrot [a restaurant in Wellington]. His young son said in a loud voice, “Dad, when can I get my patch?”, and the whole place went quiet. His wife stared at him intently, so Eugene replied “As soon as you get your law degree.”

Black Power’s Eugene Ryder. Photo/ATL/ EP/1995/4363A/8A-F

Are you saying that being in a gang doesn’t necessarily involve or require criminal behaviour?

You have to differentiate between ­organised crime and this other, New Zealand phenomenon of the indigenous gang. Now the gang has the same ­demography as Maori society in general. There were no 64-year-old fathers and grandfathers around back in my day, as there are now, to go to for advice.

What would you say to that young man seeking his law degree and a patch?

I say it’s not your affiliation, it’s your behaviour that counts.

But what about the notorious things that are involved in getting a patch?

Sure as hell the things I did included getting people houses; getting people out of jail. In a sense, my getting a patch was a continuation of my aspiration to be a priest, but in another way. The sort of work a South American liberation ­theology priest would be involved in. I have done some pretty horrible things, too. (O’Reilly is on the record admitting his “everlasting shame” at taking part in gang rapes, known as blocking.) It goes with the turf. It was my wife, Taape, and the other brave women who took us to task for our sexual behaviour, the gang rape and that sort of stuff. We then stood against it and actually changed that whole culture and you just don’t hear of it any more. The last big gang rape case I heard about concerned Louise Nicholas. Gang rape is not acceptable and it is not how men conduct themselves, and I was hoping we could get to that stage with meth, too. But there was no money in rape and there is in meth.

Rob Muldoon, who was Prime Minister at the time, arranged funding for your work getting young Maori into employment and became a friend to you and Black Power. It seemed an unlikely alliance, so what was the common ground?

Muldoon liked being told the truth, and people not cowering. He had a wicked sense of humour and we both liked the piss. We had good times. One day, after he looked at some of our Black Power work, he joined us at the Royal Tiger in ­Wellington. The sergeant from Taranaki St police station and the bar manager had decided it was the night they would kick us out. Muldoon was so short, they didn’t even see him. So the cops came in and the bar manager closed the bar down. ­Muldoon then got Bernie Galvin, his adviser, to go up to the bar and say, “The Prime Minister wants to shout the bar.”

enis and Laurie before Denis’ wedding in 1976. Photo/O'Reilly family collection

Later, we went to a party and Willy Nip, one of the boys, put a Black Power patch on Muldoon. Willy put Muldoon’s coat on; he was standing on a table, ordering people around – it was hilarious. Muldoon and Rei Harris and even the driver were drinking whisky. Waki McKinnon was flicking beer at Muldoon. Muldoon had a whisky in his hand and turned around and threw it in Waki’s face. The place just stopped – but Muldoon was safe. It was his mischievous side. I was doing an MBA in Melbourne when he died. I borrowed some money to come back and got 150 of the boys to come and we did the haka for him. On the way out, Thea ­[Muldoon’s widow] grabbed me and said, “My ­husband would have loved that.”

You’re studying political activist ethnography and behavioural economics for your PhD. What’s some of the reading you’re doing for that or for pleasure?

I am really fascinated by the battle of Omarunui, in October 1866, involving my wife’s people, Ngati Parau. Tareha Te Moananui was the first Maori to speak in the House of Representatives, in ­September 1868. He said the power of good is stronger than the power of evil. All you have to do is focus on that which is good and when evil arises, come together and deal to it, but keep doing that which is good. So I’m reading Vincent O’Malley’s The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000, the history of the great war of New Zealand, the Waikato War. And I’ve just read Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernières.

Your brother Laurie was a big part of your life. Is he still an influence on you?

When Laurie died, I thought if there was one member of the family who should have, it should have been me. It’s nearly 20 years ago now. I miss him still. One of the tests I often ask myself is, “What would Laurie have done?”

This article was first published in the February 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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