THE better known episodes in Patrick Hillery's political career have been well rehearsed in recent days. He was a quietly pioneering Minister for Education in the early Sixties. He was Jack Lynch's staunchest ally when the arms crisis of 1970 split Fianna Fail, most spectacularly when he routed the supporters of Kevin Boland and Neil Blaney at the tumultuous ard fheis of 1971. In 1971-72, he was the Minister for Foreign Affairs responsible for negotiating entry into what has now become the European Union and, from 1973-76, he served as Ireland's first European Commissioner. There then followed 14 reluctant years in Aras an Uachtarain when he restored respect and stability to the Presidency in the aftermath of the constitutional crisis precipitated by Cearbhall O Dalaigh's resignation -- above all in 1982 when he resisted improper pressure from Charles Haughey and other of his erstwhile colleagues in Fianna Fail to intervene in politics in that party's interest.
But Patrick Hillery's largest claim to a place of honour in the history of this State rests most of all upon a more obscure role when Jack Lynch first appointed him Minister for External Affairs in June 1969. He spoke of that role frankly but with his characteristic blend of self-deprecating modesty and wry humour when I interviewed him in June 2001.
He was still in his Clare constituency after the election in 1969, preparing to attend a trade union congress in Bundoran in his capacity as Minister for Labour, when Lynch phoned and asked to see him. Hillery demurred: "you can't see me. I'm going up to Bundoran to the trade unions . . . Do anything you like as far as I'm concerned but I'm going to Bundoran. Whatever ministerial appointment you want to give me, that's fine." He duly fulfilled his speaking engagement in Bundoran and laughed as he remembered hearing on the car radio on the way back to Dublin that the trade unions had passed a vote of no confidence in him after his departure. When he arrived at the Pro-Cathedral, where his funeral Mass was celebrated last Wednesday, and slipped into a pew beside Charlie Haughey at the Mass to mark the assembly of the new Dail, he asked him what portfolio he had been given. Only then did he discover that he was destined for Iveagh House. His first response was amusement: "it was a total surprise".
In June 1969, Jack Lynch's priority in foreign policy was Europe; when Hillery finally met the Taoiseach, their conversation revolved around Europe rather than Northern Ireland. General de Gaulle's resignation as President of France -- he and his wife were staying with President de Valera in Aras an Uachtarain
on polling day -- had prompted speculation that it might open the way for the enlargement of the EEC and Hillery's "job was to get Ireland to the negotiating table" -- a task for which his long-serving predecessor in Iveagh House, Frank Aiken, was ill suited.
Patrick Hillery had a brutal baptism of fire as Minister for External Affairs. Within two
months, the initial focus on Europe was swept aside by the crisis that erupted in Northern Ireland with the Battle of the Bogside and the commitment of British troops to the streets of Derry and Belfast. In retrospect, his new department's unpreparedness for the crisis beggars belief. "Where's the Northern Ireland desk?" he had asked the department's secretary, Hugh McCann, at the end of his introductory tour of Iveagh House; "we don't have one," replied McCann; "the thinking has always been that it's not external". Things were even worse in the Taoiseach's Department where it was not until January 1973, after Hillery had taken up his appointment as European Commissioner, that Dermot Nally became the first senior official assigned to cover Northern Ireland. It was Hillery who was responsible for the establishment of the Anglo-Irish division in Iveagh House and he was surprised by the ministerial jealousy and resentment with which his efforts to establish a proper administrative framework for formulating Northern Ireland policy were resisted. The opposition when he went to government for the money included Charles Haughey and George Colley: "my colleagues," he recalled sardonically, "were all watching for Jack to stay a short time and they were establishing their patriotic records to become successor -- George and Charlie especially." Nor was his task made easier by the discovery that the views of many of the senior officials in External Affairs, including McCann, "were much more green than you'd expect".
Patrick Hillery held firm to the parameters of Fianna Fail's Northern Ireland policy as laid down at a meeting of the parliamentary party in January 1957 -- in the emotional aftermath of Sean South's death in a raid on an RUC police barracks during the IRA's border campaign of 1956-62 and just before de Valera became Taoiseach for the last time. That meeting decided against "the employment of force at any time in the foreseeable future". Jack Lynch "would have had that in his head ... it was a decision not easily arrived at and he'd have definitely said that whatever happens in the North we're not going in there."
Paddy Hillery was on a painting holiday on Achill Island with John Healy (Backbencher of the Irish Times) when the Battle of the Bogside began. The golden rule in the boarding house where they were staying was "you don't ever disturb the painters" and it was only when he came back to the boarding house that evening that he received the frantic messages summoning him to the first emergency Cabinet meeting at 2.15p.m. on Wednesday, August 13. He showed me a painting on the wall behind me in his Sutton home that he had painted that day and he laughed when I urged him to ensure that its historical significance was clearly identified and preserved for posterity.
When he got back to Dublin, Lynch warned him that his Cabinet colleagues were "very excited" and Hillery spoke with withering contempt of the first of the emergency Cabinet meetings he attended, likening the atmosphere to "a ballad session. ... They were all talking patriotic ... I remember being sure that our army was not as well armed as the B-Specials, not to talk of the British Army". He was also influenced by a series of letters from Sean MacEntee, the former long-serving Fianna Fail Minister, stressing how many Catholic lives were at risk in Belfast, MacEntee's home town. Hillery was instructed to seek an immediate meeting with either the British Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary (who then held the Northern Ireland portfolio).
Although Hillery's efforts to persuade the British to agree to a UN or joint Irish-British peacekeeping force were doomed to failure, he succeeded in convincing the British that what the Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, later described as his "uninvited visit to London" had been dictated by the need "to outflank the IRA and the extremists generally"; hence the Foreign Secretary's decision not to object to Hillery's asking to address the UN Security Council -- he believed that the Irish would not get the votes necessary to inscribe the item on the agenda and "that would be a satisfactory outcome".
Publicly the Hillery mission to the UN produced little by way of concrete results, privately it achieved its purpose
of enabling the Lynch government to appear to be doing something when, in fact, there was very little they could do; in that sense, it served as a safety-valve to ease extremist pressures. "The task I had which no one in the Government seemed to know except myself," recalled Hillery 30 years on, "was simply to go to the UN and highlight the Northern Ireland crisis": to "get in, expose it and get out without a vote because we'd lose a vote . . . You have to lead somewhere and the Fianna Fail party in the country, they'd come to me, including all the TDs, thinking this is the opportunity to invade the North. You couldn't just sit there doing nothing".
Patrick Hillery's self-appointed role, in short, was to serve as a lightning rod to soak up republican rage within Fianna Fail. His genuine nationalism and patent sincerity were vital components of that role. He was to play it again in 1970-72 -- when he paid an unannounced visit to Belfast's Falls Road in July 1970 and during his American mission after Bloody Sunday. But he never played it to greater effect than in the cataclysmic days of August 1969.
Ronan Fanning is Emeritus Professor of Modern History at UCD