Friday 23 August 2019

Obituary: Maurice O'Connell

Civil servant and banker helped Ireland to adopt the euro during career of public service, writes Wayne O'Connor

STEADY: Maurice O’Connelllege,
STEADY: Maurice O’Connelllege,

Maurice O'Connell, who has died at the age of 82, was credited with having an instrumental role in the introduction of the euro to Ireland as the last governor of a sovereign Central Bank of Ireland. O'Connell was the last governor to sign a punt bank note.

He was seen as a safe pair of hands capable of ensuring the bank would maintain a steady course during the largest ever currency changeover.

Because of the size of this unenviable task, more than 10 billion punt bank notes and 107 billion coins had to be replaced with 14 billion new bank notes and 52 billion coins. O'Connell was given the unprecedented distinction of being asked by the Government to stay in his role after his term had concluded because of his knowledge of the single currency. He had been due to retire in 2001 but was asked to remain on in the role during the currency transition between January and February 2002. He retired in March of that year.

A proud Kerryman, he was born in Moyvane, in the north of the county, in May 1936 to Thomas and Mary O'Connell. The family's history was steeped in education and the classics. Both of his parents were teachers and he attended St Michael's College, Listowel, where his grandfather, whom he was named after, was a co-founder and classics teacher for 50 years. After achieving remarkable intermediate certificate results, he got first place in Ireland in Greek, he went to Killarney to study in St Brendan's College and sat his Leaving Cert at 16. He was remembered there as an outstanding student.

He went on to study in Maynooth Ecclesiastical College, now St Patrick's College, before achieving an MA in Classics at University College Dublin. Initially, O'Connell's parents were the example he followed and he embarked on a teaching career that took him to the International College in St Gallen, Switzerland, before he returned to Ireland and made Dublin his home as he embarked on a career in the civil service.

During his time in Dublin, he married Marjorie Treacy. The couple had four children, two sons, Thomas and Martin, and two daughters, Catherine and Marjorie.

Much of his career as a civil servant was spent in the Department of Finance. His time there coincided with major domestic issues brought about by poor growth and high unemployment. He was initially appointed administrative officer in 1962. He eventually rose to second secretary in charge of the Finance Division and held Ireland's position on the EU Monetary Committee between 1988 and 1994.

Officials in the department said he took a lead role in the defence of the Irish pound during the 1992/93 currency crisis which saw mortgage rates rise 16pc as the country battled the devaluation of the punt and impacts on international trade.

He left the department during the summer of 1994 after being appointed governor of the Central Bank. His final months there arguably represented a career peak as Ireland took to the new currency quicker than any other eurozone nation, despite fears consumers would be exploited by retailers during the currency changeover.

At the time, O'Connell said: "The public has demonstrated such a great enthusiasm for the new banknotes and coins that the vast bulk of transactions are now taking place in euro. We can confidently say, only one week into the changeover, that the euro is now our money."

The number of Irish pounds in circulation fell twice as fast as local currencies in other states and analysis showed the cost of goods increased by less than 0.3pc during that period. O'Connell retired in March 2002 on a high.

He stayed active in his retirement and was appointed to the Sports Council in the wake of the fall-out of Roy Keane's departure from the 2002 World Cup and the Saipan Affair. O'Connell was tasked with examining the performance and role of the Football Association of Ireland in all operational matters in preparing for the tournament.

He chaired the Higher Education Authority's high-level group on university equality policies in 2004. Two years later, he was appointed to the Abbey Theatre Board by Arts Minister and fellow Kerry native John O'Donoghue.

In 2008 he was appointed to the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes, known as Bord Snip Nua, by then-Finance Minister Brian Lenihan. The committee was tasked with cutting public expenditure in the wake of the global financial crisis.

He was known to regularly attend Kerry GAA fixtures and made regular trips back to his home county. Once asked in a newspaper interview where his favourite place was, he simply replied: "Kerry."

He died last Monday, April 1, after attending the Kerryman's Association dinner in Croke Park the previous Saturday. He is survived by his wife and children.

Sunday Independent

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