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Tuesday 25 June 2019

How 'thundering disgrace' led to President resigning

Fergus Black

THEY were only three words but they shook the nation, provoked a constitutional crisis and led to the first resignation of a president in office.

"A thundering disgrace" was how Defence Minister Paddy Donegan described President CearbhallO Dalaigh when the minister addressed troops at Columb Barracks in Mullingar on October 18, 1976.

The President's "sin" was to refer the Government's tough new anti-terrorist emergency powers legislation to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.

Following the minister's remarks, Mr O Dalaigh became the first president to resign from office, stepping down on October 22, just under two years into his seven-year term.

Letters between the two men released by the National Archives reveal the huge gulf that had opened up, not just between them but between the President and the government led by Liam Cosgrave.


It becomes clear in Mr Donegan's letter to the President on October 19 - the day after his infamous remarks made in the Columb Barracks - that he had failed to set up a meeting with Mr O Dalaigh to apologise in person.

"In the statement issued by me last night through the Government Information Service expressing my regret, I indicated my intention to offer my apologies to you as soon as possible," Mr Donegan wrote.

The letter continued: "As you did not find it possible to accede to my request for an appointment, I hasten to make my apologies to you, sincerely and humbly, by this letter.

"Specifically, I wish to tender to you my very deep regret for my use of the words 'thundering disgrace' in relation to you. I repeat my expression of sincere and humble apology."

But the President was in no mood for reconciliation and in a letter dated the same day he bluntly told Mr Donegan that he had done unsalvageable damage to the special relationship between the President and the Minister for Defence.

"That relationship has been irreparably breached not only by what you said yesterday but also because of the place where, and the persons before whom, you chose to make your outrageous criticism."

He told the defence minister that the "gravamen" of his utterance was "in my opinion, 'he [the President] is a thundering disgrace'.

"These words, I find, are followed by the sentence: 'The fact is, the Army must stand behind the State'," the President wrote.

"Can this sequence be construed by ordinary people otherwise than as an insinuation that the President does not stand behind the State?

"Have you any conception of your responsibilities as a Minister of State, and, in particular, as Minister for Defence?"

By the time the minister replied on October 22, there was no way back.

"I fully accept that the gravamen of my utterance was contained in the words you quote in the last two lines of the first page of your letter," he wrote.

"For these and for the reference which additionally I made, I have expressed my regret and have tendered to you my sincere and humble apology."

That same day, Mr O Dalaigh resigned from office, to be replaced by Paddy Hillery.

Ironically, the Supreme Court passed the emergency powers legislation that had been referred to it by Mr O Dalaigh, the court ruling that the legislation was not repugnant to the Constitution.

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