My part in downfall of a President over the 'thundering disgrace' debacle

The 1976 State papers revisit an explosive time when remarks made by Defence Minister Paddy Donegan led to the resignation of President Cearbhall O Dalaigh. Many myths were born that day, only one journalist was there. Don Lavery tells the real story

THE Minister for Post and Telegraphs, Conor Cruise O'Brien, strode into the lobby of the Greville Arms Hotel in Mullingar.

One of the hate figures of republicans during the bloodiest decade of the Troubles, the 1970s, he was attending a dinner dance in the midlands town.

As a young reporter covering it for the weekly paper, I opened a closet to hang up my coat.

Inside, at the back, on his hunkers, crouched a local detective cradling an Uzi submachinegun.

"Howzit going?" I asked.

"Grand", came the reply as I closed the door on him, leaving him in the dark.

Not a surreal scene from 'Father Ted' but a snapshot of the obsession with security and subversion throughout the mid-seventies under the Coalition Government of Liam Cosgrave.

Sometimes the measures were Colonel Blimpish, even in quiet Westmeath.

When an IRA suspect appeared at Mullingar Court House soldiers raced into the council chamber in the building opposite, opened the windows, and mounted a MAG machinegun on the balcony, covering the street.

If the heavy weapon firing up to 1,000 rounds a minute opened up dozens of decent citizens could have been mown down.

It's not hard to see why law and order was the focus of the Government. The loyalists had bombed Dublin and Monaghan; the IRA had murdered the British ambassador and a garda.

But there were also legitimate concerns that civil liberties were being eroded in the rush to contain the violence.

This was the atmosphere when Defence Minister Paddy Donegan came to Mullingar to open canteen facilities in Columb Barracks in October 1976. He had already given the IRA "a kick up the transom" after the Naval Service arrested the gun-running ship Claudia.

After the assassination of ambassador Christopher Ewart Biggs, the security forces had been given more powers in the Emergency Powers Bill which President Cearbhall ODalaigh referred to the Supreme Court - a move which angered some members of the Government, although it was found to be constitutional.

A 23-year-old reporter with the Westmeath Examiner, I was the only journalist there and asked two Army press officers for a copy of the minister's script. Donegan, loud and friendly, overheard and gave it to me, saying: "Here, have this."

The script was dull with no news in it.

I was told it was the only one available and, sitting across from Donegan at lunch, I gave it back to him.

He took it, stood up, and threw it down. Looking at me he said: "I'll give you some news for the press."

I noted his remarks in shorthand as he criticised the President for sending the Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court to check it's constitutionality, saying it was an amazing decision.

Asking why he had not sent other aspects of anti-IRA laws to the court, Donegan said: "In my opinion he is a thundering disgrace."

An Army officer friend sitting beside me kicked me sharply on the shin in case I had missed the importance of the remark.

I hadn't. The Defence Minister had just insulted the Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces in a room full of commissioned officers who owed the President their loyalty.

A shiver ran down my spine and I knew I had a huge story, one that turned out to be the most sensational political event of the year, to myself.

The exact words used were "thundering disgrace" - not "thundering f . . . er", or "f . . . ing disgrace" or a "thundering b . . . ix" or any of the other permutations wrongly suggested since then.

Donegan was not drunk. Sitting eight inches across from him I got no smell of drink off the minister, who was an alcoholic; he did not slur his words, and he did not stagger or sway.

He had been quite definite in what he wanted to say.

He asked one Army officer afterwards what he thought. He replied: "Straight from the shoulder as usual, Minister."

Another officer said Justice Minister Paddy Cooney would like a word with me. I replied he was welcome as long as he realised it would not make any difference and I would report what was said.

In the event I did not speak to Mr Cooney, who recalled on RTE this week that Donegan had not used any expletives.

As I left the barracks before filing the story, one Army officer laughed: "We will have to put you in handcuffs!"

Donegan's speech was given on Monday, and by Friday the President had resigned despite efforts by the Minister to make a "sincere and humble apology" for his use of the words "thundering disgrace."

President O Dalaigh said the special relationship between the President and the minister for Defence had been irreparably breached, not only by what Donegan said but also because of the place where he had made his "outrageous criticism."

One letter writer to the national newspapers summed it up by saying he always wondered what the letters TD stood for.

Now he knew. Thundering Disgrace.