Obituary: Paddy Harte
Influential Fine Gael politician worked to create the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines, writes Liam Collins
Paddy Harte, who has died aged 86, said he was persuaded to stand as a candidate for the Letterkenny ward of Donegal County Council only because his father James had twice failed to get elected and following his sudden death at the age of 49, “I simply wanted to complete something he had started”.
Growing up in a staunch Fine Gael household where “Fine Gael were the goodies and Fianna Fail the baddies”, he said, “I was never interested in politics, but I was annoyed that he had missed it”.
Born on July 26, 1931, Paddy Harte grew up in comfortable circumstances on a farm between Lifford and Raphoe, Co Donegal. His mother, a Dillon, came from a family of butchers and the Hartes had operated a tavern for several generations and acquired one of the first publican licences in Donegal.
However, the death of his father and his uncle Willie in quick succession, with neither of them having made a will, led to the dissolution of the family butchering, licensing and farming business, he told Maurice O’Keeffe in an extensive interview for the Irish Life & Lore oral history series.
“My plan in early life was to have a butcher’s shop, a slaughtering house and a manufacturing plant making black puddings and other meat products,” he said. His business plan was well under way when he reluctantly agreed to “give it a go” at the invitation of the local Fine Gael branch.
He was elected to Donegal County Council in 1960 and realised that he was also now involved in people’s lives, recalling in particular a girl with a disability who became one of his first political cases. “I realised I just couldn’t walk away from it,” he said.
When he was asked to stand as a Dail candidate for the Donegal North-East constituency on the retirement of the sitting TD Dan McMenamin the following year, 1961, he first consulted his wife Rosaleen. “It’s a terribly difficult life, I can’t do that without you being part of it,” he told her. She replied that if he didn’t try, he might regret it for the rest of his life.
He was elected to Dail Eireann, but that didn’t quell his doubts. A year after taking his seat, he went to the Fine Gael leader James Dillon and told him he wouldn’t be contesting another election because of his business ambitions. He took Dillon’s advice: “Don’t say anything; you can always change your mind.”
Paddy Harte did change his mind and held the seat in Donegal for the next 11 elections, serving as a TD for 36 years until he lost his seat in 1997. He retired from politics following his failure to get elected to the Seanad at the subsequent poll.
He said he was initially persuaded to remain in politics because Declan Costello’s Just Society policy was getting traction in Fine Gael. Although he remained a backbencher for most of his political life, Paddy Harte was generally recognised as a thoughtful and committed politician and a gentleman in a world that can sometimes be vicious.
He was chairman of an All-Party Committee established by the Oireachtas in the early 1970s to review the implications of a united Ireland, but the committee eventually dissolved itself due to a lack of consensus between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail on the issues involved.
His biggest regret in politics was being persuaded to vote against the Offences Against the State Act and his own party leader, Liam Cosgrave, who voted for the measure when it was introduced by Fianna Fail Justice Minister Des O’Malley to counter the IRA threat in 1972. “When the bombs went off two days later we realised how necessary it was to provide absolute law and order,” he said.
He was a supporter of Dr Garret FitzGerald and was briefly elevated to Minister for State in the Department of Posts & Telegraphs during the short-lived 1981-1982 coalition government.
Although that was the high point of his parliamentary career, Paddy Harte became an influential voice promoting peace and reconciliation among divided communities during and after the Troubles. Most of his grandmother’s family came from Derry and being a border TD, he was well aware of the need to overcome sectarianism and prejudice in both communities. Along with Garret FitzGerald, he is credited with for moving Fine Gael away from its sub-title as the ‘United Ireland Party’.
But it was his later work with one-time Loyalist Glen Barr, leader of Vanguard and the Ulster Unionist Workers Council (who died last October), in building the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines, near Ypres, in Belgium, to commemorate all Irishmen who died in World War I, which brought him wider recognition.
The park was opened by Queen Elizabeth and then President Mary McAleese in 1998 and in 2005, both Harte and Barr were conferred with OBEs in the Queen’s honours list in recognition of their work.
“I once said to Ian Paisley ‘you are a very strange man’,” he told Maurice O’Keeffe in the interview for Irish Life & Lore. “His reply to me was ‘I am as Irish as you are, but I have a different way of expressing it. I believe in a different Ireland than you do... your tradition never gave my tradition the right to call ourselves Irish’.”
He believed that this ‘flaw’ in nationalist thinking still exists in the philosophy of the Fianna Fail party to this day.
“Until we reach the stage where people can say I am Irish, not nationalist, unionist, republican or loyalist, will we have really changed,” he said.
In political terms, Harte was a ‘Redmondite’ — a follower of the moderate nationalist leader John Redmond. It is perhaps fitting that Paddy Harte died 100 years after John Redmond, whose centenary will be celebrated on March 6 this year.
Paddy Harte, of The Diamond, Raphoe, Co Donegal, died on Monday, January 8. His funeral took place last Thursday.
He is survived by his wife Rosaleen, his children Mary, Paddy, Anne, Jimmy, Roisin, Eithne, Johnny, Garrett and Emmett. His son Jimmy served as a Labour Party senator but retired from politics after a bad fall in 2013.