Friday 23 August 2019

Obituary: Padraig O hUiginn

Trusted ally to three taoisigh who served Ireland 'with patriotic passion and compassion', writes Liam Collins

PERSUADER: Padraig O hUiginn
PERSUADER: Padraig O hUiginn

Padraig O hUiginn, who has died aged 94, served as secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach under three taoisigh, but became known as 'Charlie Haughey's favourite civil servant' because of his close involvement with the development of the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) and the implementation of his leader's pet project, social partnership.

"Haughey would back O hUiginn, who would have the right to persuade, bully... what ever was needed to be done to get the other government departments on board," Michael Buckley, who later became chief executive of AIB, told Fiona Reddan for her book Ireland's IFSC.

The billionaire businessman Dermot Desmond who conceived the idea of the Dublin docklands financial centre dubbed him "Mandarin supreme" and said his involvement was critical to its success. "No one could out-fox, out-manoeuvre or de-stabilise him. When he made a commitment to get something done - you could take it that it would be done," he said.

But that didn't always endear him to other senior civil servants, and his closeness to Haughey also led to criticism in the report of the Beef Tribunal, which found he had carried out an order which "wrongly" directed the IDA to change job performance clauses in a financial development plan agreed with Goodman International, which was favourable to the meat company.

He was also secretary general in the Department of the Taoiseach under Garret FitzGerald between 1982-87. Because of his closeness to the Fianna Fail leader he was largely side-lined during this period in favour of Dermot Nally, secretary to the Government. Undaunted, O hUiginn devoted his energies to the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), developing A Strategy for Development, 1986-1990 which was fortuitously in situ when Haughey regained office.

Although he was not a close personal friend, O hUiginn also overstepped the mark by attending meetings at Haughey's home, Abbeville, with political allies PJ Mara, Bertie Ahern and Seamus Brennan to advise the Taoiseach when he was under pressure following the Greencore and Telecom 'scandals' of late 1991. One particular meeting was followed by a radio interview with Sean O'Rourke during which Haughey called on businessman Michael Smurfit to step aside as chairman of Telecom Eireann, an event which it has long been speculated led to his downfall.

O hUiginn did not remain long in the administration of Albert Reynolds who deposed Haughey in February 1992, retiring from the department in 1993 and taking up a new post as chairman of Bord Failte.

He then went into the private sector and was appointed a director of Esat Telecom in February 1994 and would became a key player in the Denis O'Brien-led consortium Esat Digifone, which was preparing to bid for the first commercial mobile phone licence in the State.

On Sunday, September 17, 1995, O hUiginn picked Denis O'Brien up from his home in Wellington Road in his Mercedes. As a director of Bord Failte, he had two premium tickets to that day's All-Ireland football final in Croke Park and a special parking pass which allowed him to drive directly into the stadium. According to O hUiginn, he and O'Brien were seated a few rows behind the then minster for communications, Michael Lowry, and 'half the cabinet'. At half-time the two men became separated and O hUiginn recalled later that when he resumed his seat O'Brien told him: "I met Michael Lowry, and I am meeting him after the match for a drink." This was the famous 'pint' in Hartigan's bar in Leeson Street which later became a pivotal moment in the 14-year Moriarty Tribunal.

In September 1995, Denis O'Brien and his executive team had to make a three-hour oral 'make-or-break' presentation to the Department of Communications on its bid. "They were greatly assisted in the preparation by Padraig O hUiginn through his vast experience in public service tendering. His insights into the process of application assessment, analysis and delivery, albeit from the other side of the table, were an invaluable asset in the grooming of the bid team for the oral hearing," wrote Brendan O'Kelly in his book The Esat Story.

O hUiginn had almost 100,000 shares in the company and made an estimated £4m when it was sold to BT five years later.

Born in Cork on June 1, 1924, Padraig O hUiginn was educated at St Finbarr's College and, later at, the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated with a degree in Economic and Social Planning. In 1941, at the age of 17, he joined the Central Statistics Office as a clerical officer and rose through the ranks of the civil service with posts in the departments of Environment, Industry & Commerce and Lands.

He married Patricia Ni Lideadha, from Belfast, and they had a daughter and three sons.

From 1956 to 1964 he was an Irish representative with the United Nations in Geneva and New York. He then worked in Ireland's EU office in Brussels, before returning to become managing director of the industrial development agency An Foras Forbartha.

He was a senior official in the department of Economic Planning and Development when Haughey disbanded the department and brought him into the Taoiseach's office, first as an adviser and then as secretary general in 1982.

He was described as an "impressive linguist and negotiator" and is credited with playing a major part in bringing about consensus among the social partners as chief government negotiator on both the Programme for National Recovery (1987) and its successor, the Programme for Economic and Social Progress (1991).

He later acted as an adviser to Jim McDaid when he was Minister for Sport and was a director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. He was also a director of Kildare Retail Services Ltd, which operates the popular Kildare Village retail complex.

In the book The Making of the Celtic Tiger, Padraic White, former chief executive of the IDA, said that O hUiginn's "natural instincts were always developmental and entrepreneurial, rather than restrictive and bureaucratic" and "to any assignment he brought a high intelligence, humour and mastery of language".

As well as collecting modern art, he was an inveterate golfer, playing at the Grange club in Dublin and as an honorary member of Ballybunion in Kerry. He was known to play golf in his time with Charlie McCreevy, Dermot Desmond and JP McManus.

He was also gregarious company, and his party piece was a version of The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee in French, entitled Les Fleur du South Mall which he translated himself.

He is commemorated with a tablet on Aercap House on the corner of St Stephen's Green and Earlsfort Terrace, developed by tycoon Denis O'Brien, which reads: "Public civil servant whose sole purpose was the advancement of Ireland and who did so with patriotic passion and compassion."

O hUiginn, who died last Wednesday, lived in Templogue, Dublin, for many years and more recently in Tivoli Road, Dun Laoghaire. His death notice said he was "joyously still optimistic and telling stories" up to the time of his death. He is survived by his wife and children Mairin, Peadar, Ciaran and Feargal.

Sunday Independent

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