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Tuesday 25 June 2019

Revealed: the gaffes of Ó Dálaigh

'If I fail I do not mind dying. My death will vindicate Ireland's honour.' An offer from the Head of State to take the place of kidnap victim Tiede Herrema is uncovered by Jim Duffy

THE year was 1975. Dutch industrialist Dr Tiede Herrema had been kidnapped by Irish republicans. The Fine Gael-Labour National Coalition under Liam Cosgrave faced a dilemma. They wanted to find Herrema and secure his safe release. But they had to be careful, for the last thing they wanted to do was to give any encouragement to other budding kidnappers, who might see the government as a soft touch for blackmail.

However, the Government found itself having to deal with problems from an unexpected source, Cearbhall O Dálaigh, fifth president of Ireland. Less than one year into his time of office, Cearbhall was in effect an accidental president.

In 1974 the National Coalition and Fianna Fail had agreed to nominate Rita Childers, widow of the President Childers, for the office. But when that was revealed exclusively by the Sunday Independent, Jack Lynch, fearing a Coalition set up, backed off and suggested Cearbhall instead.

Cearbhall O Dálaigh was one of Ireland's most brilliant legal minds; its youngest Attorney-General (at 35), its youngest Chief Justice (at 50) and its second youngest president up to then.

But Cearbhall had one basic flaw. Though a Dáil and Seanad candidate twice (unsuccessfully), he was strikingly politically naive. In 1948, for example, he had clumsily intervened in two capital murder case controversies. Two people had been sentenced to death, one a woman who had murdered an elderly woman in Glasnevin Church.

As the First Inter-Party Government discussed whether to allow the executions to go ahead or have President O'Kelly commute them, Cearbhall, a former Attorney General, mounted a letter-writing campaign to the national newspapers saying that executions were "justified from both reason and scripture." He also slammed an unnamed minister (Seán McBride) for his opposition to capital punishment.

Dev and senior Fianna Fáilers thought Cearbhall's intervention gauche and tactless. Cearbhall may have been trying to build up his political profile for the next general election, where he was to be a candidate.

But he was also a brilliant, respected ex-AG who in his critics' eyes should not have been playing politics with the proposed executions, one of which did take place, the other being commuted to life imprisonment.

Again in 1970 Cearbhall showed striking political naivety when as Chief Justice he demanded twice in writing that Jack Lynch sack his Justice Minister, Micheál O Moráin, who had been drunk and rude to the visiting Canadian Bar Association. In fact, only a few weeks later, Lynch demanded O Moráin's resignation on the eve of the sackings of Blaney and Haughey during the Arms crisis.

More comically, Cearbhall as Chief Justice wrote to the then Foreign Minister Paddy Hillery in mid-1972 urging him to have Kildare St renamed Rue de l'Europe in honour of Ireland's joining the EEC!

Des O'Malley, in a speech praising him years later revealed that as Chief Justice Cearbhall had earned a reputation as a bit of a 'crank' among some Fianna Fáil ministers.

In the Presidency, Cearbhall had proved similarly inept politically. His confusing speech to the European Parliament in 1975 was littered with jokes and puns that fell flat, as their meanings were lost in translation (the classic being where he told MEPs that as his surname in Irish meant someone "who frequents assemblies ... therefore ... I introduce myself as one of you"). A bizarre decision to speak only Irish at press conferences during a state visit to France became a joke, as the world's media pleaded with him to at least use some English so that they could understand him. By the time of the Herrema kidnapping, the National Coalition were deeply uneasy at what they saw as the well-meaning, but infuriating naivety of President O Dálaigh.

But he too was deeply unhappy with them. Against his already poor relationship with the Government, Cearbhall's interventions during the Herrema siege added a new strain.

On the morning of 21 October, Cearbhall began working on his first idea, a 'message to the people' calling for Dr Herrema's release. His draft, contained among his private papers, (and including his crossed out changes in italics) read:

'People of Ireland, 'Let us, wherever we may be, at home or abroad, men, women and children (especially children) work and, where we can, pray together that peace and justice and reconciliation may come again into our hearts and minds.

'In these very moments all that Ireland has ever meant to every generation of Irish people gael and sean ghall is in peril if a stranger, with his dear wife and family cannot move more freely and live in harmony (unharmed?) in our midsts.

'I ask in the name of all who bear the common name of Irishman, whatever their creed, religion, political or social, or present disregard of all belief and order, that the anguish of Mrs Elisabeth Herrema and of her children be brought swiftly to an end, and that Dr Tiede Herrema be restored to his family and his friends and the workers of Limerick, where he was loved and respected, as (he is) in the rest of Ireland.

'I ask this in the name of the honour of Ireland.'

@@STYL xr However the following day, a letter drafted to be sent to the Taoiseach stated:

'It now seems to me that the only way to save Dr Herrema's life is to offer a substitute hostage who might succeed in persuading the kidnappers to reason. I accept that the Government cannot and should not yield to the kidnapper's demands. I am willing to offer myself as a substitute hostage for Dr H in the firm knowledge that there can be no government compromise with blackmail.

'I believe I could bring the kidnappers to reason; if I fail I do not mind dying my death will vindicate Ireland's honour before the world.'

Yesterday, Dr Garret FitzGerald, who was Foreign Affairs Minister at the time, said: "I remember the late President Ó Dálaigh trying to get involved in some way at the time, but I don't really recall all the details. He was a very odd man, eccentric; totally unsuited to be president, but the media were fully behind him. And, of course, I don't condone what happened [the Donegan affair)but I think he had had enough of it by then and was glad to go. I know his wife wasn't really happy [with him] in the job."

Cearbhall was undoubtedly highly intelligent and articulate, and indeed was seen by friend and foe alike as being a strong republican, in the "Fenian tradition" as he described himself once, the chances of his "persuading the kidnappers to reason" were nil.

In the event, the Herrema siege ended peacefully.

By 1975, the Herrema interventions of President O Dálaigh, along with the disastrous EEC speech and various snubs, had pushed the relationship between Cearbhall and the National Coalition to breaking point. That final break would come exactly one year to the day from that offer to become a substitute hostage, when after a drunken outburst by Paddy Donegan, an attack by Ted Heath (who allegedly called him a 'menace to civilisation' in the United States) and more besides, Cearbhall felt he had had enough and resigned.

JIM DUFFY's book 'The Presidency of Ireland: the Powers, Functions and People' is scheduled for publication late next year.

Quotes are from Cearbhall O Dálaigh's Papers from the UCD Archives.

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