Monday 18 February 2019

Patrick Hillery 1923 -2008: The 'ultimate public servant'

Dr Hillery enjoys his round at the An Gaisce Golf Classic at Carton House, Maynooth in June 2006
Dr Hillery enjoys his round at the An Gaisce Golf Classic at Carton House, Maynooth in June 2006
Fionnan Sheahan

Fionnan Sheahan

Within Fianna Fail, Paddy Hillery's principled defence of standards and authority ought not be underestimated.

Dr Hillery will probably go down as the last of the old school Presidents of Ireland.

Unfortunately this merely serves to play down the role of a man who was a reluctant leader, but who stepped up to the mark whenever called upon.

Fianna Fail doesn't particularly like talking about the dark period in its own history following the Arms Crisis.

The dismissal from cabinet of Charlie Haughey and Neil Blaney in May 1970, by then-Taoiseach Jack Lynch, for not complying with party policy prompted Kevin Boland to resign in sympathy with them. Of course, Mr Haughey and Mr Boland were acquitted in their trial of illegally importing arms with the purpose of supplying them to Nationalists.


At the 1971 Ard Fheis, the fallout from the arms trail was tearing Fianna Fail apart, but Mr Hillery rose to the defence of Lynch as forces tried to undermine the leadership.

In an extraordinary row, he faced down the would-be rebels.

"We can have elections for our officers but we won't frighten Jack Lynch out of here by a few bully boys," he said.

"We can change our policy but we'll change it there -- not over there. And Fianna Fail will survive as it did before," he shouted.

The steel of a man regarded as mild-mannered and quiet is illustrated in his immortal quote: "Ye can have Boland, but ye can't have Fianna Fail."

Dr Hillery served with distinction as Minister for Education, Minister for Industry and Commerce, Minister for Labour and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

During his term in Iveagh House, he addressed the United Nations on the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Dr Hillery also displayed his fortitude when he paid an unofficial, but hugely symbolic, visit to the Falls Road area of Belfast on July 6, 1970.

His visit as Minister for External Affairs was criticised by Chichester-Clark, then Northern Ireland Prime Minister, and the British government.

The nature of his approach to the North during his time as Minister for External Affairs was recognised by President Mary McAleese at the weekend.

"Paddy's internationalising of that, breaking open, prizing open of the issue let fresh air in and I think he is entitled to incredible credit for that and thanks for that.

"Thanks that he never sought incidentally because he was the absolute ultimate in public servants. The man who gives without ever counting the cost to the health," he said.

When Sean Lemass resigned as Taoiseach in 1966, Dr Hillery was among the potential contenders for the Fianna Fail leadership, but he wasn't interested.

He answered the party call to become Ireland's first European Commissioner. And likewise he only took up the presidency, when it was necessary to find a universally respected candidate.

His loyalty to his party though did not blinker his respect for the office of the President.

His determination served him well in 1982 when phone calls were being made to Aras an Uachtarain to press Dr Hillery to refuse to dissolve the Dail as Garret Fitzgerald asked, after the Fine Gael-Labour coalition lost a vote on the Budget, but rather allow Charlie Haughey to form a government without a general election.

The Taoiseach also paid tribute to Dr Hillery's "great career" over the weekend.

"From a Fianna Fail perspective he gave a long and detailed service to Fianna Fail, but moved on to greater things representing the country as our first European Commissioner, then coming back to spend 14 years in the presidency."

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