Saturday 25 May 2019

Political presidency no job for this lady of principle

Rita Childers, who died last week aged 95, almost became Ireland's first woman president, writes Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Liam Collins

RITA Childers who died last week almost became Ireland's first woman president.

The glamorous second wife of President Erskine Childers was seriously considered for the presidency herself -- but felt she was let down after initially being considered as an agreed candidate for the office.

She had offered herself as a "non-party" candidate in 1974, but some members of Fianna Fail believed that because her husband was clearly a Fianna Fail president his successor should also be identified with the party.

The coalition government, which was in power at the time of President Childer's death, allowed Fianna Fail to make the choice. The Fianna Fail frontbench met twice and discussed appointing an "agreed candidate" and on giving the job to Mrs Childers.

However, the plan was "leaked" and Mrs Childers issued a statement deploring the speculation. She said she did so because she did not want the "corrosive, destructive, cynicism about politics to contaminate that high office".

Senior Fianna Fail figures David Andrews and Michael O'Kennedy were delegated to call on Mrs Childers to sound her out about taking the job.

However, they didn't meet with the president's widow but with her step-son, Erskine B Childers, who, according to historian Dermot Keogh, "having heard their purpose in calling, conveyed to them after checking with Mrs Childers that she saw no point in their meeting."

Instead Fianna Fail selected Chief Justice Cearbhall O Dalaigh as an "agreed candidate" for the presidency and it is believed that Mrs Childers felt bitterly let down.

Erskine Childers, a Protestant Fianna Fail politician, was a widower and the father of five children when he married Margaret 'Rita' Dudley, a Catholic from Ballsbridge, Dublin, who was working as an attache in the British Embassy in Dublin in 1952.

The couple had one child, Nessa, now the Labour Party MEP for Leinster.

When he was elected president after defeating Fine Gael candidate Tom O'Higgins, Erskine and Rita Childers defined the modern presidency when they accepted invitations to travel around the country making speeches and meeting and greeting organisations and ordinary people.

Erskine Childers died making a speech in the College of Surgeons, Dublin, on November 17, 1974.

Mrs Childers finally expressed her displeasure with the party and the leadership of Fianna Fail after Jack Lynch re-shuffled his frontbench in January 1975 and brought Charles Haughey, who had been sacked as a minister in the Arms Crisis, back into the fold. After being issued with an official invitation to attend a Mass for deceased members of the party, she declined saying: "The late president would not benefit from the prayers of such a party. Happily for him he is now closer to God and will be able to ask His intercession that his much loved country will never again be governed by these people."

Rita Childers died last Monday in the Carysfort Nursing Home in Glenageary, Co Dublin, at the age of 95.

Sunday Independent

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