LAST week saw the thirtieth anniversary of Cearbhall O Dalaigh's resignation as President of Ireland on 22 October 1976 after the outrageous after-dinner remarks by the Minister for Defence, Paddy Donegan, when he described the President as a "thundering disgrace". The Minister made the remarks in an army barracks in Mullingar after the President had delayed signing stringent
LAST week saw the thirtieth anniversary of Cearbhall O Dalaigh's resignation as President of Ireland on 22 October 1976 after the outrageous after-dinner remarks by the Minister for Defence, Paddy Donegan, when he described the President as a "thundering disgrace". The Minister made the remarks in an army barracks in Mullingar after the President had delayed signing stringent new anti-terrorlegislation.
No other president has resigned because of a disagreement with the government of the day and the episode has long been recognised as the closest Ireland has come to a constitutional crisis centred on the office of the president. That impression is confirmed by Cearbhall O Dalaigh's private papers now available in the UCD archives.
But the papers reveal much more than the details of an already well-known story. They also show Cearbhall O Dalaigh's obsessive preoccupation with resignation; in particular, that only a week before he was on the point of resignation not because of his disagreement with the executive but because of an even more deep-rooted disagreement with the judiciary.
This had arisen from his referring the Emergency Powers Bill, introduced in the aftermath of the Provisional IRA's assassination in July 1976 of Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the British Ambassador to Ireland, to the Supreme Court notwithstanding the government's contention that, as this was emergency legislation, it was immune from such constitutionalchallenge.
How much the then President's contrary opinion owed to his time on the Supreme Court and to his term as Chief Justice (from 1963-73) is a moot point. But, in any event, he reacted to the Supreme Court's verdict that the Bill was indeed constitutional with an outraged hysteria that found expression in a series of hand-written drafts of unsent letters of resignation to the Taoiseach.
"At 3 o'clock this afternoon I resigned as President," is the melodramatic opening to one such draft. While he portentously accepted that the Supreme Court was "the final arbiter of the meaning of the Constitution", he had, "like other citizens to endeavour to understand and assess the consequences of the Supreme Court decision for the future of the country and more particularly its effect in the field of human rights and fundamental rights".
He then addressed the decision's alleged "relevance for the office of President" and cited an example from American constitutional history to the effect that "the decision establishes that a system of government is not a 'government of laws' but a government of men. In other words the fundamental rights of the citizen can be disestablished by a simple majority of both Houses of the Oireachtas". The vehemence of his concern with the decision's supposed impact on "the role of the President as protector of the Constitution" is suggestive of an inability to distinguish between his role and the Supreme Court's role as final arbiter of the meaning of the Constitution and led him to the following grandiloquent conclusion:
"I have no desire to be President under a system of government which, as it is now authoritatively established, sets so little store by the fundamental rights of the citizen and which is at variance with principles to the defence of which I believe I have devoted the better years of my life. I have therefore considered it preferable and more consistent with those principles to resume my duties as an ordinary citizen rather than to retain the shell of the office of President."
In the event, he retained that office for another week but other thunderous draft epistles tell of his antagonism towards the Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave. One such, after acknowledging that their personal relations had been "pleasant, courteous and cordial", continued:
"I would however be failing in my duty if I did not also record here - for history - that since I entered on the Presidency on 19 Dec. 1974, on none of your infrequent visits to Aras an Uachtarain did you, in your conversations with me, say anything to me that could be construed even remotely to amount to keeping the President generally informed on matters of domestic and international policy - a mandatory requirement of your office under the terms of article 28 (6) (3) of the Constitution.
Could constitutional defiance go further?
"I am unwilling to retain office on this basis.
"I wish to record specifically that never were the words 'national emergency' uttered by you to me on any of these occasions."
Although these letters were never sent, they bear eloquent testimony to the fragile state of mind of a President who was within days to be subjected to the unparalleled boorishness of Paddy Donegan's verbal abuse. The O Dalaigh papers in UCD also reveal that it was Liam Cosgrave who immediately told the President of Donegan's speech. He telephoned Aras an Uachtarain at about 10 o'clock the same night from a function he was attending in the Incorporated Law Society where he himself had been contacted by Paddy Cooney, the Minister for Justice, who had also attended the fateful dinner in Mullingar. O Dalaigh's initial response was terse but non-committal: "This is not a matter which I consider I should discuss by telephone. I shall be quite happy to see you, Taoiseach, at any time".
But the Taoiseach proved as unprepared to call on the President as the President was unprepared to receive the Minister for Defence. Cosgrave's reluctance was in part born of what his government regarded as O Dalaigh's pretensions: to see himself as akin to a third house of parliament. Nor would O Dalaigh's life-long identification with Fianna Fail (a protege of de Valera since his appointment as Irish editor of Irish Press (1931-40) and as a Fianna Fail attorney general (1946-48 and 1951-53) subsequently elevated to the Supreme Court by de Valera's government) have endeared him to so staunchly a Fine Gael taoiseach.
The crisis deepened after the Cabinet meeting next morning had agreed that Donegan should immediately go to the Aras to apologise in person but the President refused to receive him. The Taoiseach then telephoned the President to say that the Minister for Defence was sending a letter of apology (it arrived in the Aras at 5.45), O Dalaigh's staccato handwritten notes of this second and final telephone conversation with the Taoiseach suggest that he was already bent on resignation:
"I didn't seek this office.
"I shall retain it only so long as I can do so with dignity.
"I am a spectator of political events.
"I shall review my position when the full picture has unfolded itself.
"I declined to see the M/D (sic) when his secretary rang this office this morning to request an interview.
"Ministers are free to express in public any opinions they wish about the Presidency. If they wish to modify or retract such statements, my view is they should do so in public.
"This is only one aspect of this matter.
"The President is not of course the C in C of the Def F (sic) as some papers have said. The Constitution vests the supreme command in the President but this as the Constitution makes clear is an honorific office. As a feature of that honorific office all commissioned officers hold their commissions from the President - but of course on the nomination of the Government. The President and the M/D therefore have a special relationship - which in this instance has been irrevocably broken by the Minister's designation of the President as a thundering disgrace in the presence of the Chief of Staff and other high ranking officers.
"I shall consider what I shall do after I have had an opportunity of examining calmly the entire situation as it unfolds over the next few days."
O Dalaigh was further incensed by the Dail exchanges when Cosgrave resisted Jack Lynch's pressure that Donegan should either resign or be dismissed and other undated notes reveal his mounting rage: "the Taoiseach's only contacts with the President were by telephone, the Taoiseach, at no time, requested to see the President [and] at no time, orally or [in] writing, did the President receive from the Taoiseach any apology in respect of the M/D's speech". By Friday, October 22, he had made up his mind and he had sealed his resignation before noon.
Most of the many unsolicited letters to Cearbhall O Dalaigh at this time are sympathetic, a few are antagonistic. One of each provide fitting footnotes to the story. The first from a deeply pessimistic historian, Leland Lyons, then the Provost of Trinity College, on October 24: "the tone of public life, which had already seemed to me deplorably low, now sinks lower still - the future is dark indeed".
The second, dated October 20, emanated from a priest, Patrick Scott, in the republican redoubt of the Clonard monastery in west Belfast and, improbably, could serve as an epigram for the views of the Cosgrave government: "I beg of you not to use your office in a manner that will give aid and comfort to the Provisional IRA".
Ronan Fanning is Acting Professor of Modern History in University College Dublin.