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Obituary: A wily diplomat and an architect of peace

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Dermot Gallagher was a crucial cog in the Department of Foreign Affairs Photo: Steve Humphreys

Dermot Gallagher was a crucial cog in the Department of Foreign Affairs Photo: Steve Humphreys

Then British prime minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announce the signing of the Good Friday Agreement Photo: Pacemaker

Then British prime minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announce the signing of the Good Friday Agreement Photo: Pacemaker

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Dermot Gallagher was a crucial cog in the Department of Foreign Affairs Photo: Steve Humphreys

There is something very poignant about the fact former diplomat, Dermot Gallagher, has passed away on the very weekend the two parties in Stormont have collapsed their power-sharing agreement and possibly the whole Northern Ireland peace process.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which is now at stake, is very much Mr Gallagher's creation and the fruits of years of cajolery, negotiation and statecraft by the likes of him and a handful of other officials.

There is also an added poignancy that he has passed away as the unwell Martin McGuinness steps down, as Mr Gallagher had fostered a close if wary relationship with Mr McGuinness and saw him as the way to deliver the IRA, as well as Sinn Féin. This was especially so in the years after the IRA ceasefire of 1994, when the British insisted on decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, thereby introducing a new hurdle which the republicans were never going to concede easily on.

It was at untangling such knots that Mr Gallagher became an expert, along with an ability to draw all parties along. Tough, wily, and street smart, he was especially valued by ministers and taoisigh who valued a pragmatic and fearless official at their shoulder.

Mr Gallagher was thus also useful for the Department of Foreign Affairs since and his affable persona protected the department against the traditional distrust that most governments have for their own foreign ministries.

It also helped that Mr Gallagher was more Fianna Fáil inclined and more nationalist leaning, although he also had excellent relations with unionists and was most mindful of protecting the 'Dublin dimension', something lost sight of in recent years. The son of a garda sergeant from Co Leitrim, he employed a droll and often sly country wit and could be an intimidating boss and taskmaster.

He was very proud of his Leitrim roots and such was his devotion to the restoration of the Shannon-Erne Waterway in the early 1990s - an EU-funded economic project - that then Northern Ireland secretary Tom King quipped that "we will have to call it the Gallagher Canal!"

However, he was far from parochial and it was his international position as Ireland's envoy to Washington which really accelerated the peace process. Quite simply, there would have been no IRA ceasefires or Good Friday Agreements if it wasn't for constant and heavy American involvement. In Washington, the workaholic Mr Gallagher operated as a constant interface with a Bill Clinton White House determined to sort out this historic conflict.

Crucially, responsibility for Northern Ireland had passed from a UK-friendly US state department to a White House team much more sympathetic to long-standing Irish positions. In this context, Mr Gallagher worked closely with Mr Clinton's national security adviser Tony Lake. Choreography was developed for the painstaking lead into the ceasefire of 1994.

Back in Dublin, he shepherded the parties to the ground-breaking Good Friday Agreement. His talents were much prized by that equally wily negotiator Bertie Ahern, who appointed him secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach.

However, in 2001, he returned to Foreign Affairs as secretary general and extended his stay until he retired and then served briefly at the newly created Garda Ombudsman's office.

Mr Gallagher was a major public servant and a crucial figure in bringing peace to Ireland. We usually have to wait decades before State papers can reveal such a senior official's achievements, but in his case, the evidence is there to see.

Irish Independent