Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Slighted Shepherd: The Neglected Presidency of the Late Doctor Patrick Hillery

Sacrifice is a word that occurs often in Irish history. Isn’t it rather sad that it’s only after his sudden death today at the age of eighty-five that the nation is finally beginning to acknowledge what an extraordinary servant we had in our sixth President, Doctor Patrick Hillery.

It’s been a shibboleth of Irish public life for the past eighteen years that Doctor Hillery’s Presidency was somehow deficient. That it lacked panache, as Garret Fitzgerald put it to John Bowman on Saturday View this afternoon. This is a longstanding wrong done to the reputation of a good man, for Doctor Patrick Hillery is none other than the man that saved the very office of the Presidency itself, and possibly did so at the cost of his own career and ambitions.

What’s vital to remember here are the circumstances in which Doctor Hillery arrived in the Park in 1977. Doctor Hillery’s predecessor as President was Cearrbhall Ó Dálaigh. Ó Dálaigh was an intellectual, and like most intellectuals, he had trouble mixing with the hoi polloi. There were many abrasive incidents between Ó Dálaigh and Liam Cosgrove’s Fine Gael and Labour coalition Government in the 1970s, and matters came to a head in the autumn of 1976 when the then Minister of Defence, Paddy Donegan of Louth, addressed the army at a function and told them that the head of state, President Ó Dálaigh, their commander in chief, was a “thundering disgrace.”

Legend has it that Donegan used earthier language than that, but the sanitised version is bad enough. The office of the Presidency, which is above politics, in theory, had been sullied by a cabinet minister. Donegan offered to resign; Liam Cosgrove refused his resignation, and as such Ó Dálaigh himself was forced to resign in order to preserve the reputation of the highest office.

The only way that the office of the Presidency could be saved was to appoint someone who could be trusted as a safe pair of hands, who would keep a hand on the tiller until the stench of the Donegan affair had died down. And Paddy Hillery was just that man. If anything, he did the job too well, and the excellence with which he carried out his brief became the stick that was used to beat him in 1990. Robinson campaigned for a “Presidency with a Purpose;” the implication being that the incumbent had no purpose, and was a waste of space.

A terrible slur on a great man. How great Hillery could have been we’ll never know, of course, but we do have some indications. Doctor Hillery was the man that negotiated Ireland’s entry into the Common Market as Minister for External Affairs; the legacy of that is everywhere. But more fascinatingly, we have the extraordinary footage of the 1971 Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis that gives us a glimpse of a Taoiseach that perhaps we deserved.

For people that grew up with Patrick Hillery as President, he was the Quiet Man of Irish life. You’d see him on the news in morning clothes at the Park, taking tea with papal nuncios or giving new ministers their seals of office. As such, the footage from 1971 is extraordinary.

The 1971 Ard Fheis took place in the wake of the Arm Trial, when Kevin Boland et al had been exonerated, and now it was payback time for that faction. The party was on the verge of a split, as tempers frayed and flags were waived. A livid Patrick Hillery takes the microphone and screams – screams! – at the delegates “you want Boland? You can have him, but you can’t have Fianna Fáil!”

Extraordinary. Who knows what Hillery could have done when his term as EU Commissioner ended, if he were to return as Kingmaker after Jack Lynch retired? But he was asked to subsume all ambition in that regard, and to save the State and its chief office. Which he did excellently and well, and it’s a pity that he had to die before that could be acknowledged properly.

Doctor Hillery was a guest on Diarmuid Ferriter’s fascinating Judging Dev radio series before Christmas, when he and Doctor TK Whittaker discussed what it was like working for Eamon DeValera. How extraordinary to realise that Patrick Hillery entered politics as Dev’s running mate in Clare. Hillery’s career ran as a rich seam of gold through the political life of the past fifty years, and all we did was take him for granted. An Spailpín can only hope that, keen golfer as he was, as Doctor Hillery looks down on events at the US Masters tonight from that Great Banner in the Sky, he can forgive a thankless nation that failed to acknowledge a pearl greater than all their tribe. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.

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