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Patrick Hillery

Patrick John Hillery (born May 2, 1923) was the sixth President of Ireland (1976-1990). He was born in Miltown Malbay in County Clare in the then Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland). Though not himself political (he worked as a doctor and County Coroner) he agreed under pressure from Clare's senior Fianna Fáil TD, party leader and former Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, to become his running mate in the 1951 General Election. He won a seat, becoming a TD, remaining in Dáil Éireann until 1973 during which time he served as Minister for Education (1959-1965), Minister for Industry & Commerce (1965-1966), Minister for Labour (1966-1969) and Minister for External Affairs (1969-1973). In 1973 he became Ireland's first EEC Commissioner.

President of Ireland
Rank: 6th
Term of Office: 3 December 1976 - 2 December 1990
Number of Terms: 2
Predecessor: Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh
Successor: Mary Robinson
Date of Birth: 2 May, 1923
Place of Birth: Clare, Ireland
First Lady: Maeve Hillery
Profession: doctor, politician
Nominated by: (1976) Fianna Fáil
(1983) own nomination
Other candidates: none

Though de Valera's running mate, he remained on the backbenches until de Valera's retirement in 1959. The new Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, began the process of retiring de Valera's ministers, many of whom had first become ministers way back in the de Valera cabinet of 1932. Lemass brought in a new generation of politicians to government; Jack Lynch (who actually begun his ministerial career in the last de Valera governments of the 1950s), Brian Lenihan, Donagh O'Malley, Charles J. Haughey, Neil Blaney etc. Key among them was Paddy Hillery (as he was generally called).



Under taoisigh Lemass and Lynch, Hillery held a range of portfolios. As Minister for Education he was responsible for preparing the ground work for the introduction of Comprehensive Schools, Regional Technical Colleges and higher technical education. He also held the posts of Minister for Industry and Commerce, Labour before finally in 1969 Minister for External Affairs (renamed in 1972 Foreign Affairs), one of the most prestigious of posts. He earned a high international profile when, in the aftermath of the killing of thirteen unarmed civilians in Derry by British Paratroopers (known as 'Bloody Sunday'), he travelled to the United Nations to demand UN involvement in peace-keeping in Northern Ireland. In 1972, he negotiated Irish membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). When in 1973 Ireland joined the EEC, Jack Lynch made his foreign minister Ireland's EEC Commissioner in Brussels.

EEC Commissioner

He was appointed EEC Commissioner for Social Affairs. His most famous policy initiative was to force EEC member states to give equal pay to women. However in 1976 the then Irish government, the Fine Gael-Labour National Coalition under Liam Cosgrave informed him that he was not being re-appointed to the Commission. He considered returning to medicine, perhaps moving with his wife, Maeve (also a doctor) to Africa. However fate took a turn when the late Paddy Donegan launched a ferocious attack on President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, calling him "a thundering disgrace" for referring anti-terrorist legislation to the courts to test its constitutionality. When a furious President Ó Dálaigh resigned, a deeply reluctant Paddy Hillery agreed to become the Fianna Fáil candidate for the presidency. He was elected without a contest as the only candidate in December 1976.

President of Ireland

The 'Sex Scandal' and the Papal Visit

Though once voted the world's sexiest head of state by readers of the German Der Spiegel magazine, few expected Hillery to become embroiled in a Censored page as president. Yet that scandal remains one of the biggest whodunnits of modern Irish politics. It occurred in September 1979, when the international press corps, travelling to Ireland for the visit of Pope John Paul II, told their Irish colleagues that Europe was "awash" with rumours that Hillery had a mistress living with him in Áras an Uachtaráin (the presidential palace), that he and his wife were divorcing and he was resigning the presidency. In fact, there was not one iota of truth in the story. Once the Pope had left, Hillery told a shocked nation that there was no mistress, no divorce and no resignation. In reality, few people had even heard of the rumours. Critics questioned why he chose to comment on a rumour that few outside media and political circles had heard. Hillery however defended his action by saying that it was important to kill off the story for the good of the presidency, rather than allow the rumour to circulate and be accepted as 'fact' in the absence of a denial. In that, he was supported by the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, whom he consulted before making the decision, and the leaders of the main opposition parties, Garret FitzGerald of Fine Gael and Frank Cluskey of Labour.

Various theories have been speculated about to explain the ludicrous story. Some senior politicians blamed Britain's MI5 or MI6, suspecting that the story was intended to embarrass Ireland during the papal visit, as revenge for the assassination by the IRA of Earl Mountbatten of Burma (Queen Elizabeth II's husband's uncle) in Ireland in August 1979. Others blamed the Soviet Union's KGB, who supposedly wanted to find some way to wreck Pope John Paul II's visit, believing that the Pope while in Ireland would appeal to the IRA to stop its violence, this leading to peace and so easing the military pressures on the United Kingdom, a key member of the NATO ; a presidential sex scandal during the papal visit might have thrown the papal visit into turmoil and so destroyed any impact a papal appeal would have. Though written about by bestselling author Gordon Thomas , who claimed this 'plot' was known as Operation Irish One, few commentators or politicians give the claim much credence.

A far more widely held theory blames the internal rivalries in Fianna Fáil. In 1979, then taoiseach Jack Lynch had been in his party's leadership thirteen years and was facing growing unpopularity and opposition within Fianna Fáil from a republican faction under Health Minister Charles J. Haughey who were critical of Lynch's moderate policies over Northern Ireland. Two alternatives suggestions emerged. According to Sunday Independent journalist Raymond Smith , pressures were being put on Hillery to leave the presidency, re-enter active politics and become the Lynch wing of Fianna Fáil's challenger to Haughey in the forthcoming leadership battle. According to Smith, the rumours were spread to kill off that chance by damaging Hillery's leadership image as 'Mr. Clean'. However Smith's theory fails to take into account practicalities regarding the workings of the constitution (eg, Hillery could only challenge to become leader and so taoiseach by first winning a seat in Dáil Éireann. But no by-election was due. Even if one was engineered, could Hillery (already out of politics six years, three of them abroad) really be sure of winning a seat. Furthermore, having taken on the presidency to give it stability after the death of President Childers and the resignation of President Ó Dálaigh, it would be totally out of character for Hillery to throw of the office back into turmoil by becoming the second president in a row to resign and the third in a row (out of six presidents) not to complete their term of office). A more likely explanation is that some of Haughey's supporters saw the presidency as the best way they had to force Lynchs resignation as leader. In other words, were Hillery to be forced through scandal to resign, the public would demand that Lynch, Ireland's most popular and loved politician (albeit leader of an unpopular government) take on the office. Having declined the office in 1973, 1974 and 1976, the feeling was that only another presidential crisis could force Lynch reluctantly1 to take on the presidency. As a result he would not merely vacate the leadership (or in effect be forced to vacate it) but immediately leave Dáil Éireann, denying his preferred successor a crucial vote in the subsequent leadership election in the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party, which was expected when it did come by whatever means would be so tight it could be decided by a margin of one vote.

No-one knows which of the reasons led to the smear campaign. While senior opposition figures did privately blame British intelligence, senior government figures and people close to Hillery were convinced that the smear was directly related to the leadership ambitions of senior Fianna Fáil figures. They noted how in June 1979 the first direct elections to the European Parliament had taken place, and how that meant there were now Fianna Fáil MEPs and Fianna Fáil staff members based in Brussels, one of the cities where the rumours first apparently surfaced.

Hillery also hit the headlines when, on the advice of then taoiseach, Charles J. Haughey, he declined Queen Elizabeth II's invitation to attend the wedding of HRH the Prince of Wales and the late Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

Phone Calls to the Áras: The Lenihan Tape Claim

However it was in 1982 that Hillery's reputation as president was arguably made. In January 1982, the Fine Gael-Labour government of Garret FitzGerald collapsed in Dáil Éireann on a budget vote. FitzGerald travelled to Áras an Uachtaráin to ask for a parliamentary dissolution, something which under Article of Bunreacht na hÉireann President Hillery could have refused, forcing FitzGerald's resignation. However a series of phone calls (some published reports claim seven, others eight) was made by senior opposition figures urging Hillery to refuse FitzGerald a dissolution, so allowing Haughey to form a government. As expected, Hillery granted the dissolution. (No Irish president to date has ever refused one.)

By 1990, Hillery's term seemed to reaching a quiet end, until the events of 1982 returned, changing the course of the history of the presidency, Ireland and Hillery forever. Three candidates had been nominated in the 1990 presidential election; the then Tánaiste, the late Brian Lenihan from Fianna Fáil (widely viewed as the certain winner), Austin Currie from Fine Gael and Mary Robinson from Labour. In May 1990, in an "on the record" interview with Jim Duffy, an honours post-graduate student researching the Irish presidency, Lenihan had confirmed that he had been one of those phoning Hillery in January 1982. He confirmed that Haughey too had made phone calls. Jim Duffy mentioned the information in a newspaper article on the history of the Irish presidency in 28 September 1990 in The Irish Times. In October 1990, Lenihan changed his story, claiming (even though he had said the opposite for eight years) that he had played "no hand, act or part" in pressurising President Hillery that night. He made these denials in an interview in The Irish Press (a pro-Fianna Fáil newspaper) and on an RTÉ 1 political show, Questions and Answers. When it was realised that he had said the opposite in an 'on-the-record' interview in May 1990, his campaign panicked and tried to pressurize Duffy into not revealing the information. Their pressure backfired, particularly when his campaign manager named Duffy as the person to which he had given the interview in a radio broadcast, forcing a besieged Duffy to reverse an earlier decision and release the relevant segment of his interview with Lenihan. In the aftermath, the minority party in the coalition government, the Progressive Democrats indicated that unless Lenihan resigned from cabinet, they would resign from government and support an opposition Motion of No Confidence in Dáil Éireann, bringing down the government and causing a general election. Though publicly Taoiseach Charles Haughey insisted that it was entirely a matter for Lenihan, his "friend of thirty years" and that he was putting no pressure on him, in reality he gave Lenihan a letter of resignation to sign. When Lenihan refused, Haughey formally advised President Hillery to dismiss Lenihan as Tánaiste, Minister for Defence and member of the cabinet, which the President as constitutionally required duly did. Lenihan became the only candidate from his party to date to lose the presidency, having began the campaign as the apparent certain winner. Instead Labour's Mary Robinson, who already had had a spectacularly successful campaign, became the seventh president of Ireland, the first elected president from a non Fianna Fáil background, and the first woman to hold the office.

The revelations, and the discovery that Hillery had stood up to pressure from former cabinet colleagues including his close friend Brian Lenihan back in 1982, increased Hillery's standing substantially. From a low-key modest presidency that many had written off as mediocre, his presidency came to be seen as embodying the highest standards of integrity. His reputation rose further when opposition leaders under parliamentary privilege alleged that Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who in January 1982 had been Leader of the Opposition, had not merely rang the President's Office but threatened to end the career of the army officer who took the call and who, on Hillery's explicit instructions, had refused to put through the call to the President. Haughey angrily denied the charge, though Lenihan, in his subsequently published account of the affair, noted that Haughey had denied "insulting" the officer, whereas the allegation was that he had "threatened" him. Hillery, it was revealed, had called in the Irish Army's Chief of Staff the following day and as Commander-in-Chief of the Army had ordered the Chief of Staff to ensure that no politician ever interfered with the career of the young army officer.

In 1983 Hillery was again elected unopposed sharing the distiction with Seán T. O'Kelly and Eamon de Valera of serving two full terms as President of Ireland. Hillery left office in 1990 (he had served the maximum two terms), widely applauded for his integrity, honesty and devotion to duty. The previous image of Hillery, as low key, dull and unexciting (except for the bizarre 'sex rumours'), had been somewhat undermined. Hillery retired from public life. However he re-entered public life in 2002 during the second referendum on the Nice Treaty, when, along with most of the political elite, he urged a yes vote. The referendum was carried.

Hillery: A Foreign Assessment

In 2002, state papers released by the British Public Records Office under the 'Thirty Year Rule' 3 and published in the Irish media, revealed how Hillery was viewed. A briefing paper, prepared for then British Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw, observed about Hillery:

Dr. Hillery is regarded as a powerhouse of ideas, one of the few members of Fianna Fáil who has new policies and is eager to implement them.
The greatest example has been in his present job [then, Minister for Foreign Affairs], where he has perforce concentrated on Anglo-Irish relations and, in particular the North (ie, Northern Ireland). Policy in this field is determined primarily between him and the Taoiseach; and it is likely that the Fianna Fáil new line owes much to Dr. Hillery. . . .
Dr. Hillery has a pleasant manner. He can appear diffident and casual but has an undoubted intellectual capacity and a strong will; since the government crisis of 1970 he has appeared much more assured -- even brash -- and has handled the Dáil with confidence.4

Hillery's Political Career

Cabinet Minister

Preceded by:
Jack Lynch
Minister for Education
Succeeded by:
George Colley
Minister for Industry & Commerce
Preceded by:
Newly Created Office
Minister for Labour
Succeeded by:
Joseph Brennan
Preceded by:
Frank Aiken
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Succeeded by:
Brian Lenihan

European Commissioner

Preceded by:

A new office due to Irish membership of the EEC in 1973

European Commissioner from Ireland
Comisinéir Eorpach na hÉireann
Succeeded by:
Richard Burke
Commissioner (1977-1980)

President of Ireland


1Lynch had reluctantly agreed to enter politics in 1948, reluctantly agreed to become a minister in de Valera's cabinet and reluctantly agreed to contest the party leadership. The belief was that with the right pressure he might reluctantly agree to become president too.
2 Under Article 28.10 of the Irish Constitution, a Taoiseach who has "ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann" (eg, defeat in a budget or loss of confidence) must either (i) resign, or (ii) seek a parliamentary dissolution. Under Article 13.2.2., where a Taoiseach in such circumstances requests a parliamentary dissolution, the President may "in his absolute discretion" refuse that request, forcing the Taoiseach back to the only other option, resignation. It is worth noting that the President of Ireland cannot ask someone to form a government. A Taoiseach is chosen by a vote of Dáil Éireann and only after that appointed by the President. So had Hillery refused FitzGerald a dissolution, he could not have asked Haughey to form a government. Haughey would have had to have been nominated by Dáil Éireann.
3Irish and British state papers are generally released after a delay of thirty years with the exception of papers that are deemed to 'damage the country's image or foreign relations' if they were to be released. In January 2003 the papers from 1972 were released. Irish and British newspapers give extensive coverage to the new releases from the National Archives in Dublin and the Public Records Office in Belfast and London at the start of every year.
4The Irish Times, 01.03.03

Last updated: 02-07-2005 15:34:40
Last updated: 02-28-2005 18:02:45