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Patrick John "Paddy" Hillery ( ; 2 May 1923 – 12 April 2008) was an Irish Fianna Fáil politician and the sixth President of Ireland from 1976 until 1990. First elected at the 1951 general election as a Fianna Fáil Teachta Dála (TD) for Clare, he remained in Dáil Éireann until 1973. During this time he served as Minister for Education (1959–1965), Minister for Industry & Commerce (1965–1966), Minister for Labour (1966–1969) and Minister for Foreign Affairs (1969–1973). In 1973 he was appointed Ireland's first European Commissioner, serving until 1976 when he became President. He served two terms in the presidency, and, though widely seen as a somewhat lacklustre President, he won widespread admiration when it emerged that he had withstood political pressure from his own Fianna Fáil party in discharging his constitutional functions during a political crisis in 1982.

Early & private life

Patrick John Hillery, more popularly known as Paddy Hillery, was born in Spanish Pointmarker, Miltown Malbaymarker, County Claremarker in 1923. The son of Michael Joseph Hillery, a local doctor, and Ellen McMahon, a district nurse, he was educated locally at Miltown Malbay national school before later attending Rockwell College. At third level Hillery attended University College Dublinmarker where he qualified with a degree in medicine. Upon his conferral in 1947 he returned to his native town where he followed in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. Hillery’s medical career in the 1950s saw him serve as a member of the National Health Council and as Medical Officer for the Miltown Malbay Dispensary District. He also spent a year working as coroner for West Clare.

Hillery married Mary Beatrice Finnegan on 27 October 1955. Together they had a son, John, and a daughter, Vivienne, who died after a long illness in 1987, shortly before her eighteenth birthday.

Domestic political career

Hillery, though not himself political, agreed under pressure from Clare's senior Fianna Fáil TD, party leader and former Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, to become his running mate in the 1951 general election. The election resulted in a return to power for Fianna Fáil and Hillery was successful on his first attempt to get elected. He remained on the backbenches for almost a decade, before finally becoming a minister following de Valera's retirement as Taoiseach in 1959.

The new Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, began the process of retiring de Valera's ministers, many of whom had first become ministers in the de Valera cabinet of 1932. Under Lemass, party elders such as James Ryan, Seán MacEntee and Paddy Smith retired and a new generation of politicians were introduced to government such as Brian Lenihan, Donogh O'Malley, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney. Key among this new breed of politician was Hillery who became Minister for Education in 1959, succeeding Jack Lynch in that post.

Government minister 1959–1973

As Minister for Education, Hillery was responsible for much innovative thinking in a department which would become very important under Lemass's leadership.. In 1963 he made a major policy speech in which he outlined many of the educational reforms that were to be introduced over the next decade. These included increased educational opportunities for many, the establishment of comprehensive schools and Regional Technical Colleges and access by students to all public examinations. As Minister for Education, Hillery laid the groundwork for successive ministers to advance the reforms and initiatives he had begun. While Donogh O'Malley has received much of the credit for introducing free education it was in fact Hillery who laid much of the groundwork before this landmark announcement.

In 1965 Hillery succeeded Lynch again by taking over as Minister for Industry & Commerce. This department was considered one of the most important in kick-starting Ireland's economy. Hillery only remained in this position for just over a year, becoming the country's first Minister for Labour in 1966, as industrial disputes began to take their toll. This new department had been a dream of Lemass's for several years and Hillery had the honour of being the first incumbent. Lemass resigned as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil in November 1966, a shock to many of his political friends. Hillery was invited by Lemass to allow his name to go forward for the leadership of the party, however, he declined explaining that he had no interest. Many historians have suggested that Hillery was Lemass's first choice to succeed him, however others have said that the Lemass pecking order went as follows: Jack Lynch, Hillery and George Colley. In spite of this Hillery was not interested in the top job in government and, in the end, Lynch succeeded Lemass after a leadership contest with Colley. Hillery retained his post as Minister for Labour following Lynch's reshuffle of the Cabinet, serving until 1969.

Following yet another victory for Fianna Fáil at the 1969 general election, Hillery became Minister for External Affairs (renamed Foreign Affairs in 1972), one of the most prestigious of cabinet posts. He earned a high international profile when, in the aftermath of the killing of thirteen unarmed civilians in Derrymarker by British Paratroopers (known as "Bloody Sunday"), he travelled to the United Nations in New York to demand UN involvement in peace-keeping on the streets of Northern Irelandmarker. The trip to the UN achieved very little, other than to draw the attention of the world to the worsening situation in Northern Ireland. During the whole period Hillery remained one of Jack Lynch's staunchest allies in pursuing peaceful means with regard to the possibility of a civil war breaking out. Although considered a mild-mannered politician, Hillery showed his mettle at the 1971 Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis when Kevin Boland, an opponent of Lynch’s Northern policy, stormed a nearby podium and launched a very public and vocal attack on the Fianna Fáil leadership. While some of his supporters started chanting ‘We want Boland’, Hillery, who by this stage had grabbed the nearest microphone, started shouting down the Boland faction with the immortal line ‘Ye can have Boland but ye can’t have Fianna Fáil.’

Hillery's tenure at the Department of Foreign Affairs wasn't consumed by affairs in Northern Ireland. In 1972, he negotiated Irish membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), a process that was completed in 1973.

European Commissioner 1973–1976

Following Ireland's successful entry into Europe Hillery was rewarded by becoming the first Irishman to serve on the European Commissionmarker. He was appointed Vice-President of the Commission as well as having special responsibility for Social Affairs. While Europe had gained one of Ireland's most capable and respected politicians, Jack Lynch had lost one of his allies, and someone who may have been in line to take over the leadership following Lynch's retirement. As Social Affairs Commissioner Hillery's 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 GaelLabour Party 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 then Minister for Defence, Paddy Donegan, launched a ferocious verbal 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 Hillery agreed to become the Fianna Fáil candidate for the presidency. He was elected without a contest as the only candidate, becoming President of Ireland on 3 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 Germanmarker Der Spiegel magazine, few expected Hillery to become embroiled in a sex scandal 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 Uachtaráinmarker (the presidential residence), 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 the Labour Party.

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

Phone calls to the Áras

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 lost a budget vote in Dáil Éireann. Since this was a loss of supply, FitzGerald travelled to Áras an Uachtaráinmarker to ask for a parliamentary dissolution. Under Article 13.2.2. of Constitution of Ireland Hillery could have turned down the request, forcing FitzGerald's resignation. To this end 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.

Hillery regarded such pressure as gross misconduct, and ordered one of his aides de camp, Captain Anthony Barber, not to pass on any telephone calls from opposition figures. He might also have been motivated by the Irish version of the Constitution, which states that the President uses his discretionary powers as a chomhairle féin, which usually translates to "under his own counsel"--meaning that no contact whatsoever could take place with the opposition. Whenever there is a conflict between the Irish and English versions, the Irish one takes precedence. In the end, Hillery granted the dissolution. (No Irish president to date has ever refused such a request, though President Mary Robinson subsequently stated that she would have refused a dissolution to Albert Reynolds if he had asked for one following the collapse of his government in 1994.)

By 1990, Hillery's term seemed to be 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, 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, a 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 on 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 pressurise Duffy into not revealing the information. Their pressure backfired, particularly when his campaign manager, Bertie Ahern, named Duffy as the person to whom 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 begun 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 outside Fianna Fáil, 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 rung 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. About ten years after the incident, RTÉ attempted to interview the young officer with regard to the allegations but as a serving officer he was unable to comment.

In 1983 Hillery was again elected unopposed sharing the distinction with Seán T. O'Kelly and Éamon de Valera of serving two full terms as President of Ireland. He was one of three holders of the office of President who did not face popular election for the office, the others being Douglas Hyde and Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh. 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 Record Officemarker under the 'Thirty Year Rule' 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 Northmarker (i.e., 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.


Dr Hillery died on 12 April 2008 in his Dublinmarker home following a short illness. His family agreed to a full state funeral for the former president.

In tributes, President Mary McAleese said "He was involved in every facet of policy-making that paved the way to a new, modern Ireland. Today, we detect his foresight and pioneering agenda everywhere - a free education system, a dynamic, well-educated people, a successful economy and a thriving membership of the European Union, one of the single most transformative events for this country." Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said he "was a man of great integrity, decency and intelligence, who contributed massively to the progress of our country and he is assured of an honoured place in Ireland’s history"..In the Dáil and Seanad he was praised by all political leaders and parties during expressions of sympathy on 15 April 2008.In the graveside oration, Tánaiste Brian Cowen said Hillery was "humble man of simple tastes, he has been variously described as honourable, decent, intelligent, courteous, warm and engaging. He was all of those things and more."


  1. Under Article 28.10 of the Irish Constitution, a Taoiseach who has "ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann" (e.g., 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.
  2. Irish 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 London, and the Public Record Office in Belfast, at the start of every year.

Further reading

  • Collins, Stephen (2000) – The Power Game: Ireland Under Fianna Fáil (Dublin: O'Brien Press)
  • Walsh, John (2008) – "Patrick Hillery: The Official Biography" (Dublin: New Island) ISBN 9781848400092.

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