Presidential chicanery and controversy

Presidential chicanery and controversy

GERARD CASSINI Considers the less-than-diplomatic episodes of the Irish presidency.


Sabina Higgins’ comments about the ongoing imbroglio in the Ukraine has caused much criticism to hurtle in the direction of President Higgins and his wife.

Sabina Higgins’s letter to The Irish Times, the one that has caused all the trouble, was widely criticised because it contained no criticism of Russia, giving the impression, to some, that it was a conflict between two equally weighted combatants

“Until the world persuades President Putin of Russia and the president of Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire and negotiations the long haul of terrible war will go on. How can there be any winner?”

It would be fair to say that many agreed with her sentiments.

And in a follow-up communication she suggested her condemnation of Russia should have been implicit to everybody who read the letter.

Nonetheless presidents of Ireland and, by association, their spouses, are expected keep their political opinions to themselves.

It has not always been the case:


President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh

“He’s a thundering disgrace,” Defence Minister Paddy Donegan said of President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh.

He announced this candid opinion — believed in actual fact to have been the even more candid 'thundering bollocks and f****** disgrace' at an army function.

The outburst, probably fuelled by alcohol, was in relation to a government bill which President Ó Dálaigh referred to the Supreme Court before signing it into law. The bill included proposals to tackle the IRA —including extending the period a suspect could be kept in police detention — and President Ó Dálaigh

was fully entitled to refer the bill to the Supreme Court. But in effect the incident was a power struggle between the taoiseach and the presidency.

Ó Dálaigh resigned within a few days.


The Yugoslavia versus Ireland football match

This controversy in 1955 was about another struggle — this time between the Catholic Church and the Presidency.

Archbishop John McQuaid believed in the imposition of a sporting boycott on ‘communist’ countries, ie, ‘godless’ countries. However, he was unable to halt the plying of a football match between Yugoslavia and Ireland. The FAI had acquiesced to call off a match between the two sides in 1952; this time they stood up to the archbishop.

The match became the focus of much ill will — the Irish trainer withdrew his services, the Radio Éireann commentator Philip Greene said he would not be available to give a commentary on the match, the Number One Army Band was forbidden to play at the pre-match entertainment — and President Sean T. O’Kelly was told by the Department of the Taoiseach that ‘it would be inadvisable

for him to attend’. The president acquiesced in what was a bleak day for the independence of the Presidential office, and indeed for Irish politics.

It seems an almost inconceivable situation today. But back then the President and the Taoiseach did what the Archbishop said.

NB: In the event, the ‘godless’ ones, Yugoslavia, beat the church-going ones, Ireland, 4-1.


Sean T. O’Kelly, his loose tongue and his wandering hands

Sean T. O’Kelly, President from (1945-1959) figured in quite a few controversies.

O’Kelly was, as they say, fond of a drink — after which he became famously garrulous. In fact, it’s probably one reason he was allowed to become president. He was de Valera’s tánaiste, but Dev wanted rid of him. He was too powerful to sack, so he was kicked upstairs, where he could do less damage.

O’Kelly made himself at home in the official residence, Áras an Uachtaráin, with barrels of draught Guinness on tap, according to rumour.

President O’Kelly’s most famous faux pas occurred during a state visit to the Vatican, when in a breach of protocol, he told the media of Pope Pius XII's personal opinions on communism. The resulting row strained relationships between Pope Pius and Joseph Stalin.

Despite further escapades — he was spotted patting Grace Kelly's bottom at the races — he was returned for a second term.


Image preview President Hillery.


Patrick Hillery and the advent of Mary Robinson

Before being elected president, Paddy Hillery had already incurred the wrath of the governments of Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and James Callaghan with his pronouncements on Northern Ireland. In 1970, as an Irish government minister, he crossed the border into the North heading for the Falls Road — without informing the British authorities. In 1972, in the wake of Bloody Sunday, he said, "I believe the British government has gone mad.”

As president Hillery also hit the headlines when he declined Queen Elizabeth II's invitation to attend the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

Despite these controversies, Hillery was a very able, far-sighted politician who distinguished himself as both a Government minister and president. He is widely seen as having brought stability and dignity to the presidency. Yet Patrick Hillery is particularly remembered for two incidents — one frivolous, one very far-reaching.

Hillery, once voted the world's sexiest head of state by readers of the German Der Spiegel magazine, found himself at the centre of a sex scandal himself. In 1979, during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland, a rumour surfaced, from the international press corps, that Hillery had a mistress living with him in Áras an Uachtaráin. Further, he and his wife were divorcing and he was resigning the presidency. Once the Pope had left, Hillery told a shocked nation that there was no mistress, no divorce and no resignation.

Whatever the origins of the “Sex at the Áras” episode, it was in the political field where a presidential controversy left its mark firmly on Irish society. In January 1982, the Fine Gael-Labour government of Garret FitzGerald lost a budget vote in Dáil Éireann. This was a vote on which the Government’s survival depended, so FitzGerald travelled to Áras an Uachtaráin to ask for a parliamentary dissolution.

But, according to the Irish Constitution, if Hillery refused Taoiseach FitzGerald's request, the Taoiseach would have had to resign.

Charles Haughey, as the leader of the opposition, would have formed a new government. To this end a series of phone calls was made by senior opposition figures urging Hillery to refuse FitzGerald a dissolution, so allowing Haughey to form a government.

Hillery, even though he was from the same party as Haughey, regarded such pressure as gross misconduct, and refused any further calls, and ultimately granted FitzGerald a dissolution.

By withstanding this political pressure from his own Fianna Fáil party during the constitutional crisis in 1982, Patrick Hillery’s was instrumental in Mary Robinson becoming president.

Ireland’s first woman president, and a Labour politician, was able to slip through, while the favourite, Brian Lenihan (Snr) fell by the wayside, tainted by the Hillery-Haughey controversy.