Patrick Hillery

Patrick John Hillery (Irish: Pádraig J. Ó hIrghile;[1] 2 May 1923 – 12 April 2008) was an Irish Fianna Fáil politician who served as the sixth President of Ireland from December 1976 to December 1990. He also served as Vice-President of the European Commission and European Commissioner for Social Affairs from 1973 to 1976, Minister for External Affairs from 1969 to 1973, Minister for Labour from 1966 to 1969, Minister for Industry and Commerce from 1965 to 1969 and Minister for Education from 1959 to 1965. He served as a Teachta Dála (TD) for the Clare constituency from 1951 to 1973.[2][3]

Patrick Hillery
6th President of Ireland
In office
3 December 1976  2 December 1990
Preceded byCearbhall Ó Dálaigh
Succeeded byMary Robinson
Vice-President of the European Commission
In office
6 January 1973  5 January 1977
PresidentFrançois-Xavier Ortoli
Preceded byWilhelm Haferkamp
Succeeded byWilhelm Haferkamp
European Commissioner for Social Affairs
In office
6 January 1973  2 December 1976
PresidentFrançois-Xavier Ortoli
Preceded byAlbert Coppé
Succeeded byHenk Vredeling
Minister for External Affairs
In office
2 July 1969  3 January 1973
TaoiseachJack Lynch
Preceded byFrank Aiken
Succeeded byBrian Lenihan
Minister for Labour
In office
13 July 1966  2 July 1969
Preceded byNew office
Succeeded byJoseph Brennan
Minister for Industry and Commerce
In office
21 April 1965  13 July 1966
TaoiseachSeán Lemass
Preceded byJack Lynch
Succeeded byGeorge Colley
Minister for Education
In office
23 June 1959  21 April 1965
TaoiseachSeán Lemass
Preceded byJack Lynch
Succeeded byGeorge Colley
Teachta Dála
In office
May 1951  6 January 1973
Personal details
Patrick John Hillery

(1923-05-02)2 May 1923
Spanish Point, Clare, Ireland
Died12 April 2008(2008-04-12) (aged 84)
Glasnevin, Dublin, Ireland
Resting placeSt. Fintan's Cemetery, Sutton, Dublin, Ireland
Political partyFianna Fáil
Spouse(s)Maeve Finnegan
(m. 1955; d. 2008)
  • Michael Joseph Hillery
  • Ellen McMahon
Alma mater

In 1973, he was appointed Ireland's first European Commissioner, upon Ireland's accession to the European Economic Community, serving until 1976, when he became President of Ireland. He served two terms in the presidency. Though seen as a somewhat lacklustre President, he was credited with bringing stability and dignity to the office, and won widespread admiration when it emerged that he had withstood political pressure from his own Fianna Fáil party during a political crisis in 1982.

Early and private life

Patrick John Hillery, more popularly known as Paddy Hillery, was born in Spanish Point, County Clare in 1923. The son of Michael Joseph Hillery, a local doctor, and Ellen McMahon, a district nurse, he was educated locally at Milltown Malbay National School, before later attending Rockwell College. At third level, Hillery attended University College Dublin, 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 Milltown Malbay Dispensary District. He also spent a year working as coroner for West Clare.

Hillery married Maeve Finnegan, on 27 October 1955. Together they had a son, John, and a daughter, Vivienne, who died after a long illness in 1987,[4] 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 at the 1951 general election.[5] Hillery picked up enough transfers from de Valera to be elected. As Fianna Fáil returned to power. 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 served in every Fianna Fáil cabinet since 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. He also proposed access by students to all public examinations.[6] 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 and 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, after 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 upon becoming Taoiseach, 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 fourteen unarmed civilians in Derry, by British Paratroopers (known as "Bloody Sunday"), he travelled to the United Nations, in New York City, to demand UN involvement in peace-keeping on the streets of Northern Ireland. 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 European Economic Community (ECC), Hillery was rewarded by becoming the first Irish politician to serve on the European Commission. He was appointed Vice-President of the European Commission and European Commissioner 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 Taoiseach 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 the then President, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, calling him "a thundering disgrace" for referring anti-terrorist legislation to the Supreme Court of Ireland to test its constitutionality.[7] When Ó Dálaigh resigned, a deeply reluctant Hillery agreed to become the Fianna Fáil candidate for the presidency. Fine Gael and Labour decided it was unwise to nominate a candidate, in light of the row over Ó Dálaigh's resignation and the part the government played in the affair. As a result, Hillery was elected unopposed, becoming President of Ireland on 3 December 1976.

President of Ireland

The fake "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 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 Uachtaráin (the presidential residence), that he and his wife were divorcing and he was considering resigning from the presidency. However, the story was untrue. Once the Pope had left, Hillery told a shocked nation that there was no mistress, no divorce and no resignation.[3] 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, he also got the support of Leader of the Opposition, 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 Áras an Uachtaráin

However, it was in 1982, that Hillery's reputation as President was arguably made. In January 1982, the Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition government of Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald lost a budget vote in Dáil Éireann. Since this was a loss of supply, FitzGerald travelled to Áras an Uachtaráin, to ask for a dissolution of the Dáil. Under Article 13.2.2.,[8] If Hillery refused FitzGerald's request for a dissolution, FitzGerald would have had to resign. Had this happened, Haughey, Leader of the Opposition, would have been the favourite to form a new government. To this a series of phone calls (some published reports claim seven, others eight) was made by senior opposition figures urging President 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.)

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 the Labour Party. 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 President 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. Publicly, 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, under pressure from the PDs, Haughey gave Lenihan a letter of resignation to sign. When Lenihan refused, Haughey formally advised President Hillery to sack Lenihan from cabinet. As required by Article 13.1.3 of the Constitution,[9] Hillery did so. Lenihan's campaign never recovered, and he became the first candidate from his party to date to lose a presidential election, having begun the campaign as the apparent certain winner. Instead Labour's Mary Robinson became the first elected President of Ireland 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 had been seen 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 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.

Having been re-elected unopposed in 1983, Hillery (until then) shared 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. President Hillery retired from public life. However, he re-entered public life in 2002, during the second referendum on the Nice Treaty, when he urged a yes vote.

Hillery: a foreign assessment

In 2002, state papers released by the British Public Record Office under the 'Thirty Year Rule'[10] 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 (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.[11]


Patrick Hillery died on 12 April 2008, in his Dublin home, following a short illness.[3] His family agreed to a full state funeral for the former President.[12] He was buried at St. Fintan's Cemetery, Sutton, Dublin.[13] 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."[14] 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".[15] In the Dáil and Seanad, he was praised by all political leaders and parties during expressions of sympathy on 15 April 2008.[16][17] In the graveside oration, Tánaiste Brian Cowen said Hillery was "A 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."[4]


  1. "Pádraig J. Ó hIrghile". Retrieved 29 October 2011.
  2. "Patrick John Hillery". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  3. "A look at Patrick Hillery's career in politics". RTÉ News. 12 April 2008. Archived from the original on 14 April 2008. Retrieved 12 April 2008.
  4. "Brian Cowen's graveside oration". RTÉ News. 17 April 2008. Retrieved 17 April 2008.
  5. "Dr Paddy Hillery". Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  6. Bonel-Elliott, Imelda. "Lessons from the Sixties: Reviewing Dr. Hillery's Educational Reform", in: Irish Educational Studies, vol. 13, Spring 1994, pp. 32–45.
  7. How 'thundering disgrace' led to President resigning, Irish Independent, December 29, 2006
  8. 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, in his capacity as Leader of the Opposition. Haughey would have had to have been nominated by Dáil Éireann.
  9. "Constitution of Ireland" (PDF). The Government of Ireland.
  10. 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.
  11. "British were impressed by Hillery's manner and intellectual capacity". The Irish Times. 3 January 2003.
  12. "Tributes, State Funeral for Hillery". RTÉ News. 12 April 2008. Retrieved 12 April 2008.
  13. Retrieved 14 January 2015. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  14. "Irish ex-president Hillery dies". BBC. 13 April 2008. Retrieved 15 April 2008.
  15. "Hillery praised for modernising role". Sunday Business Post. 13 April 2008. Retrieved 15 April 2008.
  16. "Expressions of Sympathy in Dáil Éireann". Dáil Éireann Official Report. 15 April 2008.
  17. "Expressions of Sympathy in Seanad Éireann". Seanad Éireann Official. 15 April 2008.

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 978-1-84840-009-2.
Preceded by
Seán O'Grady
(Fianna Fáil)
Fianna Fáil Teachta Dála for Clare
Succeeded by
Brendan Daly
(Fianna Fáil)
Political offices
Preceded by
Jack Lynch
Minister for Education
Succeeded by
George Colley
Minister for Industry and Commerce
New office Minister for Labour
Succeeded by
Joseph Brennan
Preceded by
Frank Aiken
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Succeeded by
Brian Lenihan
New office
Ireland joins the EEC
Irish European Commissioner
Succeeded by
Richard Burke
Preceded by
Albert Coppé
European Commissioner for Social Affairs
Succeeded by
Henk Vredelling
Preceded by
Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh
President of Ireland
Succeeded by
Mary Robinson
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