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US doubted non-political role of Irish president after Hillery election

The American embassy here also believed the politician was “not enthusiastic” about the job.

Dr Garret Fitzgerald and President Patrick Hillery in 1981.
Dr Garret Fitzgerald and President Patrick Hillery in 1981.
Image: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

THE WHITE HOUSE believed the election of Patrick Hillery to Áras an Uachtaráin in 1976 could mean the role of President would “no longer be considered ‘above politics’”.

According to a cable released by Wikileaks this week, Ambassador Walter Curley said the accession of Hillery was a “plus for Fianna Fáil” but a “definite minus” for the governing coalition.

Both Labour and Fine Gael failed to nominate a candidate following the resignation of Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh. He stepped down after the Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan launched a verbal attack against him in front of a number of people, including one journalist. He allegedly called the head of State a “thundering disgrace”, insinuating he had been disloyal to Ireland.

In a note to the US Department of State, which was also sent to a number of embassies in Europe and NATO headquarters, Curley said:

“Hillery accedes to a position which was largely ceremonial prior to Ó Dálaigh’s use of the presidential power to refer bills to the Supreme Court.

The position has now been enhanced in importance but politicised somewhat. Election of an active, long-time partisan politician, who is not an ‘elder statesman’ may well mean that the president can no longer be considered ‘above politics’. Although the new role of presidency will depend very much on how Hillery conducts himself on the job.

According to the US administration, the Liam Cosgrave-led government was “the loser in all of this”.

“First, the whole resignation imbroglio did not enhance the government’s image. Then, by coincidence, Hillery announced that he would not be reappointed to his job as [EU] Commissioner on the day that Ó Dálaigh resigned. If Hillery had been reappointed then, he would not have accepted the presidency.

“Hillery was a popular commissioner and most Irish thought he should have been reappointed, especially since it appears that the choice of his replacement (probably Education Minister Burke) is being made on strictly political grounds. Now, of course, the current talk is that ‘Cosgrave made Hillery President by accident’.”

Another ramification of the appointment, according to Curley, was Jack Lynch securing his position as head of Fianna Fáil.

“Hillery would have been a good rallying point for those who want to get rid of Lynch, ” he wrote. “And the resulting disunity would have weakened the party. Now it will go into an election united behind Lynch.”

Indeed, Fianna Fáil went on to win the 1977 election and Lynch was installed as Taoiseach for the second time.

Column: Jack Lynch’s victory 35 years today was a PR one…

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