Cearbhall O Dalaigh was a compromise choice between the various parties to succeed the late Erskine Childers. A Fianna Fail man with an extensive legal background (A multi-time Attorney General and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), his time in office was not expected to provide any major problems.
Naturally, it ended up providing one of the most unpleasant incidents of the office’s history.
The 1970’s were a critical time for the island of Ireland, with “the Troubles” in full swing in the north, the death toll rising all the time.
The sitting Fine Gael government, led by Liam Cosgrave, introduced many laws and initiatives to try and curtail paramilitary activity and potential support for the IRA in the south. In this, they clashed with O’ Dalaigh, who was a major critic of things like “Section 31” of the Broadcasting Act, which forbade the voices of Sinn Fein members being heard on air. The relationship between Taoiseach and President became strained, with Cosgrave barely meeting his constitutional requirement to keep O’ Dalaigh briefed on government matters, interfering in the President’s nominal diplomatic duties and just generally treating the first citizen in a disrespectful manner.
In July 1976, the British Ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, was assassinated by the IRA. In response, the government passed the Emergency Powers Act in September, which gave security forces greater strength. Notably, it gave them the right to detain suspects for up to seven days without trial.
The bill passed through the Fine Gael dominated Dail and was sent to O’ Dalaigh, whose role as President meant he must sign any legislation before it could be enacted. Concerned at the implications of the law, he exercised his right to refer a bill to the Supreme Court, in order to test its constitutionality. On the 15th of October, the Court deemed the bill acceptable, and O’ Dalaigh signed it. To be perfectly clear, O’ Dalaigh had done nothing even remotely untoward, or even unexpected, for a man of his character and legal background (in fact, the President using this referral power is often seen as a good thing by people who support the legislation concerned, as approval by the Supreme Court means it can never again be challenged in a court of law).
The same day, a Garda named Michael Clerkin was killed in Mountmellick, County Laois, by the IRA. Members of the Cosgrave government, already incensed that the President had delayed the passage of the bill by referring it, became furthur angry towards him.
On the 18th of October the Minister of Defence, Paddy Donegan, opened a new Army Barracks in Mullingar. At a dinner to mark the occasion, in front of a large group of serving army officers, including the Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces, Donegan referred to the President, regards his referral of the Bill, as “a thundering disgrace” (Donegan’s exact words remain a source of conflict, with numerous sources describing his language as far more vulgar).
When the story broke, it was a disaster for the Cosgrave government. The President was (and is) the Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces. While this role is purely ceremonial in nature, all officers receive their commissions from the President, and Donegan had severely insulted O’ Dalaigh in front of such people. Media editorials, none too taken with the Cosgrave government as it was, began to call for Donegan’s resignation. Cosgrave merely informed the President of what had happened by telephone, refusing to meet with him face to face, much to the fury of O’Dalaigh.
Donegan, to his credit in a way, did not attempt to shirk the consequences, and quickly offered his resignation to Cosgrave. Cosgrave refused to accept it. He suggested that Donegan visit the Aras to apologise in person to the President; O’ Dalaigh, still waiting to speak face-to-face with Cosgrave since the incident, refused to receive him. In a letter to the cabinet, O’ Dalaigh made it clear that he considered his relationship with the Defence Minister to be irrecoverable.
At a cabinet meeting shortly after, a majority found confidence in Donegan, despite opposition demands that he resign or be dismissed.
While his personal papers indicate that he had been considering it for much of that week, it was the following day, and as a direct result of the cabinet’s decision, that O’ Dalaigh resigned from the office of President. He did so, in his words, to protect the dignity of the office and to make clear his own public integrity.
Such was the damage that the entire affair had caused, and so unpopular the outcome with the public, that Fine Gael did not contemplate contesting the impromptu election, agreeing to the Fianna Fail suggestion of Patrick Hillery. O’ Dalaigh passed away just two years later.
What does this teach us about the office? That it is one that is not powerless, and one that can face challenges. O’ Dalaigh made what is now seen as a reasonable decision, and a cocksure government punished him for it. Cosgrave let his personal dislike of the President cloud his judgement, choosing to try and get a cabinet colleague off the hook for a terrible insult when he should have simply accepted his resignation. Much like the GAA with Douglas Hyde, Donegan choose to insult the office, unnecessarily. The chances that Michael Clerkin would have lived had the Bill become law a few weeks earlier are minuscule.
It also teaches us that the office is best held by men of integrity, who are willing to do what they have to in order to protect it.
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