In order to understand the most notable moment in the Presidency of Patrick Hillery, one has to understand one of the more complicated Presidential powers.
The President appoints the Taoiseach and his/her government, once they have been selected by a majority in the Dail. When a sitting government loses a vote in the Dail, that is, a “loss of supply”, the Taoiseach is obliged to go to the President, and request a dissolution of the Oireachtas.
The President has a choice in this scenario. He or she may grant the dissolution in which case an election is held within a month to create a new Oireachtas.
He or she may also refuse the dissolution. In this scenario, the Taoiseach immediately resigns and a new one is selected from within the currently sitting Dail. No election is held.
Every single time a Taoiseach has gone to the President to request a dissolution of the Oireachtas, the President has granted it (Traditionally, there has been some leeway in regards the ruling, such as when the sitting government lost a vote because all of its TDs were not present at the time of said vote).
In 1982, the sitting government was a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour, led by Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald. Patrick Hillery was the President, a former TD, Minister and European Commissioner. Hillery’s time in office had been very quiet, barring a bizarre incident when he, somewhat unnecessarily, held a press conference to deny a reported sex scandal few people had even been aware of.
In January 1982, the coalition government famously lost the Dail vote on its second budget, when one of the Independent TDs supporting them, Limerick’s Jim Kemmy, turned, objecting to introduction of VAT on children’s shoes.
Having lost the support of the Dail, Garret Fitzgerald travelled to Aras an Uachtarain to meet with President Hillery to request a Dail dissolution. It was late at night, the Dail having been meeting throughout the day.
Fianna Fail was the largest party in the Dail. Led by Charles Haughey, they would have been the favourites to form a new government in the event that dissolution was refused. Hillery was a member of Fianna Fail, so the possibility did exist. Haughey openly stated that he was “available” to the President “for consultation”. Hillery was, after all, a party colleague.
That night, before Fitzgerald met with the President, several different members of the Oireachtas, possibly up to eight, attempted to get in contact with Hillery via telephone. To this date, only three of them, Charles Haughey himself, Sylvester Barrett and Brian Lenihan Snr, have been confirmed.
Fitzgerald’s meeting with Hillery was further delayed due to the absence of the Presidential secretary, who was required for the meeting. He was at the theatre, giving the opposition figures the time they needed.
Details of that night, whether Hillery actually took any of the phone calls and, if so, what exactly was discussed or said, are unknown (they may be revealed at some point, when the private papers are released). What is known, is that Hillery ordered his military aide Captain Anthony Barber, to not pass on phone calls from opposition figures (at some point in the evening). In so deciding, the President may have been motivated somewhat by the Irish version of the constitution, which states that the President makes such a decision as a Dail dissolution “as a chomhairle féin”, which can be translated into “under his own counsel”.
Barber did as instructed, and though calls were made, none were forwarded to the President. The truly nasty side of the incident became evident here as (it is alleged) Haughey threatened to end the career of Captain Barber if he did not put him through to the President. Haughey denied the charge, but Hillery, at least, took it seriously, ordering the IDF’s Chief of Staff to allow no political interference in the officers future career. Barber has never commented.
Fitzgerald and the Presidential secretary did eventually arrive, and Hillery granted the dissolution that was sought. At that meeting, he further expounded on his belief that the Presidential power of refusing such a dissolution would have been inappropriate under the circumstances.
The Oireachtas was dissolved and an election called (which, somewhat ironically, resulted in a Fianna Fail government).
The details of what happened that night may not even be known today if it wasn’t for events that took place eight years later, in the campaign to decide Hillery’s successor. The Fianna Fail candidate was Brian Lenihan Snr, widely tipped to be successful. That year, Lenihan confirmed in an on-the-record interview with a student, Jim Duffy, that he was one of the callers that night. He later changed that story, denying any involvement. The resulting furore saw his popularity plummet and the government of the day undermined. He lost the election, to the spirited campaign of Mary Robinson and was dismissed from his Ministerial post by Hillery himself, one of the President’s last acts.
With the public release of what had happened that January night, Patrick Hillery’s reputation was made, his previously dour looking 14 years coming to embody the highest aspects of the office.
What does this teach us about the Presidency? That it is an office that does come with a degree of power, power that must be used wisely. Those who hold the office must be men or women of integrity, with legal knowledge, willing to stand up to colleagues or friends in order to properly carry out the duties and powers of the office.
To see the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the archive.