Hederman, Anthony (‘Tony’) (1921–2014), barrister, attorney general and supreme court judge, was born Anthony James Hederman on 11 August 1921 in 40 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, the middle child of three (two sons and a daughter) of William Hederman of Glenville, Naas, Co. Kildare, and his wife Mary (‘Milly’, née Jones). His parents ran drapery shops in Naas and in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, and his father was active in Fianna Fáil, being elected a Naas urban district councillor in 1945.
Hederman grew up in Naas, attending school at Our Lady’s Bower convent, Killashee. Devoted to his older brother William, he joined him, aged ten, as a boarder at the prestigious Castleknock College, Co. Dublin. (William became a Vincentian father, and Tony was devastated by his premature death in 1959.) A keen sportsman, who boxed and played rugby, Tony flourished in Castleknock where he made useful friendships.
He then pursued a law and political science degree at University College Dublin (UCD) along with legal qualifications at King’s Inns. In 1944 he graduated Bachelor of Arts from UCD and was called to the bar, receiving third-class honours in his final King’s Inns law exams. He combined his legal practice with diligent activism for Fianna Fáil, appearing at the 1944 ard fheis as a delegate for the party’s Naas cumann. A regular speaker at election rallies and grassroots meetings nationwide from the mid-1940s, he was co-opted onto the national executive in 1948, remaining in situ for twenty-five years.
FIANNA FÁIL ACTIVISM AND EARLY LEGAL CAREER
In 1957 Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Éamon de Valera (qv) used Hederman to resolve an embarrassing controversy – the catholic church-backed boycott of a protestant family at Fethard-on-Sea, Co. Wexford, arising from a dispute over the education of the children of an interdenominational marriage. Acting (at de Valera’s behest) as legal counsel for the targeted family, Hederman secured the tacit acceptance of the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid (qv), for potential civil proceedings against the boycott’s enforcers, catholic clergy included, before holding private meetings where he cajoled the members of the relevant ‘vigilance’ committee, many of whom were Fianna Fáil supporters, into accepting a compromise settlement. During these fraught negotiations, he made plain his disapproval of the stance taken by the local catholic clergy, though the ensuing agreed public statement was not as conciliatory towards Fethard-on-Sea’s protestant community as he would have liked.
At a meeting of the party national executive in early 1958, Hederman floated an idea on behalf of the soon-to-be Fianna Fáil party leader and taoiseach, Seán Lemass (qv) by suggesting that the government should afford de facto recognition to Northern Ireland. He was part of a modernising clique orbiting Lemass and in 1963 would again signal his patron’s intentions by advocating cross-border economic cooperation at a symposium on north–south relations. By then, the Fianna Fáil government had made him judge advocate-general of the Defence Forces, serving from 1959 to 1965. He was elected one of the party’s two joint treasurers in 1965, entailing responsibility for the special election fund at a time when Fianna Fáil’s fundraising was generating controversy.
As prosecution briefs were distributed on party political lines, Fianna Fáil’s long grip on power from 1957 saw Hederman’s income from state briefs rise from £683 in 1957/8, to £3,687 in 1965/6 (his first year as a senior counsel), to over £11,000 in 1972/3. From the late 1960s he was generally earning more in state fees than any other barrister. Specialising in criminal law, he worked on most of the high-profile murder trials of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, and on assorted state inquiries, arbitrations and tribunals, most prominently (and lucratively) on the moneylending tribunal (1969–70).
Owing his professional advancement to his political connections and an affable, if somewhat intense, manner, he was respected for his charity work, particularly on behalf of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). A founder member of the NAD in 1964, he served as its chairman for several years. A member of Portmarnock Golf Club, gold gradually replaced an interest in horseracing as his main hobby. He lived in Dublin, at first in Dartry, then in Palmerstown, before moving latterly to Glenville Terrace, Naas.
Hederman was on good terms with Lemass’s son-in-law and political protégé, Charles Haughey (qv), remaining so even after Haughey became one of three Fianna Fáil ministers sacked by Taoiseach Jack Lynch (qv) in May 1970 over their alleged involvement in a gun-running conspiracy. Hederman reportedly refused offers of briefs from both the prosecution and the defendants in the ensuing treason trial. (During 1971 he was counsel for Haughey’s brother Jock Haughey (qv) when he was prosecuted for non-cooperation with the dáil committee that was investigating the arms plot.) Well-respected for his service to the party, Hederman succeeded in remaining acceptable to both sides as Fianna Fáil polarised into factions supporting either Lynch or Haughey. George Colley (qv), minister for finance and Haughey’s fiercest enemy, did try to purge Hederman at the February 1971 ard fheis, mainly with a view to making one of his clients the party joint treasurer, but Hederman was re-elected to that position with Lynch’s support.
Certainly, he remained Fianna Fáil’s favourite barrister at a time when a surge in armed robberies and paramilitary activity guaranteed him a succession of important prosecutions. Even after his party’s defeat at the 1973 general election, he continued as one of the leading state prosecutors once the incoming Fine Gael–Labour coalition depoliticised the apportionment of state briefs. The coalition retained him as a member of the Irish legal team that, from 1972–8, prosecuted the United Kingdom in the European Commission of Human Rights for interning and torturing nationalists in Northern Ireland. In May 1974 he excelled in cross-examining British security operatives at the proceedings held in secrecy at Stavanger, Norway. He earned over £21,000 from state briefs in 1975, far more than any other barrister, primarily due to his work on the torture case.
With Fianna Fáil in opposition, Hederman prompted Lynch to assemble a cadre of backroom experts to rectify the parliamentary party’s policy deficiencies. Made chairman of the committee that coordinated the work of various specialist subcommittees, he marshalled the legal brain power that sharpened Fianna Fáil’s effective criticisms of the Fine Gael–Labour coalition for riding roughshod over civil liberties. He also joined the general election committee in 1976.
ATTORNEY GENERAL AND SUPREME COURT JUDGE
Hederman became attorney general following Fianna Fáil’s general election victory in 1977, enjoying a trouble free, if undistinguished, term. The most vocal advocate in cabinet for the policing reforms Fianna Fáil had campaigned on, he enjoyed an early victory when he thwarted attempts to bring in stricter bail terms; his general unwillingness to rock the boat, however, abetted the largely successful rear-guard action mounted by the department of justice. After becoming taoiseach in December 1979, Haughey trusted Hederman in his capacity as attorney general but rather less so as that of a party apparatchik who held aloof from the renewed infighting within Fianna Fáil. In summer 1981 Haughey rewarded Hederman (while also removing him from politics) by appointing him as a supreme court judge.
Hederman’s elevation was popular with the barristers, and he defied convention by refusing to distance himself socially from his former legal colleagues. As supreme court judge, he concurred mostly with the judgment of others, and the few judgments he did make tended to be short. One observer suggested that he would have been happier presiding over murder trials rather than grappling with abstruse constitutional matters. Trim, with dignified features, robust looking for his age, he conformed to the stereotypical image of the part. Typically deferring to his supreme court colleague Brian Walsh (qv), Hederman supported the judicial trend whereby Walsh and likeminded judges had been unearthing ‘unenumerated rights’ implicitly sanctioned by the constitution. He also followed Walsh in broadly resisting growing political pressure for the extradition of republican fugitives, albeit while endorsing the extradition of some Irish Republican Army (IRA) members, depending on the circumstances, and of all Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) members. In March 1990 he was part of the 3–2 majority in the supreme court that embarrassed the Irish government by declining to extradite two IRA men. Although he was involved in further such refusals, his jurisprudence was conditioned thereafter by extradition legislation passed in 1987 that significantly diminished the scope for successful legal defences.
He did his best work sitting on the court of criminal appeal, handling appeals from the special criminal court, where paramilitaries were tried by three judges instead of by a jury. His professed sympathy for those accused of crimes was not always evident, most notably in his concurrence with the lead judgment in DPP v. Quilligan and O’Reilly (1987) which extended the special criminal court’s remit to encompass non-political crimes. He did become increasingly vocal in his scepticism about the methods being used by gardaí to secure criminal convictions and latterly gave the lead judgment on rulings – such as DPP v.McGrail (1990) and DPP v. McCreesh (1992) – that benefitted defendants; in DPP v. Jackson (1993), he overturned a discretionary life sentence given to a sex offender on the grounds that it constituted preventative detention.
If he was mildly liberal on crime, he was conservative on moral issues. This emerged most clearly in a February 1992 appeal to the supreme court concerning the constitutional clause that prohibited abortions unless the expectant mother’s life was in danger. A high court judge had provoked uproar by issuing an injunction preventing an underage rape victim, known as X, from leaving the country after her family had indicated that she would be seeking an abortion abroad. Under intense public and political pressure to overturn this injunction, the supreme court obliged by a four to one majority on the grounds that X was otherwise liable to commit suicide. The supreme court also issued a non-legally binding statement recognising the right of Irish courts to prevent women from going abroad for an abortion. (A referendum held later that year passed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women’s right to go abroad.)
Part of the 3–2 majority for the opinion expressed on the right to travel, Hederman was the sole dissenter from the main ruling. In adjudicating upon the equal right to life conferred by the constitution on the mother and foetus, his lengthy judgment argued that the possibility of the former’s death by suicide could not outweigh the certainty of the latter’s death through an abortion. While his colleagues held that a ‘real and substantial risk’ to the mother’s life justified abortion, Hederman wanted firm proof that the chance of death existed to an ‘extremely high degree of probability’, citing the lack of evidence regarding X’s psychological condition. His reasoning was more legally coherent, though neither he nor his fellow judges gave due consideration to European Economic Community (EEC) legislation guaranteeing the right to travel for services lawfully provided in other EEC countries.
A year prior to retiring from the supreme court in 1993, he had been appointed president of the Law Reform Commission (LRC), continuing as such until 1998. In 1996 the LRC published a controversial report recommending that imprisonment be seen as a measure of last resort and that minimum and mandatory sentencing be abolished. The commission divided 3–2 on the issue of what a criminal sentence ought to achieve, with Hederman being in the minority which held that sentencing should lack any retributive component and be no more severe than is required to reform or deter the prisoner. Similarly, as chairman of the committee established in 1998 to review the Offences Against the State Act, he was in the dissenting minority that argued unavailingly for the abolition of the special criminal court.
RETIREMENT AND FINAL YEARS
After being appointed the first chairman of the catholic church’s national board for child protection (2005–7), he laboriously established its administrative structures and recruited key personnel while asserting the board’s independence by declining to avail of the church’s press office. The slow progress and his aversion to media engagements generated public mistrust, however. Continuing with his charity work, he helped found the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Care Society in 1989, serving as its chairman. He was twice president of the Castleknock College union (1987 and 1996), acting in retirement as the driving force behind a college initiative for student development. In retirement, he also mentored young lawyers and lectured, both in Ireland and abroad.
Tony Hederman died in St Vincent’s Hospital, Elm Tree Park, Co. Dublin, on 10 January 2014 following a short illness. He had never married and his funeral service was held in Castleknock College chapel. Having been made an associate member of the Vincentian order in 2011, Hederman was buried on the grounds of Castleknock College in a plot normally reserved for Vincentian priests attached to the college. His sister Miriam Hederman-O’Brien (1932–2022) also enjoyed a distinguished career, holding prominent positions in many prestigious public and private institutions, both national and European.