Hillery, Patrick John (1923–2008), cabinet minister and president of Ireland (1976–90), was born in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, on 2 May 1923, third of four children (two sons and two daughters) of Michael Hillery, medical doctor, and his wife Ellen (née MacMahon). The Hillerys were a prominent business family in Miltown Malbay, and Michael Hillery built up a successful GP practice in the area, eventually becoming medical officer for Miltown Malbay and coroner for West Clare. Both parents gave medical assistance to IRA members during the war of independence, but took no part in the civil war.
Early life and election to dáil
Patrick was educated at Miltown Malbay national school before going to Rockwell College in 1935; in later life he often recalled that most of his national school classmates received no secondary education, and he had been the only one whose parents could afford to send him to boarding school. After matriculating in 1939 he studied medicine at UCD (1940–47), graduating B.Sc. with honours (1943) and MD with first-class honours (1947). He then spent brief residencies, in Dublin at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital and the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, and at hospitals in Ontario and Saskatchewan (he spent about a year in Canada, 1948–9); after briefly serving as a locum in Clare, he became assistant medical officer at Peamount hospital, Co. Dublin (1950), wishing to familiarise himself with the treatment of tuberculosis before returning to practise in Clare.
In May 1951 Hillery was persuaded to become a Fianna Fáil candidate in the general election caused by the collapse of the first inter-party government. He appears to have been chosen in the belief that his well-known family name and connections might secure a third seat for Fianna Fáil at the expense of the bonesetter TD Thomas Burke (qv), who also came from Miltown Malbay. Instead, Hillery took the second Fianna Fáil seat from Sean O'Grady (1889–1966), TD for Clare (1932–51), while Burke was replaced by a Fine Gaeler. Hillery attributed this to the perception that he represented a new generation, and had run a low-key campaign while O'Grady focused on the memory of the civil war.
Shortly after his election, Hillery returned to Miltown Malbay to assist his father in his medical practice. Although re-elected in 1954 and 1957, he saw his long-term future in medicine rather than politics. As his father's health deteriorated (he died in 1957), Hillery increasingly took over the practice, becoming medical officer for Miltown Malbay (1957) and coroner for West Clare (1958). After the 1957 general election Hillery refused a parliamentary secretaryship, and in old age said he then considered retiring from the dáil but felt he could not leave the constituency organisation without an experienced TD when the presidential candidacy of Éamon de Valera (qv) – the party's other Clare TD – became known. In June 1959 Hillery was appointed minister for education by the new taoiseach, Seán Lemass (qv). Hillery's acceptance, motivated by personal respect for Lemass and the belief that he could help to modernise the country, forced him to give up his medical practice, which was inherited by his sister. In later life Hillery regretted the loss of the opportunity to employ his medical skills, and the human contact involved in general practice.
Minister for education
Hillery's six years as minister for education (1959–65) marked a significant shift away from previous governments' view of education as a means of cultural and religious formation best left to private provision by the churches, towards a model which placed greater emphasis on preparation for employment and on expanding social opportunities, with a greater role for the state in providing funding and filling gaps in school provision. Initially, Hillery pursued a policy of gradual incremental reform, announcing the government's commitment to providing education for all until the age of 15; building on the initiative of his predecessor, Jack Lynch (qv), in funding the rebuilding and renovation of primary school buildings; expanding the system of local government scholarships to post-primary schools (with the help of new central government funding); and shifting away from the policy of teaching through Irish in national schools irrespective of pupils' competence to a policy of treating Irish as just another subject (albeit with a particularly prominent place). Hillery engaged in an angry controversy with the radical discussion group Tuairim over the government's policy of supporting the movement of UCD to a suburban site at Belfield, rather than the alternative policy of remaining in the city centre with the prospect of eventual merger with TCD; his defence of UCD as a catholic university and his suggestion that Tuairim had ulterior motives improved relations with Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv) and illustrate Hillery's more acerbic side.
After the 1961 general election Hillery became more radical. He arranged for a pilot study of the Irish school system by the OECD, which highlighted the numerous deficiencies and inequalities of Irish educational provision and led to greater emphasis on vocational and technical education. On 20 May 1963, after extensive preparatory work, Hillery announced that the state would found a number of comprehensive schools to provide vocational-technical education in western rural areas where private initiative had failed to produce secondary schools. This was followed by lengthy and sometimes acrimonious negotiations with the catholic bishops (whom Hillery had chosen not to notify before making his announcement). Many bishops saw this scheme as the thin end of a wedge which would eventually replace denominational secondary schools by a network of nondenominational state schools. Hillery was willing to make concessions on specific issues, but not to give ground on the central principles of the scheme. Using his private notes as an outlet for the vein of anger concealed beneath his outwardly affable exterior, Hillery raged that 'the "authority" of the Church is [being] used to prevent new developments and so deprive persons of education in case the priests' little castles would fall', not for the glory of God but for the glory of the hierarchy (Walsh, 123). With support from Lemass, the sweetener of state-provided building grants for all secondary schools, and playing on episcopal fears that open conflict might lead to a repeat of the damaging controversy over the bishops' opposition to the mother and child health scheme of Dr Noel Browne (qv), Hillery succeeded in gaining agreement on the principle of the scheme. His initiatives (including beginning the development of a network of regional technical colleges) had significant long-term results in raising the skills levels of the Irish workforce.
Hillery's legacies to his successor, Donogh O'Malley (qv), included the establishment of a commission to survey third-level provision (which reported after Hillery's departure), and a cost study of the possibility of providing free post-primary education (with a means test), which revealed that it would cost less than had been expected, and which inspired O'Malley to undertake his own celebrated initiative in this area. In later life, Hillery felt that his role in laying the groundwork for the modernisation of the Irish education system had been obscured by celebrations of O'Malley, and several writers on Irish educational history (who interviewed Hillery) agree with this judgement.
Minister for industry and commerce; minister for labour
After the April 1965 general election, Lemass appointed Hillery as minister for industry and commerce, where he was somewhat overshadowed by Lemass and concentrated on labour relations. Hillery was moved to the newly created Department of Labour on 13 July 1966, where he developed a number of initiatives in regard to vocational training, but was reluctant to intervene in trade disputes if it could be avoided; although Hillery did enact arbitration legislation in 1969, Lemass's plans for a major revamp of labour legislation were dropped.
Before Lemass retired in November 1966, he sounded out Hillery (as well as Jack Lynch) as a possible compromise candidate who might forestall a divisive succession battle between George Colley (qv) and Charles Haughey (qv); Hillery had previously been approached by other senior TDs including James Ryan (qv). Hillery declined, and subsequently supported the lobbying effort that persuaded Lynch to go forward. Hillery later claimed he felt some fellow-feeling for Lynch as they were both outsiders (i.e., lacking the prominent republican dynastic credentials of other cabinet ministers).
Minister for foreign affairs; Northern Ireland and the arms crisis
In July 1969 Hillery was appointed minister for external affairs (later foreign affairs). This brought him into the midst of two crucial developments: first, the nascent conflict in Northern Ireland and the 'arms crisis' triggered by the support of cabinet ministers for attempts to arm northern nationalists; second, Ireland's application for membership of the European Economic Community.
On 1 August 1969 Hillery met the British foreign secretary to urge that Westminster should press Stormont to introduce reforms and prohibit a forthcoming Orange march in Derry, warning that trouble in Northern Ireland might spill over into the republic; he was told that Northern Ireland was an internal British matter. When the march was followed by massive rioting in Derry and Belfast, Hillery was sent back to London in the hope of meeting a senior minister to discuss the deteriorating situation. After he was fobbed off with a junior Foreign Office minister who repeated that this was an internal British matter, Hillery was sent to New York with an Irish governmental appeal to the UN. This was principally an attempt to raise the profile of the issue on the world stage; internal government documents show that, while it was recognised that the UN was unlikely to take action, it was important that the government should be seen to be doing something for northern nationalists. Hillery himself did not press the UN to bring the issue to a vote, since its rejection might be seen as copperfastening partition.
During the arms crisis, Hillery emerged as one of Lynch's key cabinet supporters in advocating restraint. He firmly opposed armed intervention in Northern Ireland, complaining in private notes that the cabinet hardliners (led by Neil Blaney (qv) and Haughey) were displaying the cheap emotionalism of a ballad session in a pub and refusing to face the likely consequences of intervention by the under-strength and poorly equipped defence forces. After the acquittal of the arms trial defendants, Hillery told a British diplomat that he had acted as Lynch's 'hatchet man', keeping potential dissidents in line.
Hillery always denied claims that the cabinet as a whole had approved the abortive arms plot (although he personally intervened to secure the pension payment to Captain James Kelly (qv) on the grounds that the involvement of ministers made it reasonable for Kelly to believe they had been acting on behalf of the government), and in later life complained that the cabinet dissidents had been able to give the impression that they could have united Ireland if they had been given their way. The strain of this period was aggravated by a slight drink problem which caused Hillery to become a teetotaler at the end of 1970.
On 6 July 1970, immediately after the lifting of the Falls Road curfew, Hillery visited the Falls, inspected the damage done by British forces engaging in house searches, and spoke to community groups and nationalist representatives. His visit attracted widespread attention as it was a breach of diplomatic protocol for a cabinet minister to visit another country's territory without notifying that country's government.
During the Fianna Fáil ard fheis on 20 February 1971, Hillery engaged in a shouting match with supporters of Kevin Boland (qv), whom he had displaced as one of the two honorary secretaries of the party and whose actions throughout the crisis Hillery privately compared to those of a 'spoiled child'. Hillery's final retort – 'Ye can have Boland but ye can't have Fianna Fáil' – became one of the defining moments of his career. Hillery later stated that the film record gave a misleading impression of this event because the microphones were focused on the podium and hence did not pick up the outcry from the floor, to which he was responding, and that his principal concern had been to keep the organised militant minority from overawing the less vocal pro-Lynch majority.
In the later stages of his tenure as minister for foreign affairs, Hillery devoted most of his attention to European affairs while Lynch took the lead on Anglo–Irish relations. Hillery, however, continued to make public interventions on occasion, which were seen as being marked by a stronger 'green' nationalism than Lynch's more conciliatory utterances. This was most noteworthy after the killing of civil rights demonstrators by British troops in Derry city on 'bloody Sunday' (30 January 1972); Hillery protested that the British government had apparently 'gone mad', and was sent to raise the matter at the UN and with North American and European governments. This tour also produced little concrete result (the UN general assembly was not in session at the time, the US secretary of state was unsympathetic, and Hillery deliberately avoided seeking support from the Soviet bloc in raising the issue). Through his public interventions, as well as through private contacts, Hillery sought to emphasise that the republic had not abandoned northern nationalists, and to encourage moderates (notably the nascent SDLP) to come forward as a counterweight to the paramilitaries. Both Hillery and Lynch later suggested that they had consciously operated a 'good cop/bad cop' relationship in their dealings with Britain.
EEC entry negotiations and European commissioner
One of the major considerations behind Hillery's Northern policy was fear that the developing troubles would derail negotiations for Irish membership of the EEC (in tandem with the applications of Britain, Denmark and Norway; the Irish delegation were careful to coordinate their efforts with the British negotiators). Hillery was formally placed in charge of the Irish negotiating team on 27 May 1970; he succeeded in establishing cordial relations with the representatives of other European states and was able to secure favourable terms on agriculture and on the application of Community regional development assistance to Ireland (buying time for formerly protected Irish industries to adjust to competition). He then acted as director of elections in the campaign for a 'yes' vote on the constitutional changes necessary to permit Irish accession; on 10 May 1972 the referendum was passed with a 'yes' vote of 83 per cent.
It subsequently became known that Hillery would be the first Irish representative on the European Commission, and after piloting the legislation on Irish accession through the dáil and participating in the formal ratification of the treaty of accession, he became one of five vice-presidents of the European Commission, with responsibility for the social affairs portfolio. This necessitated retirement as minister (29 December 1972) and TD (January 1973). Hillery was not the only possible nominee; Erskine Childers (qv) also expressed an interest in the post, and Hillery's decision to become commissioner reflected both his desire to build on the European relationships he had established during the negotiations, and his lack of interest in pursuing what would have been a very strong, though not unchallenged, claim to succeed Lynch as Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach.
Hillery's first months as commissioner were marred by a disagreement with his chef de cabinet, Robin Fogarty (qv), who soon left to take up a diplomatic position. As commissioner, Hillery secured ratification of an ambitious Community social action programme, but found more difficulty in having its specific provisions put into effect owing to the economic effects of the 1973 oil crisis. He made significant progress in such areas as vocational education, securing the rights of workers with disabilities, and establishing the principle of equal treatment in the workplace for men and women. Hillery is particularly remembered for securing a directive mandating equal pay for men and women from February 1976, and publicly and successfully opposing a last-minute attempt by the Irish government to secure a derogation from its immediate implementation. Proposals to establish a Community anti-poverty scheme and to extend the rights of migrant workers had more limited success. Hillery was generally liked in Brussels (partly because of his ability to conduct business in French), and regarded as an able but not outstanding administrator who had many good ideas but lacked the drive and forcefulness to secure their adoption. He also maintained his contacts with Northern Ireland nationalists and tried to bring them into touch with European decision-makers.
It was clear that the Fine Gael–Labour coalition government would not reappoint Hillery as commissioner when his term expired, and this led to speculation that he might return to the dáil and seek to succeed Lynch. Hillery himself wished to enter the European parliament when it became directly elected (in the event, the first direct elections did not take place until 1979). Instead, after the resignation of Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh (qv), Hillery was asked by Lynch to become president of Ireland as an agreed candidate. Hillery was reluctant to accept the post ('seven years a prisoner in the Phoenix Park' (quoted in Rafter, 119)), and let it be known that he acted out of a sense of duty. He was declared elected unopposed on 9 November 1976.
In retrospect, Hillery's presidency has tended to be presented as dominated by stasis and contrasted with the more proactive role advocated by his immediate predecessors, Childers and Ó Dálaigh, and taken up by his successor, Mary Robinson. In retirement, Hillery was concerned to rebut this view. He argued that his low profile as president was dictated by the need to keep the office from further destabilising controversy after Ó Dálaigh's resignation, and by chronic underfunding and understaffing. (On becoming president, Hillery was outraged at the miserable wages received by the domestic staff at Áras an Uachtaráin, and devoted his presidential allowance – and even part of his presidential salary – to paying them increased wages, until he was able to get the OPW to take responsibility for them). Hillery complained in retrospect that, while the taoiseach and individual ministers had press officers, throughout his term the president did not, and that this contributed to the lack of publicity for his activities (such as visits to community anti-drugs groups in inner-city Dublin, an initiative of his second term), which gave him the reputation of a do-nothing president. Hillery claimed that he had tried to secure a proper level of funding for the presidential office (with some limited success in his second term), but that his efforts had been stymied by the recurring economic crises of the 1970s and the 1980s, which made significant increases politically unviable; by the fact that, as a president who had not been directly elected by popular ballot, he had limited scope to bring pressure on government by claiming a mandate of his own; and by the intermittent presence as taoiseach of Charles Haughey, who saw himself as embodiment of Ireland par excellence and did not want the presidency to compete with him for attention. (On several occasions during Haughey's terms as taoiseach, he forbade Hillery to attend public events where a presidential presence might overshadow the taoiseach; Hillery complained that this was sometimes done in a manner which left the impression that Hillery had snubbed the organisers.) Some commentators (notably Rafter) suggest, however, that Hillery's failure to challenge some of these constraints reflected excessive caution in defining the presidential role.
During the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979, rumours were circulated that Hillery had a mistress and was about to leave his wife and resign. When it became known that these rumours were about to appear in print, Hillery denied them at a public press conference on 3 October. It is generally agreed that supporters of Charles Haughey were behind them. Although it is occasionally suggested that their motive was to prevent Hillery from rivalling Haughey for the succession to Lynch, Hillery's absence from cabinet and dáil made him an unlikely contender; more probably, the motive was to reinforce the impression of weakness and disarray surrounding Lynch's declining premiership, so as to weaken his ability to secure the succession for George Colley. Hillery firmly believed that Haughey himself had inspired the rumour campaign.
For many commentators, the defining moment of Hillery's presidency came on the night of 27 January 1982, after the first coalition government of Garret FitzGerald (qv) was defeated on its budget. Haughey and several other politicians (including the former Fianna Fáil ministers Brian Lenihan (qv) and Sylvester Barrett (qv)) attempted to contact Hillery to persuade him to exercise the presidential prerogative of refusing a dissolution to a taoiseach who had lost his majority in the dáil. While Hillery later accepted that on a strict interpretation there was nothing constitutionally improper in attempting to contact the president under these circumstances, he chose not to receive any such calls and ordered his aide-de-camp not to put the callers through to him. While some commentators have suggested that Hillery's refusal even to engage in consultations reflected an excessively inhibited view of the presidential office, he was influenced not only by his own preferences but by the judgement that it was highly unlikely that an alternative government could be formed from the existing dáil; hence, refusing a dissolution to FitzGerald would not avert an election and by apparent bias in favour of Haughey might draw the president into political controversy. Hillery further believed that the manner of Haughey's intervention, involving repeated phone calls after he had been told the president did not wish to speak to him, was improper; he felt it necessary to protect his ADC from possible retaliation under a future Haughey government by summoning the army chief of staff to have it formally recorded that the officer acted at all times on the president's direct orders.
Although Hillery wished to retire from public life on the expiry of his first presidential term in 1983 (he spoke of undertaking medical work in Africa), he was persuaded by the party leaders that it would be undesirable to have a contested presidential election during an economic crisis, with three general elections having recently taken place in two years. Hillery therefore nominated himself for re-election, and in November 1983 became the only Irish president to secure two terms without contest. Although he secured an increased travel allowance at the time of his re-election, the presidency remained underfunded and low in profile; Hillery was not drawn into any further political disputes and was openly criticised in some media circles as a pleasant old gentleman chiefly concerned with his golf handicap. During the 1990 campaign to choose Hillery's successor, both Mary Robinson and the Fine Gael candidate Austin Currie advocated a more high-profile and proactive presidency in terms seen as implying criticism of Hillery. Hillery avoided being drawn into the controversy, which dominated the 1990 campaign, about Brian Lenihan's conflicting statements on whether he had tried to persuade Hillery not to dissolve the dáil in January 1982.
In retirement, Hillery continued his longstanding recreational pursuits of golf, painting and yoga. He was concerned that his achievements should be given due recognition and regularly gave interviews to historians of twentieth-century Ireland. The culmination of this endeavour was the appearance, shortly after his death, of an official biography by John Walsh drawing on interviews and on Hillery's private papers (including contemporaneous notes). The result is a portrait of Hillery as he liked to see himself, a cautious reformer driven by a sense of public duty, especially towards the less-well-off – a Cincinnatus called from the plough (or the doctor's surgery) to serve the republic. While this underestimated his tendencies towards caution and inertia, as well as the more acerbic and volatile elements in his personality, it is generally agreed that Hillery's conservative temperament should not conceal his role as a reformer, his concern for the less fortunate (including his official subordinates), and his general decency and integrity.
Hillery married (27 October 1955) Mary Beatrice 'Maeve' Flanagan, also a doctor. They had a son and an adopted daughter, whose early death from cancer in 1987 was a great sorrow of Hillery's later life. (One of the three items Hillery referred to the supreme court as president concerned adoption; his own experience as an adoptive parent led him to seek constitutional certainty in this area.) In October 2001 Hillery underwent cancer surgery; thereafter he grew increasingly frail. After a recurrence of the cancer, he died in St Francis Hospice, Raheny, Dublin, on 12 April 2008. His papers are in the UCD archives.