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Speech by the Taoiseach, Mr Brian Cowen TD, at the Launch of Patrick Hillery : The Official Biography, In the Mansion House, On Wednesday, 17th December, 2008 at 5.30pm.


Is mór agam a bheith anseo anocht chun an leabhar seo a sheoladh agus chun ómós a thabhairt don Dr. Pádraig Ó hIrghile. Rinne sé a mhíle dícheall riamh ar son an Stáit agus ar son mhuintir na hÉireann, ina shaol príobháideach féin agus ina shaol poiblí araon. Tháinig an dílseacht go nádúrtha chuig Pádraig Ó hIrghile. Bhí sé macánta riamh. Fear cliste ab ea é agus é seanchríonna ina theannta. Ach thairis aon ní eile bhí an-tuiscint aige ar dhaoine, agus an-tuiscint acusan air. Bhí sé dílís riamh dá oidhreacht agus dá dhúchas i gContae an Bhrataigh. Fear réchúiseach ab ea é, a bhí ar a shuaimhneas i measc a mhuintire.

It is an honour to launch the official biography of Dr Patrick Hillery and to be asked to say a few words about him in the company of so many of his family and friends. Patrick Hillery was a distinguished Irishman and an exceptional figure in our public life. He made an immense contribution to the development of our country. Throughout his long political career, his passion was singular - Ireland. His resolve was simple - to advance the cause of our people.

I want to congratulate the author, John Walsh, who in the introduction to this book sets out the reasoning for its publication. John eloquently writes and I quote :

"Paddy Hillery was born less than a year after the foundation of the Irish Free State; he died as the era of the Celtic Tiger was drawing to a close. His life spanned the first three generations of independent Ireland. He was a pivotal figure in Irish public life for almost four decades. He held the unique distinction of serving as a cabinet minister, European Commissioner and President of Ireland, a troika of offices held by no other Irish politician. He made an extraordinary contribution, in a characteristically understated fashion, to the peaceful, democratic and prosperous Irish state of the 21st century. Yet, so far, remarkably little has been written about Hillery's life and career."

This book expertly begins the process of filling that gap. John Walsh deserves our enduring gratitude for this insightful study into a most formidable and decent politician. Thomas Carlyle wrote that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." Paddy, with his innate sense of modesty, would no doubt have disagreed with any assessment that suggested the history of independent Ireland is the biography of Patrick Hillery. But those of us who were privileged to know him have no doubt that Paddy Hillery was a great man; we know too that his career was central to Ireland's national progress; and, that for his massive achievements Dr Patrick Hillery deserves an honoured place in the annals of this country's history.

Early Days in Politics
Paddy began his journey in his beloved west Clare. His father, Dr. Michael Hillery, had served as a medical officer to the IRA during the War of Independence and made a patriotic contribution to his community and country. It is not entirely surprising therefore that Patrick Hillery chose a life serving the people. His ambition though was to follow in his father's footsteps as a country doctor. He was initially, at least, a most reluctant politician.

John Walsh's fine research, combined with the benefit of Paddy's very honest recollections, makes for a compelling account of the young doctor's dilemma, in 1951, when Paddy Hogan, the chairman of the Miltown Malbay cumann, persuaded him to stand for the Dáil alongside Eamon DeValera.

At this time, Paddy Hillery was working in Peamount Hospital and his love of medicine as well as lack of practical experience made him question the wisdom of his decision to return home to Clare to fight a General Election for Fianna Fáil. The book contains a brilliant anecdote which captures Paddy's doubts but also shows his real sense of self-deprecating humour. Walsh records

"DeValera telephoned the sanatorium to give instructions to his newest running mate.... Hillery initially thought that his new party leader was warning him to give up the drink. [He recalled] 'I was to go to FF headquarters and sign the pledge. This did not appeal to me at all, but it had nothing to do with Fr Mathew Theobald. It was a pledge to sit, act and vote with the party. That did not cheer me up either. A call from Dev was unexpected. It also brought home to me that there was more involved than Paddy Hogan and Miltown Malbay.'"

Despite his reservations about a life in politics, it says much about Patrick Hillery's depths of mental toughness that he campaigned vigorously and was comfortably elected to Dáil Éireann. Paddy told the author, fifty-five years on from his first election, that though he would have preferred to have worked full-time in medicine he was determined not to lose the election; in his own words, he put it simply - "once you are going you don't want to be beaten."

Undoubtedly, Paddy Hillery felt a strong obligation to his family and supporters in Miltown Malbay, who very much wanted him to win the election. But, the author leaves us in no doubt that ambiguity about a long-term political career was very prevalent throughout Paddy's early years in the Dáil. Yet, inspite of this, his dual career as local TD and local doctor, actually enhanced his stature among his constituents although the author does record one very humorous story of how politics and medicine became muddled in the mind of an expectant father. Walsh writes :

"Dr Paddy had just done a house call and he was about to go to bed when there was a knock on the door. He opened the window and popped his head out; the man said 'Dr. Paddy, my wife is about to have a child.' [Hillery] thought he might get a few hours' sleep, he asked 'Is she in labour?' The man said 'Oh no, Doctor, we were always Fianna Fáil to the bone!'

Ministerial Appointment
As Taoiseach, Eamon DeValera had mooted the idea of Patrick Hillery taking up ministerial office, however, Paddy refused to bite. In the late 1950s, Paddy confided in friends his intention to step back from public life to concentrate full-time, once again, on medicine. But DeValera's election as President in 1959 meant that should Paddy have resigned his seat, Fianna Fail would have been left without a seat in Clare. Paddy's loyalty to his Party was such that he concluded he would have to soldier on as a backbench TD until the next election. Lemass, who admired him greatly, had other ideas. The new Taoiseach literally catapulted Hillery into the cabinet. Paddy retained a vivid memory of a life-changing meeting and he told the author:

"I went into the Dail and Lemass was duly elected by the party. I was going out and Mick Hilliard said 'I want you to come with me.' So I went with him and was wondering what he was at. The next thing he landed me in an office in front of Sean Lemass and Lemass said 'I want you in the cabinet. I am not letting you off as Dev did.' I said 'I can't do a thing like that, I have people booked in for babies!' Lemass said 'you can finish all the work you are doing but I want you in the cabinet.' He was not talking no for an answer."

And so was set in train one of the most distinguished ministerial careers in Irish politics.


Patrick Hillery's first portfolio was Education and John Walsh strongly argues that Paddy's tenure in this department saw "the beginning of sustained activism by the state in education." At the core of Patrick Hillery's poltics was a commitment to equal rights and equal opportunities for each and every citizen. It was for this reason that he

sought to increase the school-leaving age;
extended the scholarship schemes;
doubled the primary school building programme;
achieved reductions in the pupil-teacher ratio;
increased places for teacher-training;
established the comprehensive schools system.

In his own words, he later attributed his motivation to:

"the social interest which insisted on the injustice of in a large section of children having no prospect of going ahead to post-primary education and beyond because they had not got the money."

Patrick Hillery saw a high quality, equality of opportunity education system as vital to a modern republic. His vision was that no Irish child would miss out on receiving an education consummate with their abilities because their parents were too poor. His work is a lasting legacy and it paved the way for the introduction of free second level education by his successor and the development of the third level sector in Ireland.

Industry & Commerce and Labour
In April 1965, Lemass appointed Hillery to Industry and Commerce, the Department where the then Taoiseach had spent almost his entire ministerial career. This appointment was clearly an expression of Lemass's confidence in Hillery's abilities and, as the author notes, Minister Hillery became a central figure in the delivery of the Lemass inspired "new orthodoxy of export led investment, tariff reduction and preparation for EEC membership."

Lemass's economic policy has been encapsulated in the phrase a "rising tide lifts all boats." Hillery, as that cabinet's foremost social thinker, recognised that not all boats are the same size and some will rise faster than others. He believed in a society marked by solidarity and not by selfishness. He implemented legislation to introduce redundancy payments for workers who were laid off; it was the first time such a scheme had been established in Ireland.

In 1967, he established AnCo. As the first Minister for Labour since the Treaty, he set in train a policy based on the State playing a more interventionist role in providing people with the necessary training and skills to tackle joblessness.

Hillery's republican values were those of community, of solidarity and of inclusion. By investing in making people more employable, he extended real opportunity to those who might otherwise have got stuck in a permanent cycle of disadvantage. In today's harsh global economic climate, it is important that we remember that lesson and Paddy Hillery's values. My Government will obviously be doing our best in the period ahead to minimise, to the greatest extent possible, the impact of the downturn on the most vulnerable in our society.

Northern Ireland
In 1969, Paddy Hillery was less than six weeks into his appointment as Minister for Foreign Affairs when the tensions in Northern Ireland spilled over into violence. In this dark period, this country was indeed fortunate to have at the helm leaders with the political acumen and moral courage of Patrick Hillery and Jack Lynch.

Paddy Hillery's support for the embattled nationalist community was unflinching. So too was his support for our Constitution. At that most delicate point, he played a critical role in defending constitutional republicanism. He believed that Fianna Fáil's mission was to achieve republican objectives solely by peaceful means.

In a famous debate in Dail Eireann in May 1970, at the height of the Arms Crisis, Hillery cautioned against the dangers of any Irish Government succumbing to the sectarian narrative of nationalist versus unionist or catholic versus protestant. He made it clear that Fianna Fail's policy was rooted in the belief that the only future we envisage for our people is a future based on respect and equality and partnership with unionism. In the words that still have great contemporary resonance, he said:

"We are peacemakers, we do not rant and rave against any group of or section of our people. We do no demand anyone's surrender.... I am certain that the policy of reunification with other Irishmen cannot be achieved by attacking those other Irishmen."

That policy is our policy. My Government will continue to foster harmony and hold out the hand of friendship to the unionist community. We will continue to advance the interests of every single person on this island through greater economic co-operation, social harmony and cultural ties. And we will resolutely oppose sectarianism in all its guises and those who believe Irish unity can be built on division and violence.

As well as sowing the seeds for a new era of peace and reconciliation on this island, Paddy Hillery was central to Ireland's emergence from the international sidelines. He was the Government's chief negotiator of Ireland's accession into the EEC. He was also to the forefront of the subsequent referendum campaign. On 3rd May 1972, he appealed to voters to Vote Yes and ensure Ireland takes its rightful place at the heart of Europe.

"Not too join in this great and unique endeavour would be, in effect, to turn our backs on Europe, to abandon what is really a part of ourselves. It would be to renege on what is most worthy in our past and to sacrifice the hopes and aspirations which we have for ourselves and more importantly for our children."

In our time, we too have big decisions to make about Ireland's place in Europe. The second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty will be a defining moment in this country's destiny. I believe Ireland's future success will flow from re-affirming our commitment to the European Union. And in an ever more competitive global environment, it is imperative we don't give the impression that we are turning our back on Europe and the policies that have served us so well. It is an irrefutable fact that every time Ireland has voted to support the development of the EU, our country has benefited.

In 1973, when Paddy Hillery signed the Accession Treaty, this was a divided island joining a divided Europe. It is no accident of history that the best progress we have made towards modernising our economy and uniting in peace and reconciliation, all the people who share this island, has occurred since we fully embraced the concept of working in partnership and co-operation with all our European neighbours.

In order for Ireland to remain at Europe's heart and protect our hard won gains at a time of world economic uncertainty, I believe this country must ratify the Lisbon Treaty. Our future progress is now in the scales just as it was back in 1973. We too must make the right choice. The road we choose will not only determine the shape of our economy, but define our place in the wider world and the destiny of this generation and our children's generation for years to come. It is that fundamental.


The Commission
John Walsh gives a fine account of Patrick Hillery's time as Vice-President of the Commission with special responsibility for Social Affairs. In this role, Patrick Hillery was one of the most influential Irish people on the international stage. He used that office to mould a legislative legacy which has an enormous effect to this day in every workplace in Europe.

By introducing the Equal Pay Directive and the Equal Treatment Directive, Patrick Hillery brought into existence the very first European laws to implement the principle of equality between men and women in the workplace. The details of those Directives have been amended and expanded over the years, but the core elements - as brought forward by Patrick Hillery - have remained the same.

These laws put in place the legal foundations of the fair and equal societies across Europe for which we still strive today. They are a noble legacy of which every Irish person should be fiercely proud.

An American President once famously said "there is no greater calling than public service." Service to the public was the hallmark of President Patrick Hillery's two terms in Áras an Uachtaráin. It is important to say that he provided serenity and stability to the office when it was most needed. He ensured the institution of the Presidency retained the respect of the people.

I believe Dr. Hillery's low-key style was a response to the instability that preceded his term of office. I am also in full agreement with the author's assessment that Hillery's style and working practices as President were well suited to the times in which he served and that from the outset, he was a hardworking and conscientious head of state.

At Paddy's funeral, I spoke about how he and Maeve had visited communities all over the country. They met the people, talked with them, laughed with them. I said little has been written of that aspect to Paddy's presidency but, it was there, and it was real, as many people the length and breadth of the country well know.

I am delighted that John Walsh explores this point and makes it clear that Paddy Hillery was a most energetic and active President. John writes :

"Hillery undertook a full schedule of engagements, attending a wide range of events in local communities throughout the country; he attended functions organised by national schools, universities and community groups on a regular basis throughout his time as President... But much of Hillery's activity went unreported.... This was partly due to the reality that many of the local events attended by the President were not seen as newsworthy by the national media. Hillery himself did not seek publicity, and he was wary initially of drawing media attention towards the Presidency at a time when he was working to stabilise the office."

In the historic debate on the draft Constitution in 1937, de Valera said a function of the President was "to guard the people's rights and mainly to guard the Constitution, maintaining the mastery of the people and safeguarding their interests between elections".

President Hillery fulfilled this role to the letter. He was an exemplary President who, in tumultuous political times, exercised his powers wisely, and diligently protected the independence of Ireland's highest office. He was simultaneously a real servant of the people and the people's President.

For forty years, Paddy Hillery embodied all that is best about public service. He was a man of decency, integrity and vision. He worked hard for our people and made a lasting contribution to this nation's progress. John Walsh closes this fine biography of one of Ireland's finest ever statesmen by saying that Patrick Hillery was "a man who had never sought fame, but had nonetheless served his country well." It is a fitting epitaph of a proud son of Clare and a true son of Ireland.