Breaking glass ceilings while she fought for ‘the lads back home’

Margaret Hayes: April 25, 1954 - February 19, 2014

Sat, Mar 15, 2014, 01:55

Margaret Hayes, who has died aged 59, was the youngest woman to become secretary general of a government department. After retiring, she became a barrister and “public interest” director of a bank, and undertook voluntary work. She was a passionate supporter of hurling in her native Kilkenny. Few knew more about the fortunes of her local team, the Emeralds, and she loved talking about hurling in her family’s bar in the village of Urlingford.

The second daughter of Jimmy Hayes and his wife Mary (Brennan) her interest in Kilkenny’s crowning glory, its hurling team, was whetted by accompanying her father to games. She had total recall of epic matches won and lost, score lines and scorers.

When Margaret Hayes joined the Civil Service in the 1970s it was struggling with the notion of promotion on merit, and was decidedly lukewarm towards promoting women. Only Thekla Beere in 1959 had reached department secretary (now secretary general) before her. Hayes moved so quickly up the promotional ladder that she had served a full seven-year term as secretary general and retired from the Civil Service by 47. Before her, no woman, and few men, had risen to the top of a department as quickly.

Charles Haughey

After attending local schools, Margaret Hayes won a scholarship to the Convent of Mercy

in Callan, Co Kilkenny, where teacher Sr Assumpta took her under her wing. An arts degree and Dip Ed at Maynooth might indicate a teaching career, but she opted for the civil service, working first at the Revenue Commissioners, then Health, where minister Charles Haughey valued the young woman’s energy and talents.

Moving on promotion to Tourism, Forestry and Fishing, assistant secretary Fionán Ó Muircheartaigh gave her a tourism promotion role. She became assistant secretary in 1990, and secretary general in 1995. She was secretary general of Tourism, Sports and Recreation from 1997, with James McDaid as minister, having been made secretary general in Tourism and Trade in September 1995, where Enda Kenny was minister.

She oversaw two EU sectoral programmes and obtained structural funds for the tourism sector. Like her younger sister, diplomat Dympna Hayes, she represented Ireland at international forums although the two women’s professional paths did not cross. Margaret Hayes was lead negotiator at the “Uruguay round” talks leading to setting up the World Trade Organisation. She supported liberalisation of air transport as essential for inward tourism. EU agriculture commissioner Ray McSharry recalled her reminding him late at night at an important juncture of a very complicated negotiation: “Don’t forget the lads at home, Commissioner.”

This, according to those who knew her, was the cornerstone of her approach, her absolute determination to serve the public interest. Getting a good deal for “the lads at home” was paramount. She was equally implacable on the subject of spending public funds prudently. Politicians and colleagues alike knew she scrutinised the fine detail of what they put before her, and that they had to justify every penny. Along the way she drove herself hard, won the support of staff, made friends, read widely, enjoyed telling a good yarn and entertained people with her sense of humour.

Devoted to family

Her last Civil Service posting was a brief one as secretary general of Community Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in 2002, with

Éamon Ó Cuív as minister. She had served as secretary general of three departments.

In the following decade she studied law and qualified as a barrister in 2007. Brian Lenihan appointed her a “public interest” director of distressed bank Permanent TSB, a position she held from 2009 to 2013, and she also undertook many voluntary roles. She was devoted to her family and friends and the people of her home place, and enjoyed being able to spend time with them. When cancer struck, she was sustained by her strong religious faith.

Margaret Hayes is survived by her sisters Mary Dowling and Dympna Hayes, and her brother Richard Hayes.