Eminent senator, statesman and man of science

Sat, Aug 28, 2010, 01:00

James Dooge:JAMES CLEMENT Dooge, who has died aged 88, was a world-renowned expert in the management of water resources but was perhaps best known in Ireland as the senator who was promoted to minister for foreign affairs in the short-lived Fine Gael-Labour coalition government of 1981-82.

The appointment by Garret FitzGerald was highly controversial at the time. Although under the 1937 Constitution a taoiseach was entitled to appoint up to two senators to the cabinet, this had only happened once before when Eamon de Valera appointed Sean Moylan from the Seanad to be minister for agriculture in 1957 after he had lost his Dáil seat. But Moylan had previously served in cabinet whereas Dooge had never been a minister and had actually retired from active politics in 1977 to pursue his academic career as professor of civil engineering in University College Dublin.

His appointment to Iveagh House in the middle of the 1981 hunger strikes and upheaval in Northern Ireland, while experienced former ministers like Richie Ryan and Dick Burke were left languishing on the back benches, inevitably aroused some resentment in Fine Gael ranks.

The Fianna Fáil leader, Charles Haughey, denounced it as an example of “croneyism” but this may have been Haughey’s way of getting back at FitzGerald for his charge of “flawed pedigree” when Haughey became taoiseach in 1979. But most TDs and senators would have known that Dooge had one of the shrewdest brains in Irish politics and had been an adviser to Fine Gael leaders going back to James Dillon.

Dooge was born in July 1922 in Birkenhead, outside Liverpool, where his father was often based as a marine engineer. However, the family, which was originally from the Carlow-Wicklow borders, moved back to Ireland soon afterwards to live in Dún Laoghaire where he attended the local Christian Brothers school. He graduated from UCD in 1942 as a civil engineer when jobs were scarce in Emergency-period Ireland. His first job was as a “wet civil engineer” working on river improvement for the Office of Public Works.

Dooge came into active politics when he was elected to Dublin County Council in 1948. He was then an engineer in the Electricity Supply Board. He had admired Fine Gael politicians like John A Costello and Patrick McGilligan.

In the ESB he was involved in hydro-electric projects and in the mid-1950s took leave of absence to do postgraduate research in hydraulics in the University of Iowa.

Back in Ireland he applied successfully in 1958 for the post of professor of civil engineering in University College Cork. He moved to the same position in UCD in 1970.

He re-entered politics by getting elected to the Seanad in 1961.

Four years later he was joined there by Garret FitzGerald and the two senators were to form a friendship as Dooge initiated the newcomer into the arcane Seanad rules. But some claims that they were also cousins are not true. They were strong supporters for Declan Costello’s “Just Society” programme.

The victory of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition in 1973 led to Dooge being elected as the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad until a Fianna Fáil majority took over in 1977. He had a wide grasp of the rules and procedures of the Upper House and ruled firmly but fairly from the chair.

Following the coalition’s defeat in 1977, he decided to leave politics for the second time and concentrate on his academic career where his fame in hydrology was now international and involved much travelling to advise on water projects and problems as far afield as China.

He remained active in Fine Gael, however, and co-operated closely with Garret FitzGerald, who had now become leader, in reforming party structures. Dooge helped draft the new party constitution which took power away from long-sitting TDs and had the job of steering it through the ardfheis in 1978.

He was also a member of the dynamic strategy committee which planned how to get Fine Gael back into power in the 1981 election. According to FitzGerald in his memoirs, it was FitzGerald’s wife, Joan, who suggested that Dooge should become minister for foreign affairs in the new coalition government.

This would deter the new taoiseach from having an unduly “hands-on” approach towards foreign affairs, FitzGerald admits, but it was with “some difficulty” that he persuaded Dooge to accept the post.

Dooge’s appointment from the Seanad, to which FitzGerald nominated him, could not be formalised until the Dáil reconvened in October so John Kelly, who was already minister for commerce and tourism, was officially foreign minister as well until then. It was an awkward period for Dooge such as when he accompanied Kelly to London for a meeting with British foreign secretary Peter Carrington to prepare the first “summit” between FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher.

Even when Dooge formally took over, FitzGerald found it hard not to interfere and frequently communicated directly with officials in Iveagh House.

Dooge in any case got little chance to bed himself into his new job as the coalition fell in January 1982 on budget cuts and was replaced on March 10th. He had had barely three months fully in the job. He returned to the Seanad, elected on the National University of Ireland panel.

When Fine Gael returned to power with Labour in the election the following November, Dooge told FitzGerald he would not be available for a ministerial post on health grounds. He was again elected to the Seanad where he became leader of the Fine Gael group.

A new task which would make him a household name in European Community circles awaited him. The EC summit in June 1984, under French impetus, set up a high-level committee to make proposals on progress towards European union through reform of the existing institutions which were seen to be in the grip of “Eurosclerosis”.

As Ireland was taking over the EEC presidency, FitzGerald put forward the name of James Dooge to chair this committee. He had a certain name recognition as a former foreign minister and the other countries agreed, except for West Germany, which belatedly proposed former president Karl Carstens to head the committee. But FitzGerald insisted that Dooge had already been approved by the council of foreign ministers. The Germans were furious and a crisis threatened before Bonn backed down.

Dooge used his considerable experience to ensure his committee produced a final report in time for the Milan summit in June 1985. Thanks to Dooge, the recommendations for enhanced political and security co-operation provided a let-out for Irish neutrality, although he still had to distance himself from some of the proposals on military matters. The inter-governmental conference which took over the next phase of advance towards European union implemented much of the Dooge committee recommendations, culminating in the reform of the EC treaties known as the Single European Act (SEA). The SEA was at first opposed by Fianna Fáil in opposition but they switched to support when they returned to power in March 1987.

Dooge decided to leave electoral politics for the third time and did not seek a new Seanad term in 1987. His academic career had now brought him to University College Galway, in 1984, where he worked for three years in the department of engineering and hydrology. In 1988 he began work in the Centre for Water Resources Research in UCD. Awards for his pioneering work arrived regularly in this later stage of his life.

He was elected president of the Royal Irish Academy and received its gold medal in 2005. In the same year the Royal Academy of Engineers awarded him the Prince Philip Medal as an outstanding figure in the field of hydrology. The World Meteorological Organisation gave him its highest award for work in climate studies, in which he was involved as far back at 1978 before global warming began to creep into public awareness.

In spite of his outstanding achievements, Jim Dooge remained a modest, affable, friendly man who also took an active part in the pastoral council of his parish of Blackrock and could be seen collecting for St Vincent de Paul at the church door. Although weakened by ill-health in his last years, he succeeded in sorting through his vast collection of personal papers and writing his memoirs which will be awaited with much interest to see what light they throw on the inner workings of Fine Gael, to whose fortunes he devoted much of his life.

He is survived by his sons and daughters, Colm, Diarmuid, Cliona and Dara and his sister, Eithne. He was predeceased by his wife, Roni, and his daughter, Meliosa.

James Dooge, born July 30th, 1922; died August 20th, 2010.