Attorney general asked in 1983 if ‘Magill’ had committed criminal libel of President Hillery
State papers also show tensions between presidency and OPW over Áras facelift expenses
President Hillery paddles his way across the lake after officially opening the Salmon Leap Canoe Club’s new clubhouse at Leixlip, Co Kildare, in May 1983. Photograph: Paddy Whelan/The Irish Times
The advice of the attorney general’s office was sought in 1983 over whether Magill had committed a “criminal libel” through a humorous article lampooning then president Patrick Hillery for his golfing prowess, and reciting various rumours of marital infidelity.
A document prepared by Declan Quigley, a senior legal assistant in the AG’s office, argued that “on balance, certain aspects of the article are libellous” but it was entirely a matter for the president if he wished to take an action.
Dismissing any suggestion that the director of public prosecutions had a role to play, Mr Quigley wrote in the legal note dated May 27th, 1983: “To prove a criminal libel it is necessary to prove that its publication was calculated to and likely to cause a breach of the peace or worse. Even if the President feels an urge to punch the editor of the magazine on the nose it is unlikely that he will follow that urge so that this proof is unlikely to be available.
“There is such thing as ‘seditious libel’ which is actionable. However, it is based on a statute of George III and is so impregnated with the royal sovereign that I believe it would not be accepted as having remained part of our law after the passing of the Constitution,” the letter read.
It is not recorded in the files who precisely had requested the advice of the AG’s office on the matter. But earlier the same day leader of the opposition Charles Haughey had contacted then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald to ask him what action he proposed to take against Magill.
The article, penned by Gene Kerrigan under then editor Colm Tóibín, was published as Dr Hillery was about to enter his second term of office. In colourful terms, it described the president’s “rather placid and boring persona”, and claimed his main achievement was getting “his golf handicap back in shape” by lowering it to seven, the lowest of any European head of state. What caused a particular stir, however, was its repeating of rumours of marital infidelity, which Dr Hillery had publicly denied four years previously.
A jury could find this section of the article to be libellous, Mr Quigley wrote, as “there is an innuendo that what are called rumours may well be true”. He added the “general tone of the descriptions” of the president was “holding him up to public ridicule and this could be held to be concerning his carrying out of an official function” but, again, it was not a role of the AG to advise him in relation to this.
Separate files from the office of the president show there were tensions between it and the Office of Public Works (OPW) over expenses incurred for the upkeep of Áras an Úachtaráin.
Numerous requests for repairs were conveyed, including one in February 1982 from Dr Hillery’s wife, Maeve, seeking “to have fencing erected at the tennis court on the remaining two unfenced sides . . . She wishes to have the work carried out as a matter of urgency, please.” In the same week, however, the OPW wrote to the Áras saying due to a constraint of funds “we will be able to meet only essential requirements this year”.
Worse news for the Áras came the following month when the OPW pulled the plug on a planned redecoration of the four main representational rooms. Expressing its “great disappointment” at the decision, the secretary to the president wrote: “The dilapidated condition of the rooms in question has been the subject of adverse comment by visitors in recent times to the embarrassment of An tUachtaráin.”
In May 1982, tensions flared up again when the OPW complained about an invoice it had received for £63.31 for cleaning curtains at the Áras.
It described the manner in which the works had been commissioned as “most undesirable” and said: “It is also ‘unacceptable to this office to have expenditure from our Vote committed without the necessary approval’.”
Financial conditions appeared to improve in late 1983 when fresh requests were made to the OPW, including the removal of tree stumps on the Áras grounds and the provision of “a new coloured television set, for Mrs Hillery’s private sitting room in the West Wing”.