Obituary: Dermot Gallagher

Skilled civil servant who helped steer North talks towards Belfast Agreement

Dermot Gallagher: January 25th, 1945-January 14th, 2017. Above, as secretary-general, Department of Foreign Affairs. Photograph: Eric Luke

Dermot Gallagher: January 25th, 1945-January 14th, 2017. Above, as secretary-general, Department of Foreign Affairs. Photograph: Eric Luke


One of Ireland’s most effective and hardworking civil servants in recent decades, Dermot Gallagher, had a very good understanding of the political process and how the administrative system should interact with the ministers and government of the day. He spent 40 years in the job, mainly at the department of foreign affairs, where he rose through the ranks to become secretary general. His most important work was the role he played in promoting and developing the peace process, leading to the Belfast Agreement. His Mayo-born father, James, was a Garda sergeant who had been a volunteer in the War of Independence.

Dermot Anthony Gallagher was born on January 25th, 1945, in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim; his initials inevitably earned him the nickname “Dag”. The sight of Guinness barges coming and going on Ireland’s greatest river generated a boyhood desire to explore the wider world. Despite his global travels, he always stayed true to his Leitrim origins and took great pride in having played Gaelic football for the county at minor and under-21 level as well as securing a place on the junior hurling side. He used to quip that Leitrim had a “50-year plan” to achieve sporting domination. He took a BA in Irish and history at University College Dublin, followed by a master’s in history. A course in diplomatic history under the legendary Desmond Williams proved a strong influence.

In January 1969, Gallagher joined what was then known as the department of external affairs. His first minister, Frank Aiken, normally spoke to him in Irish after he discovered the young official was fluent in the language. Aiken was succeeded within six months by Patrick Hillery, shortly before widespread violence erupted in Northern Ireland. The fledgling third secretary was on weekend duty at the department’s headquarters in Iveagh House when a group of nationalist MPs from the North, led by the late Paddy Devlin, arrived at the door. Devlin demanded to meet taoiseach Jack Lynch to obtain guns for the defence of the Catholic community on the Falls Road.

In an early display of diplomatic skills, Gallagher promised to convey their request to his superiors. Much to Devlin’s annoyance, no meeting took place, but for Gallagher it was the beginning of a lifelong involvement with the Northern situation.

In July 1971 he married Maeve Farrell from Ratoath, Co Meath, whom he met at UCD. The following month he began his first foreign posting, to the Irish consulate in San Francisco. He also served at the United Nations in New York before becoming press officer at the Irish Embassy in London for the fateful years 1973-77. His experience of the 1973 negotiations leading to the ill-fated Sunningdale Agreement proved useful preparation for the Belfast Agreement process 25 years later. He was reputed to be the only official on the Irish government side to have been involved in both sets of talks.

In the early 1980s, he went to Brussels as a deputy chef de cabinet to Ireland’s European commissioner Michael O’Kennedy, but returned to Dublin after O’Kennedy resigned to run (successfully) for the Dáil in the February 1982 general election. His first ambassadorial appointment came in 1985, as Ireland’s envoy to Nigeria.

On his return to Dublin, he was put in charge of the division dealing with Northern Ireland policy. Then taoiseach Charles Haughey had previously criticised the Anglo-Irish Agreement in opposition but now instructed Gallagher that he wanted it implemented “fully and imaginatively”.

Gallagher was appointed Ireland’s ambassador in Washington DC in 1991 and, among the politicians he got to know well was future president Bill Clinton, who sent a letter of condolence to Gallagher’s family earlier this week. US interest in Ireland was at its height; the provision of a visa to Gerry Adams proved of major importance in securing the first IRA ceasefire and the participation of Sinn Féin in talks on the future of the North.

Gallagher continued his involvement after returning home as second secretary in foreign affairs. A talented but very exacting manager of people, he created and closely supervised a talks team of able diplomats who laboured long and hard to get the right outcome at Stormont’s Castle Buildings.

His approach to difficult negotiations in general has been described by friends as follows: 1, carefully prepare a draft version of a document for everyone to discuss; 2, listen closely to the arguments from the other side; 3, make sure your team is better-informed than anyone else; 4, remember that all sides have to bring something back to their followers, so constructive compromise is better than all-out victory; 5, an occasional outburst across the table can be a good tactical move.

In May 2000, Gallagher was appointed secretary general at the department of the taoiseach but returned to the mother-ship 14 months later as the top official in Iveagh House. One of the proudest achievements in his long career was to chair a committee which successfully promoted the restoration of the cross-Border Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal, renamed as the Shannon-Erne Waterway.

Gallagher also initiated the restoration of the Battle of the Boyne site in Co Meath, which drew a note of appreciation from the Rev Ian Paisley himself. After he retired in January 2009, he took on a variety of roles, including chair of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, chair of the UCD governing authority and member of the GAA’s management committee. The attendance of the great and the good in large numbers at his funeral was ample testament to a life of patriotic endeavour.

Gallagher died on January 14th, aged 71. He is survived by his wife Maeve, children Fiona, Aoife and Ronan, grandchildren Maeve, Kate, James and Margaret, brothers Niall, Lionel and Brian, sons-in-law Kevin and Carey and Ronan’s fiancée Antonia.