A legend in the public service and beyond, who never lost touch with his Leitrim roots


Dermot Gallagher, secretary general at the Department of Foreign Affairs, retires today

HE’S THE diplomat’s diplomat. Dermot Anthony Gallagher, known to all and sundry as “Dag”, is something of a legend in the Irish public service.

Well-known for his work-rate and social skills, he has been a key Iveagh House figure for decades, especially in relation to Northern Ireland. Totally lacking in mandarin hauteur, Gallagher is the epitome of Kipling’s advice to “walk with kings – nor lose the common touch”. A native of Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, and son of a Garda sergeant, he has kept in touch with his roots.

One of the challenges in interviewing him is to keep him away from the topic of his native county, because he never misses a chance to promote its beauty and amenities, not to mention the prospects of its Gaelic football team – at least in the longer term.

Gallagher himself played at left half forward for Leitrim at minor and Under-21 level. “We had moral victories, which is not unusual in Leitrim,” he quips.

He also had the distinction of playing hurling at junior level for the Border county, although Leitrim is not well known for the “clash of the ash”.

His early interest in the wider world was sparked by observing Guinness barges arriving in his native town and speculating, as children do, about their places of origin. That curiosity was refined under the tutelage of the late professor Desmond Williams, who taught a special course on diplomatic history at University College Dublin. Having taken his MA in History at UCD, Gallagher applied for a position in the Department of External Affairs, as it was then, starting in the job on January 6th, 1969.

His first minister was Frank Aiken, who usually talked to him in Irish, having learned that his new junior official was fluent in the language. Later that year, Aiken was succeeded by Dr Patrick Hillery and then the event took place that was to shape Gallagher’s, and indeed all our lives: the North erupted into violence.

On Saturday, August 16th, 1969, Gallagher, as weekend duty officer for the department, encountered a group of  nationalist MPs from the North, including the late Paddy Devlin, who arrived at Iveagh House demanding to meet taoiseach Jack Lynch to obtain arms for the beleaguered Catholics of the Falls Road in Belfast. He told them he would convey their request for a meeting to his superiors in the department.

The MPs failed to meet the taoiseach, much to the chagrin of Devlin in particular, but for Gallagher it marked the beginning of a decades-long involvement with the Northern issue. “At that stage in ’69 there were limited official connections with the North and limited understanding of all its dimensions and complexities, and obviously that had to change in a hurry,” he recalls.

His first foreign posting was to the Irish consulate in San Francisco in August 1971 – he and his college sweetheart, Maeve Farrell, from Ratoath, Co Meath, had just been married the previous month. After a few sojourns at the United Nations in New York, Gallagher found himself at the Irish Embassy in London in 1973-77 as press officer. He was a daily visitor to the House of Commons, where he formed valuable friendships with Unionist MPs such as Ken (now Lord) Maginnis and the late Harold McCusker.

He was present at the Sunningdale negotiations in 1973, leading to the ill-fated powersharing deal.

He got his first ambassadorial posting in 1985 – in far-off Lagos, capital of Nigeria, where his contacts with Irish missionaries in particular taught him “a great deal about what matters in life”.

Then it was back to Dublin to take charge of the Anglo-Irish division, with responsibility for Northern Ireland policy. That was the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which Charles J Haughey had vehemently opposed in opposition. But when Haughey took over as taoiseach in 1987 he told Gallagher he wanted the agreement implemented “fully and imaginatively”. Haughey also instructed him to develop further his contacts with the unionists because “at some stage all sides have to get around the table”.

Gallagher goes into full diplomatic mode when asked about his relationship with various ministers and taoisigh over the years: “Whatever this department or other departments achieved, nothing would have been achieved without the courageous, committed and imaginative leadership at the top, both at taoiseach and foreign minister level.”

He was appointed ambassador to the US in 1991 where, as usual, he quickly developed a wide range of friendships and contacts. One of these was Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas.

His White House contacts proved advantageous when the nascent Irish peace process faced its first major challenge: securing a US visa for Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. “It was extremely difficult, but we had a lot of very good friends.”

Then it was back home in 1997 with the title of second secretary general. Bertie Ahern was taoiseach and eager to make a contribution to peace in the North. Gallagher put together a team of officials for the negotiations at Stormont, including David Cooney, who now takes over from him as secretary general.

After the success of Good Friday, Gallagher moved to the Department of the Taoiseach as secretary general. Then it was back to Iveagh House as the department’s top official. He was chairman of the committee which led the restoration of the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal linking the Shannon and the Erne rivers and he initiated the restoration of the Battle of the Boyne site, a gesture of reconciliation to the unionist community which earned the appreciation of Ian Paisley.

He had learned a great deal on those rainy GAA pitches in Leitrim: “A constant eye for a creative opening, a deep sense of the importance of teamwork, a healthy dose of determination to succeed, a hardy stamina and, most importantly, a constant consciousness of the impact of our efforts on the wider community.”