Des Hanafin: conviction politician who opposed liberal agenda

Former FF senator to the forefront of abortion and divorce campaigns over decades

Former Fianna Fáil politician Des Hanafin who has died aged 86 had a profound influence on the shape of Ireland in the 1980s even though he never held senior political office.

A senator for more than 30 years, he was one of the key figures in promoting the constitutional ban on abortion which was passed in a referendum in 1983.

He then spearheaded the political campaign in opposition to divorce and succeeded in defeating the constitutional change required for its introduction in 1985.

As a leading member of the Pro Life campaign he continued to oppose the liberal agenda in the decades that followed, but with mixed results. He helped to defeat the attempt by Albert Reynolds to deal with the X Case in 1992, but backed a similar move when it was proposed by Bertie Ahern in 2003. Both amendments were defeated.


Mr Hanafin had a prominent role in the campaign against the second divorce referendum, narrowly passed in 1996, and spoke out against same sex-marriage which was endorsed by a big majority in 2015.

While he held deeply conservative views on social issues Mr Hanafin had a good, if mischievous sense of humour. And though he was on friendly terms with people on both sides of the various campaigns he fought, he was ruthless in pursuing his objectives.

He never tried to hide the fact that for many years he had a drink problem that led him into business difficulties in the 1960s and caused him to lose the Annar Hotel in Thurles which he had owned. He stopped drinking after a serious car crash which left him in hospital with two broken legs.

Born in Thurles, Co Tipperary, in 1930 his father Johnny was a shopkeeper who served for many years as a Fianna Fáil councillor in North Tipperary.

Two years after his father's death Des was elected to North Tipperary Council in 1955 and became chairman of the council the following year. He remained a councillor for the following 30 years.

He was elected to the Seanad in 1965 and remained a member until 2002 with the exception of the 1993-1997 period when he lost his seat. He failed to get elected to the Dáil on two occasions – 1977 and 1981.

By that stage Mr Hanafin was the chief fundraiser for Fianna Fáil, having been appointed to the position by Jack Lynch in the late 1960s.

He ran a massive fundraising operation from a room in Dublin's Burlington Hotel and a stream of prominent business figures could be witnessed going in and out of the room to make substantial donations to the party at election times.

Mr Hanafin incurred the ire of Charles Haughey when he refused to hand over a list of donors to him after the change of leadership in 1979. And the two men were on opposite sides in the various Fianna Fáil leadership heaves of the early 1980s.

However, they came together in the campaigns to defeat Garret FitzGerald on abortion and divorce. Mr Hanafin backed Haughey against Reynolds in 1991 and was later a strong supporter of Ahern.

He wife Mona is a devotee of Padre Pio and was a strong supporter of his campaigns. Both of his children were Fianna Fáil politicians. Mary was a Government minister from 2004 to 2010 while John was a member of the Seanad from 2002 until 2011.

His funeral Mass will take place at the Cathedral of the Assumption, Thurles, at midday on Sunday.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times