'Thundering disgrace' led to resignation

 

Presidential crisis:The most sensational political event of 1976 was the resignation of president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh in late October, after the minister for defence, Paddy Donegan, described him as "a thundering disgrace" at an Army function in Mullingar. A note by the taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, shows how the crisis unfolded.

The episode arose from the decision of the president to refer the Emergency Powers Bill, passed in response to the murder of Christopher Ewart Biggs, to the Supreme Court. Although the court decided that the legislation was perfectly constitutional, there was residual anger among some members of the government at the president's action.

Paddy Donegan's remarks were made at lunchtime on October 18th and the government knew immediately that it was facing a serious problem.

The taoiseach's note of his involvement in the affair begins:

"On Monday the 18th October I was informed by the head of the Government Information Service (Ted Nealon), and subsequently by the Minister for Justice (Pat Cooney) that the Minister for Defence had departed from his script at Columb Barracks, Mullingar, and among other things had described the President as 'a thundering disgrace'.

"At 5.45pm the head of the GIS informed me that a report had come through and that it would be on the news. I spoke to the Minister for Defence on the telephone and he agreed that a statement should be issued from the GIS on his behalf to the effect that he would apologise to the President at the first available opportunity."

That GIS statement put out on Mr Donegan's behalf read: "I regret the remarks which arose out of my deep feelings for the security of the our citizens. I intend to offer my apologies to the President as soon as possible."

Mr Cosgrave then took steps to try and mollify the President. "Later that evening I had to attend an Incorporated Law Society informal function during which I phoned the President and informed him that I would be in touch with him the next day as it was not possible for me to speak or appropriate to discuss the matter on the phone."

The following morning Mr Donegan arrived into the taoiseach's office to discuss the matter around 10.45am. "He left me to call on the President to apologise in person. Later I heard that the President was not available to see him."

Another note on the file reveals that the secretary general of the department of defence, P Murphy, telephoned the secretary to the President at 11.40am on the instructions of Mr Donegan "with a view to arranging an appointment for his Minister to call on the President to convey an apology as the Minister had indicated he would in his statement yesterday evening."

However, the file shows that at 11.50am Mr Murphy received a telephone call from the secretary to the President saying Mr Ó Dálaigh would not see the minister. "In a subsequent semi-official conversation with the secretary to the President, Mr Murphy was told that the Minister's offering did not necessarily involve him calling on the President."

A hand-written note at the bottom of the page says: "In other words the apology will have to be made some place else. The President's approach is of the stone wall kind."

What the file does not reveal is that the minister was actually on his way up to Áras an Uachtaráin when he was told the president would not see him. This information is contained in a report by political correspondent, Michael Mills, in the following morning's Irish Press, which is also in the file.

When the president refused to see Mr Donegan the taoiseach intervened. "I phoned the President that afternoon and informed him that the Minister for Defence was sending a letter of apology. He said he would await receipt of the letter, but he had already taken certain preliminary decisions the nature of which he did not disclose," recorded Mr Cosgrave.

Mr Donegan's letter of apology went considerably further than his short statement the previous evening saying: "As you did not find it possible to accede to my request for an appointment, I hasten to make my apologies to you, sincerely and humbly, by this letter". It went on to add: "Specifically I wish to tender to you my very deep regret for my use of the words 'thundering disgrace' in relation to you."

The president's response was in the form of a comprehensive three-page letter on the same day, October 19th, which carried the ominous line: "Have you any conception of your responsibilities as a Minister of State and, in particular, as Minister for Defence?" The letter contained a detailed defence of the president's actions in referring the Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court. It also quoted an Irish Times editorial which referred to the minister's "outrageous criticism".

The minister responded to the president three days later in a letter that was carefully examined and rewritten, not only by officials in his own department and that of the taoiseach, but also by the attorney general, Declan Costello.

In his initial draft Mr Donegan repeated his apology but went on to challenge some of the assumptions in the president's letter. In particular, Mr Donegan disputed the media commentary which had described the president as "Commander-in-Chief" and "Supreme Commander" of the Defence Forces and he gave his view of how the president and the minister should relate. He also picked up the president on the issue of referring Bills to the Supreme Court, saying "if my word on the matter is not acceptable to you again, so be it".

On Mr Costello's advice, these potentially contentious references to the president's role in relation to the Army and the use of his power to refer Bills to the Supreme Court were taken out of the minister's second letter of apology.

It was shortened considerably, repeated the earlier apology without reservation, and maintained that it had been interpreted in a way the minister never intended.

The second apology was sent on October 22nd but it did not have the desired effect.

Two days later, president Ó Dálaigh resigned. The news was conveyed to the government in a one-paragraph letter written in Irish.