Edmond (Eddie) Sullivan – widely respected civil servant dedicated more than 50 years of his life to public service

An Appreciation

Edmond (Eddie) Sullivan, who has died aged 70 on January 16th, dedicated more than 50 years of his life to public service that included, rather unusually, serving as secretary general of two government departments, social welfare and finance.

Eddie Sullivan was born in Whitehall in Dublin on March 11th, 1952. He attended St Aidan’s school in Whitehall where one of his classmates was future taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

He obtained a business degree from UCD and later a degree in public administration from the Institute of Public Administration. He completed a master’s degree in the same subject from Trinity in 1979.

Included among the ministers he worked with were Michael Woods, Proinsias De Rossa, Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen. Cowen described him as “another fine Irishman” and “an accomplished public servant whose sound judgment and calm demeanour were most valued during a first-class public career”.


His great friend and colleague, Frank Daly, the former head of Nama, recalled Sullivan starting as a junior executive in the children’s allowance section of the Department of Social Welfare in 1970 “dressed to the nines in suit and tie”, a dapper style he maintained all through his long career. “I always thought that Eddie was never ecstatic about dress-down Fridays,” said Daly.

Colleagues said it was always clear that he was destined to reach the top of the Civil Service tree. He progressed up the ranks in policy and operational roles to principal, assistant secretary, director general and ultimately on May 1st, 1997, to secretary general, a role that he relished.

“There he was able to continue his philosophy of always questioning if things could be done differently – for Eddie this meant better – improving service, developing people and leading from the front while always trying to build consensus,” said Frank Daly at his funeral Mass in St Sylvester’s Church in Malahide.

After five years as secretary general in welfare he moved to the Department of Finance in Merrion Street as secretary general for public service management and development – taking responsibility for pay, conditions and relationships right across the public service.

In this role he played a key part in what was destined to be the last of the national partnership agreements. He also chaired the Top Level Appointments Committee.

In 2006 he conducted a review of the administration of the office of the attorney general during a controversy where new legislation had to be enacted to ensure that the law on statutory rape between an adult and a minor was constitutional. He retired at the end of 2007 but, as Daly said, a man of his calibre and experience wasn’t going to be idle for long. He was the go-to man for the government when thorny issues had to be resolved.

When the training and employment body, Fás became mired in an expenses scandal he was appointed its interim director general, playing a major part in bringing stability to the organisation.

He gave his time to numerous other boards and bodies. He reported on medical card fees for doctors and on data protection legislation. He was a member of an independent committee to oversee bank executives pay; he chaired the Irish College in Leuven in Belgium; he was a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, chairing its audit committee; he was a director of the Mater Dei Institute; a member of the board of the National College of Ireland; a member of the governing authority of the University of Limerick, chairing its audit and risk committee and working closely with its chancellor Mary Harney.

Harney said he battled his cancer illness “with extraordinary courage and fortitude, while at the same time he continued to contribute his valuable counsel and wisdom to the governing authority of UL”.

He loved sport, especially the GAA, following the Dubs from Hill 16 as a youngster from the 1960s. He later did work for GAA headquarters helping bring structure to its fixture lists. A minute’s silence was held in his honour at the recent National League game in Croke Park between Dublin and Kildare. Equally he was a dedicated member of his local club, St Sylvester’s, where he was chairman for five years.

As Frank Daly said at his funeral, he “served this country for over 50 years, never stinted in his efforts, believed passionately in the public service – he wore that badge proudly on his sleeve and dare anyone try to do that service down in Eddie’s company”.

He is survived by his wife Frances, children Niamh, Sinead and Eamonn, sister Siobhán, and extended family.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times