Fine Gael TD for Donegal who co-founded Flanders memorial

Paddy Harte obituary: Born July 26th, 1931 – Died January 8th, 2018


Former Fine Gael TD Paddy Harte, who has died aged 86, was a very unlucky politician when it came to ministerial promotion. Although a TD for the then Donegal North East constituency from 1961 until 1997, he was only briefly a junior minister in the short-lived Fine Gael-Labour minority government in the early 1980s.

He was very disappointed not to be included in the 1973-77 Fine Gael-Labour coalition led by then taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. He had supported the unsuccessful leadership heave against Cosgrave a year earlier having, he later said, acted on bad advice from some party colleagues. The junior ministry that might well have been his went to Kerry South’s Michael Begley, who had been elected to the Dáil in 1969.

The Magill Book of Irish Politics, published in the 1980s and edited by Vincent Browne, revealed how Harte was “shabbily treated’’ by the then taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald when the 1981 coalition government was formed. FitzGerald informed him in front of others he was to be appointed leas-cheann comhairle.

When Harte expressed disappointment, FitzGerald remarked, “Come on, Paddy, a State car goes with the job.” But then FitzGerald failed to ensure that Harte’s nomination was approved by the Dáil and he was defeated. He was left several days waiting before he was told he was being appointed minister of state at the then Department of posts and telegraphs. The government fell the following year. The book noted at the time Harte was “widely liked and respected by all sides in the Dáil’’. 

Harte was born in Lifford in 1931 and was educated at St Patrick’s national school, Murlog, and St Eunan’s college in Letterkenny. In his early life he worked as a butcher and as a part-time auctioneer.

Harte was elected to Donegal County Council in 1960 and to the Dáil the following year. He served on the front bench in 1965 but was dropped in 1969.

Shortly afterwards, he was involved with FitzGerald, who was a new deputy, in drafting Fine Gael’s policy on Northern Ireland advocating a united Ireland with the consent of the Northern majority.

In his first decade in the Dáil, the Donegal North East constituency was dominated by the Blaney dynasty, under Neil Blaney, a Fianna Fáil minister until his dismissal from the cabinet during the 1970 arms crisis. Fianna Fáil took two seats, with Harte establishing a strong base and taking a seat for Fine Gael in the three-seater.

He was appointed front bench spokesman on Northern Ireland in 1977 and served in that role for three years, when he was allocated social welfare. When he lost his seat in 1997, and failed to get elected to the Seanad, he retired from politics.

 In retirement he joined with unionist community leader Glenn Barr in setting up the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Flanders, Belgium, commemorating the Irish dead of the first World War. The park was opened on Armistice Day 1998 by the then president Mary McAleese in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and King Albert of Belgium.

His autobiography, Young Tigers and Mongrel Foxes: A life in Politics, was published in 2005. In it he expressed huge admiration for James Dillon, who was Fine Gael leader when he was first elected to the Dáil. He described him as “by far the most knowledgeable, most articulate and gifted politician under whom I served’’.

He wrote that the Just Society document, drawn up in the 1960s by Declan Costello, advocating more radical social policies, found support at constituency and branch level, but the parliamentary party was deeply divided on its merits. Gerry Sweetman, then a deeply conservative Fine Gael TD and former minister for finance, opposed it, while Costello argued “brilliantly’’ for its adoption, he added.

He wrote how the document had “inspired a nation’’ and what a major contribution it would have made if there had been a change of government in the 1960s or if the leadership in the Fianna Fáil party had adopted the spirit and concept of the document. Harte supported Costello.

Paddy Harte is survived by his wife, Rosaleen, sons Jimmy, a former Labour senator, Paddy, Johnny, Garrett and Emmet, and daughters Mary, Róisín, Eithne and Anne.