Ó Dálaigh and Mr. Justice Brian Walsh adopted a more interventionist approach to interpreting the constitution, in a manner that was occurring in the United States but previously not used in more cautious Irish law interpretation. In 1972, Taoiseach Jack Lynch suggested to the opposition parties that they agree to nominate Ó Dálaigh to become president of Ireland when President de Valera's last term ended in June of the following year. However Fine Gael, which was confident that its prospective candidate, Tom O'Higgins, would win the 1973 presidential election (he had nearly beaten de Valera in 1966) turned down the offer. Fianna Fáil's Erskine Hamilton Childers went on to win the presidential election, however.
When Ireland joined the European Economic Community, Jack Lynch appointed Ireland's Chief Justice to become Ireland's Judge on the European Court of Justice. When President Childers died suddenly in 1974, all parties agreed to nominate Ó Dálaigh for the post, earlier plans to nominate the late president's widow, Rita, having failed over a mix-up.
Ó Dálaigh proved to be a mixed success as president. While popular with Irish language enthusiastics and artists, his political naievete (for example, giving a press briefing to international journalists in the Irish language and deciding on one state visit to speak every major European language but English) and strained relationship with the Government caused problems. His decision in 1976 to use his powers to refer a series of tough anti-terrorism Bills to the Supreme Court to test their constitutionality caused consternation to the Fine Gael-Labour National Coalition, especially as the laws had resulted from the murder of the British Ambassador to Ireland, Sir Christopher Ewart-Biggs, a short time earlier, by the Provisional IRA.
Paddy Donegan, a controversial and outspoken Minister for Defence (who was subsequently revealed to be an alcoholic, his drink problem fueling his outbursts), told an army function that the President, their Commander-in-Chief, was a "thundering disgrace" who, he implied, didn't stand behind the State in its fight with terrorism. (It is widely believed that the actual language used was stronger. Ó Dálaigh believed it was 'thundering bollocks and fucking disgrace', as he told guests at a dinner party subsequently! His own anger was partly due to the nature of what he believed the comments really were.) The apologetic Donegan immediately offered his resignation, an offer he repeated subsequently. But Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave refused the offer. Cosgrave's failure to meet the President to personally apologise, following on two years in which he had failed to meet his constitutional obligation to regularly brief the President, and the manner in which his government treated the President, proved the last straw for President Ó Dálaigh. He became the first Irish president to resign. The opposition proposed outgoing EEC Commissioner Patrick Hillery for the post. Hillery served two unchallenged terms of office before retiring at the end of his second term in 1990.
Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh was a radical maverick, and he challenged convention as Attorney-General, Chief Justice and President with innovative ideas. His downside was his almost complete political naievete. As Chief Justice, he got into rows about Chairman Mao and Disney's stage-Irish film, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, over which he mounted a public picket with his close friend, the actor Cyril Cusack. As President, he puzzled ordinary people with his complicated, legal-sounding speeches, his tendency to jump between languages (Irish to French to English, back to Irish with some Latin terms thrown in). Historians differ on whether to regard Cearbhall's presidency as a disaster, or a triumph destroyed by his enemies. He was undoubtedly the presidency's most intellectually brilliant office-holder, at least until the election of Mary Robinson fourteen years later. He was also undoubtedly politically niaive, something that got him into severe difficulties at key moments. In a different context, those problems could have been overcome, but if Cearbhall was the most politically niaive president, then the Government he worked with was notable for its own inability to offer him the necessary guidance to overcome those problems, with an honourable and decent taoiseach who nevertheless was, as Cearbhall himself observed, taciturn in the extreme.
Erskine Hamilton Childers
|Presidents of Ireland||