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Áras an Uachtaráin telephone log, 27 January 1982.

Patrick Hillery Papers, UCD Archives, P205/145

All images courtesy of UCD Archives

On 27 January 1982 Garret FitzGerald’s Fine Gael-Labour coalition government lost a Budget vote when two independent deputies on whose support they relied, Jim Kemmy and Seán Dublin Bay Loftus, voted against the Budget introduced by Minister for Finance, John Bruton. That Budget is probably best remembered for its proposal to introduce VAT on children’s shoes as a part of a range of austerity measures.

Following the defeat, Dr. Fitzgerald sought the dissolution of the Dáil from the President, Patrick Hillery; this would have led to the holding of a General Election. Accordingly, a phone call was made from the Department of the Taoiseach at 20.20 that evening to Áras an Uachtaráin, seeking an appointment with the President.

The leader of the opposition, Charles Haughey, saw in the defeat of the government an opportunity to form a government and to strengthen his embattled position as leader of Fianna Fáil without recourse to a General Election. To this end, he sought to contact Patrick Hillery and to ask him not to dissolve the Dáil, but instead to ask Mr. Haughey to form a government.

Mr. Haughey’s first telephone call to the Áras was made at 20.15, even before the call came from the Department of the Taoiseach requesting the President to receive the Taoiseach. According to the entry made by Captain Oliver Barbour, the assistant aide-de-camp to the President, Mr Haughey came straight to the point: ‘I am the leader of the largest party in the Dáil. I am available to form a Government. I do NOT wish the Dail to be dissolve (sic). Ask the President or Secretary to ring me …’

Between 20.15 and the Taoiseach’s arrival at Áras an Uachtaráin at 22.03, seven calls were made by either Mr. Haughey, his private secretary Catherine Butler, Brian Lenihan (a senior Fianna Fáil figure) or Sylvester Barrett (a Fianna Fáil TD), whose Clare origins may have been felt to carry some weight with Hillery.

Patrick Hillery refused to talk to Mr. Haughey. The telephone log records him being informed of the content of successive calls and of him being unavailable to every caller. He later indicated a strong motivation to avoid the constitutional crisis which he believed would have been caused had he refused the dissolution and had Mr. Haughey subsequently been unable to form a government (a not unlikely sequence of events).

Mr. Haughey’s final call was made at 21.50: ‘I am leader of the largest party in the Dáil. I wish to speak to the President on a Constitutional matter and it is urgent. I propose to call to Áras at 22.30 hrs to see the President. Please inform the President. I will wait for his answer’.No answer was forthcoming. Dr. FitzGerald arrived at the Áras at 22.03, requested the dissolution which was granted, and left at 22.40.

Patrick Hillery was in no doubt about the significance of these events. He immediately sought a copy of the telephone log which was given to him the next day and which he retained in his private papers. It is this copy which is reproduced here.

He also sought a meeting with Lieutenant General Louis Hogan, Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces to ensure that the career of the young aide-de-camp Captain Barbour, who had fielded the succession of calls that night, was not blighted by any fall-out from the night.

It was Brian Lenihan’s involvement in the events of 27 January 1982 which effectively undermined his own presidential aspirations in 1990. His attempt to deny that the phone calls had ever been made seriously compromised his credibility, and the popularity and respect in which he was generally held was insufficient to prevent Mary Robinson being elected Ireland’s first woman president.

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