Behind Closed Doors
Having been mentioned as a central player in the events surrounding the famous F.F. Cabinet meeting in Letterkenny in 1980, Donegal Times sent its political correspondent, Cross-Bencher, to interview Brian Gallagher, who was credited with diffusing what could have been a difficult situation for the F.F. Government led by Charles Haughey.
CROSS-BENCHER: Did you read the interview with the Fianna Fail insider about the claim that the first cabinet meeting was held in the Golden Grill, Letterkenny on November 1st, 1980?
BRIAN GALLAGHER: Yes, it brought back some memories of that period.
C.B.: You got honourable mention.
B.G.: I was referred to as a maverick - somebody who wouldnt toe the line.
C.B.: You got praise for your radio interview with Davin-Power on the News at One; but the important question is, was a meeting of the cabinet held in Letterkenny that Saturday night?
B.G.: I was on the platform in the Market Square that night with quite a few others. I didnt detect any panic at Síle DeValeras speech. It was a very wet night and everybody scattered very lively after the meeting. I went down to the Golden Grill and I was surprised to be told that the cabinet ministers were called to a meeting by Haughey in a private room and the meeting was already in session.
C.B.: Didnt this indicate an element of panic?
B.G.: Word was going round that U.T.V. cameras had filmed the meeting in the market square and that Síle DeValeras speech could have consequences for the situation in Long Kesh.
C.B.: Were you still there when the meeting ended?
B.G.: No, I left after about an hour. I had an early morning start arranging for after mass speakers on Sunday morning.
C.B.: So how did you get to do the interview on News at One?
B.G.: Apart from the meeting of the cabinet ministers, I was up to speed, and early in the morning I had breakfast in the Central Hotel with Jack Lynch who told me that he was with Des OMalley when Haughey made contact from Letterkenny the night before. He also told me about his own troubles with Síle DeValera, 18 months previously. He recalled ironically Síle telling him he was out of touch with the young people while, in reality, Síles only appeal was to old Blaney die-hards. There wasnt the slightest hint of any animosity towards Haughey and he empathised with Haughey in the difficulties the anti-Thatcher outburst of the night before might cause.
He knew from Des OMalley of the decisions taken in Letterkenny the night before.
C.B.: So you were fully informed?
B.G.: Yes, and I was able to piece together some events of the day before.
C.B.: What were these events?
B.G.: Charlie McCreevy was due in Donegal Town on the Saturday morning to go out canvassing. He was listed to go out with Sean Griffin. He arrived in the Central Hotel with Síle DeValera. Síle declined to go on the canvass and she retired to a room in the hotel. It seems now that she was probably practising her speech for Letterkenny. McCreevy went canvassing with Sean Griffin around Tullynaught for about an hour. Sean was not impressed - he reported back that he never saw a man in such a hurry. McCreevy clearly wanted to be somewhere else, a man with more serious things than a rural canvass on his mind.
C.B.: Are you saying that the current finance minister was in the know about Síles imminent attack on Thatcher?
B.G.: Without a doubt he had input to Síles speech. Her father Terry DeValera was reputed to be the main influence on Síle but she had others, young lawyers such as Adrian Hardiman who was later to be a big supporter of Des OMalley and a judge of the Supreme Court.
As an aside here - it could be mentioned that Brendan Murrin, who was the Co. Registrar, had done his solicitors training in Terry DeValeras office in Dame Street, Dublin.
C.B.: So Síles speech was well planned conspiratorally behind Haugheys back?
B.G.: Thats my belief. McGlinchey and McSharry, whose great idea it was to have Síle there, would not have expected her to make such a personal attack on Thatcher.
C.B.: Go back to the following morning.
B.G.: Well, I left Jack Lynch at his breakfast and went down to the lobby in the Central. The receptionist called me over and told me that Radio Eireann were on the line wishing to speak to Mr. Lynch. I took the call - it was David Davin-Power for the News at One. He asked to speak to Mr. Lynch but I told him he wasnt available.
He went on to ask me about Síle DeValeras speech of the night before in Letterkenny. I told him I was there in the Market Square, that it was a very wet night which put a damper on the whole proceedings. He said he would ring back if I was willing to do an interview and I said that would be ok.
I didnt expect to hear back, assuming he would want someone higher up the hierarchy. It was 10am. and he had a couple of hours to get a more senior F.F. spokesman.
I told Jack Lynch that I declined to get him to the phone. He agreed it was the right thing to do and we chatted about Síle and Haughey for a while. In hindsight this was important as I was now fully clued in.
C.B.: Davin-Power did ring back?
B.G.: He did - he couldnt get anybody to talk to him.
His first question was - where in Donegal is Síle DeValera? I told him she would be difficult to locate as the T.D.s were all out doing after-mass meetings. Those days there were no mobile phones.
I then told him that, regardless of Síles speech, the north was not an issue in the bye-election and that people in Donegal across the political divides had confidence in Haugheys ability to deal with the Long Kesh problem. This was the truth to a large extent - the truth is the best way to handle interviews.
C.B.: You may well say it - I noticed a considerable amount of rowing back in an interview you did two weeks ago.
B.G.: You are referring to Jerome Hughes on Highland Radio. Jerome likes a bit of controversy and sometimes I help him out, but I wasnt rowing back. I was putting the controversial bit, that Jerome hyped up, into its meaningful context.
The irony is that my concluding words to David Davin-Power over 21 years ago were we should all be careful not to say anything that exacerbates the situation in the North and he concluded with How often did we hear that before.
C.B.: Was there an aftermath?
B.G.: Well Haughey and his ministers listened to the interview in Jacksons Hotel and all the tension surrounding the affair immediately vanished. John Wilson later told me that he told the lunch party he never doubted me for a moment, hadnt he taught me Greek for four years and wasnt I a member of his famous McRory Cup team. That night, there was a final rally on the Diamond and Haughey made his best election speech ever, without a lectern auto-cue or notes. I think I took the best out of him.
C.B.: No point in being modest about it - but what about Síle?
B.G.: As it happens the late Conal McCauley was anxious to meet Síle DeValera and ask her about her grandfather Eamon DeValera who was one of Conals heroes. The meeting was arranged for that Sunday afternoon in the Portnoo Hotel.
Conals first question on being introduced was whatever happened to your grandfathers long black overcoat? Sile was put at ease straight away and Conal and herself had a great conversation for about two hours.
At about 4.30pm., as darkness was coming down, Padraig Flynn arrived at the hotel in a black Mercedes and Síle was whisked off to Dublin and put under wraps for a few days.
C.B.: So there was no media hype?
B.G.: The T.V. cameras and the media, both Irish and British, covered the rally on the Diamond that Sunday night. What they saw was one of the last great open air election rallies ever held in this country. There was a big crowd, with Fine Gael TDs heckling the speakers from the windows of the Abbey Hotel. Haughey and Brian Lenihan were at their swashbuckling oratorical best. It was a memorable night, with the added historical significance of the first cabinet meeting in Donegal, held in the Golden Grill the night before and into the early morning of that Sunday - the eve of All Souls.
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