‘The civil servant who became a millionaire’ – tributes to Pádraig Ó hUiginn who has died aged 94

PÁDRAIG Ó hUiginn, who has died aged 94, is remembered as Ireland’s best-known public servant who throughout the 1980s and 1990s cut a swathe through many sectors of Irish political, economic, cultural, and social life.

After 50 years in the public sector, he ventured into the world of private business and in 2000 was celebrated by former colleagues as “the civil servant who became a millionaire”.

That feat, which put him in the media spotlight, prompted one former colleague to say he merited an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

A cultured man with a sharp wit, one of his party pieces was his own French translation of the anthem of his native Cork, ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’. He called it ‘Les Fleurs du South Mall’ in a tip of the hat to poet Charles Beaudelaire’s celebrated ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’.

Straight from school in St Finbarr’ College, Cork, Pádraig Ó hUiginn began his career at the age of 17 as a clerical officer in the Government Statistics Office in Dublin. He was always ambitious and did a Bcomm degree at UCD, before later doing a masters degree at University of Edinburgh.

He went to work as an economist for the United Nations in 1956, first to Geneva where he perfected his knowledge of French, and later to New York, where he specialised in spacial planning. He persuaded the Irish Government, with the help of a UN grant to set a national physical planning institute, An Foras Forbartha, and came back to Ireland as its managing director in 1964.

He later returned to the civil service and in 1982 he became secretary general of Roinn an Taoisigh, a post he held for some 12 years serving Garret FitzGerald, Charlie Haughey, and briefly Albert Reynolds. When, in later life, he spoke of “working for three Taoisigh”, one wit argued that the three Taoisigh may well have worked for him.

Pádraig Ó hUiginn was closely associated with a seminal report by the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), endorsed by the senior government officials, business, union, and farm leaders. It advocated public spending cuts, tax reductions and social initiatives.

When Charlie Haughey was elected Taoiseach in 1987, he took the report on board, and with Ó hUiginn’s help as negotiator, pulled together a series of national pay, tax and welfare deals which helped lay the seeds of economic recovery. His close association with Haughey drew him media attention and he played a huge role in the establishment of the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) in the revitalised Dublin docklands.

He always insisted that he maintained a professional relationship with all three Taoisigh, including Mr Haughey, and kept socialising to the minimum of official occasions. He played a key role in Ireland’s EU regional and social fund grant negotiations for many years, and worked with the EU Commission secretary general, David Williamson in December 1992 on behalf of Albert Reynolds.

Mr Ó hUiginn always insisted on social vision and as recently as December 2013 voiced his concern at homelessness, noting Albert Reynolds’s use of the army during two winters to shelter rough sleepers in Dublin.

After his long public service career ended in 1993, he became a very active chairman of Bord Fáilte, the national tourist board, setting the scene for the Tour de France coming to Ireland in 1998, and the golf Ryder Cup eventually in 2006.  He combined a life-long interest in golf with many tourist promotions.

At this stage Mr Ó hUiginn accepted several invitations to involve himself in private sector businesses, including joining the board of the fledgling Esat Telecom headed by Denis O’Brien. It was when this venture was sold in 2000 that he became a millionaire, at age 75, when his own shares in the enterprise netted some IR£4m. Mr O’Brien was among the many businesmen and public representatives who have paid tribute to Mr Ó hUiginn.

He is survived by his wife, Patricia, their four children Mairin, Peadar, Ciaran and Feargal, many grandchildren and a large extended family, friends and neighbours.

Online Editors

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