Former Irish president Patrick Hillery dies at 84

Former Irish president Patrick (Paddy) Hillery has died at the age of 84 after a short illness, national broadcaster RTE reported Saturday. ( dpa )

Born in 1923 in Clare in the south-west of Ireland, Hillery studied medicine and returned to the county to work as a doctor, as his father had before him.

Hillery served two consecutive terms as president from 1976 to 1990, rounding off a political career that spanned four decades from his first term as a member of the Irish parliament, or Dail, for the Fianna Fail party in 1951.

Hillery served in various cabinets: as minister for education 1959-65, minister for industry and commerce 1965-66, minister for labour 1966-69 and foreign minister 1969-73, when he successfully negotiated Ireland's entry into the forerunner to the EU.

When the country joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, Hillery became Ireland's first European commissioner, serving until 1976 when he was elected president of Ireland for the first time.

As president, he presided over a historic visit to Ireland by then pope John Paul II in 1979.

His time in office was not without incident.

In 1981, he turned down an invitation to the wedding of Britain's Prince Charles and Lady Diana, apparently at the request of then prime minister Charles Haughey.

There were rumours of a mistress that Hillery formally denied at a press conference, and in 1982, a future presidential candidate, Brian Lenihan, tried to persuade Hillery not to dissolve parliament as then prime minister Garret Fitzgerald had requested after the coalition lost a vital vote.

Hillery always refused to confirm or deny Lenihan's attempts to influence him, but the news broke during the 1990 election campaign, ultimately costing Lenihan the presidency.

President Mary McAleese spoke of Hillery's wisdom and dignity Saturday.

"During his two terms of office, he discharged his duties with wisdom and impartiality, all the while enduring the long illness and loss of his beloved daughter, Vivienne, with a quiet dignity," she said in a statement.

"Dr Hillery made an enormous contribution to this country at key times in the vital and necessary development of this state he was involved in every facet of policy-making that paved the way to a new, modern Ireland."

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern also paid tribute to Hillery.

"He was a man of great integrity, decency and intelligence. He contributed massively to the progress of our country and he is assured of an honoured place in Ireland's history," Ahern said in a statement.

Hillery is survived by his wife Mary Beatrice (Maeve) Finnegan and son, John. He is to receive a state funeral.

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