RTÉ One, Monday, 7.30pm

Thundering Disgrace

Episode one of the new series of Scannal looks back at the two word phrase that brought about a constitutional crisis and led to the resignation of a President of Ireland, a phrase that would live in political infamy for decades.

The 18th of October 1976 was like any other day in the Minister for Defence's diary. He was due to perform a routine opening of an army facility, in this case a cookhouse in Columb Barracks, Mullingar. But when Minister Paddy Donegan stood up to address the varied ranks of army personnel, his speech kicked off a constitutional crisis.

He declared, to the massed army ranks that their Supreme Commander and President of Ireland, Cearbhall Dálaigh, was a "Thundering disgrace!"

This was in response to President Ó Dálaigh referring the Coalition Government's Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. The bill proposed extending the period of time in which Gardaí could detain and interrogate certain suspects without charge from two days to seven days. Even in the context of the ongoing Troubles and the recent assassination of the British Ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, this seemed heavy-handed. As it turned out, the Supreme Court found no constitutional objection to the bill and President Ó Dálaigh duly signed it into law. But Minister for Defence, Paddy Donegan, whose own pub had been bombed twice, insisted on having his say at the official opening of the army cookhouse in Mullingar.

As the words "thundering disgrace" echoed through the media, all hell broke loose. The Minister offered to resign, but then Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave refused to accept his resignation. Four days later, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh became the first President of Ireland to resign from office.

For President Ó Dálaigh, it was an inglorious end to a stellar career. From journalist to Ireland's youngest Attorney General, and from Chief Justice in Ireland to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, his career marked him out as an exceptionally gifted legal talent. When he was appointed, as a cross party agreed candidate with no election, to the presidency in 1974 following the sudden death of President Erskine Childers, he seemed to be the most qualified president Ireland ever had.

However, relations between President Ó Dálaigh and the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition were lukewarm at best. Ó Dálaigh felt that he was denied opportunities to represent Ireland abroad and felt particularly aggrieved when the Government blocked an invitation from the Vatican to attend the canonisation of Blessed Oliver Plunkett in Rome. To add insult to this slight, Ireland was represented in St. Peter's Square by none other than Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave himself.

The Minister for Defence's comments in Mullingar became the straw that broke the President's back. SCANNAL: Thundering Disgrace looks at the phrase that brought about a constitutional crisis and led to the resignation of the President of Ireland, a phrase that would live in political infamy for decades to come.

What's On