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Maurice Hayes: Man of great integrity who was fair-minded but forthright


By Laurence White

Maurice Hayes, who has died at the age of 90, was a towering figure in the civic life of Northern Ireland and whose wisdom and influence also spanned the whole of the island.

A native of Killough in Co Down, he was educated at Queen's University in Belfast where he obtained a PhD in English and then began a career teaching in St Patrick's Grammar School in Downpatrick.

However, he was soon to move into civic life as town clerk in Downpatrick, a post formerly held by his father, and which he retained from 1955-73. In those days it was a role which required a certain delicacy of handling as local authorities were quite influential until the introduction of direct rule in the early 1970s.

It was also good training for a man who in 1973 became assistant secretary in the office of the ill-fated power-sharing Executive at Stormont which was brought crashing down by the Ulster Workers' Council strike.

Yet he was to go on to make a huge success of his career in the Civil Service, becoming Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health and Social Services. It was a role which brought to the attention of a wider audience his skills and ability to see all sides of an argument.

Those were attributes which he was to utilise throughout his life, not least when he was appointed to the Patten Commission which oversaw the transformation of the RUC into the present-day PSNI. Dr Hayes was a major contributor to that report and even though the disbandment of the RUC was controversial in unionist minds, his role attracted no personal criticism, a measure of the fair-mindedness which marked his contribution to civic life in whatever sphere he performed. He became the first Catholic to hold the post of Ombudsman in Northern Ireland and in one interview with journalist Eamonn Mallie described the driving force behind his pursuit of perfection in his career: "I believed that I had to prove that a Catholic could do the job as well as anyone else."

In his inimitable, subtle way that was a reference to the often voiced criticism of Catholics by the unionist majority in civic positions. What he certainly proved was that he could do the job - whatever it entailed - to a standard beyond reproach.

He served two terms as an independent in the Irish Senate as a nominee of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 1997 and 2002.

Other roles in the Republic included an investigation into a scandal at the radiology department of Tallaght Hospital outside Dublin and chairing, at the Taoiseach's request, the National Forum on Europe, an attempt to educate the wider public on the big European issues of the day.

Such was Dr Hayes' ability to distil even the most complex subject matter into easily understood concepts that other European countries decided to replicate the Forum for their own national audiences. In 2003 he was voted European Person of the Year.

He also chaired The Ireland Funds which dispensed money garnered from various international sources for use by civic and business groups.

Dr Hayes was a long serving non-executive director on the board of Independent News and Media, the owners of this newspaper, until his resignation in 2009. Later, he was to become a governor of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, was admitted to the prestigious Royal Irish Academy and served on the Research Ethical Committee of Queen's University in Belfast. His contribution to life on both sides of the border was marked by honorary degrees from Queen's, the University of Ulster, Trinity College Dublin, UCD and the National University of Ireland.

One of the achievements which came earliest in his life was also one of his proudest.

In 1960 he was credited with masterminding the Down GAA football team's winning of the Sam Maguire All-Ireland football trophy, the first time it had come north of the border. Indeed, the county was to win the trophy several more times before another Ulster county took over the mantle. A former hurler for the county and an Irish speaker, he was a man steeped in the GAA traditions, yet he never allowed himself to be defined in the stereotypical manner with which Northern Ireland people love to pigeon hole each other. Instead he had a breadth of vision and the ability to move effortlessly across what others regarded as boundaries to create genuine conversations on how to make life here better for the greater number of people.

He wrote three volumes of memoirs, Sweet Killough, Let Go Your Anchor; Black Puddings With Slim: A Downpatrick Boyhood, and Minority Verdict: Experiences of a Catholic Civil Servant. In the latter publication, he observed: "I would argue too that a person can inhabit more than one cultural space at the same time, can move in more than one cultural milieu. It is the overlapping of these existences ... that provide the real excitement in life."

He also wrote prolifically on issues as wide-ranging as conflict resolution and book reviews, often using his own insider experience to put the work under review in its proper context.

While he was a man forever keen to see all sides to an argument or issue, he could be quite forthright in his own views when the occasion demanded it.

Earlier this year the fluent Irish speaker described the political impasse at Stormont over Sinn Fein's demands for a stand-alone Irish Language Act as 'madness' at a time when the National Health Service was crumbling and in need of political direction. He also criticised the DUP for its general lack of respect. But in general he was a man who tended to change attitudes more subtly and through the force of his intellect. He was also regarded as witty company by those who knew him well and the breadth of his knowledge made him a very welcome companion at any event.

His impact on civic life on both parts of this island were illustrated by the wide range of tributes paid to him after his death in Downe Hospital, Downpatrick was announced.

He is survived by his wife Johanna (Joan) and children Clodagh, Margaret, Dara, Garrett and Ronan and his eight grandchildren.

Dr Hayes will be buried in Down Cathedral Graveyard after Requiem Mass at noon in St Patrick's Church, Downpatrick, tomorrow.

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