Belfast Telegraph

Maurice Hayes: A man who wanted all to cross boundaries he traversed so easily

Editor's Viewpoint

In his memoir Minority Verdict: Experiences of a Catholic Civil Servant, Dr Maurice Hayes, who died at the weekend, wrote: "I would argue 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 was a man who did not feel inhibited by the tradition from which he came. He was a Catholic, a fluent Irish speaker and a man steeped in the traditions of the GAA, but who refused to be constrained by those boundaries.

Instead he was willing to traverse all traditions, find excitement in discovering hitherto unknown elements of those traditions and engage in conversation on how all of us could benefit from adopting a similar attitude.

But, as the title of his book demonstrated, that did not mean denying his background either. He broke new ground for his co-religionists by becoming the first Catholic to be appointed Northern Ireland Ombudsman and he also rose to the height of Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health during his career in the Civil Service.

He was later to recall that he was driven in part by confounding would-be critics by proving that a Catholic could do the job as well as anyone else. That has to be seen in the context that Catholics were under-represented in the higher echelons of civic life when he was making his mark.

While making his point it was not one which he laboured, nor did it influence negatively his desire to see a more inclusive society in Northern Ireland. He was also keen through his many influential contacts in the Republic of Ireland to increase the public's understanding of the complexities of life on this side of the border. One of his great strengths was reducing complex ideas to language which was easily understood by most people. That made him a forceful advocate for whatever cause he was proposing, but it was all done through the weight of intellectual argument rather than the divisive language so common place in public discourse in recent times.

And when he decided to be forthright in his condemnation of some political behaviour, it was not made with rancour but rather logic. It was this attitude which won him many friends across the political spectrum and across the border - he served two terms as an independent in the Irish Senate.

There are many who regarded him as a flag-bearer for the minority community in Northern Ireland, not in any bellicose way, but by proving that he and his co-religionists were really up to the job.

As well as his membership of important civic bodies such as the Patten Commission which oversaw the creation of the PSNI - Dr Hayes was a major contributor to the Commission's final report - he was a willing reviewer of important local books. His reviews were meticulous in their examination of the subject matter and informative in putting it into its historical context.

The wisdom gained during his long life - not far short of total existence of Northern Ireland - was something he was willing to share widely, not in any self-satisfied way but in a genuine attempt to help others cross the boundaries he had traversed so effortlessly.

There was no doubt that he was disappointed at the current political impasse seeing the major parties hung up on issues which paled into insignificance compared to the growing problems in society here. It is a pity more did not have his voice of reason.

Belfast Telegraph

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