Colm Condon: Former Irish Attorney-General
Thursday 28 August 2008
Colm Condon's long and eventful career as a Dublin barrister placed him at the stormy intersection of politics and the law at one of the most tumultuous times of 20th century Irish history. His time at the apex of the Dublin legal profession coincided with two hugely traumatic moments for the Irish state: the eruption of the troubles in the north and the hugely divisive rise of Charles Haughey.
The most dramatic moment of Condon's career came in 1970 when, as Attorney-General, he prosecuted Haughey – a future prime minister – on gun-running charges. It was one of the most sensational legal proceedings ever seen in the Irish Republic.
The irony was that, decades later, Condon acted on Haughey's behalf at a legal tribunal as he battled against corruption charges. In the gun-running trial Haughey was acquitted; in the corruption proceedings a smoking gun eventually emerged to prove he had illegally accepted millions.
Born in Co Meath, Condon lived for most of his life in the Co Dublin town of Dalkey. Until the late 1960s he had a conventional legal career, attending Terenure College and University College Dublin. He became a barrister in 1944 and Senior Counsel (SC, the equivalent of a QC) in 1959, excelling in defamation and personal injury cases. But in addition to his professional prowess he also had important political connections which helped shape the course of his career.
He came from a strong Fianna Fáil party, his father having taken part in the 1916 rising and the civil war in the 1920s. His father went on to serve as a county council chairman and in other posts. It came as little surprise therefore when, in accordance with political-legal tradition, the Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, Sean Lemass, appointed Colm Attorney-General in 1965.
He continued in the same post under Lemass's successor Jack Lynch, and was therefore in office when the violence broke out in Northern Ireland. He was at the heart of things when, in an episode of high drama, Lynch sacked two senior cabinet ministers, one of them Haughey.
Condon not only offered Lynch legal advice on whether or not to bring a legal case, but went on to personally lead the prosecution of Haughey and others. They were charged with conspiring to import arms. The thesis was that these would be used by beleaguered Belfast Catholics to defend themselves against marauding loyalist mobs. The ulterior motive, according to the dogs in the street, were that they would also be used to advance the ultra-ambitious Haughey's career.
The case, known forever afterwards as the Arms Trial, ended in acquittals but it shook southern Irish politics to the core. It remains an exceptionally murky episode: even today not all the smoke has cleared. The bottom line, however, was that the Lynch line prevailed and the Republic stepped back from any moves to indulge in military intervention in the north. It was a defining moment.
In one sense Condon was simply carrying out his legally laid-down functions but in many eyes he was helping defend the institutions of the state against hazardous adventurism.
Lynch and many others believed Haughey was guilty and should have been convicted. Condon was among these: it is said that watching Haughey end up not behind bars but in power was "one of the most embittering experiences of his life."
He stepped down as Attorney-General when Fianna Fáil lost power and never became a judge, though it is said he was made several offers. He was involved in important legal roles, including the establishment of non-jury courts to handle IRA cases.
He also played a leading part when Dublin complained to the European Court of Human Rights that Britain had allegedly used torture against republican suspects. (The court found the UK had not used torture but had used "inhuman and degrading treatment".) Such cases, and his highly successful private practice, brought prosperity and a luxurious lifestyle, based on his legendarily lofty fees. Friends and acquaintances mention his fondness for fine food and fine wines. The columnist Kevin Myers has described sharing with him a meal of lobster, pheasant and champagne, writing: "Oysters arrived at the table like waves of troops from landing craft."
Condon's appearance in defence of Haughey in later years is perhaps remarkable, given his bitterness and – even more so – Haughey's reputation as one of Ireland's greatest haters and grudge-holders. The fact that the two should voluntarily work together, after a lifetime of mutual dislike, was seen as a mark both of Condon's professionalism and of Haughey's acknowledgement of his skills.
He continued to practise into his seventies, his reputation earning him a place in a list of Ireland's most influential individuals. Tributes to him were led by the present Taioseach, Brian Cowen. The chairman of the Bar Council, Michael Collins, described him as "a giant of the Irish Bar."
Predeceased by his first wife Stephanie, he is survived by his second wife Jacqueline, sons Colm (also an SC) and Eoin, and his daughters Stephanie and Carolyn.
Colm Condon, barrister: born Ashbourne, Co Meath 16 July 1921; SC 1959; Attorney-General of Ireland 1965-73; twice married (two sons, two daughters); died 9 August 2008.
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