Political mastermind behind several referendum campaigns

Des Hanafin: born September 9th, 1930;died June 22nd, 2017

Des Hanafin was a relatively obscure politician but he had more impact on Irish life than many of the prominent politicians of his era.

He was the political mastermind behind a number of referendum campaigns that opposed the “liberal agenda” and generated controversies that still resonate today.

For social conservatives he was a bulwark against change but for liberals he was a reactionary who stood against the advance of a more tolerant and pluralistic society.

As a Fianna Fáil senator he was a strong supporter of the eighth amendment to the Constitution banning abortion, which was approved by the electorate in 1983 after a long and acrimonious campaign.


He took a more prominent role in the divorce referendum of 1985, organising the campaign of opposition to the attempt by the Fine Gael-Labour government led by Garret FitzGerald to remove the constitutional ban on divorce.

The anti-divorce campaign of that year was a resounding success and the attempt to remove the constitutional ban on divorce was soundly defeated after what was widely regarded as an astute campaign.

He continued to oppose the liberal agenda for the rest of his life but with more mixed results.

Pro-Life campaign

When the X case brought abortion back on to the political agenda in 1992 he was chairman of the Pro-Life campaign which helped to defeat the attempt by Albert Reynolds to remove the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion.

In 2003 he supported a somewhat similar amendment proposed by Bertie Ahern but that in turn was defeated.

Hanafin also took a prominent role in the campaign against the second divorce referendum in 1996 but this time was on the losing side as the change was approved by a narrow margin.

He also spoke out against the constitutional amendment providing for same-sex marriage in 2015 which was carried by a large majority.

While he held deeply conservative views on social issues Hanafin had a good, if mischievous, sense of humour, and though he was on friendly terms with people on both sides of the various campaigns he fought he was ruthless in pursuing his objectives.

He spoke openly about the fact that he had had a drink problem that had led him into business difficulties in the 1960s and had caused him to lose the Anner Hotel in Thurles.

He often told the story of how he had advertised candlelit dinners at the hotel because the electricity had been cut off due to unpaid bills. He stopped drinking after a serious car crash which left him in hospital with two broken legs.

Another favourite story of his was an apocryphal yarn about a horseman who rides into a country town in the dead of night shouting that anybody with a guilty secret had better leave immediately as the wrath of God was about to descend on the town.

“Doors were suddenly thrown open and every adult ran out of town as fast as they could,” he would chuckle.

Hanafin was born in Thurles, Co Tipperary, in 1930. His father, Johnny, was a shopkeeper who served for many years as a Fianna Fáil councillor in North Tipperary.

Two years after his father’s death Des was elected to North Tipperary council in 1955 and became chair of the council the following year. He remained a councillor for the following 30 years.

He was elected to the Seanad in 1965 and remained a member of the Upper House until 2002 with the exception of the 1993-1997 period when he lost his seat. He failed to get elected to the Dáil on two occasions, 1977 and 1981.

One of his dramatic moments in the Seanad came when contested the cathaoirleach’s position against the late Seán Doherty in 1989. The Fianna Fáil group had a majority and they held a vote to see which of the contenders to support. The two men were tied, so lots were drawn.

Hanafin’s name was drawn out of a hat and from a brief moment he though he had won but the rules dictated that the name that remained in the hat was the winner and Doherty became cathaoirleach.

Fianna Fáil fundraiser

Another important part of Hanafin's Fianna Fáil career was his appointment by Jack Lynch in the late 1960s as chief fundraiser for the party.

He ran this operation from room 547 in Dublin's Burlington Hotel and it was said that a stream of prominent business figures could be witnessed going in and out of the room to make substantial donations to the party at election times.

Hanafin incurred the ire of Charles Haughey when he refused to hand over a list of donors to him after the change of leadership in 1979. Haughey fired Hanafin from the position in 1982 and the two men were on opposite sides in the various Fianna Fáil leadership heaves of the early 1980s.

However, they came together in the campaigns to defeat Garret FitzGerald on abortion and divorce. Hanafin backed Haughey against Reynolds in 1991 and was later a strong supporter of Ahern.

He wife, Mona, is a devotee of Padre Pio. Both of his children were Fianna Fáil politicians. Mary was a senior government minister from 2004 to 2011 and briefly deputy leader of the party, while John was a member of the Seanad from 2002 until 2011.