How Dev almost lost the 1966 presidential election

FG blue blood Tom O’Higgins’s campaign nearly derailed Éamon de Valera’s Áras run

Politics students might be astonished to learn that Éamon de Valera was re-elected for a second seven-year term as Uachtaráin na hÉireann in 1966 without making a single campaign speech.

He did not personally canvass for votes, did not engage in debate with his sole opponent, Fine Gael’s Tom O’Higgins, did not comment on the issues and did not even hold a final rally.

Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach Seán Lemass had personally advised him it would not be good constitutional practice for him, while holding the office of President, to participate actively in an election campaign into which political matters were to be introduced.

But Fine Gael leader and future taoiseach Liam Cosgrave insisted there was nothing in the Constitution, written or implied, that indicated an outgoing President could not campaign.


As another presidential election looms, comparisons are being made with 1966. This was the last time the incumbent officer holder was challenged when seeking re-election.

The practice of politics, the media landscape and societal issues have changed dramatically since the electorate was asked to choose between de Valera and O'Higgins. Yet, there are similarities with the upcoming contest as President Michael D Higgins is set to be opposed for a second term, just as de Valera was then.

Higgins has said he will nominate himself in accordance with the Constitution and stand as an Independent candidate.

De Valera did not avail of that right in 1966. He agreed to be nominated instead by Fianna Fáil members of the Oireachtas.

Toured the country

The question now is will President Higgins stay aloof from electioneering, as Dev did, or will he embrace the hustings with the risk of the presidency being brought into discussion of Government policy?

De Valera’s opponent, Tom O’Higgins, was of a Fine Gael dynasty, a TD for Laois-Offaly, a lawyer, a former minister for health and a nephew of Kevin O’Higgins, the minister for justice assassinated in 1927.

He toured the country with his wife Terry, addressed 130 public meetings and took part in American-style motorcades with marching bands.

Fianna Fáil confidently expected de Valera – the last surviving commandant of the Easter Rising and a towering figure in 20th century Ireland – to be re-elected unopposed in the golden jubilee year of that historic event. The party was furious when Fine Gael opposed him.

It was claimed party members could tell how people voted from the way they walked

Dev, who was 84 and with failing eyesight, attended many public events as part of his official presidential duties. But he refrained from making any public comments that might be construed as political.

Fianna Fáil ensured, however, that his presence at many of those gatherings had the trappings of his old election rallies. Old IRA veterans, wearing War of Independence service medals, provided guards of honour and party supporters sometimes shouted “up Dev!”

He travelled by train to Mallow on May 15th to attend an Easter Rising commemorative pageant with a cast of 2,000 local people at the local racecourse. The Irish Press, which he had founded, assigned two reporters and a photographer to cover the visit.

The line between presidential protocol and party politics became blurred. As others formally greeted de Valera as "Uachtaráin" or "Mr President", the veteran Fianna Fáil TD for Cork North East, Martin Corry, just stepped forward and shook the hand of his old political leader with the salutation, "welcome chief."

A special carriage

Supporters had earlier gathered to greet Dev at each railway station where the train stopped along the route from Dublin. Babies were held up by their parents to see the President, who spoke from the State coach, a special carriage attached to the regular train.

The following day, The Irish Press began publishing extracts from his upcoming biography by Lord Longford and T P O'Neill. The series of articles illustrated with photographs from momentous moments in his long career continued over 14 issues until the eve of polling.

When the President was driven to Waterford on May 28th for the conferring of the freedom of the city on William Cardinal Conway, bonfires blazed along the route while supporters carried placards, waved flags and escorted him with bands through various towns.

Fine Gael, while mainly focusing on the future, did not entirely turn their backs on the past. The O’Higgins campaign began at his ancestral home in Stradbally, Co Laois, where his family’s record of national and public service was invoked.

His father, Dr TF O’Higgins, brother Michael, sister-in law Brigid Hogan-O’Higgins and uncle Kevin, had all been elected to the Dáil. His father and uncle had also served as cabinet ministers. One of his great-grandfathers, TD Sullivan, was a Fenian poet and patriot.

Fianna Fáil’s campaign seemed to be going well. There was an after glow from the golden jubilee celebrations of the 1916 Rising, many of which were attended by de Valera. But it was a difficult time for the government politically.

Farmers were marching for better prices. And there was growing industrial unrest, continuing a pattern from the previous year when 89 disputes resulted in work stoppages by almost 40,000 people.

Fianna Fáil, fearing the voters might use the presidential election to send a protest message to the government, conducted a big campaign. Ministers addressed 100 meetings and the party issued 128,000 posters, 120,000 car stickers and two million canvassing cards. It also distributed 1.7 million copies of an election manifesto.

Public mood

There were no significant opinion polls at that time. But the main political parties had a network of members in each parish, who were so tuned into the mood of the electorate it was claimed they could tell how people voted from the way they walked.

Fine Gael's campaign directed by Gerard Sweetnam TD, a formidable organiser, tapped into the changing public mood by highlighting "the need for a youthful, forward looking president to personify the real Ireland and what it can best contribute to modern civilisation".

It too ran a lively campaign during which it distributed more than 1.7 million copies of the O’Higgins manifesto, as well 1.25 million canvassing cards, 157,600 posters and 100,000 lapel badges and car stickers.

Many of the old values Dev had espoused were being questioned as a new generation looked to the future

A decision by RTÉ not to report on the campaign caused controversy. It was obliged to provide balanced coverage, but there were only two candidates. O'Higgins was campaigning and de Valera was not.

Speeches by O’Higgins were not reported on radio or television, but normal news coverage was given to events attended by de Valera as Head of State.

Fine Gael protested that their candidate was unfairly treated, but RTÉ said it had been following established election coverage practice and had not been subjected to political pressure from any source.

O’Higgins, who was just short of his 50th birthday, travelled an estimated 22,000 miles around the country in five weeks, sometimes attending as many as three rallies a night.

The new style campaigning was well illustrated when he toured Limerick city in a small red open sports car on May 28th, while a light aircraft flew overhead and dropped balloons with election slogans.

But the old ways were not totally abandoned as both sides canvassed door to door and held church-gate meetings. Cattle sales at an open air market in Carndonagh, Co Donegal, on May 2nd were even suspended to hear O’Higgins address the assembled farmers.

De Valera was odds-on favourite to win. He was revered by his loyal followers for his national leadership and long service. But the electorate was changing. Many of the old values he had espoused were being questioned as a new generation looked more to the future than the past.

Nowhere were the changes more apparent than in the new ballrooms where the Royal Showband, the Dixies and the Miami were attracting large numbers of young dancers more interested in The Hucklebuck than the Siege of Ennis.

Dev’s patriotism

Lemass assured the electorate, however, that de Valera’s re-election would be “an affirmation by the people that the aims for our country which have directed him throughout his life remain constant, and that patriotism is as relevant in the island of 1966 as it was in 1916”.

But there were worrying signs for Fianna Fáil. The perceptive Irish Times political writer John Healy sensed early in the campaign that something was happening: "The Fine Gael tail is up. It is running as it has not run for a long time. It will be an interesting finish indeed."

He noted that O’Higgins, and his wife, ran the gauntlet of the aisles twice at a special ardfheis in Dublin’s Mansion House and were given two standing ovations, one before lunch and one after. The first lasted 54 seconds, the second 46.

Fianna Fáil campaign director Charles Haughey, then minister for agriculture, was worried by the grassroots feedback. He called for an all-out effort by party workers on polling day to ensure de Valera would win.

He also went into the Dáil five days before voting to announce a £5.5 million package of measures to boost farm income. The aid was expected but farm leaders believed the timing had to do with the campaign.

Both parties mobilised thousands of cars to transport voters to and from the polling booths which were open for 13 hours in 38 constituencies with 6,200 presiding officers and clerks on duty.

But glorious weather meant many people went to the seaside instead. And there were also some hints of political apathy. A sign on a wall in Kingsbridge, Dublin, read: “Arkle for President.”

The turnout was 64.7 per cent, which meant 602,585 people, one-third of the 1.7 million electorate, did not vote. De Valera had just 10,617 votes to spare over O’Higgins (558,861 to 548,144), a margin of less than 1 per cent.

‘Credit to our nation’

The President said he was glad to have won his last race, “even though it was only by a short head” and explained why he had not nominated himself.

It would have been mere pretence to do so, he said, noting that no person could hope to win a presidential election without the support of some organisation or party.

Lemass regarded the result solely as “a tribute to a man who had given exceptional national service and an indication of the people’s confidence to fulfil the duties of the presidency in a manner which will do credit to our nation”.

O'Higgins, who later became a High Court judge, a judge of the European Court of Justice and Chief Justice, wrote in his autobiography A Double Life that he felt he had acquitted himself well and had come out of the contest with his integrity intact.

"The description 'a close run thing' used by the Duke of Wellington to describe his famous victory at Waterloo, might well have been applied also to the result of the Presidential election in Ireland in 1966," he wrote.

Fine Gael claimed a moral victory and a vote of no confidence in the government. But their supporters were tantalised by the thought of what might have been – just one extra vote in every ballot box for O’Higgins would have elected him president and caused a seismic political shock.