The first ever visit by a pope to Ireland in 1979 was a monumental occasion, but – perhaps hard to believe four decades on – it was almost overshadowed by speculation over what was being flagged in the upper echelons as an impending constitutional scandal.
Rumours had been sweeping the country for several weeks that then President, Patrick Hillery, and his wife, Maeve, were in the throes of a legal separation over the President’s alleged relationship with another woman, and that Hillery would be announcing his resignation from office just as the Pontiff was being welcomed to Ireland.
The rumours, fuelled by leaks from so-called reliable sources, had gained full momentum in the weeks leading up to the great occasion. And for the world media assembled on the day of the Pope’s arrival in Knock, half of the story centred on whether Maeve Hillery would be there at her husband’s side or whether, as the rumour mongers predicted, she would have taken herself off to Spain in the wake of the marital split.
To this day, the purpose of what turned out to be a mean and baseless smear campaign remains a mystery. Who was meant to benefit from such a manipulation of the media is still unclear. What is known is that the rumours and innuendo did not happen by chance; they were part of a devious, orchestrated campaign aimed to engulf the Papal visit in a domestic scandal. And it was serious enough to force the President to make an unprecedented public statement denying the rumours and affirming the stability both of his marriage and of his future as President of Ireland.
Given the geo-politics of the time, the finger of suspicion pointed to Russian interference in the Papal visit, with the eager connivance of Fleet Street. This was at a time when John Paul II, the Polish Pope, had emerged as the anti-communist champion of the countries still suffering under Soviet rule. He was trenchant in his denunciation of the communist system; he encouraged and offered support to the growing campaign of resistance to Moscow, especially in his native Poland; he used his status to call out the evils of communism and the right of the oppressed to break the iron grip of Soviet dominance. He had to be silenced or, at the very least, his triumphant visit to Ireland had somehow to be scuttled.
And so – it was claimed – the KGB, the then powerful Soviet spy system, had briefed the international media in Bonn that a major sensation, the resignation of the President of Ireland, was in the offing, and would coincide with John Paul’s much heralded visit to Ireland.
The Papal visit came and went; the President and his wife attended all the public functions. But then, two days after the Pope’s departure, word reached Aras an Uachtarain that a British tabloid, and an Irish magazine, were about to publish an expose of the Hillery marital difficulties.
In a sensational development, President Hillery called in the political correspondents of the national dailies, plus RTÉ, to deny any reports of domestic problems or any plans to step down. He said that the report that ‘court action for legal separation was pending’ was totally without foundation. And even if news outlets choose to publish baseless, defamatory material, he would not be resorting to legal action.
A shocked nation was given the news in the headlines of the following day, but soon the controversy was over. By finally facing down the rumour mongers, Hillery had called their bluff. The conspiracy, such as it was, had failed, and the lustre of the Papal visit remained untarnished.