Maurice Hayes, the best of the best

This is  an immediate response to the passing of Maurice Hayes at the age of 90, the best of the best of his own and any generation. His long and distinguished life deserves much fuller treatment.

In the early tributes much has rightly been made of his achievements as a Northern Catholic, gaeilgeoir and  GAA player, the young Town Clerk of Downpatrick in the 1950s, the chairman of the brand new and belated Community Relations Commission honourably failing to stem the rush  towards collapse and the Ombudsman and Irish senator around the turn of the millennium.

His comment to Eamonn Mallie is appropriate yet so very  poignant, as civil service head of the department of health, “I believed I had to prove a Catholic could do as good a job as anybody else”.

Though he was all of that, Maurice was much, much more than a pathfinder for later generations of Catholics. His whole public life was a lesson to all in how to behave as a human being and produce results as an official.

He was no mere administrator whose brain stopped after he’d written  a balanced analysis for a  minister.  He was an expert pilot through the treacherous shoals of sectarianism to make highly controversial radical change. He was a key figure in the reform of the police which the commission chair Chris Patten described to me as “the best thing I have ever done”.

As we knew from his newspaper columns, Maurice wasn’t preachy or pious. His temperament  was warm and  generous, his intellect ranged from the utterly practical to the philosophical, his style was wry and witty and his range of interest stretched to the horizons.

In the BBC I was privileged to recommend him as a member of the Northern Ireland team for the demanding Round Britain Quiz on Radio 4 in the late eighties.

He greatly loved our rich culture for its diversity. Being entirely comfortable with it, he had the confidence and authority to mock its divisiveness.

Only months ago he observed :” For Christ’s sake what does a language act do for an old guy looking for a heart by pass?” The DUP he said indeed “lacked respect. They can never pass a cause without giving it a kick”.

I hope after the holiday he’ll receive a properly considered obituary,

It is a reproach to us that it took a person of the quality of Maurice Hayes just to prevent our society from falling into chaos. But it was through his achievement and witness alongside too few like him, that we’ve managed it so far.




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