Margaret Heckler was appointed United States Ambassador to Ireland in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan, although it was characterised as a “demotion” in sections of the US media, as she had served as a successful reforming Health and Human Services secretary in his first administration and she was taking a pay cut in her new appointment.
She had initially resisted the posting, but then thanked Mr Reagan for honouring an Irish-American with the job in Dublin. Unfortunately on this side of the Atlantic some then characterised Ireland as a “dumping ground” for former members of the administration, although during her four years in Ireland, Heckler was highly regarded, especially in the business community.
While she appeared low-key with regard to the vexed Northern Ireland question, which had gained much interest from Irish-American politicians since the onset of the Troubles, she was so influential promoting Ireland as an American investment destination and forging trade links between the two countries that the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) erected a plaque in her honour when she departed in 1989.
She was also seen as a practical figure in the peace process, securing $120m from the US government for the International Fund for Ireland which greased the wheels of the peace process with money for all sorts of cross-border and cross-community initiatives.
Described before her arrival as “shrewd and combative”, she spent four years in the splendour of the US Ambassador’s residence, Deerfield, in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, where she enjoyed “the Irish air”, the company of her wolfhound Jackson O’Toole and the social and diplomatic scene where her vivacious nature made her a popular fixture.
A style-conscious woman, she had been described by the US columnist Jack Anderson as “I’d walk a mile for a camera Heckler” but it was this easy style and accessibility that endeared her to the public, and she became a familiar figure and name, compared with some of the anonymous occupants of the embassy before and since.
Mrs Heckler was known throughout her career as a supporter of women’s rights, which led to a barbed comment from her successor Richard Moore, who noted that Irish women were not as liberated as some of their US counterparts.
It is an indication of how times had changed in Ireland and the US that on her return from Ireland, Margaret Heckler became a committed supporter of Catholic and anti-abortion organisations. “The creation of life is a sacred gift from God and has to be preserved,” she said.
Born Margaret O’Shaughnessy, the daughter of Irish emigrants, in the suburb of Flushing, Queens, New York in June, 1931, she went to Albertus Magnus College in New Haven. It was there that she developed a talent for debating and an interest in politics.
As the only woman in the Boston College Law School class of 1956, the fiercely competitive Heckler graduated sixth in her class before doing post-graduate work and being called to the Boston Bar.
She was the first woman from Massachusetts elected to the US Congress who did not succeed her husband, and she served eight terms from 1967 until her defeat by a Democrat in a hotly contested election in 1983.
She was known as sociable and her ability to “get things done” led to many Democrats voting for her despite her strong Republican politics.
She had married a fellow college student John M Heckler in 1953 and they had three children, Belinda, Alison and John Jnr.
The couple divorced in 1984 during her time as Health Secretary, but she said at the time that President Reagan had been “very supportive” of her during a trying time.
In her job as Health Secretary, Heckler commissioned a study of health care among the black population that became known as ‘The Heckler Report’ and became a landmark document on health disparity between the wealthy classes and various minorities.
She was Health Secretary in the early days of the emerging Aids crisis, but found it difficult to raise the issue at cabinet level because of the ultra-conservative nature of the Reagan administration.
She was also ahead of her time in recognising the need for greater funding for research into Alzheimer’s disease, which at the time was also emerging as one of the great threats to global health.
She was unpopular because of staff cuts which she had little choice about introducing as Reagan focused on bringing down the budget deficit.
At one point she complained that there was a “campaign against me by some members of the White House staff” and although she didn’t name him it is believed that she was referring to Donald Regan, the architect of ‘Reaganomics’ who made no secret of his dislike for her.
After two-and-half years Regan dropped her from the cabinet and she refused a number of other postings, including one with Nasa before accepting the job of US Ambassador to Ireland on May 31, 1987. She served until her resignation in August, 1989 when she was succeeded by Richard Moore.
“Every American of Irish ancestry can appreciate the special place that Ireland is to each of us,” she said following her return to the United States.
Margaret Mary Heckler died last Monday at the age of 87 at a medical centre in Arlington, Virginia from cardiac arrest. Her family said: “She was an inspiration to all who knew her.”