Sir Oliver tosses ball back into cabinet court: Dahanayaka chosen as new PM



(Excerpted from Memoirs of a Cabinet Secretary by BP Peiris)

On the Prime Minister’s death, The Governor-General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, summoned the Ministers to Queen’s House at ten o’clock in the morning. I was directed to come at half past nine. I was asked what the constitutional position was as regards the appointment of a successor to the late Prime Minister. I advised that when the Prime Minister was dead, the Governor-General had a completely free hand and was not bound to take advice.

He did not exercise his constitutional right of appointment. Instead, he said, he would throw the ball back into their own court. He locked the Ministers up in his study and asked them to choose their leader. His Excellency and I sat on a sofa in the ballroom for about half an hour while the Ministers deliberated behind closed doors. They chose Mr Dahanayake, who was then appointed Prime Minister. He formed a Cabinet of 15.

Soon after the Ministers had been sworn in, the Cabinet met in a short formal session for ten minutes. The Ministers stood in silence for a moment as a mark of respect to the late Premier and placed on record their deep sorrow at his passing away and the loss of his services to the country. It was agreed that Mr Bandaranaike should be given a State funeral. The Cabinet made all the funeral arrangements including the lying-in-state and declared two days as Public, Bank and Mercantile holidays.

There were no disturbances and no incidents following the assassination. A period of one month’s mourning for the late Premier was ordered by the Government. All State functions during this period were canceled. The Cabinet appealed to the people to utilize the month of mourning for purposes of religious observances in the name of the late revered leader. “Let us all at these religious observances rededicate ourselves to work selflessly in the service of our religion and of our people and thus revere the memory of our beloved leader.”

The Cabinet decided that, subject to the approval of Mrs Bandaranaike and her family, a site at Horagolla should be obtained for the erection of a State Mausoleum for the late Prime Minister.

The Cabinet soon settled down to normal business. Unlike Mr Bandaranaike, who was often more than an hour late for a meeting, Mr Dahanayake was always punctual and arrived in the Cabinet Room a few minutes before the time fixed for a meeting. He did not waste time and he disliked Ministers who wasted his time.

At the first meeting for formal business after the funeral, Dahanayake arrived two minutes before time. He sat in his chair, looked at the clock, and asked me how long I had been in the Cabinet Office. I told him that this was his first meeting as Prime Minister and my seven hundred and twentieth as Secretary. He asked me to give him all assistance. It was now ten o’clock, the time fixed for the meeting.

He inquired what the quorum was for a Cabinet and I said there was none if I had summoned the Ministers and if the Prime Minister was present. He said “Well, let’s get on with the business on the Agenda. Ministers must learn to be punctual. Call the items one by one.” I called the items and explained them, and he had disposed of about 17 items before the first Minister arrived about 20 minutes late. He refused to have those items already disposed of re-opened for discussion, and insisted that Ministers should be punctual in future.

The murder rate at this time was rapidly increasing. S.W.R.D. had been shot and it was generally felt that it had been a mistake to have removed the deterrent punishment of death for the offence of murder. The Cabinet therefore decided to reimpose the death penalty and to repeal the Suspension of Capital Punishment Act.

With the accumulation of business on the Cabinet Agenda, the Cabinet decided to sit at nine, instead of 10 a.m. and, with Daha in the Chair, once disposed of 56 items, which I think is a record for any Cabinet. As I said, he disliked time-wasters. On one occasion, the Prime Minister turned round to me while one Minister was speaking and whispered “Mr Peiris, what do I do with this fellow?” I told him to give the Minister a couple of minutes more and ask him to withdraw his paper and get on to the next item on the Agenda, which the Prime Minister did. Very reluctantly, the Minister gave way to the Prime Minister’s order.

It was during Daha’s Premiership that my good friend and one time colleague in the adjoining Prime Minister’s Office, N. W. Atukorale, then moved to Queen’s House as Secretary to the Governor-General and had his salary increased. With the Prime Minister’s approval, he had his salary increased to that of a Permanent Secretary. It was quite by accident that I became aware of it and, after verifying the correctness of the story, I addressed the following minute to the Prime Minister:




As you are aware, the Executive consists of the Governor-General and the Cabinet. There are therefore two executive secretaries, Mr N. W. Atukorale and myself. We are both on the same scale of salary. We have both been on the maximum of our scales. You have now increased Mr Atukorale’s salary to that of a Permanent Secretary. I am two years senior to Mr Atukorale. I shall therefore be grateful if you will be so good as to give me the same increase on the same conditions that you have given Mr Atukorale.”



The Prime Minister approved my application and equated me on salary on to Atukorale and the Permanent Secretaries. In preparing the next month’s salary abstract, my finance clerk came against a difficulty. He asked me from which vote I was to be paid the extra money. I told him that I did not know. “Give me the increase the P.M. has allowed me,” I said, “and find out from Queen’s House how Atukorale is being paid.”

It was found that Atukorale was drawing the increased amount from the Contingencies Fund. Under our Constitution, money can be drawn from this Fund only with the authority of the Minister of Finance and he can authorize payment only in cases which are urgent or unforeseen. I therefore addressed another minute to the Minister of Finance and sent copies to the Prime Minister, the Auditor-General and the Salaries Commission:

“Please refer to my minute to the Hon. the Prime Minister in which I asked that the increase of salary allowed to the Secretary to the Governor-General should be allowed to me as I am two years senior to Mr Atukorale. The Prime Minister was kind enough to approve this increase in my case. I was not aware at the time that the increased emoluments would be paid out of the Contingencies Fund. As a lawyer and the Draftsman of the Constitution, it is in my opinion not in order to make such a payment under section 68 of the Order in Council. I am therefore unwilling to draw the increase approved by the Prime Minister. I have no desire to embarrass the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance and the Salaries Commission.”

Atukorale must have been asked by the boys in the Treasury to adjust the overpayment.

In December 1959, Dahanayake dismissed without assigning any reasons several of his Ministers. C. P. de Silva, Ilangaratne, Jayasuriya, Maithripala Senanayake, M. P. de Zoysa and Kalugalla all went out of office. There appeared to be some discord in the Cabinet and the country was wondering how long Dahanayake could carry on with his depleted Cabinet. Soon afterwards he asked for a dissolution, went to the country, and, at the general election, lost the election and also his seat.

The Hon. Dudley Senanayake

Dudley came in as Prime Minister for a second term though with a slender majority.

After a few weeks of Dudley’s assumption of office, he told me that he was on a shaky wicket and that he intended shortly to ask for a dissolution of Parliament and a general election.

Dudley’s Cabinet was a small one and some of the Ministers were given more subjects than could be efficiently handled by them. On April 22, 1960, on the conclusion of the debate on the Address of Thanks to His Excellency the Governor-General for the Gracious Speech with which he had been pleased to open Parliament, an amendment to the Address was moved by the Opposition and carried, thereby defeating the Government which had been in office for about four months. The Cabinet met immediately thereafter and the Prime Minister informed the Ministers that, in these circumstances, he would recommend to His Excellency that Parliament be dissolved.