Charles Haughey left a poisonous legacy

The jury is still out on whether Charles Haughey did more harm than good for Ireland during his long political life and, in particular, his time in power. Ryle Dwyer reads between the lines of Conor Lenihan’s assessment.
Charles Haughey left a poisonous legacy

THERE is little doubt that Charles Haughey’s political career will ultimately be considered as having done more harm than good. Conor Lenihan has produced a balanced and interesting political biography of the man who was for so long seen as a close friend of his father — the late Brian Lenihan senior.

Most of Haughey’s critics ignore the good he did and merely conclude that if he did any good, it was more than offset by harm.

That is probably a valid assessment, but only if the total record is examined.

Otherwise it is lazy writing and an affront to historical research.

Those writers are ignoring an integral part of the story.

That’s not research; it is naked prejudice.

Conor Lenihan brings out the good and the bad, as he presents the story from an insider’s perspective, having viewed what happened from inside a family that was personally involved in much of what was going on.

He avoids a critical conclusion on the role of his father in many of the events, but he does present the story in a balanced way, leaving readers come to their own conclusions in relation to his father.

Most of the civil servants who worked with Haughey “found him to be ‘head and shoulders’ above others that they had worked for,” according to the author.

Peter Berry considered Haughey the best of the 14 ministers for justice that he served, even though he was highly critical of Haughey from an ethical standpoint.

Haughey was responsible for the Succession Act, which was a monumental piece of legislation. The author skims over Haughey’s period as Minister for Agriculture, but James Dillon — the Fine Gael leader who always prided himself on his own agricultural expertise — cited Haughey as “a brilliant minister for agriculture”.

As minister for finance during the late 1960s Haughey introduced free travel for the elderly. It was an imaginative means of providing a necessary subsidy for public travel, while at the same time securing a public benefit for the subsidy.

Haughey was a bully, but the author contends he “was never a bully to those who stood up to him.” Like many bullies, he was also a coward.

When the going got tough, he was prepared to blame anybody, and he betrayed everyone, including his own enormous talents.

During the Arms Trial he essentially abandoned his co-defendants and pretended he really did not know what was actually happening.

Of course, he knew what was happening, but then, the author stresses, so did Jack Lynch but he, too, pretended otherwise.

Conor Lenihan contends that the Arms Crisis was both the undoing of Haughey’s early career and the making of him later.

In the aftermath of the crisis the more Republican-minded, like Neil Blaney and Kevin Boland, abandoned Fianna Fáil and thereby essentially left that wing of the party to Haughey, who worked hard to rehabilitate himself. He built up an enormous influence within the grass roots during his period in the party wilderness.

Haughey disagreed with the thrust of the 1977 FF election manifesto, but he did so quietly. He absented himself from the launch of the manifesto.

As a result some people felt that Haughey could be written off when Jack Lynch led Fianna Fáil to the unprecedented majority in the 1977 general election.

Geraldine Kennedy has told of standing beside Haughey at the count in Dublin when the extent of Lynch’s victory became apparent.

She said to Haughey that his chances of ever leading the party had just evaporated.

“No,” he replied. Now he knew he would be Taoiseach, because he could depend on the support of so many of the new men. And so it turned out.

Haughey was appointed minister for health, which has been a poison chalice for so many, but he was probably the last man who actually distinguished himself in the office.

He moved to promote oral hygiene by providing schoolchildren with free toothbrushes, which was little more than a gimmick, but he also pushed through a most imaginative initiative by introducing a novel ban on the advertising of tobacco.

He also introduced legislation legalising the sale of contraceptives for family planning purposes. That legislation did not go far enough, but it was at least a start.

After little over two years Haughey had so distinguished himself in health that he was elected Taoiseach when Jack Lynch stepped down in December 1979.

The ensuing contest between Haughey and George Colley was intense.

The author states that his father took a neutral stand.

“His private reasoning was that it was going to be a tight context and he wanted to be neutral so that he could serve whichever leader emerged from the contest.”

Of course, that was putting the nicest gloss on what happened. In reality, Brian Lenihan did not have the guts to come out on one side or the other.

“Haughey begged my father to come out and openly declare for him,” the author writes.

“My father declined.”

He actually told some people he was faced with the choice of voting for “a knave or a fool.” according to his son.

Fear and suspicion were rife within the party under Haughey’s leadership.

“My father often remarked that his first challenge in any new ministry given to him by Haughey was to identify the Haughey mole in the department,” according to the author.

As Taoiseach, Haughey quickly recognised that the country was living beyond its means, but he lacked the courage to do the right thing.

He was ousted from office after the general election of 1981, but got back in 1982 after Garret FitzGerald’s government collapsed over the rejection of its first budget.

Haughey returned for “nine months of unrelenting turbulence.” Then, after the third general election in 18 months, FitzGerald was returned again.

Haughey proceeded to adopt a “highly opportunistic” rather than a principled approach in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. “My father felt his opposition to the agreement was far too negative and knee jerk,” the author continues.

“Haughey was still obsessive in his opposition for opposition sake and hugely motivated about giving FitzGerald no legitimacy on the republican issue,” the author continued.

It certainly reflected little credit on him for playing petty politics with such a serious issue.

“My father quietly told his friends that there was no point to the party position and that in all probability, if returned to office the party would operate the agreement as a given.”

“Haughey’s 1987 to 1989 government can, rightly, claim to be the government that led the Irish economic recovery and to have put down the building block for the subsequent Celtic Tiger,” the author contends.

He acknowledges that Haughey stole shamelessly to finance his extravagant lifestyle, and in the process demeaned politics and contaminated the true meaning of republicanism.

Conor Lenihan suggests Haughey never really became a threat to the country’s democracy, but he adds this was “a testament of the robustness of Irish democracy that it was able to contain Haughey.”

Surely the real damage of his poisonous legacy will only be assessed in time.

Haughey Prince of Power

Conor Lenihan

Blackwater Press, €19.95

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