Book review: A Failed Political Entity by Stephen Kelly

Stephen Kelly’s book provides an engaging insight into Charlie Haughey, who, according to the author, used the Northern Ireland issue to his advantage throughout his political career, writes Ryle Dwyer.

Book review: A Failed Political Entity by Stephen Kelly

Charles Haughey was “possibly Ireland’s most controversial politician,” according to Stephen Kelly, who goes on to conclude he was also “certainly one of the country’s ablest parliamentarians”.

Even some of his strongest critics noted he performed excellently in various ministries — justice, agriculture, finance, health and social welfare.

But he pocketed as much as €11 million in illicit payments, which seriously blighted his phenomenal record.

The author contends that the partition issue, on which this book is centred “was one of only a handful of issues to which Haughey left a positive legacy”.He did do the state some service, as he said himself, but the case for suggesting that his overall contribution on the partition issue was positive, is not convincing.

He was acquitted of conspiring to import arms illegally in the aftermath of the arms crisis, because there were grounds for believing the government had secretly approved of the whole thing.

Defence Minister Jim Gibbons admitted in court that Captain James Kelly had informed him about the gun-running plans and he never suggested that it should be stopped.

Peter Berry, secretary of the Department of Justice, later stated that he told Taoiseach Jack Lynch about what was happening, but Lynch made no effort to stop it. The whole thing was reckless, and those in responsible positions who turned the blind eye, were just as culpable.

Dr Kelly concludes that “Haughey decided to use the Northern Ireland issue to his advantage throughout his political career”. He stood unsuccessfully three times for the Dáil before his election in 1957. During that period he actually advocated waging guerrilla warfare to end partition.

In 1961, his father-in-law, Seán Lemass, appointed Haughey Minister for Justice. The new minister then soon came down on the IRA during its border campaign like the proverbial tonne of bricks, but later in the decade he did an about-face and tried to arm the IRA in Northern Ireland during the arms crisis.

Haughey “converted to ‘covert republicanism’ during the period in an effort to outflank (Neil) Blaney” on the green wing of Fianna Fáil, according to the author.

Many saw Haughey’s conduct during the arms crisis as “little more than political opportunism,” according to Dr Kelly.

“It would be dangerous not to agree that political ambition was a motivating, if not the central, factor in Haughey’s thinking during this period.” He adds, however, that Haughey was motivated by a genuine and “deep-rooted commitment to a united Ireland”.

Haughey’s attitude changed so often in relation to partition that it is difficult to believe that his real guiding principles were other than naked self-interest. He came to power as Taoiseach in 1979, largely through the support of the green wing of Fianna Fáil, which berated Jack Lynch for figuratively allowing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to walk all over him

Haughey charmed Thatcher and greatly impressed her during their first summit meeting in May 1980. “We have all under-rated Mr Haughey,” she told her officials afterwards. “You have all got Haughey wrong.” He so impressed her that she came to Dublin for the next summit meeting, at which she obviously let down her guard and appeared to concede much more than she ever intended.

She agreed to joint studies of the problems of Northern Ireland and “the totality relationships” between Britain and Ireland.

At a press conference afterwards, Haughey indicated that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland was up for consideration. She had never agreed to this.

Haughey undid all the good work he had done with Thatcher over the proceeding months by his reckless grandstanding in over-selling the joint studies. The two of them soon “came to deeply despise and mistrust one another,” Dr Kelly notes.

Haughey deserved no credit for the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. He did his best to undermine the agreement, which later led to the Peace Process.

Thatcher was actually reluctant to conclude the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Garret FitzGerald’s government, but she came under such intense pressure from Washington that she conceded, rather than risk destroying her “special relationship” with President Ronald Reagan.

“It was the Americans that made me do it!” the author quotes her as saying. A real force behind the scenes was Seán Donlon, whom FitzGerald was responsible for appointing as Irish ambassador. Donlon had built up “absolutely unique” rapport with Reagan, who used to visit the ambassador’s home in Washington regularly.

“Not one of the other 150+ ambassadors in Washington DC — not the British, French or German for example — had a remotely comparable relationship,” the author notes. Yet, at the behest of Mario Biaggi and Americans funding the Provisional IRA, Haughey had actually tried to remove Donlon in 1980, while Jimmy Carter was still president.

Haughey had to leave Donlon in place in the face of the determined opposition from the most powerful Irish-American politicians. Haughey later did his best to undermine the Anglo-Irish Agreement. His attitude “was certainly conditioned by the fact that he was in Opposition when it was signed,” Dr Kelly contends.

“Other factors played a part, including political jealousy of FitzGerald, for securing agreement with Thatcher when he was unable to do so”. He had Mary Harney expelled from Fianna Fáil, because she dared to endorse the agreement. She then joined with Des O’Malley, who had been expelled earlier, and they set up the Progressive Democrats.

Haughey went on to make valuable contributions to the Peace Process on returning to power in 1987. “Ever the opportunist,” Dr Kelly contends, “Haughey believed that he could use the Northern Ireland crisis to distract the Irish electorate away from the government’s crushing mismanagement of the economy.”

The Progressive Democrats came back to haunt him when they got the balance of power after he called an unnecessary general election in 1989. They did support him in a coalition government for two-and-a-half years, but then they pulled the plug and forced him out of politics.

“Like Éamon de Valera a generation before him, Haughey was viewed as the bogeyman of Ulster Unionism,” according to Dr Kelly. He is in a good position to make this judgement as he is also the author of an earlier study, Fianna Fáil, Partition and Northern Ireland, 1926-1971.

“In reality, Fianna Fáil’s entire approach to Northern Ireland was based on the optics of illusion,” Dr Kelly concluded in his earlier book. “The party gave the impression that it was doing everything possible to secure unity, when in fact, the opposite was true.”

Fianna Fáil’s self- proclaimed “first political objective” was to secure a united Ireland, Dr Kelly noted in his earlier study. “No realistic policies were actually implemented to fulfill this primary objective.”

Seán MacEntee had stated as much in a 1938 letter to de Valera. “The government consistently maintained that it did not wish to coerce Northern unionists into a united Ireland, but it did nothing to try to win them over,” he wrote.

“With our connivance every bigot and killjoy, ecclesiastical and lay, is doing his damnedest here to keep them out.”

Dr Kelly’s book provides a thorough and engaging insight into Haughey’s tactics.

A Failed Political Entity: Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland Question, 1945-1992

Stephen Kelly

Merrion Press, €22.50

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